Ascension Day 2014
We are having a flower festival in September and the theme is going to be the “Life of Christ”.
A couple of weeks ago Iris and I went around church discussing what arrangements were going to go where and we finally got to Ascension Day, which is today and which marks the end of Jesus’ physical life on Earth. How to represent Jesus ascending from Earth to Heaven to sit at the right hand of God, in the medium of flowers? It is a tall order and we thought big and without wishing to give away too much we are aiming for a figure of Christ to be suspended from the arch between the nave and the choir, with the disciples along the nave step. We, along with the disciples will be able to gaze at Jesus as he moves from the physical to the spiritual realm.
When I was training for ordination I sometimes got the impression that some within the church were a little bit embarrassed by the physicality of the Ascension – not only does it feel odd to be left staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet as he goes up but it also perpetuates the image of heaven being physically up above us in the clouds somewhere. And one or two people I knew at college were very keen to interpret the Ascension into something that was purely a spiritual allegory and contained no literal or physical truth at all.
But the point about Christianity is that it is not just about spiritual things to the exclusion of the physical. In many ways the central fact about Christianity and what differentiates it from so many other faiths is that it is about God physically coming into the world, albeit containing elements of the miraculous, spiritual and even angelic. The start of Jesus’ physical life on Earth was marked by the angelic annunciation to Mary and he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus was crucified it is a central tenet of our faith that he physically and absolutely died, something that the Mormons and Muslims cannot accept, and, importantly it was his dead body that was physically resurrected and once again angels were present in the tomb.
But we also know that after the resurrection Jesus was changed. He was certainly still a physical being as we know from his encounter with doubting Thomas – inviting him to feel the wounds of his crucifixion – and we also know that Jesus ate food, once again showing that he was really alive. But we also know that he was transformed in some way – he could appear within locked rooms or disappear from the sight of those on the road to Emmaus. He was both wholly physical and wholly something else – which again is a central tenet of our faith that Jesus was both fully human and fully God.
And the resurrected Jesus knew that he would not stay in the world for long – on Easter morning he told Mary not to hang onto him but to go and tell others, and as soon as he was recognised in the breaking of the bread he was taken from the sight of the disciples.
Here I am reminded of a quote from the film Nanny McPhee:
“There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.”
This desire for the disciples not to hang onto him, but to go and tell others, and to be hidden from their sight almost at the moment of victory reaches it ultimate conclusion today. The risen Jesus has spent 40 days with his followers and given them many proofs of being alive but now it is time for him to return to the Father.
The question we are tempted to ask is why? Given that there was and is so much need in the world and that Jesus in person could have done so much good why did he go then, why return at all?
The answer to that question is, I think, about God’s respect for our free will and his purpose for us his church. If Jesus had simply stayed in the world doing his Father’s will then were would be the room both for faith and for the church?
Jesus returned to his Father, and to our Father, both to give us the freedom to accept him or deny him and to allow the church to continue his work as the body of Christ here on Earth.
And so Jesus ascended into heaven but he did not leave his church hopeless or helpless. Jesus told his followers to remain in Jerusalem in order to be baptised with the Holy Spirit, which we know fell upon the church at Pentecost. The same Holy Spirit that was present at the conception of Jesus is then sent upon the church by him to be the guide and comforter and counsellor of the church. And it is God the Holy Spirit dwelling with the church corporately and within each of us individually that makes us into a combination of the physical and spiritual, that calls us into communion with the Father and the Son and with one another and enables us to be the body of Christ.
But as Jesus ascends into heaven and as he is hidden by the clouds there is another angelic appearance – “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” For some that may seem like an invitation to keep looking into the sky watching and waiting for Jesus to return – but the angelic voice seems to be saying – stop looking up there, go and get on with what Jesus commanded and taught you before he returns.
So I hope that when the flower festival comes we shall be able to look up with admiration at the Ascending Christ but as disciples of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us remember that we are called not to hold onto him or to stand and stare or even to count the days until he returns but, rather, to get on and to be Christ in the world and to one another. Amen.