Which way is up?

Sermon for the Ascension of Jesus (24 May 2009)

Eternal God,
the heavens are split asunder
and Christ once crucified is at your side.
As Jesus has opened the way to you for all people,
so may we declare the hope of eternal life
with the energy of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Christ the Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 1.15-23

Some years ago, I did something that got me into a little trouble. It was the Sunday after the Ascension, just like today. I took a globe that had been hidden from the congregation behind the big pulpit in this place, and showed it to them.

I said that I had a difficulty with the Ascension as a literal story. My difficulty is: which way is up?

Jesus ascends from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and goes to be with God the Father. But that’s not ‘up’ here in Brisbane. It’s sideways. So if we go ‘up’, we’re going in a completely different direction to Jesus. Can you see my problem: Which way is up?

It makes more sense to talk about Jesus ascending to heaven if the world is flat, as our ancestors believed. Then straight up is the same direction everywhere on earth, and that’s where heaven is. Above each one of us.

But living on a ball in an ever-expanding universe, with ‘up’ meaning an infinite number of directions depending on where you stand on the ball, the very notion of ‘up’ gets, well, a bit complicated.

Of course, Jesus may have ascended as a kind of ‘sign’ to the apostles that something new was happening. He was going to be with God, and he wanted to make it clear. But…

…I still wonder which way is up.

It seems to me that if we look at what the Ascension means, rather than what happened, we might get some clues about just which way is up. We might find that Jesus shows us which way is up.

Let’s look for that meaning in the reading we heard today from the letter to the Ephesians. It contains a prayer. It starts this way:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.

‘A spirit of wisdom and revelation…’ When Solomon was told he could ask for anything, he asked not for gold or jewels but for wisdom. God granted it—God loves making us wise!

We have a trap these days; we know so much—there are so many facts out there on the ‘information highway’— we can kid our selves that we are better than the people of ancient times. But it takes time to become wise. We can google facts, we can google information; we can’t google wisdom.

Wisdom is necessary if we want to know which way is up; we need the wisdom of one greater than Solomon, the wisdom of Jesus Christ himself, wisdom that really shows us which way is up.

The prayer says ‘wisdom and revelation’. A person who is wise knows they can’t work everything out for themselves. Isaac Newton, was a great physicist in the 1700s, who discovered the laws of gravity. He said, ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

But much more than that, the wisdom God wants to give us seeks the wisdom given by having the ‘eyes of our hearts enlightened…’ This comes by allowing God to work within our spirits, by humbly asking for wisdom and believing that if we ask, God will give.

The prayer goes on, asking that

you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…

The story of the Ascension isn’t unique. The Old Testament describes Elijah ascending rather spectacularly in a chariot. Muslims believe Mohammed ascended into heaven, and the Roman Catholic Church’s official teaching is that Mary ascended into heaven.

One of the differences in the Ascension of Jesus is the difference it makes to us. The power that raised Jesus from the dead—the power that made Jesus God’s right-hand man—is at work in us. It is God’s ‘immeasurably great power for us who believe’, and remember—it shows us which way is up.

Just as Jesus is transformed, we have a rich hope of transformation. And that transformation has started, as the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, and we receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation.

Let’s get back to that prayer:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Jesus is now ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…’ This reminds us of Philippians 2. Jesus

humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

These words from Philippians 2 were written very early in the Christian story. Paul is most likely quoting a hymn, just like Methodists (and ex-Methodists!) love to quote Charles Wesley’s words. Because Jesus humbled himself and died in shame, God has exalted him ‘and given him the name that is above every name’.

In the prayer in Ephesians, Jesus is now above every kind of authority. It was earthly authority that put him on the cross—and divine authority that vindicated him and declared him blameless. Now, no earthly authority has any authority over him.

Because Jesus died on the cross and was then vindicated by God, we should regard no one on this earth as too shameful for God to rescue. Jesus has died for them all, each one. This leads us to see Jesus coming to us in the poor, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. We can’t turn away from them and claim that we know which way is up.

The prayer ends like this:

And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

‘God has put all things under Christ’s feet…’ Sometimes people talk as though Jesus got a personality transplant when he ascended. The first time, he was loving; now it’s no more Mr Nice Guy. He’s now waiting for a chance to get back and kick arse. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yet all things are under his feet; he has full and total authority. What is his authority for?

One of my favourite stories in the Gospels is about how Jesus exercises authority, It’s the one about the paralysed man, you know the one where his friends come to the house where Jesus is staying and there are so many people, they can’t get through. So the cheeky blighters aren’t discouraged, no, they climb up the outside stairs of the house, get their friend onto the flat roof, remove part of the roof and let him down. He lands at Jesus’ feet.

When Jesus sees what has happened, he says to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ And he does that to show that he has authority to forgive sins.

Jesus uses his authority to forgive. To set people free. To cleanse us from shame. To give us courage in hard times. To reconcile us to God, to each other, to our deepest selves. To forgive. To show us which way is up. So that we may use the authority he gives us to set people free.

And Jesus is ‘the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills and in all’.

This is for the Church. Does the Church have much importance for you as a Christian? It should. As far as the New Testament is concerned, there’s no such thing as an individual Christian. We are parts of the body of Christ. We have this power of Jesus among us. We belong together.

But more than that—the Church is the ‘fullness’ of him who fills all in all. The Ascension means that Jesus is able to be present everywhere, through the Spirit which he has poured on his people. Jesus is no longer in one place at one time. We are the fullness of Jesus Christ!

But to be that fullness, we need to ask for that spirit of wisdom and revelation, that we might have our eyes opened to the greatness of his plan.

Let us pray; let’s pray using that prayer from Ephesians:

Father of glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know you, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which you have called us;

what are the riches of the glorious inheritance we have, and what is the immeasurable greatness of your power for us who believe, according to the working of your great power.

We thank you that you put this power to work in Christ when you raised him from the dead and seated him at your right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

And we thank you that you have put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for your people, the church, which is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Thank you, God, for showing us which way is up through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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