Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The past dramatic week in British politics prove that sometimes things can change quite unexpectedly, and remarkably fast. Life itself is a process of constant change, isn’t it? We can all point to experiences of change in our own lives, brought about, perhaps, by health issues, age, mobility, relationships, career, finances or any number of unanticipated events. However tempted we may sometimes be to think that faith, belief and church are fixed, they, too, 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, is welcome and positive, especially when we feel we are in control of it. Sometimes, though, the opposite is the case. Change can make us feel apprehensive or threatened, and it can shake the security we thought we had. Sometimes, even when we know it’s coming, it can seem too frightening to contemplate and, when it confronts us without warning, we may struggle to cope.
Ascension Day and these next few days leading up to Pentecost, are the period of the church calendar which brings fundamental change about, as the Easter season draws towards it close. The Ascension marks the moment when Jesus somehow ‘goes away’, an experience of dramatic change for the early Christians. The biblical writers surround this 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 seen some comic depictions of the Ascension event, like the poster advertising the Ascension Day service, with a picture of a pair of feet sticking out of a cloud, a bit like a cartoon. Well, there are precedents: quite a few examples of feet disappearing into clouds exist in mediaeval and Renaissance art. Apparently, there is even a church in Jerusalem which treasures the impression 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 ancient understanding of a three-tier universe and a flat earth – the earth in the middle, the tier under the earth and the sky above, the heavenly realm. So, Jesus’ departure and return to God could only be explained in terms of going ‘up’ into heaven.
Now, that might make a great story – which could, after all, be its real value – but we now know a literal ascension makes no sense in the modern world: the earth is not flat; neither is it the centre of the universe. So the ancient theological imagery has its limitations, and certainly won’t satisfy the modern rationalist mind. As so often, defending a literal reading of scripture seems like an exercise in futility. But while the biblical writers were trying to explain their experiences of Jesus in the cultural context and thought-forms of their own day, so today’s Christians need to do the same thing again, to explore ways of telling the story which make more sense in the light of our knowledge, understanding and experience, and which can be expressed in a language that is accessible and coherent in the contemporary context. What do we think is being communicated in the Ascension story?
Well, the birth of Jesus tells us of the entry of the divine into our human experience. By the time we reach Ascension Day, the story has come full circle, and Jesus’ earthly life concludes by his humanity becoming one with divinity. His immediate, visible presence among his followers ends as he somehow ‘returns’ to God. Even though Jesus had apparently prepared them for it, his followers found their world had profoundly now changed. They had to move on, as his presence would now be felt in very different ways. They had to recognize that Jesus’ life could still transform theirs – even though he could no longer be seen – not least in the ways they related to each other and to the world. In our own time and place, the call to us is to find out how that same recognition might lead to our own personal transformation, and our corporate transformation as the church. If we allowed the ongoing life of Jesus to be truly present among us, and prioritized his attitudes and values; if we stopped putting obstacles in the way, individually and as the church, then the transition and transformation of which the Ascension speaks could potentially change us, and the world of today, very radically.
It is a paradox that the very 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 to them. Jesus has hallowed this world as the arena of God’s activity. His continuing presence in the world today is seen in the way his life transforms other lives, which then go on to transform the world around them.
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 these are times of transformation we should embrace, not fear. I know it’s easier said than done, because change often involves a degree of pain or loss. But we cannot cling to Jesus’ physical body. It’s no use trying to reach the dangling feet to pull him back down to earth. We must let him go, for the story needs to move on and we must move on. But we must also let his life change our lives and our vision of the world. As Jesus takes his leave, he points us towards the God he called Father, and enables us to go on our own journey towards the divine, by the path of commitment to the world – to truth, peace, justice and love – which he himself took. And, in taking his leave, he promises that his own spirit will be both our guide and our comforter – though, in the church calendar at least, we must wait expectantly for that gift at Pentecost, in ten days’ time…