Old Royal Naval College Chapel
May 13th 1999
He ascended into heaven
Whenever we say anything about God, that he is Creator, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, or that he came down from heaven, we have to advise our hearers that the language we are using is bound to be analogical.
Analogy is the way that we use to describe in everyday terms things which are otherwise difficult to understand. So, for example, when Hamlet says to Horatio "methinks I see my father" and Horatio, who has come to tell Hamlet that he has actually seen the Hamlet's dead father as a ghost, is reassured when Hamlet replies, "In my mind's eye, Horatio" to the latter's alarmed question "Where, my lord?"
Now, the mind hasn't got an eye; and Hamlet wasn't really seeing his father in the way that Horation had. That comes a bit later in the play. But you and I have no difficulty in understanding what he meant by those words "In my mind's eye" because we understand what an analogy is, and its use.
Analogy works by comparing like with like, but without suggesting that the two things being compared are identical. It's the simplest and most succinct way of portraying the truth and we use it in almost every other sentence in everyday speech. "I see what you mean"; "I get your point"; "The telephone is a lifeline" and "Our boss is a broken reed" are just a few examples of analogies.
So it's not surprising that God teaches us by analogy; and a good example of this is the Ascension which we celebrate today.
To understand why the Ascension took the particular form that it did we need to consider what it was that the Apostles needed to be helped to understand in the wake of the Resurrection.
They needed convincing that the series of bodily resurrection appearances was now at an end. During the Forty Days, you remember, Jesus met, talked and ate with various groups of his faithful followers, but after each appearance he vanished from their sight.
Jesus himself had insisted to them that it was necessary for him to be parted from them, otherwise the descent of the Holy Spirit and their going forth into the world would never happen; they would always be waiting for another appearance.
If Jesus had remained on earth for, say, another hundred years, there would have been the problem of his body ageing. If it didn't and he remained perpetually in a 30 year-old body people would have been interested in him for all the wrong reasons: he would have become a curiosity. Equally, if his body had continued to age the question "Is he going to die again, this time of old age?" would have been in the forefront of people's minds. Since Lazarus, we presume, died in this way sooner or later, though he too had been raised from the dead then there was every reason to suppose that an ageing earthly-bodied Jesus would succumb to the same fate.
According to at least two accounts, there were still, even after the Resurrection, those who doubted his divinity. But if the Gospel is to consist of the message "Jesus is Lord and God" then it was essential that these doubts should be removed. Something had to be done that left no room for reasonable doubt in the minds of his beholders that Jesus had not just risen from the dead but that when he had said "The Father and I are One" he was speaking the truth.
They were to expect that something new, some fresh inspiration would come upon them – but they were to wait for it.
Now how, in Heaven’s name, do you devise a sign which, by analogy, will say all these things to its beholders: I am going away; you will see my earthly body no more; I go to the Father with whom I am One; wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit?
Well just look at what happened:
His body was taken up
He entered a cloud
They worshipped him with great joy and expectation
The Spirit, as they had been told to expect, came down upon them at Pentecost.
And as a result:
They understood that his earthly body had gone for ever
The cloud suggested to their minds the Presence of God
Their doubts were removed
On the principle that "What goes up must come down" they waited patiently till Pentecost when the Spirit duly descended upon them
Well, if anyone can think of a better, or you might say a more economic way of getting these truths across it would be interesting to have suggestions. The fact is that the way God chose to do it that way achieved all the results his analogy intended.
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