Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/pPbC9rq260I.
So here we are at the Festival of the Ascension. What does that mean and is it important? Well, we talk about Jesus’ ascension to be with the Father in our creeds and it is certainly one of the tenets of our faith but is seems much less important than either the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas or the Resurrection that we celebrate at Easter, or for that matter the coming of the Holy Spirit that we will celebrate next week on Pentecost. And yet, at another level I think it is very important indeed to who we are at our most central level of being- that is of course, in being the church.
And that’s an ontological question for you- is “being the church” the most important thing you are? Is it more central to you than being a parent, or your profession, or being retired even? If someone asked you to tell them who you were, would you put “I am part of Christ’s body, the church,” at the head of your statement. Does it define who you are?
That is really the question for us all. If we assent to the creed and agree that Jesus of Nazareth, was God incarnate, born of the Holy Spirit and Mary, lived an earthly life, suffered and died, was resurrected and ascended, is seated on the right hand of the Father and will now judge the living and the dead, we are claiming that he was God and that he returned to be in relationship with God, his earthly function having been completed, in his death and resurrection.
Do you notice that in the passage from Luke that we read the disciples are still having doubts and are quite unsure of what all this means? The Messiah, Jesus explains to them, had to suffer and die and to rise from the dead on the third day. Why? So that repentance and forgiveness of sins could be proclaimed to all nations! In other words the function of the Messiah is finished and the next stage is about to begin. That is where the disciples come in- they have to do this work now, because they are the witnesses. He tells them to wait for empowerment and while they wait they worship.
The Messiah’s job is over and Jesus can return to his place in the Godhead, in constant and uninterrupted union with God. The word is continuing to speak but no longer in a physical presence on earth.
If we turn our attention to Acts, the scene is reported slightly differently. Did you notice that in Luke it appeared to be immediately after the resurrection that Jesus departed but that here it tells us that forty days had elapsed. I cannot explain that to you, except to say that sometimes in narrative you have summaries and perhaps the end of Luke is a summary, whereas the beginning of Acts shows the full scene following a short summary. Anyway, in Acts we see the disciples standing around Jesus then he disappears from their sight. He has again given them the instruction that they are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is the really important thing- that and the promise to give them the Holy Spirit. Now we are going to talk more about that gift of the Holy Spirit next week, but let us just note that while the Holy Spirit has always been part of the world from the beginning of creation when she danced across the waters, this gift enables the church to be formed. Jesus, a physical presence was constrained by time and space, the Holy Spirit part of God is not constrained at all. The Holy Spirit has no limiting factors.
This is important for us to recognise because we can be mistaken in the idea that somehow we control the work of the Holy Spirit, which we most certainly do not. When I am considering the work of the Holy Spirit, I always go back to that passage that we read a few weeks ago when Peter has been sent to Cornelius and he gets half way through what he thinks needs to be said and the HS falls upon the gathered people- then Peter realises that it is a covenant between Cornelius and his household and God and belatedly baptises them. If at any stage as a priest I think I am in control I read that salutary passage and realise that God might use me but I am not necessary.
The two men in white robes understand this. They are heavenly witnesses, if you like. And they speak to and admonish the earthly witnesses. They ask the disciples what they are doing staring into the clouds when they have work to do. God will not leave them, just because Jesus has gone away from the temporal space that he has been inhabiting. And God has called them to work.
Their work, is to be the church and it has two functions. They are to worship, which is implicit in their response and to witness, which is explicit in the passage. This thing is going to spread all over the world, because the whole world is the Lord’s. And the preparation for that life of witness is worship. In order to bear witness, and we will come back to what that means in a second, one has to know God and be in relationship with God. And that is what happens when we gather for worship. Firstly we acknowledge simply by that gathering that God is God and that we are his creatures. We meet with God in a particular way, we sing praises and other songs about God, we listen to the scriptures and think about them, we confess our weaknesses, and we meet him at the table in the sacred meal which is both the reminder of our relationship with him and simultaneously the real meeting of being. And in this, in this process we become the body of Christ here, gathered together for worship. And we are then, sent out to witness.
Let us just think for a moment about the reality of being Christ’s body. We fragile, faulty, unkind, critical, judgemental, unwise, wise, beautiful, truthful, holy and spiritual beings, are together the body of Christ. How must it feel to be Christ, with us as your body? This is what the ascension means, that we have to step up and become the body of Christ. And God does not wait for us to be fully transformed, wholly renewed, but uses us now as God’s witnesses. Do you find this a challenging thought? I certainly do- I feel a great compulsion to work hard at my spiritual disciplines in order to become transformed by the Holy Spirit into the best vessel that I can be.
And what does it mean to be a witness? Well, we are not witnesses only when we are speaking about God. If that were true it would be easy- you could just keep your mouth shut and you would never do the wrong thing. But sadly, to be a witness is to live and to be observed. We are witnesses for God every moment of every day. Witnessing is not knocking on a door with a prepared spiel, witnessing is living. Because the Holy Spirit dwells in us we are Christ’s body on earth, we are the bit that is visible to everybody. And by coming here on a Sunday morning we are acknowledging that, we are asking God to be with us and in us and to transform us into the likeness of Christ even while we are already the likeness of Christ. St Paul tells us that we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Now, I don’t know about you- but I don’t feel very glorious. But it is our reality. This is part of the paradox of the rest of our lives that we are transformed and yet it is still happening. I have been thinking a lot about how we might treat each other as members of the church, the body of Christ, and it seems to me that if we treated each other, and those around us as if they were Christ, as if they were transformed beings glowing with God’s glory, perhaps we ourselves might be able to grow into that glory. And think what a witness that is and will be, a group of people who treat each other as if they are the precious and honoured of God, the body of Christ here on earth.
“You are my witnesses, to the ends of the earth!”