This sermon was preached by Rev Margaret Trivasse or St Gabriel’s Sedgley Park, at St George’s Simister: the Prestwich Mission Partnership parishes were celebrating Ascension Day together.
Our 21st century minds like to have explanations, to rationalise things. We like to know and understand. Ours is not an age which goes in for story-telling, apart from crime dramas and soap operas. Even then the stories have to make sense. We like to know why characters behave as they do. This week we want to know the motivation of the bomber at the Manchester Arena, why he acted as he did.
Other ages and cultures are less wedded to logical reasoning. Stories are told to describe natural phenomena for which we have scientific explanations. Medical conditions which we can ascribe to bacteria or viruses are portrayed in terms of temperament or imbalances. We are not always satisfied to be told that something is unknown or a mystery.
And yet there are many elements to our faith which defy such rationalising. Sometimes we have to allow for mystery and wonder and accept that there are limits to our understanding. We can try to grasp what the biblical writers were trying to convey by their picture language or their struggles to put into words experiences which are outside normal patterns. Such is the Ascension of Jesus. Whatever happened defied language to the extent that even one writer has two goes at describing it! Listen to all the imagery in our prayers, hymns and readings.
So – Luke’s two attempts to describe the Ascension. In his gospel, Luke has the action of resurrection, appearances and ascension all in the same day, while in his second volume, Acts, which we heard today, Jesus remains for forty days before his departure. The description of the actual moment of departure is more elaborate in Acts: Jesus is taken up into a cloud, and two men in white appear, paralleling the two men who were by the empty tomb in the gospel. Jesus’s final words to his disciples in Acts are more detailed than his speech in Luke’s gospel.
But there are two main similarities: first is that his message – summarised as repentance and forgiveness in the gospel – is to all nations, to the ends of the earth. The second is that in order to carry on Jesus’s mission, the disciples will receive power from on high, the promise of the Holy Spirit. We aren’t going to dwell on that today – Ascension Day marks a pause, a hill between the two great mountains of Easter and Pentecost. The Spirit is yet to come.
So today we have the mystery of the Ascension. Mystery is best encapsulated in poetry. I don’t think that Charles Wesley has been surpassed in condensing complex theological ideas into hymns. And this week in the Anglican calendar, we celebrated the feast of John and Charles Wesley on the day before Ascension. Let’s look at that quintessential Ascension hymn. It contains so many great themes. The first three verses concentrate on Jesus’s returning to heaven in triumph, having achieved victory over death, his mission on earth complete. He returns to his Father, to resume his place within the Godhead.
Verse 4 sees a change in emphasis. The ascended Christ is the same as the earthly Jesus – that part of him has not somehow evaporated. He retains his love for humankind, and in verse six we are reminded that he continues to pray for us. Verse 5 contains a vital reflection: “see, he shows the prints of love”. The exalted Christ ascends with his scars. He too is changed. It is not that the crucifixion is obliterated, but rather that it was not the end; suffering is transformed and sanctified. The suffering of last Monday night is taken into the Godhead. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only a suffering God can help”.
All of my counselling clients have scars. Those caught up in the bombing have scars Sometimes these scars are physical, the result of torture or accident. Always there are mental scars arising from traumatic experiences. They want the scars to be taken away but I have to tell them that the task is to learn how to live with the scars. Life can wound us, but the suffering, scarred Christ is also the exalted one who blesses us. He knows what it is like to be human.
In the hymn, the mood changes again in the last two verses. The spotlight now turns on us. The prayer is that our hearts may be focused on our risen Lord. And here I disagree with Charles’s emphasis. The focus in the hymn is on being reunited with Christ in our heavenly home. That isn’t quite the emphasis of our readings, especially in Acts. “Why do you stand gazing up towards heaven?” the disciples are asked. And the thrust of the promise of the Holy Spirit is that Jesus’s followers will be empowered to carry out his task on earth, to take his message to the whole world. Charles Wesley’s Christians gaze wistfully into heaven, while Luke’s apostles are rejoicing after Jesus has gone from them.
In today’s gospel, Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, united with him and his Father. Being united against the forces that would divide us has been a theme in this city this week. The Bishop and others have spoken about love being stronger than hate. Jesus continues to pray that we may be united in love.
Jesus is no longer confined to Palestine. He is no longer confined to the first century. He is no longer confined to the Jewish nation. Above all, Ascension Day celebrates a universal Saviour, one whose message is relevant to all people in every age and place. We too are bidden not to stand gazing dreamily up into heaven expecting divine intervention: we too are empowered to declare God’s love and forgiveness in a suffering world.
A prayer from Janet Nightingale of Christian Aid sums up our task on this Ascension Day:
When we stand gazing upwards, bring us down to earth:
with the love of a friend
through the songs of the sorrowing
in the faces of the hungry.
When we look to you for action, demand some work from us:
by your touch of fire
your glance of reproof
your fearful longing.
As ruler over all:
love us into action;
fire us with your zeal;
enrich us with your grace
to make us willing subjects of your rule. Amen