On earth as in heaven (Ascension of Christ, Year B, 17 May 2015)

Acts 1.6–11
Ephesians 1.15–23
Luke 24.44–53

Jesus hasn’t just gone away. He has gone deeper into the heart of reality—our reality and God’s. He has become far more than a visible friend and companion; he has shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God. He has made us able to be a new kind of human being, silently and patiently trusting God as a loving parent, actively and hopefully at work to make a difference in the world, to make the kind of difference love makes.—Rowan Williams

…when he is seen, the exalted Lord is recognized, made particular, given content, by the fact that he bears tangible human scars, and forever confronts us wounded.—Rowan Williams, Resurrection–Interpreting the Easter Gospel

I decided to speak about the Ascension of Jesus today, and it took me quite a while to know how to approach it. To tell you the truth, if you just tell the story straight, it can be a bit embarrassing.

For example, the astronomer Carl Sagan once remarked that if the ascending Jesus had reached the speed of light, he wouldn’t have left our galaxy yet. Not even after 2000 years.

I mean, we don’t see the creation as a three-storey thing any more, with heaven on the top floor, earth on the ground and a shadowy world of the dead as the basement. We are becoming even more aware than ever of the vastness and strangeness of the universe.

The story is told about some Ascension Day celebrations at a particular theological college. A special Ascension Day service was held and the whole faculty in their robes and regalia gathered for the big celebration. It was quite an event. 

The service ended and, amidst clouds of incense, the assembly emerged from the chapel singing one of the great ascension hymns.

Unknown to the worshippers, a creative student had found a near life-size Christmas crèche figure and stuffed it with sky rocket-type fireworks.

As the procession marched into the courtyard, the student lit the fuse, sending the statue soaring up out of the shrubbery with a cloud of smoke and sparks. It buzzed over the scattering members of the procession, finally taking a nosedive on to the roof of a nearby building. There the ascension rocket sputtered and died.

The principal of the college was unimpressed with the student’s explanation that he was simply trying to dramatise his faith in the ascension of Jesus.

Ascension Day was last Thursday. It’s always forty days after Easter Day, it’s always on a Thursday and it can always be safely avoided.

But we can’t always just avoid it, because the New Testament pictures Jesus sitting—right now—at the right hand of God. For example, Hebrews 1.3b:

When [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…

And from today’s reading in Ephesians:

God…raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…

The Ascension concerns Jesus being at the right hand of God on high. So what do you make of the question asked by the ‘men in white robes’:

Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

That must go down in a short list of ‘Silly Questions in Scripture’. What would you say? I’ve just seen Jesus go up in the sky! Where else would I be looking?

Wherever else we are meant to look, it’s not up in the sky. We are not meant to be so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good. So as we look at the Ascension today, we’re talking very much about the here and now on earth.

So what is the Ascension of Jesus about? Let me suggest three things:

Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is now in the place of all authority, at the right hand of God; and the Spirit of Jesus has been poured out on all flesh

The first thing is that

Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is now in the place of all authority, at the right hand of God; and the Spirit of Jesus has been poured out on all flesh.

Listen: there is a human being in the presence of God. His name is Jesus, he has suffered and died for all humanity, and he is Lord. We belong to him. Therefore, we have a well-founded hope that we too will be with him in God’s presence for ever, where

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs
of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear
from their eyes.          (Revelation 7.16–17)

In God’s presence God’s will is perfectly done; and God’s will is that there be no hunger, no thirst, no homelessness and no tears. And God’s will is to be done on earth as in heaven. As the prayer Jesus taught us says:

…your will be done on earth
as in heaven.

How are we measuring up?

Not so well. The Uniting Church Assembly has said that the Federal Budget has resulted in some people losing badly: the First Australians, people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait heritage; and people in developing nations who are directly impacted by the drastic cuts in Australian aid.

I agree with the Assembly’s statement.

If Jesus who was crucified is now Lord, then we need to be aware of how ‘the least of these’ are faring. Will Australians be among those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and take care of the sick when the Judge comes?

The second thing is that

Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is now in the place of all authority, at the right hand of God; and the Spirit of Jesus has been poured out on all flesh.

‘Jesus is Lord’ was one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith. Jesus is Lord and no other. Caesar may build roads and aqueducts, Caesar may keep the empire in a state of enforced peace, but Caesar is not Lord. That could be a dangerous thing to say back then.

It can still be a dangerous thing to say in many parts of the world.

We sang the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, earlier:

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great…

Mary’s is not a docile song. It is the song of a single pregnant woman who knows there will be a backlash in her little village when the news gets out. It is the song of a woman who cries for the justice of God.

It’s a song that churches have been banned from singing in at least two periods of history:

In Argentina in the 1970s by the military government; but before then, in India in the first part of the 19th century, its use in church was banned by the British East India Company.

Mary was singing the desires of her heart, desires which God heard.

Again, for the Lord to be at the right hand of God—to be at the place of ultimate authority—means that God is fulfilling the prayer of Jesus:

Our Father in heaven…
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth
as in heaven.

The third thing is that

Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is now in the place of all authority, at the right hand of God; and the Spirit of Jesus has been poured out on all flesh.

The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit is Jesus present with us, among us, and within us. The Spirit of Jesus guides us in living as the people of Jesus. The Spirit is poured upon the poor in spirit, the broken, the hungry, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the meek…upon all who will receive.

The Spirit grows the fruit of new life in Jesus Christ within us. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As we respond to this new life within, as we place ourselves to receive the light of the Son, these fruits grow inside us and among us.

The Spirit gives gifts to God’s people so we can live in the way of Jesus. They are gifts of wisdom, faith, knowledge, hospitality, prayer…. What gifts has God given you? Are you responding to God by using those good gifts?

The Ascension leads us to the Spirit. That’s why next week, the culmination of Easter, is the Feast of Pentecost. ‘Pentecost’ is Greek for fifty; it is the fiftieth day since Easter Day.

Finally: in the Ascension, Jesus steps to one side. He makes way for the Spirit, his Spirit, to be poured out. In stepping aside for the Spirit to come, he shows us a glimpse into the way that the three Persons of the Trinity eternally act together and make way for each other.

And that in turn informs how we ought to act toward one another.

One of the gifts the Spirit gives is leadership. But it’s Jesus-shaped leadership. It’s service. In the Church, leadership is public service. It has authority, but it is not authoritarian. So if you’re wondering whether someone has leadership potential, look and see if they are being led into serving others in public ways.

So the Ascension doesn’t only lead us to Pentecost. It also leads us to the Holy Trinity, and to trinitarian ways of living. And Trinity Sunday is in two weeks time.

Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is now in the place of all authority, at the right hand of God; and the Spirit of Jesus has been poured out on all flesh. And we honour him by looking not up to heaven, but keeping our eyes on the earth. Amen.

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Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

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