May 8 Ascension sermon

Who had to go to work last Thursday?  Bit tough wasn’t it – should have been a public holiday.   I mean you get a holiday for the birthday of Jesus, get one on the day he died, don’t get one for the day he rose from the dead cos it is Sunday anyway, so why not finish the life cycle and get a public holiday for the day he ascended to heaven?

Can’t see the unions taking it up somehow.  But I believe it is a national holiday in France and couple of other European countries and the Orthodox church has a special place for Acension Day in their liturgical calendar.

I have hardly preached a sermon on this topic in my 30 odd years of being a minister.  Probably for two reasons.  First it is a tricky topic – ascension, how do you make sense of it in today’s world where we do not literally believe in a heaven above the stars and sun and moon.  Second, Ascension Day does not fall on a Sunday.  It is 40 days after Easter which means it is a fixed day – like Good Friday or Easter Sunday – Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday then.  Catholics and Anglicans and the Orthodox are much more observant with these mid week festivals.

The Anglicans, particularly of the the High Church variety, observe Acension Day.   When I was at Brunswick the local Anglican Church was of the High Church variety and they love ascension day as well as lots of other mid week festival days.  I remember being at a meeting at Christ Church one Ascension Day and one of the  Anglicans asked me did you have an Ascension Day service today.  My colleague, Richard Arnold, a low church deacon, and I exchanged bemused looks. No, I’m afraid we did not.  It hasn’t really figured that high in UCA liturgical thinking.  I could tell they were disappointed.

Ascension….  Mind you we do say we believe in it whenever we say the Apostle’s creed, which we don’t do all that often here at Sunshine.  Certainly every baptism we do.  But those of you who have it embedded in your memory will immediately recognize recall the sombre rhythm of the familiar words

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He rose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven

and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

It is not “he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven” , but he rose from the dead semi colon.   He ascended into heaven.  And that little semi colon more than earns its keep in the creed. It is worth 40 days and the post resurrection appearences of Jesus.  Yep, that is the period that covers from the resurrection to what we remembered this week – the ascension.  So today we have the final gesture, hands raised in blessing, and final words of blessing.   And Luke likes telling this story so much he tells it twice, once at the end of his gospel, and there right at the start of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. 

How would you represent ascension if given some paint, a white piece of paper and a brush?  show first picture. Would you try to draw a realistic picture of Jesus gathered with his disciples gazing upwards, just catching a glimpse of his disappearing soles of this feet.  Many artists  in the church down the centuries have done this representation, intentionally or not keeping alive some notion that we live in a three-tiered universe, with hell below us, then our world, and heaven above us with God and the angels and our loved ones who have gone up to heaven.  show second picture. Asked to draw the Ascension would it be one of those paintings or one that tries to interpret the meaning of the ascension; and what would that look like I wonder?

Because we are celebrating Ascension Day today, and I think it is a profound mystery,I am going to give you a paradox to take home with you.. Peter Rollins wrote a book, “How (not) to Speak of God” in which he spells out the first paradox. It is two quotes both of which seem to contain great wisdom but when put side by side seem to contradict each other.  The first statement is ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”.  This suggests there are some things beyond language, some things at which all language must draw to a halt.  A position that would say it is the height of human arrogance to think we can describe God let along capture or pin down the transcendent, with our feeble inadequate words.  How could my words possibly convey anything of the mystery, grandeur of the eternal.  In this way of thinking any utterance of God can only every be blasphemy.  God cannot be spoken of directly, all we can every hope for is our words may convey some paltry shadowy hopefully not too misleading picture.  But we never think we are actually saying something of God directly.  God is the one who not reduces us to silence but raises us to silence – pure awe and wonder that goes beyond words. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The second statement that also conveys profound insights is  “God is the one subject of which we must never stop speaking”.  God who we cannot speak of is the very one who is the word incarnate, who gives us songs of praise, who inspires us to proclaim from the rooftops the grandeur of the eternal.

Peter Rollins lives in the tension of this and expresses the paradox of Christian spirituality with the sentence

That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.

When we move beyond the crass literalism of Jesus wafting up into the clouds we can still make room for the language of elevation, of glory. And whatever else we want to say I imagine we want to say something about Jesus being with God and that surely would be a wonderfully elevated experience.   But alongside this language of height of Jesus ascending  to the right hand of God, we need the language of interior for equally we speak of Jesus dwelling in and with the people of God.

Where has Jesus gone? Not just up into the heavens and seated at the right hand of God, but also into the life of the people of God;  who waited until power came upon them. So Ascension is also saying something not just about Jesus, but about the relationship of Jesus and us.  Where has Jesus gone?  Into the present, but equally into the future of the people of God.  And from there Jesus calls us to himself.  High low, up down, elevated, deflated.  Some thoughtful Christians are encouraging us to say rather than Christ ascending up to heaven, Christ moved beyond us,  beyond our sight or understanding – beyond the limits of time and space and being bound by a single identity.  Here kicks in the paradox – which is just about the most important thing you can learn about living the Christian life, learn to live joyfully the paradoxes – and this one?   That in moving beyond us, Jesus also enters us. 

Whatever else it means it does not mean God has given up on us and withdrawn the presence of Jesus from us.  No, these disciples don’t act as if they are bereft; oh no they waited for the Spirit and took off; sharing the good news with all who would listen.