Today is the seventh – and last – Sunday of Easter, known also as the Sunday after the Ascension. In the church calendar, we edge towards the close of the Easter season and anticipate the new season of Pentecost, beginning next Sunday. Ascensiontide, added to Easter, sounds the final note of triumph as far as Jesus is concerned. The victor over the grave now takes his rightful place at the right hand of the Father, earthly job essentially done. Yet this triumphalism, which is reflected in Paul’s writings and in many of the hymns we sing at this time of the year, sits rather uneasily with the human Jesus and the reality of the world. ‘Christ has conquered death and sin’ is certainly a thrilling notion, and the songs in which we voice it are appropriately rousing. The problem is that we cannot sing such words with conviction and enthusiasm if we are distracted by what is going on in the world outside the church whose roof we are raising – a world where sin and death and unspeakable suffering show precious few signs of defeat. In the past few weeks alone, consider Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, or the care of the elderly and those with learning difficulties in our own country. What does Jesus’ conquering of death and sin mean here?
The traditional interpretation of the Ascension focuses on the story as the dramatic sign of Jesus’ victory. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Satan is done for. The Ascension, so to speak, is the coup de grace, the final blow with which the devil’s power is destroyed. Something akin to this idea permeates the vision of the New Jerusalem, of which we read tonight. The Book of the Revelation, perhaps one of the most challenging books in the Bible, essentially deals with a cosmic battle between good and evil. It was written during one of the first persecutions of Christians and there is much coded condemnation of the Roman Empire. The writer foretells the rise of an anti-Christ who will deceive people and lead them astray. ‘The beast’ and ‘Babylon’ are codes for the Roman Empire and its deadly cruel and intimidating power. But we are presented with a stirring and inspiring picture here of a time when all this persecution and suffering will end. God will finally defeat all the evil powers assailing his people and, in that very moving phrase, will ‘wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ It is a metaphor for the world that is to come. But while this may be a vision of ultimate victory, we must, in the meantime, continue to face the reality that much of the history of the last two millennia, as well as the state of today’s world, seems to contradict the claim of Jesus’ victory. I want to suggest a different take on the Ascension, one that may speak more powerfully to our 21st century despair, as we watch the apparent triumph of iniquity in the world and, dare I say it, in ourselves. It isn’t new: it is, in fact, what the Christian church has always taught about this strange story of the Ascension. To say that Jesus is ascended is to affirm that the humanity which God assumed by his incarnation is for ever his. Our flawed human nature was not a suit of clothes which God in Jesus put on for thirty odd years, an outfit which he then discarded on his return to heaven. The ascended Christ is still one of us. All we are – albeit some of it so wretched – is what he is.
Archbishop Rowan Williams once said in a sermon at Canterbury Cathedral: ‘Our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life…the humanity that we all know to be stained, wounded, imprisoned in various ways; this humanity – yours and mine – is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God’s glory, received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself.’
Visions of how things can be are important, and we need them. But perhaps more important is the ability to face reality, painful though it may often be, for an unrealistic view of victory isn’t of much practical use when you are not experiencing victory or feeling victorious.
Two brief thoughts to finish. First, next week is Pentecost, which tells us that the Spirit of Jesus is with us always, inspiring our vision of how things can be, for sure, but also intimately alongside us through all the realities of life in the world. Second, the church calendar will soon be talking us into a long period of what is termed ‘Ordinary Time’. That means the major festivals will be over for this year, and we then have a long period of reflecting on what those festivals – what the life of Jesus – mean in terms of our ordinary, everyday lives. ‘Ordinary Time’ will take us right up to the Feast of Christ the King, one week before the whole cycle begins again on Advent Sunday. This means we look to celebrate Christ’s kingship properly only after all that ‘Ordinary Time’ is done, at the very end of the Christian year, which seems to me highly significant. There is a lot of ‘ordinariness’ to travel through first.
In the meantime, while St Paul says that we are in the process of being made new creations through Jesus, it remains true that there is much about our ‘old’ life that still clings to us. We are a rather complex mix of the old and new Jerusalems, as we struggle to negotiate our way through the continuing process of turning our lives and our world around to reflect more of the Spirit of Jesus. There is always this tension in the Christian life: between the reality of the present and the potential of the future. But the gift of the Spirit, which we will celebrate next week, is the guarantee of the divine presence alongside us at every step, through both good and ill. And that vision of the New Jerusalem lies ever before us.