Feast of the Ascension, Thursday 21st May 2020 by Revd Joy Boyce
Acts1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-end
Today is Ascension Day, when Jesus leaves his friends with a promise that he will send them the Holy Spirit to empower them. That dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples was on the Day of Pentecost. So we could see the Ascension as the prelude to the great Festival of Pentecost, which this year the Church celebrates on Sunday 31st May.
But today it’s the Ascension that we are celebrating. Jesus had told his disciples before his crucifixion that he will have to leave them and they must get used to living in a world without the Jesus they have known, lived with and learnt from for three years.
Although Luke tells us that after the Ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were constantly in the Temple blessing God, they must have felt very alone and frightened once again, waiting for Pentecost.
Of course, many people nowadays look around and say, “This is a world without God”. And you can see what they mean. We are living through a pandemic killing thousands worldwide with a recession to look forward to. In the background there’s continuous daily tragedy – children dying in poverty of preventable diseases, evil leaders getting away with murder literally, natural disasters slaughtering thousands in minutes, and others in terrorist atrocities fuelled by hated. So it understandable that even Christians and other people of faith who know God IS in the world , have sympathy with the many who feel God has left us to it.
So is this a world without God? What does the Ascension and Pentecost mean for us?
Why did Jesus have to go away?
The short answer is in order that the Holy Spirit could bring Christ’s comforter, the paraclete – enter our world and never leave, however hard things are.
The longer answer we’ll come to later.
After those frightening and exhilarating weeks of the Easter season, when the disciples almost came to expect meeting Jesus in unexpected places, he’s now saying to them, “it’s going to be different, don’t expect to see me around in the old way.” They must have been frightened, why can’t he stay with them, continue to meet them and help them understand and cope with things.
In John’s Gospel, he had told them, “It’s better for you if I go away.” How can it be better to live in a world where visible signs of God’s love seem to be absent, including the greatest sign of all, the actual presence of Jesus, risen from the dead, eating and drinking with them, teaching them and having times of friendship and fellowship after his resurrection. If Jesus’s friends are feeling lost, we can understand that because we know what it’s like to live in a world where so often it feels like God has gone away and left us to sort everything out by ourselves .
But we need to look at things differently, that’s what Jesus was trying to get the disciples to understand before his crucifixion – he was a bit like a parent getting his children ready to go out into the world when they leave home or go to University. Jesus knows that we are always liable to hang on to what we can see and understand, it makes us feel safe. When Jesus is simply ‘there, the risk is he is too familiar, we domesticate him, no longer shocked or surprised by him.
We miss out on the great truth that as God’s Son, part of the Trinity, he is within and beyond all things, participating in the mystery of God’s love holding all things together.
But it’s all a lot more human focused than that. It’s all built around the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples, that he will fill them with his Spirit, he will make them breathe the same air he breathes. However bad things might be, however painful or puzzling, Jesus has given us a relationship with him that doesn’t depend on being able to see and talk to him as his disciples s did during his earthly life and after his resurrection. This relationship means we can put complete trust in God as Father in the way that Jesus did, and respond to what might seem to some to be an apparently God-less world with something of Christ’s compassion, love and energy.
So at his Ascension, Jesus hasn’t just gone away – he has gone deeper into the heart of reality, our reality and God’s. He is much more than a visible friend and companion. He is at the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world. He has enabled us to become a new kind of human being.
And then there’s the other longer answer concerning the Ascension that I mentioned earlier.
Part of God’s plan for atonement (at-one-ment) with human beings, it is central to the incarnation, Christ being born as a baby, growing up in a family, sharing our human life and experiences.
After sharing the human experience of physical death, Christ’s resurrection opens to us the possibility of human beings sharing a bodily resurrection.
The ascension into heaven of Christ’s crucifixion-wounded body takes our humanity into heaven and to the God-head. One of the Church’s greatest theologians and philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, put it like this: “Christ’s Ascension is the cause of our salvation”.
The Resurrection changes the entire cosmos, not just the spiritual side of our human nature, our entire being. Thus when Christ, post resurrection, eats and drinks with the disciples, when his wounded body is taken up to sit beside God, the Father is changing forever the economy of salvation. John of Damascus, one of the Church Fathers, has written that Christ is seated bodily since he has become incarnate and his flesh has been glorified.
The Ascension is much more than just a pretty story or a nervous time before the drama of Pentecost. It is the beginning of a new relationship for us with God, with Christ, ascended as man, glorified in Heaven, one with us, interceding for us.
As St Paul says, with Christ on our side, what have we to fear?