My sermon on Sunday was interrupted by a young macaw called Tango, stuck in our garden during lockdown (usually to be found in Chris Smith’s props box. Thank you, Chris!)
Hello. The Lord be with you. I want to talk about the ascension this morning. (Tango arrives, scattering nesting material everywhere. What follows is my side of the conversation))
Oops, sorry about that.
Tango! What’s all this about?! You’ll have to speak in English. I don’t understand Spanish. What emergency? You’ve run out of sunflower seeds? What kind of emergency is that when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?!
You’ll just have to wait till I’ve finished my sermon. No, it won’t be too long.
This is Tango. She’s a young, rather rare orange macaw from Latin America and of course not able to get back there at present so she’s in lockdown with us.
You’re being watched by about 50 people, Tango.
Some of us haven’t had a haircut for 2 months. You’re not looking very tidy, yourself.
I don’t need to know who is picking their nose!
You need to go back in the garden until I’ve finished my sermon. No, I won’t tell them about the bedroom floor incident and who stepped in it. Nor about the Easter eggs, though really by now I’d have thought you’d know what would happen if you sit on chocolate eggs when you feel broody. (Tango disappears)
So, back to the Ascension. Perhaps Tango’s interruption was helpful. Tango can only fly in a very confined space during lockdown. Once we’re through this, though she’ll be able to fly high and free. She’ll be able to fly home. That’s rather like the disciples after the resurrection. They were still earth bound. Delighted but also puzzled in seeing Jesus risen, continuing meeting together, in some cases fishing together, and often a little fearful about their own futures. Some of them had begun to move back to their own villages and away from Jerusalem. Back to their old way of life. They were in a kind of lockdown. Then the ascension happens.
Luke describes Jesus’ ascension twice – at the end of his gospel, and as here today, at the beginning of Acts. It’s his means of preparing his readers (us) for Pentecost. Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, has sometimes been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Ascension lays the ground for the extraordinary events of Pentecost. It helps explain all that follows afterwards in the book of Acts.
The account of the Ascension has some similarities with the description in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah being swept up to heaven, leaving a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha. After the Ascension Jesus’ appearances stopped. His followers no longer saw his resurrection body. But it’s clear at Pentecost that they received more than a portion of his spirit and were then able to do some of the things he had done. There was a spectacular outpouring of his spirit. More of that next week.
However, something even more profound took place at the Ascension which isn’t captured in traditional paintings of the event, but which John in his gospel, and in the passage today tries to convey using the language of glory. After the Ascension something changed inside Jesus’ followers which burst out at Pentecost. Strangely, they felt closer to him than before. It was as though they were inside him, or was it that he was inside them? To use John’s language, they were at one with him. If that was the case, then they were at one with God the Father too because as Jesus says many times in John’s gospel, he and the Father are one. Jesus’ glory is to do with his perfectly expressing what God is like and his disciples were those who, however imperfectly, had recognized that glory. So, here’s the thing; if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then so too had his followers. They were now at home with God in a new way. If Jesus had flown home, then so had they. They had entered fully into their true human identity, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection – their identity as sons and daughters of the living God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. They, we, are still creatures of earth, yet we have this hidden, heavenly identity as well.
Once lockdown is over Tango will be able to fly back home. I’m just hoping she remembers how to fly! All she’s done here is flutter. I think we may be a bit like that sometimes. We were given wings at our baptism, but we may not use them much or at all. We limit our flying to the occasional nervous flutter! As we look ahead to Pentecost let’s ask that we might enter more deeply into that identity we now share with Christ as a beloved son or daughter of God. He is us and we in him. Let’s fly!
Now, I’d better find those sunflower seeds for Tango.