St Andrew, Croydon
Sunday, 12th May 2002-05-11
"He ascended into heaven"
Why do some well-informed Christians find the Ascension a truth which is difficult to get their mind around?
Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, which celebrate the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus present less problems to ordinary thinking Christian people. They believe that they happened pretty much as described for us in the New Testament.
But the Ascension is different from the others: some people at least find their belief in it strained to the limit and beyond – to the point where they seriously begin to wonder whether it really happened at all.
Well, the Church has never had any doubts that it did take place, more or less as described for us by St Luke in Acts. And our Articles of Religion are equally definite when in Article IV they say:
Christ did truly arise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature, wherewith he ascended into Heaven and there sitteth, until he return to judge all men at the last day.
My intention this morning is to look into this difficulty, and see that, so far from the Ascension being something which we can't understand, it's in fact the very way that we would have expected things to work out.
But first, the difficulties. There's one blindingly obvious reason why the Ascension is harder for people to get their minds around than Birth, Death and Resurrection. That's because most of us during our human lives have close experiences of those other three. We all know what being born is: even if we've no memory of it happening to us, we know that it did happen; and we can at least begin to imagine from what others if not ourselves have told us, something of what it is like.
So too with Death. All of us have known people who have died; and some of us may have begun to think that our time is coming up in the not-too-distant future. So death, however little we understand about it is at least something we know exists and is, moreover, something which we know is going to happen to us.
As for the Resurrection. We'll we all have the twin experiences of falling asleep and waking up every day; and although the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting are something infinitely more wonderful and complex than that, at least we can relate to those passages in the Bible which talk about death as "falling asleep" and resurrection as "waking up".
But what about the Ascension? We really don't have any human experience with which to compare that. People being lifted off the earth by aircraft or spaceships don't seem to belong to the same order of things as the Ascension. So how are we to imagine such a thing happening?
Let's look at the whole business from God's point of view rather than our own, and ask ourselves "Why was the Ascension necessary, and what did it achieve?"
Well, in the first place it served to convince the Apostles that the many appearances of Jesus after his resurrection of which St John speaks, had now come finally to an end. There were going to be no more of them.
Why not? Well, if they hadn't been sure that they'd finally ceased, the Apostles would never have dared to make any of the important decisions which they did – about including the Gentiles, about circumcision, about the sacred ministry and a hundred and one other things: "let's wait and see if Jesus appears just one more time to give us the answer before deciding for ourselves.
Yet it was clearly our Lord's intention that they should become responsible for leading his Church into the truth through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Remember what he said to them "It's a good thing that I am going away from you, because if I don't go away the Holy Spirit will not come; and he will lead you into all truth".
In other words, they'd just got to learn to stand on their own feet, and making decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It's never easy to learn to be independent, but that's what growing-up consists of – learning to use one's freedom in a responsible manner and making oneself accountable for one's actions.
So for the first Christians the Ascension was the signal for a "change of gear", and in fact almost immediately we find the Apostles rising to the challenge. Once they had become convinced that Jesus was not going to appear again – until the Last Day, that is – under the leadership of people like Paul and Peter and James they started behaving in a much more grown-up fashion than they had been used to.
But there's another reason, I believe, why the Ascension just had to happen. Imagine for a moment that instead Jesus went on appearing to his Apostles now here, now there. People would start valuing the appearances more than the Person who was appearing. Can't you just imagine the sort of league-table that would ensue? "During the month of April Jesus was recorded as appearing publicly fifteen times at Antioch, three times at Ephesus, six times in Rome; Athens 4, Philippi 3; Galatia 2 Corinth Nil; in addition he appeared twice to St Peter, three times to Paul never to St James. Hard luck, James and Corinth! Perhaps you'll do better next month. (But why did Antioch got five times as many appearances as Ephesus? Had they been particularly good or exceptionally bad. It's just not fair! And I wonder what those Corinthian chaps have been up to now."
But the Ascension put everything on a different footing. Instead of Christ's body appearing in a succession of places, the Church was to be the Body of Christ on Earth in as many different places as "two or three are gathered together in my name". And instead of taking the form of his risen body which could only be in one place at a time, he was from then onwards to become present in the form of Bread and Wine on which his followers could "feed in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving" wherever and whenever they came together for the Breaking of the Bread.
And how better could they have been persuaded of this than by the process of the Ascension? What they experienced on the Mount of the Ascension was sufficiently different from anything they had experienced so far, as to make them understand that this was a gear-changing event of great importance. The fact that he went, or appeared to go, upwards suggested that he was entering into his glory rather like a successful athlete at the Games ascending the steps to be crowned with the laurel wreath of victory. The fact that his promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled within ten days was an indication that the Ascension, so far from being the end of the book was the prelude to an entirely new chapter. And the fact that from that time onward they were able Sunday by Sunday to find themselves in his presence as they gathered together in his name, and were able to feed on his Body and Blood in the Eucharist served to convince them that he knew what he was saying when he said to them "It is expedient for you that I should go away from you"
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