Grab your handbag and talking umbrella…
Reading: Acts 1:1-11
Whatever you personally think about the politics and competency of Health Minister Matt Hancock, he did not clothe himself in glory earlier this month when he criticized the tone of the Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Rosena Allin-Khan. Apart from the fact that this was an incredibly patronizing and most probably sexist put-down and putting aside the issue that the MP with a rich heritage (Christian Polish Mum, Muslim Pakistani Dad) is an amateur boxer who can fight her corner all too well, Hancock seemed to ignore the issue that the MP who was critiquing the Government’s support of NHS workers is a doctor herself who has been working some 12-hour shifts in A&E during the pandemic. (In case your interest is piqued by the MP with good taste – she married into a Welsh family after all – you can still listen to the Radio 4 profile of her online).
In these strange times, we have, of course, been reminded – as if it were needed – of the incredible work of all those in the healing professions and whilst politicians, journalists and – let’s face it – many ministers, can afford to deal in sweeping narratives and broad brush strokes, doctors are trained to focus on detail, deal in evidence and give honest, straightforward analysis of what they see. This is one of the many reasons that the gospel-writer Luke is widely regarded to have been a doctor. Many commentators believe him to be ‘Luke, the beloved physician’ and friend of Paul, as referenced in Colossians 4:14 whilst others suggest that Luke’s emphasis on accurate and detailed reporting of the events of Jesus’ life – as seen here in the opening verses of his gospel account – is further evidence of his medical training;
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)
Whilst we cannot say for certain that he was a doctor, Luke’s writing does make it clear that he had a passionate interest in the human condition. More than any other gospel writer, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ encounters with gentiles, women and those on the outskirts of society whilst he also includes characters (e.g. the shepherds and Zacchaeus) and stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal/Found Son) overlooked in the other accounts which offer a deep insight into human psychology and behaviour. With all this in mind, it might at first seem quite confusing that Luke is the only author to describe the ascension of Jesus. In fact, Luke – the humanist writer with his feet on the ground – actually tells us the ascension account twice and even uses the event as the bridge between his two books.
Now, I don’t know about you but I find the ascension account a little tricky. Perhaps this is because Ascension Day isn’t a big thing is the UK, unlike in other countries where it is much more widely celebrated (it’s one of France’s 300 public holidays – or something like that!). Or perhaps my ascension unease came from our Cambridge college celebration of it with a daytime firework display…which was just all kinds of wrong. Or maybe my hesitancy is founded upon images such as this – a sculpture in a chapel in Walsingham, Norfolk where life-sized scarred feet poke down from the ceiling above the altar!
In the words of much-loved and foul-mothed Luther minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber, ‘Jesus got all Mary Poppins and just sort of floated away’!
And that quote got me thinking. It may be that lockdown is getting to me (those of you who saw the midweek reflection might firmly agree!) but what if the ascension could be likened to Mary Poppins? What if, in an example of what theologians call ‘intertextual dialogue’, I could use the 2018 film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ to open up discussion on the meaning of the ascension?
If you’re raising your eyebrow right now, think of it as a belated Birthday present for me…and I promise there’ll be no mention of any films in next week’s sermon. Deal? Deal!
For those of you unaware of the phenomenally brilliant (not just my opinion but actual fact!) film Mary Poppins Returns, it is, unsurprisingly, the sequel to the 1964 family musical and is set 25 years after the original in which Mary Poppins returns to the Banks household one year after a family tragedy. There is so much I could I say about this film and its potential relevance to the ascension account but I can already feel that I’m losing some of you so let’s just focus on three of the songs from the film, the first being ‘Can you imagine that?’ – an ode to the gift of imagination, in which Mary explains;
Yes, logic is the rock of our foundation.
I suspect and I’m never incorrect
That you’re far too old to give in to imagination…
In short, the song acknowledges that reason and logic have their place in how we understand the world but, in parabolic fashion, she encourages the viewers to see that there can be a limit to such things – that, as Mary later explains, ‘anything is possible; even the impossible’. [Members demanding a higher brow alternative might like to think of Poppins’ Shakespearean counterpart who argued ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy’]. In other words, through her experiential teaching, Mary Poppins enables the children to see beyond the boundaries of their limited worldview – to expand their horizons – introducing them to a more magical, miraculous world of possibility – dare one say, of faith?
When it comes to the ascension, you might well, like me, be put off by the odd images of Jesus being beamed up into the air and prefer to deal in metaphor instead or feel more comfortable with John Henson’s ambiguous description of ‘the friends [who watch Jesus] go up the mountain and disappear among the clouds’.
Alternatively, you might be someone who can imagine Jesus physically ascending to heaven. After all, Jesus’ disciples and Luke’s audience were still working with the traditional idea that the Earth was dome-shaped and that above the Earth and its firmament came heaven – the realm of God. Perhaps Jesus’ departure had to happen in such a way to enable those first disciples to glimpse the truth – that their friend they partied and prayed with was ascending to heaven, and would no longer remain with them in the same way. Seeing as we’re told that Jesus appeared to his disciples many times after his resurrection, perhaps his final departure had to be different in nature to that of his other appearances, so that they didn’t assume he would reappear again. Can you imagine that?
Okay, next song – the heart-breaking ‘Where the lost things go’ in which Mary tells the grieving children;
Nothing’s really left or lost without a trace
Nothing’s gone forever only out of place
…Waiting there until it’s time to show.
…Hiding in the place where the lost things go.
What is the ascension – whether the actual mechanics of it were as Luke described or not – really about? Well as I explained in the Easter Day sermon, in which John gave us a sneaky peak at the ascension, for Jesus’ disciples, the ascension was validation of all the promises that he had given them – promises that no life was lost to God, no person forgotten, that he was going to be with the Father and would prepare a place for them. For those first friends of Jesus, the ascension was confirmation that God’s kingdom was indeed coming – the lost will be found, the left and last will be first and foremost, all the stolen voices will someday be returned. That in God’s upside-down kingdom (also referred to in the film!) hope abounds for the only way is up…which happens to be the title of our final Mary Poppins song which includes the lines –
Give a lift to a foe,
For you reap what you sow,
And there’s nowhere to go but up
Reaching the crescendo of the film, just before Mary returns to the heavens and a great gust of wind engulfs those left behind (Pentecost vibes, anyone?!), the characters quote from the Bible as they sing a final song and ascend into the air with glee. A more fundamentalist minister would point to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to compare this to the Christian experience but I prefer the argument that the ascension of the Banks family and friends could be understood as a picture of our eventual return to, and union with, God.
You see, in our scriptures, the ascension of Jesus is the final chapter in the story of the incarnation of God. At Christmas, we celebrate our belief that God’s love for creation is so radical and ridiculous that God gave up power, might, isolation if you like, to become one with us, revealing the sanctity of our very being; to descend from heaven and experience all the many weird and wonderful facets of the human condition. Love. Loss. Despair. Hope. Growth. Belief. Doubt. Humour and heartache. Loneliness and death. When Jesus rose from death and then ascended to heaven, he took a beautiful, broken human body, marked by the wounds of crucifixion – the wounds of the world – into the Godhead.
In contrast to some political leaders who have recently acted in ways to suggest there is a hierarchy of life – that the elderly or infirm are effectively dispensable; that those seeking refuge are comparable to insects – the ascension of Jesus tells us that humanity, lost and wounded as we can be is still loved and valued by God; ‘is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God’s glory, received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself’ (Rowan Williams). Our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have a whole, fascinating theology about this – called apotheosis or divinization – and those interested might want to look those terms up. But all of us might find some solace, hope, wonder in our belief that we were born out of love and will die into love. That one day, we will follow Christ to the grave and beyond. That we will return to God, creation will be restored and God will be all in all.
So, what do you think? Have I convinced you that Mary Poppins might have something to reveal to us about the ascension? Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t. If the latter, I’m sure the televised services today will offer a more traditional message! For me though, it works. Plus, the film has a ninety-two-year-old Dick Van Dyke dancing on a table so what’s not to love?!
But whether you like the comparison or not, far from being some inconvenient addition in Luke’s writings, I believe that the ascension speaks of God’s redemptive action in the past; heralds a glorious future that awaits us; and invites us to live out that promise in the present. In other words;
Let the past take a bow,
The forever is now,
And there’s nowhere to go but up, up!
There’s nowhere to go but up.