Thursday of last week was Ascension Day…. and I make the same point every year that being on a Thursday usually means that it`s very easily overlooked… And this is a bit of a shame because this is one of the most significant moments in our Christian Calendar. But my own `conspiracy theory` for what it`s worth, is that subconsciously we rather like to keep it in this overlooked and down-played form basically because it`s far too controversial for us to handle.
You see the Ascension has all the hallmarks of a Coronation…
Speaking of it, St. Paul says:
“Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.9-11)
You see the Ascension looks us straight in the eye and tells us that Christian faith is political. That is, Christian faith is a response to what God has done in Christ; its consequence is seen in the re-shaping of human life according to the ways of God`s Kingdom.
To put it another way, the Good News, the Gospel is that this world is, as I`m always saying, now under new management. So as St. Matthew tells us in his account of the ascension… Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” But this is another of those sayings of Jesus we don`t often quote because it has an objectivity which is in many ways offensive to the so-called, modern ear. Surely, we think…. He didn`t quite mean it… did he?
It ranks alongside that other passage Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) It`s curious how we won`t live by it but it comes into its own at a funeral… we hope he means it then!
No, we have to wrestle with this but you see, Ascension reminds us that we can`t say, “Jesus is Lord” and then qualify it with, “But that`s just my opinion”.
Or to look at it another way essentially Ascension confronts us with the real significance of the Resurrection. For many of us, I suspect, Resurrection – the Easter celebration operates as a rather comforting indication that there might just be life after death…. In other words we think it`s something to do with US. But the Gospels teach us that resurrection is about Jesus…..It is in fact a vindication of who Jesus is and of all that he has done for the world…. as its true Lord and Saviour.
No, our problem (if I might put it that way) is that we have been duped for far too long into seeing ourselves as one among many examples of what we might call `religious` traditions. Essentially we`re bracketed in that group of philosophies which help people give expression to what we might call our natural religious impulses. So in this sense Jesus is seen as essentially one among many gurus or teachers whose task it has been to somehow show us `what we really knew already`….. Again we fall into the trap of thinking it`s all about US and what we might call `Our dealings with God`. But the Scriptures are far more interested in God`s dealings with us; and in what he is doing in his world… And this puts everything on a much bigger canvas…. It`s HE that`s at the centre of it all.
So, look for a moment at this morning`s Gospel reading. We`re told that Jesus “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24.45) Of course, `The Scriptures` in this context are what WE call the Old Testament. But the point that`s being made is that Jesus and his ministry are the fulfilment of everything God had promised to do throughout his long calling and engagement with the people of Israel….. as recorded in those scriptures. So, Jesus stands against this big picture. That`s why hear him saying, “See I am sending you what my Father promised” (Luke 24.49)…. That promise, of course, is the Holy Spirit.
And again when we hear these words against the Old Testament background we realise that he`s not talking about giving everyone a new or rather enthusiastic religious experience… he`s talking about the `creator` Spirit we hear about in the Book of Genesis. And it`s that same Spirit- recorded as I say, in Genesis which is now bringing about a new or RE-creation.
Next week, Pentecost Sunday we`ll focus again on what this receiving this Holy Spirit, this `breath` of God might mean. But at the heart of it is something about a restored humanity…. It`s about the Lord labouring within us and Re-shaping us for life in His Kingdom….. and Paul tells us that we`ll see the difference… He says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5.22-23) But none of this can be as true for us as it should be while ever we duck the matter of the Ascension……
In other words, while ever we persist in the illusion that faith is about God endorsing my view of the world we simply won`t `get it`. You see, because we don`t grasp this over-arching picture of the Christ before whom `every knee should bend….` we continue to see ourselves as the primary authority in what we call `our lives`.
Consequently, what we call evangelism resembles pleading with people to find room for faith in their lives…. A far cry from the announcement that as I say, `the world is under new management` and it`s time to get with the plot…. allow your life to be re-scripted`. It`s all there in those few words we heard in our Gospel this morning….. We`re told “They worship him.” And this isn`t the adulation of a few adoring fans……
Over the past few months we`ve made a few (I hope) helpful changes at our school. One of them is that we no longer talk of `School Assembly`. Now, I`ll pause for an intake breath for those who are anticipating something hideously politically correct!
No, instead of `Assembly` we now call it `worship time`….. And this has started to make a small but tangible difference; not least because it puts the emphasis not on US and our `assembling` together… but on the one who is the focus of our assembling… It`s quite a simple point really… but as a suggestion you might like to change your own manner of speech and instead of talking about `going to Church` try speaking of `going to worship`……. My hope is that you might notice the difference.
Because it`s the same kind of difference which marking the Ascension of Christ is meant to bring about in the hearts and lives of God`s people. In other words we begin to get things the right way round. We become a little less obsessed with OUR dealings with God…. and more open to HIS dealings with us.
You see Ascension saves us from a faith becoming so warped as to be little more than an opportunity to express or own needs and desires and instead it confronts us with the truth that `God is God`….. and God IS who he has uniquely revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ.
And this isn`t arrogance or intolerance as many would suggest…. It is as our Gospel points out… the heart of our witness. And it begins here, because as that same passage also tells us… that witness began with worship. “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24.52-53) When you get the worship right… when the worship comes first… when your vision of God is such that you cannot BUT worship…. Then witness; a true witness to God is inevitable…. You simply can`t help yourself…