The Scandal of the Ascension
Acts 1:1-11; 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 12-18
Well, how did your celebrations go on Thursday? Did you go to any big dos or was it a smaller, more family affair? Across the world, of course, Thursday was a public holiday but on these shores, its often a more reserved commemoration, isn’t it – we’re happy just to beat the bounds of the church or perhaps, as we did each year in Cambridge, content with setting off a firework or two. So how did you get on?
Well, I’m guessing that some of us here this morning won’t have a clue what I’m going on about whilst the rest of us might have known that it was Ascension Day on Thursday, Ascension Sunday today, but I doubt that many – if any – of us marked it any significant way. In spite of being one of the major feasts of Christianity, acknowledged by all of the major denominations, Ascension Day is barely recognized within the church today and, unlike its bigger, better known sister festivals, has had no real impact on the wider social calendar. We could, of course, wring our hands and moan about the diminishing influence of Christianity in the face of secularization but, in truth, I think our lack of excitement about ascension day is very little to do with that.
Instead, I wonder whether we’re a little embarrassed by it. I mean, what did you think of the first hymn we sang today? Yes, it was long but what about the words? Take verse 7 for example, ‘Lord’ – well, some of us have issue with that term but let’s look past that for now – ‘Lord, though parted from our sight, far above the starry height, grant our hearts may thither rise, seeking thee above the skies’. Hmmm…I’m not a big thitherer myself and the idea that we’re seeking Jesus above the stars, above the skies, well, that seems to take us back to a more primitive view of heaven and Earth, with the heavens up there and the image of Jesus on a throne, somewhere near the Alpha Centauri System, perhaps. This doesn’t sit comfortably with our twenty first century cosmology and my understanding of the ascension isn’t helped by pictures of it which tend to depict Jesus hovering off the ground or flying off into the sunset in a way that brings to mind the illusions of David Copperfield or the acrobatics in the latest Harry Styles video. And don’t get me started on the paintings in which we only see his feet disappearing into a cloud!
What’s more, I’m not filled with an eagerness to celebrate the day when I give some thought about what it is we are remembering. Commemorating the ascension feels a little like celebrating the day that Jesus left us behind – a sort of second death in a way. As we heard earlier, after his glorious resurrection, Jesus spent time with his friends teaching them, eating with them, enthusing them with the wonder of the kingdom of God…so much so that they thought Israel’s restoration might be imminent. But then Jesus tells them to stop guessing what’s next, to be patient for the Holy Spirit – which will be coming at some point in the future – and then he leaves them. Their friend is gone and the human life in which God was most visible, most tangible, most wonderful, disappears from view for…well, two thousand years and counting. So perhaps it’s just as well that we don’t make a big fuss over ascension day. Given the events of this week in Egypt, in Syria, in Manchester, celebrating the day on which the Prince of Peace left us – marking the pain of his absence – might be foolish to the extreme. So perhaps I should gloss over the whole affair and help us look towards the joy of next week’s Pentecost celebrations…
And yet…and yet…perhaps our understanding of the ascension might be key to unlocking hope in God, joy in humanity, wonder – not fear – at what is to come. Perhaps a reminder of Christ’s ascension is precisely what we need today. So let’s give it a try…
First, then, let’s address the mechanics of it. The image of Christ flying off to be with God is one which might be met with difficulty or incredulity today but for those to whom Luke was writing, they were still working with the traditional idea that the Earth was dome-shaped
– not flat, interestingly enough – and that above the Earth came the firmament containing the Sun, moon and stars, then the waters above which we experience as precipitation, then above that heaven – the realm of God. So for Luke to describe Jesus’ departure as him being lifted up into a cloud would have sounded reasonable within this understanding. Does that mean it didn’t actually happen? Well, perhaps it did. Perhaps God chose to reveal the glory of Christ in ways humans could understand so his ascending to heaven in such a way conveyed his rising glory at the right hand of God in heaven to those who believed that heaven was above them. Perhaps Jesus’ departure had to happen in such a way to enable those first disciples to glimpse the impossible – that their friend they partied and prayed with was God in human form! Or perhaps, the ascension as we have it today was a metaphor for Christ’s entrance to heaven or maybe an image to help us join the dots between the transfiguration, the crucifixion and Christ’s departure from Earth. Whether you accept the literal explanation of the event or align yourself with John Henson’s interpretation of things in ‘Good As New’ where it’s said that ‘“the friends watched [Jesus] go up the mountain and disappear among the clouds’ – that’s for us each to ponder; what really matters is what the ascension might mean for our understanding of God and of ourselves.
In the excellent Reform magazine of the URC, each month they ask a question of faith which is answered by four individuals representing different Christian perspectives. The April edition begged the question – ‘What is the Christian story?’. It’s a fine question, isn’t it? What is the Christian story? How might you answer that if you were asked it by a friend over coffee tomorrow? How might you feel if asked you to answer that in pairs right now?! Don’t worry – we’ll save such awkwardness for another time. But do it give some thought this week – ‘What is the Christian story?’ Well Susan Durber, URC minister in Taunton and my former principal, began her answer with the suggestion;
“We could do no better than listen to the fourth-century theologian, Athanasius.
He summed up the story thus: ‘God became what we are so that we might become what God is.”
‘God became what we are so
that we might become what God is.’
Athanasius 296-373 CE
Athanasius, for you church history boffs, was a fascinating character. A real fighter who ran away to avoid becoming Bishop (it didn’t work!); a theologian who was exiled by the Roman Empire five times; an Egyptian who was nicknamed ‘Athanasius against the world’ and ‘the Black Dwarf’ – the unlikely hero from Alexandria is now praised as a Church Father, one of the greatest minds in early Christendom and a Saint who gave us the words ‘God became what we are so that we might become what God is’.
So what might Athanasius’ words mean and what have they got to do with Jesus’ ascension? Well, Athanasius’ summary of the gospel begins with God – the subject, the one who acts, creates, transforms and redeems. This all-loving, all-powerful God became what we are. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, God gave up all power and might to come to us; to take on our flesh and dwell with us; to become vulnerable and mortal and human so to redeem us and all creation with us. This is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas but neither Athanasius, nor God, is finished there.
“God became what we are so that we might become what God is.”
If our Christmas gift from Jesus is that through him God was born into the body of the world, his ascension gift is that through him, the body of the world is borne back to God! You see, for Christ to return to God in bodily form means that the human body has been taken into the Godhead. By ascending bodily into heaven, Jesus shows us that our bodies, our humanity, are not something to be condemned or scorned or to be pitted against the spirit. Instead, by putting on our flesh and blood, by keeping them on in the ascension, we are shown that our flesh and blood are good enough for Jesus, good enough for heaven, good enough for God. The risen, bodily Jesus, carrying the wounds of the crucifixion – carrying the wounds of the world – is glorified, paving the way for each one of us. It’s a shocking thought, isn’t it, that we are might become like the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father, and yet this idea suffuses our scriptures and songs. ‘Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus – tis heaven of heavens to me; and it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to thee’ this we sang earlier; ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’ – this we heard.
Personally, I find the notion that God became what we are so that we might become what God is confusing, mysterious, liberating, scandalous, and in the wake of the Manchester atrocity, I think it’s exactly what we need to hear today. Those who commit the acts of conflict and terror we see far too often on our screens have accepted a lie about God and humanity. Those who are prepared to mame and kill in the name of God – and we must remember that there are people of all faiths who do this, including those who profess to follow Christ – those who feel compelled to speak about God by murdering women and men and children have given up on humanity, seeing our flesh and blood bodies as a mere distraction or even perversion on our path to paradise. For them, the God of power and might looks upon us with revulsion, seeing only sin, desiring only vengeance. For this God, bodies – including one’s own – can be torn apart without hesitation for the purging of humans and the glory of God.
This Ascension Sunday, we are reminded of a different story. We’re reminded of a God who became what we are so that we might become what God is. We’re reminded of the Christ who embraced humanity, who became human, touched lepers, welcomed children, broke bread with prostitutes, washed feet, bore pain, died our death, rose again and ascended in our flesh. We’re reminded of God’s messengers who don’t use violence to reveal God’s glory but seek peace; who don’t tell of God’s goodness by causing pain but who show it by healing pain and forgiving those who cause it; who don’t look up into the heavens waiting for God to flex God’s muscles, but who look around at their fellow humans, seeing Christ’s face in the last and the least of us. This Ascension Sunday, we might declare that our humanity is not something to be denounced and discarded but something that has been transformed and taken into the very heart of God!
Perhaps then, Christ’s ascension is something that we shouldn’t be embarrassed about but rather enraptured with! Perhaps Athanasius’ quote that ‘God became what we are so that we might become what God is’ is a magnificent answer to ‘what is the story of God’ – to what is the story of us. And perhaps today is a perfect day to celebrate God’s love for all humanity and all creation, for as C.S. Lewis – a great storyteller himself and fan of the Bishop of Alexandria – puts it:
“If we let [God] – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly…His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity