Sermon for Williamstown
Feast of the Ascension, 12th of May 2013
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. We’re cheating a little, because in the lectionary the Ascension comes forty days after we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, so we should have observed it on Thursday. The reason I want us to remember the Ascension today, despite being several days’ late, is because it’s a part of the story of Jesus that we often ignore. Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed together, as one of the things we believe about Jesus, we affirm: ‘He ascended into heaven’. But how often do we think about what that actually means?
I have to confess that I haven’t spent much time pondering Jesus’ ascension, especially when compared with the years of my life I’ve given to thinking about his crucifixion and resurrection. That’s probably because I struggle so much with the image the term conjures up for me: Jesus rising up, maybe like Superman, maybe like Elliott on his bicycle with ET in his basket, until he disappears into the clouds. I’m going to show you a series of pictures of the Ascension, from the 14th to the 21st century, so you can see the different ways in which people have pictured the ascension, and maybe get a hint of my difficulty:
For most of the artists, Jesus is pictured as rising up from the earth into clouds. It’s only in the more recent images, now that we know that heaven is not literally ‘up there’, that artists have tried to find other ways of picturing the Ascension, and even then most of them still have a sense of Jesus being in the sky. I think my favourite image, and the one the troubles me most, is the sixteenth-century painting by the German Hans Suess von Kulmbach which, if you remember, has Christ disappearing out of the top of the picture with only his feet still present. William Morris’ design from 1862 has those same two hovering feet. It’s a hard image to take seriously now that we know that creation is not made up of the three layers of Heaven-Earth-Hell. One of the commentators I read this week put the difficulty this way: ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.’ (I love biblical commentators who reference Star Trek!)
So, what are we doing today, if we’re not remembering Jesus literally heading up into space? Why do we affirm the Ascension in the creeds?
Interestingly, there are only two descriptions of the Ascension in the Christian Scriptures, and both were written by Luke. The Ascension is the last thing that Luke describes in the Gospel that carries his name, and the first thing he describes in his volume two, the Acts of the Apostles. Descriptions of the Ascension are the transition point between Luke talking about Jesus’ life, and Luke talking about the mission of Jesus’ followers empowered by the Holy Spirit. These two stories, which we heard today, are slightly different. In the first description of the Ascension, in the Gospel, it seems to be happening very close to the resurrection, immediately after Jesus’ appears to ‘the eleven and their companions’. It’s also very short; Luke writes: ‘Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.’ Luke’s second description of the Ascension, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, is longer and more detailed. In this description the Ascension is said to happen forty days after the resurrection; Jesus commissions his followers, rather than simply blessing them; and we have an appearance from two men in white robes. These are probably meant to be the same two men in dazzling robes who spoke to the women at the tomb on Easter morning. Then they asked: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ Now they ask: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ In both cases these two men remind Jesus’ followers not to standing gazing on the past but to look towards the future.
The reading we heard today from the Acts of the Apostles isn’t just a description of the Ascension. At the beginning of his second book, Luke recapitulates his entire first book, the Gospel according to Luke, so that his reader, Theophilus, is in the right mood for the new tale he’s going to tell. Luke’s getting Theophilus ready for a change in subject, from the story of Jesus’ life on earth, to the story of the mission of Jesus’ followers. So he summarises Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; reminds Theophilus of Jesus’ command to his disciples to await the coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem; and answers that vital question: does Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the kingdom of God mean the restoration of the kingdom of Israel? Jesus’ answer to that is, of course, not in the political form that the disciples might want. He’s not commissioning them to rule over an Israel freed from Roman occupation. He’s commissioning them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth once he himself has gone to the Father.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in this short introduction: during his ministry Jesus gave instructions ‘through the Holy Spirit to the apostles’; during the forty post-resurrection days he spent with them Jesus promised that they would ‘be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’; and as he leaves them he tells them again: ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’. Luke is preparing us for the entrance of another manifestation of God among humanity, for the next Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Today, the Feast of the Ascension, marks the end of Jesus’ time on earth. Next week, the Feast of Pentecost, marks the coming of the Spirit. It’s a bit like a relay race in which the baton is passed. Jesus has left the scene and the Holy Spirit has entered and Luke’s second book tells his readers about the Acts of the Apostles who have received the Holy Spirit, the way in which the followers of Jesus witnessed to him in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, and their astonishing discovery that the Holy Spirit baptised Gentiles as well as Jews. But this new focus doesn’t mean that Christ has been replaced by the Christian community that became the Church. The Church does not replace Christ; instead Christ is present with the community in a new way, through the Holy Spirit. It’s one of the mysteries and gifts of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are one. By ascending to the Father, Christ is able to relate to humanity beyond the limits in time and space. Jesus lived and died in one country, in one time, interacting with a small group of people. The Holy Spirit is accessible to all people, all the time. This is how we can be in relationship with Christ, despite living 2000 years after his birth on the other side of the world from his birthplace. We relate to God through the Holy Spirit, both the gift of God and God Godself, who is always with us.
Next week, at Pentecost, we’ll talk further about what that gift of the Holy Spirit means. Today I want to finish with two more reasons for affirming and celebrating the Ascension. The Incarnation of Jesus brought heaven to earth, when the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Ascension brings earth to heaven. Now that the one who ministered to us on earth is in heaven, we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1) and a giver of gifts (Ephesians 4:8). John Calvin wrote that the ascended Christ is our ‘constant advocate and intercessor’ who ‘prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne’.
The Ascension also reminds us again about who Jesus Christ truly is. Through the Ascension we see Jesus as equal with the Father, seated at the Father’s right hand, bearing authority over the whole world. And so we joyfully proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord, ruler of everything in our lives. We have no greater allegiance. St Columba’s sixth-century hymn rejoices in this:
Down in the realm of darkness
he lay a captive bound,
but at the hour appointed
he rose a victor crowned,
and now to heaven ascended,
he sits upon the throne
in glorious dominion,
his Father’s and his own.
The Ascension reminds us that all of us live in Christ’s ‘glorious dominion’. This is why we proclaim it in the creeds and celebrate it in our worship, despite the potential difficulties caused by pictures of feet disappearing into clouds.
So I now invite you all to stand and affirm what we believe about our three-personed God, Creator, Son and Spirit, in the Apostles’ Creed:
 Ronald Cole Turner, ‘Acts 11:1-11’ in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 2, p. 498.
 Quoted in John S. McClure, ‘The Ascension — a promise of great things to come’ Presbyterians Today
 TIS 192 “Christ is the world’s redeemer”.