The Ascension: The end from which we begin
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Based on readings: Ezekiel 37.1-14, Acts 16.9-15, John 5.1-9
The first question, the question that all theologians hate is about the Ascension itself: where is Jesus’ body? In its typically pictorial language the New Testament has him going up and off like a sky rocket into the night. Is he perhaps then to be discovered with the Father and Spirit hanging out on Mars like one evangelical I knew used to aver? Well no.
The Bible is trying to give expression to the change that occurs between the Easter resurrection appearances and the gift of the Spirit in the birth of the Church. It takes the resurrection seriously - note that ‘he presented himself alive... by many convincing proofs’ - and we should not overlook that it is the concreteness of this resurrection experience that defines Christianity as something fundamentally new and unexpected. But the ascension draws to a close Jesus’ humanly embodied presence in the world.
As for where Jesus’ body is, it is with God. The early church from the time of the Gospels had witnessed in the resurrection the divinity of Christ and so understood him to be not simply up in the stars - contrary to popular belief very few religions have understood God in this way - but present in the way that God is present. It’s hard for us to get our minds around this because we’re so used to a materialistic view of the universe where the world of atoms, electrons, quarks and the rest push out God with their sheer weight of matter.
Now I’m no scientist and generally hate theologians trying to do science as much as I hate scientists who think they can do theology, but if science can talk these days about superstring theory and 11 dimensions (we usually only experience 3 dimensional space and time) then the idea of a multi-layered universe doesn’t seem so implausible. Jesus’ body, then, like God, is somehow still with us.
What then are we to make of the return of this Ascended Lord? Well, in a sense, this is something that we already have experience of. Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is a paradigmatic sacrament - a visible sign of an invisible presence. So, in every Eucharist as God is made present in bread and wine, we have his return. And that is a return we physically take into ourselves as we ask to be more loving, more Christ-like, closer to God, more a part of Jesus’ body. And the Eucharist itself looks forward to when we will be fully present to God, though as our first reading in Acts tells us ‘it is not for [us] to know the times or periods that the Father has set’.
The point is, though, that looking towards the end will help us see and so bring to being that peace and goodness that is the kingdom of God. By seeing our end we can orient our lives. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Celebrated life coach Martha Beck offers the following exercise: ‘Think of someone whose approval you covet. It might be your lover, someone else’s lover, your boss, a celebrity who may never even meet you, [your favourite vicar, or even Jesus,…] Get all those needy feelings front and center. Let them fill your whole mind. Now imagine that you get to spend an hour with the person whose approval you seek. Can you feel the desperation, the grasping, the sick sense that this hour isn’t nearly enough? Excellent.
Now begin at the end. Imagine that you already have this person’s approval, that they adore you, that nothing on God’s green earth could ever diminish their total approval. You are awash in approval... Letting this mental position fill your mind, picture interacting with your hero again. Can you feel the freedom, the ease, the humour that’s suddenly available to you? Can you feel yourself start to smile without trying? Can you tell this version of you is way more likely to get approval than the version who’s always desperately seeking it?’
It kind of works doesn’t it? Really it’s a confidence trick in which you help yourself to a place in which you really believe in yourself. It requires, though, that you can picture and believe in a positive end. And this is important. Because if at any point we stop believing in positive outcomes to our lives and actions we will soon find ourselves in quick sand. When our confidence really leaves us or when the narratives we have in mind for ourselves, for society, history, the world are bleak any motivation to keep going, to seek justice, love, peace will soon evaporate. Martha Beck is right in knowing that our faith in positive outcomes is essential to our success as a person.
Which brings us back to the return of the Ascended Lord. History, it seems continues to turn and turn in the widening gyre. We have moved from an Age of Optimism to an Age of Anxiety, a narrative which is also replayed in cycles through different times of our own lives. But the Christian narrative promises a happy ending: that in Jesus’ return we will lay hold of the peaceful kingdom of God for ourselves.
This is the end from which we begin. This is the hope and confidence that our faith should give us in seeking to build a world of love and justice. Even through the anxiety of Brexit, the seven last plagues and the four horsemen, by beginning at the end, which is the glory of the risen and ascended Lord, we can move forward with hope and confidence - not anxious about oddballs claiming the end of the world is nigh - or cynics with their Jesus is coming, look busy! But in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.