Ascension Day 2015
Sermon by Bishop Michael Colclough
"Why are you men from Galilee standing looking into the sky?” – an important reminder that the Ascension is not to be understood literally as if Jesus floated up into space on his way to “heaven”. Where is “heaven”? It is above Jerusalem? Is it in the whole sky encircling the earth? I like the story of the old woman of Cork in Ireland who, when asked where heaven is, said, “It’s about twelve inches above my head”.
The gospels don’t present a picture of Jesus being tied down to places. Rather, Jesus is the itinerant teacher and healer of God’s Kingdom and relationship is key to this ministry. So we hear Jesus saying in St John’s Gospel: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the father is in me?” and, a little later to His disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you”.
So Heaven shouldn’t be thought of, pictured, as a place but as a relationship with God, the God who is everywhere. Heaven talks of your, my, our relationship with God: heaven talks of a goal still to be achieved but a way of living and believing that started at our baptism.
As the people of God we are called to be a pilgrim people: we journey together and, though for each one of us there will be that personal encounter with the God who loves us (in the old days we called it judgement!), our life in heaven will be communal. Heaven is not a personal escape into a region of selfish freedom: it involves you and me - along with "with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven".
For me, John Bunyan wrote one of the most powerful and triumphal pictures of this company of heaven at the end of his great book, 'The Pilgrim's Progress':
"Now I saw in my Dream, that these two men (Christian and his brother) went in a gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There was also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them; the harp to praise with all, and the crowns in token of honour: Then I heard in my Dream, that all the bells in the city rang again for joy; and that it was said unto them, Enter ye into the joy of your Lord."
Yes, Heaven is the fullness of joy: but before we enter into the fullness of Jesus’ glory and joy, there is work to be done. Again, I like the story of the rather forward cherub who witnessed Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. “What’s going to happen on earth now you are back here?” the cherub asked. “I have left friends to continue my work”, said Jesus. “What if they let you down?” persisted the cherub. “If they let me down”, said Jesus, “I have made no other provision”. When Jesus left his disciples, he made it clear that He wanted them to carry on the work He had begun. He said that they could do the same things He did and even greater. So before leaving them, he told his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
That experience of Pentecost, being “clothed with power from on high”, would be their baptism when they became filled with the very Spirit of Jesus. But before Jesus left them, His disciples ask Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at this late moment, they still don’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and work. They still do not understand what kind of Messiah he is.
Jesus will not simply restore the Kingdom of Israel, Jesus establishes a completely new Kingdom. This kingdom will not be a political force or a military power. Rather, it will be:
An eternal and universal kingdom,
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
This is their mission – and ours: the mission to carry the kingdom message of Jesus to the whole world.
The account of the ascension then tells us that, as Jesus spoke, He was covered by a cloud. Again, relationship because the cloud symbolises the enveloping presence of God. Jesus could no longer be seen as He was wrapped in the all-embracing presence of his Father, and as Jesus disappeared from their sight, the disciples naturally continued to gaze upwards into the sky. It was then that two men wearing white clothes stood beside them and said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The disciples have a new lesson to learn: they have to go back to Jerusalem. There, through the outpouring of the Spirit, they will begin to understand and grow in understanding. If they want to find Jesus, they will find him in the Christian community, in prayer and the breaking of bread. They will find Him in the people they mix with every day of their lives.
Every time they receive the love of a brother, it is the presence of Jesus. Every time they share their love with a brother or sister, they are making Jesus present to that person. They – and we – are to be Jesus in this world.
We are to be the visible presence of Jesus: a great vocation and challenge for all of us. It raises questions: when people see me, do they see Jesus? When people see me, do they want to know Jesus? When people see me, do they want to join our Christian community, share our life, and take the Gospel as the foundation of their life? That is the challenge of the Ascension.
Today we gather here not only to thank God for something that happened a long time ago; we are also here to remind ourselves that when Jesus left us he gave us a very important mission. That mission was and is to continue his loving and redeeming presence in the world. St. Theresa of Avila, puts it so well:
Christ has no other hands but your hands to do his work today;
no other feet but your feet to guide folk on his way;
no other lips but your lips
to tell folk why he died;
no other love but your love;
to win folk to his side.
And, remember: Jesus has made no other provision. Amen.