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A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist on Ascension Day, preached on Thursday 30 May 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
All over the country, clergy are increasingly transferring the big weekday Festivals of the Christian calendar to the nearest Sunday. One reason, and an understandable one, is the shortage of clergy in some areas, although here in Sherborne I am glad to say that I still have a clergy team large enough to allow us to celebrate these festivals on weekdays (though I must admit that I have accepted defeat over Epiphany, 6 January, when so many people are away).
The second reason is the sad fact that feasts like Epiphany, Ascension and Transfiguration don’t exercise enough power over the imagination of modern Christians to get them to leave their televisions or whatever and come to church on a weekday evening. At least Epiphany and Transfiguration fall on a Sunday every so often. Ascension never does – it’s always 40 days after Easter, which is a Thursday.
The loss of interest in today’s Feast is at least partly the fault of the Church and how it has handled Ascension Day in the past. For example, time and again sermons about the Ascension encourage us to picture it all wrong, with Jesus taking off like some kind of rocket, going to a very distant heaven and leaving behind nothing more nor less than a real absence. And who wants to come together to celebrate an absence? It’s not exactly the stuff of a good party, is it? Religious art often doesn’t help, either. At my Theological College we used to hold the annual college retreat at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. And in the Shrine Church, which is full of holy knick-knacks in most appalling taste, there is a Chapel of the Ascension. And if you look up, its ceiling is painted to be like the sky, and there are a pair of three-dimensional feet sticking out of it in an attempt to give the impression of Christ disappearing into the clouds. All it ever induced in me was a fit of the most unholy mirth. And surely whoever it was who had the idea of sticking those feet onto the ceiling had missed the point. The account of the Ascension in Acts is not so much an attempt to chronicle a datable, physical event – it’s not a piece of journalism – but instead a painting for us of a picture of the exaltation or lifting up of Jesus and thus of humanity into the fullness of the life of God.
You see, Christ in heaven was not Christ separated from his disciples, nor from the earth. Rather, through the Holy Spirit he had promised would come to them – which we celebrate on Sunday week, Whit Sunday, Pentecost – Jesus took up residence in their hearts. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will notice that whenever a writer is speaking of the period before the Ascension he speaks of Jesus as being with his disciples, but after Pentecost he is spoken of as being in them. The change of preposition is full of significance. If you are in London and are in the right place at the right time to watch the Queen returning home to Buckingham Palace, you will see that just after her car enters the courtyard the Royal Standard is broken out on the flag staff. The same happens at Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Sandringham; at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, and so on. It means she’s at home, she’s in residence. And Jesus’s Ascension was not a going away but a coming home, to reside and to rule in heaven, and in our hearts. That makes Ascension Day the vital link between Easter and Pentecost, between the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit: it is the day when, as it were, we break out the Royal Standard, and remind ourselves that Christ is our Lord and our King.
Or think of it like this. The misery of this world’s condition is separation from God – that separation which is brought about by sin, that separation which gives death its sting. But the gulf has been bridged by God stepping across it to our side when in the person of Christ he came to share our life. The grace of God is Jesus. Emmanuel. God-with-us. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. And the Ascension of Christ stands for the lifting up, the exaltation, of redeemed and reconciled humanity into the life of God, the heavenly life, illustrating that God’s gracious entry into human life was not for a time but for ever. The divine life and human life were not just joined together for a few years, but are grafted together eternally. In the man Jesus, the same yesterday and today and for ever, God is with us. As Martin Luther liked to put it, we have a Brother in heaven.
In heaven? Yes, and heaven is something which is not a long way away. It is not far off. Rather it can be called the very meaning of human life. If God created us in his own image, after his likeness, if he designed us for a relationship of love with himself, then heaven is simply the outcome of that design, that fellowship. Heaven is what we are made for. It is where the road goes. It is both the final goal and the immediate meaning of our human existence.
And heaven is anticipated each day in the here and the now. We are anticipating it now by sharing in this very special Eucharist. But it’s not just in our worship that we anticipate heaven. Every act of faith and love, every movement of heart and mind towards God, are anticipations of heaven where, as St Augustine put it, “We shall rest, and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise.”
Of course, both our good works and our attempts at prayer and piety can be self-conscious and proud and calculating, and then we are very far from heaven. But wherever there are works in which God is present through and in the humble and caring love and service of Christian men and women, then heaven is not far off. And wherever there is the prayer of a heart longing for God and desiring, in the middle of all its weaknesses and failures, to be filled with God’s own love, heaven is very near. We begin to become what, in God’s sight, we already are: his children, his people, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And for each one of us, the challenge of Christian living is to become what we are. And the ascended Christ summons us forward, to go on with him in the journey and venture of faith and hope and love which he longs to share with all of us. And for that, thanks be to God.