Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-end
On Sunday Gary spoke about prayer being like a pause, that moment when everything is suddenly still, as if holding its breath. I want to suggest that the ascension is this sort of pause – a kind of still point between the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Some words from the bible that help me understand the Ascension are Paul writing to the Ephesians and wanting them to know, ‘The immeasurable greatness of his power at work in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places’. And Jesus saying to his disciples as the time of his death drew near, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you that you may be where I am’. So, in this pause that is the Ascension there is something about Jesus getting us a place in the heavenly realms, in the presence of God himself. The picture he gives is of a house with many rooms, one of them being prepared for us. Then there is something about the power that gets us there, the power that raised Christ from the dead, a power with its roots in the cross. For Luke those disciples who witnessed these things now have to let others know – witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Next year the diocese of Vaxjo in Sweden with which we are twinned celebrates the anniversary of its founding 850 years ago. One Sunday I told the story of St Sigfrid setting out from England to Sweden with some companions, preaching the gospel and building what was reckoned to be the first church there. Our link committee is considering ways of marking this special anniversary. One of the more what I thought was fun ideas was chartering a boat and sailing from here to Gothenburg, recreating in some way the journey taken by those forbears in the faith. One of our nephews is an experienced sailor who has crewed private chartered boats in other parts of the world so I emailed him for advice. It would be an amazing trip, he said, taking at least 5 days, depending on the weather, which could be rough, and the time of year. In view of the length of the voyage we’d probably want to rest up in a harbour on one or two nights on the way. We would need a crew, including a cook and deck hands, and so on. In other words it would not be like doing a day trip from Dover to Calais. I was already picturing heaving seas, mounting costs, acute sea sickness and so on. Yet in the 11th century and for many centuries before that, if the history of Christianity is anything to go by, groups of monks like Sigfrid and his friends made these sea journeys without satellite navigation, on board kitchen or travel insurance because like those disciples we read about this evening, they were responding to Christ’s sending them out as witnesses, not just in York or Winchester (some confusion as to where Sigfrid came from), but to the ends of the earth. So they went. They went as witnesses.
And we know that Peter, John, Thomas, all of them went. Something happened after the resurrection that meant they didn’t think about heaving seas (Paul on his missionary journeys) or robber infested roads (Philip). They went.
For Luke the key to what happened starts with the Ascension. Someone once said to me that writers are artists. I find that helpful when considering Luke’s narrative. He is attempting to put into words something that is beyond words – a mystery – and he does it by using visual shorthand to describe this pause, this turning point, this transition– the resurrection appearances coming to an end and that wondering looking up and then that explosive going out as witnesses that happens soon after.
Luke uses words that tap into moments of revelation in the Hebrew scriptures (all of them vivid pictures) – We Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place, the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; the reference to a cloud, the way that the disciples are on a hill (Mount Olivet)…
When the disciples are on a hill or mountain they are in a place of revelation, a holy place eg Moses, Elijah, a place of conversion, of commissioning. The cloud is shorthand for God’s presence, his glory, too intense by far for us to see in all its fullness.
Jesus has been with them for 40 days before this – bible shorthand for a period of formation. He’s been preparing them.
I think I felt mildly surprised that as Jesus disappeared (in our gospel account) the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. He’s left them. Isn’t joy a strange reaction to this? I thought. But what the joy of the disciples implies is that if Jesus is covered with the cloud of God’s glorious presence and swept up to be at his right hand, then far from being left behind they are caught up with him. Christ has assumed our humanity. He doesn’t leave it behind when he is covered by the cloud, so nor are we left behind. To use the language of John’s gospel we can now be where he (Christ) is, right now, sitting at the table with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is nothing we have done, are doing or will do that will get our name removed from the guest list. To quote Rowan Williams – ‘Our humanity in all it variety, 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 into the burning heart of reality itself’.
Isn’t this what lies at the heart of the repentance and forgiveness of sins that the disciples are to proclaim in their witness? Peter, John and all the others found themselves at home with God in a totally new way as they were caught up with Christ in his Ascension. That same power that had been at work in him was now at work in them. Of course they were joyful. Secure in their being at home with God, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, abiding in him, resting in his presence, Sigfrid and his companions and countless others set out as witnesses to this reality. What about us? Christ’s words are for us too – ‘You shall be my witnesses…’ What might that mean for us?