Sermon - 5th June 2011
Ascension - A time of transformation
Scripture - Acts 1:1-11
As we follow the calendar of the church’s year, we move through certain periods of preparation, of introspection, of waiting, which lead us to the great focal points of the Christian faith:
- During the four weeks of Advent we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ’s incarnation and we set our faces forwards to the things of eternity when Christ will come again in ultimate glory.
- During the seven weeks of Lent we strip away all our gloss and outward show as we prepare ourselves for the drama and desolation of Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem.
- In the final three days from Good Friday to Easter Day we share the emptiness of the corpse and the cold bareness of the tomb as well as the fear and powerlessness of the disciples, which is dispelled by the joy of resurrection when the world discovers that death could not contain him.
And it’s no coincidence that we mark these great events in our calendar by turning our holy days into holidays when many of us are given time off work and take the opportunity to share time with friends and family.
Today we mark the significance of the great festival in our calendar which often gets slightly lost. The Feast of the Ascension doesn’t actually fall on a Sunday – it fell last Thursday, following the chronology of Luke’s account of the events which took place 40 days after the resurrection. But the themes of the Ascension form part of our worship on this Sunday nearest to the feast day, and I think we need to recognise that it marks another time of preparation, of introspection and of waiting.
We are waiting, as did those first disciples, for one final promise to be fulfilled – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The rhythm of our church year takes us now into a short time of waiting as we re-live that breathing space between the close of one experience – those encounters with the risen and living Jesus, and the start of another experience – the empowerment of Jesus’s followers by the Holy Spirit which bursts upon the world at Pentecost.
We have been journeying with those first disciples in recent weeks as they begin to experience whatever it was that we call resurrection. In a week’s time we will place our hearts and minds among them as the fiery Spirit of God descends upon them and empowers them to fulfil the mission with which they were charged.
But when we look at whatever it was the disciples saw as the ascension of Jesus into the heavens, we see another process taking place – another kind of transformation happening to them, among them and around them.
When Luke briefly mentions the ascension at the end of his gospel, and then bridges his two books by starting the book of Acts with a more extended version of it, he is speaking to us about an ending and a time of preparation for a new beginning.
William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s wrote:
“The ascension of Christ is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.”
A key message of that ascension experience is that the disciples had to change their focus. While the resurrection of Jesus was a continuing feature of their faith and a very real fact of their experience, they found in time that they had to stop looking for Jesus in visions, miraculous appearances and physical interventions. They now needed to take into their own hands the resurrection power which Jesus had shown them and handed on to them. He had left them a mission; they now had to turn their faces outwards, look beyond Jerusalem, beyond the familiar, beyond the safe and comfortable, and take the message of Jesus to the world.
Luke’s text reinforces this when he describes the two figures in white saying to the disciples, “Why are you looking up into the heavens?” The implication is that they should now be looking in the direction where the message of Jesus would lead them.
A moving meditation on this moment by an American theologian (Rev Dr Barbara K. Lundblad – Professor of Preaching, Union Theological Seminary, New York) asks what might have happened if, instead of looking upwards, the disciples had looked downward and seen Jesus’s footprints in the dust of the earth. Here is what should be the focus of their attention: the footprints which remind them of everything he said because it was all real, it did all happen, and death could not contain him; and perhaps the powerful symbolism of the footprints as the path which the disciples now need to step into and follow.
For us today, those footprints are all over the pages of the gospels:
- The footprints of a man in the wilderness being tempted to give way to earthly power;
- The footprints of a man who walked down the wrong side of the street with the marginalised;
- Footprints which walked into Jerusalem before riding the rest of the way in triumph;
- Footprints of a man carrying his cross to a place of execution.
This was how Jesus walked the earth.
And so the disciples are told to wait; to take a brief interval while this new understanding takes hold of their hearts and minds; to stay put and let the transformation of their focus and direction work within them as individuals and as a community.
In the coming week, as we reflect on what resurrection means in our lives, as we bring to mind the call of Jesus which transforms us into today’s disciples, and as we wait to commemorate the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, we find ourselves in the midst of that time of preparation and introspection which we often lose sight of.
This could be our time to think how we might liberate Christ into his constant presence in our world; and time to think how that great commission given to every disciple takes its hold in our lives.
And perhaps we also need to question whether our own faith journey is sometimes marked by looking upwards to the heavens - waiting for something to happen, confused by change, looking for a perfect world and perhaps yearning for how things used to be, - or whether our journey calls us to look across the face of the earth as we seek Jesus’s footprints, measure our own steps against them, embrace transformation, take hold of our empowerment, and decide where those footprints might be leading us.
Ascension Day is not a call to look upwards: it is a call to trust that Christ’s promise is down - and in - and around - and among us; and it's a call to be ready to be empowered, to look beyond the familiar, the safe and the comfortable, and to use that power to take Jesus's message to the world.