Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Whoever coined the phrase ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ – the inspiration for a number of songs from the 1940s onwards – never spoke a truer word, because life is a process of constant change. I’m sure all of us can point to many experiences of change in our own lives – changes brought about by matters of health, age, mobility, the start or the ending of relationships, by children, career, home, and so on. Theology, church and patterns of worship are no less subject to change. No matter how much we might sometimes wish things could stay as they are –or even, perhaps, as they used to be – it’s impossible to go through life without facing up to the inevitability of change, the need to change, or that circumstances may well force us to change. Sometimes change is clearly for the good and we can be positive about it, especially when we are in control of it. But sometimes the opposite is the case. Change can make us feel resentful, apprehensive or threatened, and it can disturb the security we thought we had. Even when we know it’s coming, it can seem too frightening to contemplate; and when it confronts us without warning, we often struggle to cope.
The Ascension marks the moment when Jesus ‘goes away’, an experience of dramatic change for the early Christians. The biblical writers surround the event in stories which are every bit as mysterious and magical as those which surrounded Jesus’ entry into the world at Christmas. I guess we’ve all at some time seen some marvellously comic depictions of the Ascension event: Jesus as some sort of divine space rocket taking off into the clouds, or the Ascension Day service poster, which shows a pair of feet sticking out of a cloud, almost like a cartoon. Well, there are also quite a few such examples of feet disappearing into clouds in mediaeval and Renaissance art. On a ‘Thought for the Day’ once, Angela Tilby told of a church in Jerusalem which treasures the impressions of two bare feet in a bit of exposed rock in its courtyard, as though it were the authentic divine lift-off pad! They’re all based, of course, on the account of the Ascension in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is in turn based on the ancient idea of a three-tier universe – the earth in the middle, the level under the earth and then the sky above, which was the dwelling place of God. So, Jesus’ departure had to be explained in terms of going ‘up’ into heaven.
Now, it might make a great story – which is, I suppose, its real value – but a literal ascension makes no sense in the modern world. We know that the earth is not flat; neither is it the centre of the universe. So the ancient theological language, although it certainly makes a good tale, is not adequate, and defending a literal reading of scripture seems like an exercise in futility. Surely the biblical writers were trying to explain their experiences of Jesus in the cultural thought-forms of their day. If Christianity and the church are to be taken seriously in the modern scientific, rationalist world, we ought to be looking much more closely at the symbolic and the metaphorical meanings underlying the scriptural accounts. We need to explore ways of interpreting the story which make sense in the light of our own knowledge, understanding and experience, and which can be put into language that makes sense now. What is really being communicated through the story of the Ascension? One commentator helpfully pointed out that, for all the descriptions of height and the cloud of glory, Jesus did not ascend into the stratosphere, but rather re-connects himself with the very heart of God.
Well, the birth of Jesus tells us of the entry of the divine into human experience. By the time we reach Ascension Day, the story has really come full circle, and Jesus’ earthly time ends by his humanity becoming one with divinity. The writers of scripture, working within the concepts of their time, seem to be saying that as the immediate, visible presence of Jesus on earth ends, he somehow ‘returns’ to God. So the significance of Jesus goes way beyond a brief earthly life of 33 years. Jesus becomes the supreme example of the destiny available to all who open themselves to receive the Spirit of God – a quite startling claim, but one which seems to be borne out by the promises made by Jesus in the Gospels, and by the experiences of the early church as recorded in Acts. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, prays that those whom God has given him may see his glory. He also says, remarkably, that this same glory has been given to them, his followers, as well. Jesus has come to a moment of personal transformation as he departs, physically, from his followers for a final time. Obviously, this is also a moment of transformation for them, too – partly a difficult one as they will no longer see Jesus as they had seen him before. But it is also a liberating one, as Jesus’ spirit is no longer confined to one time and place, but becomes universally present. Crucially, everyone – Jesus included – had to move on before this could happen. Isn’t the implication then clear that all Jesus’ followers, in every age and place, can potentially be transformed by his ascension? If we really allowed that to happen, and stopped trying to confine Jesus by making him fit our style of worship, or how we choose to live our lives, or determine our priorities, or how we treat other people, and if we stopped putting obstacles in the way individually and as the church, then the transition of which the Ascension speaks, would surely stand a chance of transforming us and our world.
It is a paradox that the moment when Jesus ‘goes away’, when his followers were forced to change and to stop regarding Jesus’ earthly life as their primary focus, that he becomes more deeply and permanently present. Jesus has hallowed the world as the arena of God’s activity. His own life is the great sign of God’s faithfulness to the world, and his continuing presence in the world today is seen in the way his life transforms other lives, which can then go on to transform the world around them. It is the fusion of divinity and humanity of which Ascensiontide speaks so powerfully.
The transition involved in the Ascension is one we all need to go through. At every real place of growth in our lives, every point when the world looks new and different, we’re bound at first to be thrown off-balance by whatever’s made the difference, and we may well regret having to leave the past behind. But, in the light of Ascension tide, these are times of transformation we should embrace, not fear. I realise it’s easier said than done; moving on is rarely without some degree of pain or loss. But we really cannot cling on to the dangling feet, trying to pull Jesus back down to earth. We must let him go and move on. But we must also let his life change our vision of the world. As Jesus takes his leave, he points us towards the God he called Father, and encourages us to go on our own journey towards God, by the path of commitment to the world – to truth, and peace, and justice, and reconciliation, and to love – so crucial given some of the current horror stories in the world news from India, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and Syria. This is the journey Jesus himself took. And he promises that, actually, we won’t be left alone, for his Spirit will be our guide, our comforter and our inspiration. But that’s for Pentecost, next week!