A few years ago some friends of ours moved home. They went from one end of the country to the other and because of the long distance the removal firm got to their new house, unloaded and left before they themselves had arrived. The couple opened the front door of their new home, looked around at the mass of furniture, packing cases and the like- most of which would have to be moved to other rooms – ad they looked at one another and in the face of the enormity of it all decided to just go for walk.
That`s a quite understandable reaction when presented with one of those situations where you just don`t know where to start; a totally new and unfamiliar landscape where you`re in need of perspective, a moment to stand back so as to work out where to begin.
Now, last Thursday was Ascension Day and you`ll know what a stickler I am for listening to what the Christian Calendar is telling us so I want to use that picture of that couple as a way of helping us understand why this is such an important time of year for Christians.
The points I want to make are firstly that in the Ascension the disciples were also presented with something rather unsettling. Like moving home all the familiar landmarks had gone and they were presented a Vision of Jesus that was far bigger than they had ever anticipated. And secondly so that they could begin to come to terms with the scale of the mission Jesus was giving them- (“you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” no less!)- Jesus tells them to stay in the city (the equivalent of going for a walk to clear your head); and to wait until he would send them the Spirit.
I think it`s these two features of the Ascension which for me, make it a great shame that it`s a festival which many easily overlook…. we can all too easily move directly from Easter to Pentecost… but seriously when we do, we leave ourselves open to some little distortions of the faith. At least they`re little to begin with but like a piece of grit in the shoe they make their presence felt. What usually happens is that on the one hand we diminish Christ and on the other we totally misunderstand the mission to which he calls us. Let me explain what I mean.
The first thing I suggested was that at the Ascension the disciples had their vision of Jesus enlarged. I`d like us for a moment to consider the astonishment they experienced, the giddy disorientation they went through. The Ascension was like opening the front door of a new home and simply not knowing where anything is anymore. The almost comic thing is to realise that the disciples are still anticipating that Jesus` primary goal will be, as they put it `to restore the Kingdom to Israel`. They thought they were back in their old house.
Essentially they were viewing things through nationalistic spectacles. They continued to believe that Jesus was really all about dealing with their earthly enemies and concerns. Again they were dreaming of living in their old house where Jesus is basically the equivalent of the decorator who has come to refurbish things. But Jesus will have none of it and St. Paul described this change of perspective they experienced in one of his letters to the Corinthians. He says: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way”. (2 Corinthians 5.16)
No, there was far more going on. Jesus`s significance is not so much national as cosmic. It`s the Ascension which sets this before us. This time of the year insists that we learn to speak of the `Risen and Ascended` Lord so that we learn never to domesticate him; it prevents us from co-opting him in the service of our agenda and our view of the world. Putting it bluntly the Ascension teaches us that Christian faith is not, as someone has said, about “finding a place for God in our story but to receive the Good News that God has found a place for us in His”. (Michael Horton)
Now, the second thing is this matter of Mission. Jesus tells the disciples they will be “his witnesses”- “to the ends of the earth”. And they are told to wait there in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on High….to await the strength and guidance of the Spirit. It`s curious isn`t it that when confronted with something as daunting as sorting out a new home we`ll take a moment to stand back and think about where to start but when it comes to being faithful in Christ`s mission we think we can just get on with it willy-nilly? But this is where Christ insisting that they wait there in the Temple becomes so important. This feature of the Ascension story is about more than gaining perspective it`s about receiving power. It`s a moment which reminds us that the prime mover in his mission is Christ himself… and I know it sounds obvious, whenever we forget this the outcome is always rather different from what Christ intends.
So he tells us that we shall be his witnesses. But let`s get this straight. What we call `the Gospel`, the Good News is `proclamation`. It`s simply announcing that to coin the phrase “God Rules OK”. God has acted in Christ in the life, death and resurrection of Christ to put the world to rights. The word Gospel derives from the practice of a Herald going about the Roman Empire announcing that a new Emperor was in place. It wasn`t, “If you`re interested in having an Emperor then you might like to choose Nero…” It was “Nero is Lord” full stop. And the first Christian proclamation (rather controversially we have to say) was “Jesus is Lord”.
Now, compare that with how easily we turn that `proclamation` into `persuasion`. How easily our working assumption is that we`re in the business of saying to people, “If you`re thinking of being religious you might like to choose Jesus” or worse still, “Please join our club”… In other words, rather than announcing what has objectively happened and calling people to acknowledge this we twist things ever so slightly. We deploy the techniques of the market; means and methods we know about and which we can control.
We spend endless amounts of time and money devising and implementing these strategies until the world thinks (and frankly it`s fed up of us doing this!) that our primary business is `selling religion`. Until the whole faith `thing` becomes distorted; a rather pathetic marketplace catering for religious consumers… what suits me; what fits I with me and so on and so on. Misunderstanding or omitting this point about waiting on God, his strength and initiative means we don`t listen. WE turn proclamation into persuasion…. We think “Oh, yes, we can do that”, and as I say, the means we use ends up distorting the message altogether.
But the Ascension speaks of a group of people who have caught the vision of God …. in Christ. God, certainly not God as they understood him to be…. And they were dumbfounded. And they are told to wait; in worship (they`re daily in the temple) until they are clothed with power from on high; until they`re given the strength not to persuade but to witness, to proclaim, just to tell of what God has done in Christ. This is the altogether different story; not a `sales pitch` but God`s story in which we are called to play a part. Ascension Day may be easily over-looked or somewhat down-graded by some but when we do we miss out on two fundamental things which serve to shape our Christian life and witness. Neglect of these things leaves our common life and witness both limp and ineffectual.
Firstly, the Ascension calls to a constant state of surprise, being overwhelmed by the Vision God. Like those disciples we need to be continually reminded of how easy it is to diminish him; to enrol him in OUR service rather than the other way around. And secondly, if we aren`t going to perpetuate the absurdity of religious consumerism; religion tailored to my needs, preferences, choices and foibles we need to take to heart the truth that the Gospel is proclamation not persuasion; announcement before recruitment.