We’ve heard this morning in our reading from Acts the story of Christ’s ascension and it’s very easy I think to underestimate the impact that this departure must have had on the disciples and so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on.
The desolation of Good Friday was replaced by joy and wonder on the third day but here we are forty days later and suddenly Christ has departed from the disciples again. They surely expected him to stick around, didn’t they? Now that he’s gone where does that leave them as they head for home? The scripture tells us that they returned to Jerusalem in great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God but what does the future hold? I imagine that it must, at least at some level, have been another bitter blow.
We pair the reading from Acts in the lectionary with Jesus’ prayer of protection from John’s Gospel. In retrospect it fits well, Jesus anticipating his departure and praying to the father for the disciples after his ascension, but it was only with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that the disciples were able to look ahead and embrace the mission God intended for them. This period after the ascension was likely one of great uncertainty then. We can see though that the disciples have learnt something from their previous experience. They stay together and they pray.
It’s worth noting the priority that is given to unity in the prayer of protection. Jesus says “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one”. These words indicate to us that unity bears witness to God’s very nature. Many of us find it very comfortable that we are divided from some other Christians groups with whom we disagree. We might also find the Anglican communion’s efforts to keep together people with profoundly different views tortuous. Certainly, in the world’s eyes, many have come to think that disagreements define the church as much as anything else but if we find the path of separation attractive then this passage provides pause for thought. If unity bears witness to God, then surely, we must be very reticent about embracing division.
Whilst different Christians are capable of taking diametrically opposite views on a topic it is often notable that those on both sides will select from scripture to justify their positions. As we anticipate the coming of the spirit at Pentecost we might recognise the importance of the spirit in our reading of scripture. A legalistic approach to scripture is one to be wary of I think, wherever it comes from. Far better to focus on the spirit of the law that on its letter otherwise we risk selecting from it only what we find reflects our biases. This is contentious and I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that you should necessarily agree with me. We know that people hold genuine religious convictions in different directions and whilst some historical divisions in the church are now healed, it’s no longer contentious for example that slavery is not part of God’s plan for the world, there’s still division over issues like female leadership or sexuality. For many of us change is painfully slow but in one of last year’s Reith lectures, Rowan Williams very helpfully reflected on the importance of religious freedom. Those with religious sensibilities he argued bring qualities of seriousness, imaginative and courage to society. They help us not to overlook the importance of human imagination and to appreciate that we have responsibility in this life to more than naked power. They have a sense of irony that puts power in context and hope that the ways things happen today are not set in stone for eternity. Religious freedoms are the foundations of political freedom he argued and since moral questions are not reducible to majority opinion, we should be careful to protect those of conviction if we are to genuinely grapple with the issues of our day. Right and wrong is not always black and white and questions of tolerance are particularly challenging. The issues of our day and how we should respond as Christians may leave us confused. Like those disciples after the ascension, it might feel that Christ is not with us.
As we look to identify the lessons that the ascension might hold, we recognise that it has often left congregations puzzled. John Robinson began his theological bombshell, Honest to God, published in the 1960s by asserting the impossibility of taking the ascension account literally. There was nothing new about that though. Many scholars over the ages have recognised the difficulty of interpreting the story in a purely literal manner. The language of heaven and earth was actually employed in antiquity in a sophisticated theological way, to denote the parallel and interlocking universes inhabited by the creator God on the one hand and humans on the other. I found it fascinating when visiting the Holy Land to discover that whilst modern pilgrims remember the ascension at a small shrine that has a stone with footprints on it within, the original site was a cave where Jesus was believed to have taught his disciples. I don’t know how those early pilgrims responded but it appears that they may have been rather more comfortable with metaphor than we are often today.
The idea of the ascension is actually tied up with biblical cosmology. The book of Genesis describes the separation of the waters. When our semitic ancestors looked up into the sky they thought the blue that they saw there was the waters above that had been separated from those below. It was beyond those upper waters that the heavenly realms were believed to be found.
Perhaps it’s helpful to our modern minds to focus not on Christ taken up from the surface of earth but rather on Christ taken from it. As Oliver O’Donovan notes, the ascension is a material event which involves the material body of Jesus; it leaves the time bound order to enter the immediate presence of the Creator. The transition from the earth to Heaven is more than a reversal of the incarnation, at which time God ‘came down’ to earth as we put it. It is an elevation of a physical body bound in time and space to an order that is greater and beyond. All we can say is that the transition occurred and that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God. We cannot see or understand the path, the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountaintop is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below, but we know that the path has been taken and that we too will take it one day.
We may feel that we live our lives waiting in confusion, like the disciples after the ascension. If so, it is helpful to stick together and pray. As the spirit was poured on the disciples at Pentecost so it has been poured on us at our baptism. That spirit invites us to a fullness of life in this world whilst at the same time assuring us that we are not of it and that one day we will come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Thanks be to God.