Sermon - 1st June 2014
Scripture - Acts 1:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon (mp3) is available via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
[Clip from REM “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. Verse 1 and Refrain]
Today is Ascension Sunday, which comes 6 weeks after Easter. Ascension Day itself was last Thursday, which is 40 days after Easter Day. Why 40 days? As we have just heard in our reading from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ final meeting on Earth with his Disciples took place 40 days after His Resurrection.
“Ascend” is a strange word. It means “to go up”. We do not use it much. It is one of those words we use in formal situations, like: “The Queen ascended to the throne in 1952.” Other languages refer to the Ascension in more everyday language. In German, the Ascension is called “Christi Himmelfahrt”, literally “Christ’s journey into heaven.”
And so, today, we are confronted by a passage from the Bible that talks about strange notions of a man, called Jesus, who about 2000 years ago rose from the dead, made several bodily appearances to His followers, before He was taken into heaven from the top of a mountain.
The four Gospels vary considerably in their accounts of Jesus’ appearances to His Disciples following His Resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus meeting the women in the garden, and then meets the Disciples for the last time on a hill in Galilee, some distance from Jerusalem. Mark’s Gospel ends on Easter morning with the Resurrection. John’s Gospel has Jesus meeting his Disciples several times and ends on the shore of Lake Galilee. Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, written by the same author, do include the Ascension narrative.
For a contemporary Jewish audience, Jesus’ farewell to His Disciples would be recognised as a clear parallel with Moses who ended his days on the top of Mount Nebo, where he commissioned Joshua to be his successor. In the Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke, and in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is doing the same thing: He is commissioning His Disciples to carry on His work.
On one level, we can look at the Ascension as a farewell event. It was a painful human moment, filled with emotion. If we go to any railway station or airport, all around us are people saying goodbye: some for a short time; others for a longer time; and others still for whom it is probably farewell for ever. This man, this Jesus, whom the Disciples had lost once when He was crucified; they are losing Him again. The emotion of painful separation, grief, is palpable in the story. And into this fragile human moment, God acts supernaturally: Jesus is taken up into Heaven and became hidden from their sight.
As I was preparing this, I was reflecting on this… I work just North of Bolton in the shadow of Winter Hill. For those of you who don’t know, Winter Hill is the highest point in Greater Manchester and on top of it stands a huge TV transmitter, 309 metres in height. Some mornings, as I drive to work, I can see Winter Hill clearly; sometimes, the top of the mast is hidden in cloud; occasionally, the cloud clings low on the hill with the transmitter poking eerily out of the top; and at other times, the hill is completely hidden in cloud.
Why do I mention this? Like the TV signals which come from Winter Hill, they are there whatever the weather, even if the transmitter itself is obscured in cloud. And so it is with Jesus and the Ascension: He disappeared from their sight into the clouds, but His presence remains with us.
The 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, called the Ascension “an historical turning point”. The Gospels tell us of the Disciples living in fear following Jesus’ Resurrection. Matthew’s and John’s gospels tell us of how the Disciples have returned to Galilee and have taken up their previous occupations as fishermen. The Ascension is Jesus re-gathering His followers. Jesus did not choose learned or powerful people to be His Disciples: He chose every day, working people; He chose the outcasts. And just as He called them the first time, He calls them again.
In Jesus’ last conversation with His Disciples, their goals are still earthly: they ask him about the restoration of Israel, a political goal. Jesus broadens their horizons and commissions them to continue His work. The very end of Matthew’s Gospel elaborates Jesus’ words:
“Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
In the very early Church, they believed that Jesus’ return would be within their life-time. With the passage of time, some churches over the years have taken Jesus’ Great Commission literally, believing that Jesus will not return until the Gospel has been preached to everyone. We see this in Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons who take missionary work very seriously, even if for the most part, they are scorned, even ridiculed for their activities.
Each week in our Communion service, we say the words: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How seriously do we believe in this central mystery of our faith, particularly that final part?
Jesus’ words of commission to “teach them everything [He has] commanded [us]” bind us, too. He teaches us to stand up for justice, to care for the poor, to help the needy and to pray. Jesus’ teaching helps us turn the paralysis into action we can feel in face of hatred, injustice, exploitation, ecological destruction and terrorism.
I began today’s sermon with a musical clip from REM’s song “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. We are surrounded by all sorts of chaos which this song exemplifies very well. But hear again the words of the refrain: “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.” Trusting in Jesus’ return gives us the assuredness of being able to say: “I feel fine”.
Our post-Communion video reflection today, using the Noel Richard’s hymn “Great Is The Darkness”, reflects further on our Great Commission and Christ’s return, and looks ahead to next week, Pentecost.
For the Disciples for whom Jesus was hidden from their sight at Ascension; they knew they would never see Him again in the flesh; the Disciples stood there in shock and amazement. Like we can be, there were paralysed into inaction. The Disciples needed a nudge, for they were staring into the sky. The angels speak to them, assure them and they begin their descent of the mountain to begin Christ’s Church.
And at that moment, there on that mountain top, it all begins. The Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early Church, starts, in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly, and the cloud between Earth and Heaven is momentarily thinned. From this point on, discerning and understanding God’s purpose becomes progressively more difficult.
The Ascension is about Jesus completing His journey and us beginning ours. Jesus becomes human, is born as a baby, lives His life, is tried and executed. He rises from the dead, and in the Ascension, Jesus is going home. Jesus who is fully human, in the Ascension forever changes the doorway between Earth and Heaven. This is the truth: Jesus, a human-being, entered heaven; a human-being entered heaven. That is the amazing mystery of the Ascension: a human-being entered glory and is with God. And because Jesus did, we can, too.