THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
28th MAY 2017
Rev Tony van Vuuren
We can’t read the Bible as if it’s a collection of news reports: it’s a different kind of knowledge which is being communicated. Jesus’ Ascension, which we commemorate today, is one of the many events in the Bible where – behind the images and the metaphors – we do find the truth about the work and the activity that God has carried out for our sake and for our salvation.
Whatever the image, we run the risk of looking on the Feast of the Ascension with our eyes raised to the sky. This is exactly the opposite of what we should do. It is a feast that invites us to look to earth, to people among whom we are called to witness to and make present the work of our Lord.
The readings today are a poetic way of saying that Jesus is no longer on earth in a fleshly, physical and material way. The words of scripture mean that Christ’s ascension and withdrawal brings about a new mode by which Christ can be present to us, intimate, yet universal and ‘interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.’He is actually with us more strongly, more powerfully, than when he walked the roads and streets of Palestine.
He is with us in his gift to us of the Holy Spirit. Always inside us as an invitation that fully respects our freedom, never overpowers us; but also never goes away. He acts on us in all the down-to-earth ways that the Spirit influences us. So we don’t have to go looking for him on the clouds or in the sky. We find him in our reading, hearing and understanding of the scriptures, which speak of him. We find him in our celebration of the sacraments. Each of the seven sacraments is a sign of his presence and action upon us here and now.
This is especially true of the Eucharist, which is specifically the sign and presence of his now glorified and spiritualized body. We find him in our practical love for our neighbour, and especially for our caring for fellow human beings who are disadvantaged in any way, and those who are sad, sorrowing, afraid or despairing.
But if Jesus is no longer visible in the old familiar ways, how will people come to know of his presence? The answer is that he is present through us. On this Feast of the Ascension we are reminded in Matthew’s Gospel of the great commission he gave us; his followers; before he went home to God. This is to go and tell everyone everywhere the good news that Jesus is alive and is our Saviour – making disciples of all nations.
The end of Jesus’ ministry on earth is the beginning of our ministry, as the community of believers, the Church. He says to his followers in every century ‘You are my witnesses’, and that in order to witness to my Father ‘you will be clothed with the power from on high’, the power of the Holy Spirit.
That then is our task: to be witnesses. There are two aspects to the role of witness 1) to actually experience the subject in question and 2) to tell others about it. Obviously one comes before the other. One can’t give witness to something that you have not experienced. Some of us here might feel that our experience of God has been inadequate up to now and therefore we don’t think that we have anything to communicate to others.
We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves. If we are sitting in Church today it is surely because most of us already have some experience of God. It is surely because we already hope and trust in him and because we know that it is in celebrating his Eucharist that we can come closest to him. Most of us came to this mass quite freely and must therefore have a good reason to want to spend time with him in service and prayer. If that’s not experience of God, then what is?
It is this that the people in the world around us want to know about. They thirst for meaning and purpose; all too often they find themselves filling up the empty holes in their lives with material possessions, and all kinds of inappropriate things.
They want to hear from us. Or maybe, they don’t want to hear from us but want to observe people who do find their lives fulfilling and who have direction and moral purpose. They want to look at us from afar and only later, when they become convinced that what we are doing is right, come to know us better. In ascending to heaven, Jesus has not left us. He has merely disappeared from our sight. This is similar to the Eucharist. So long as the host is outside us, we see it and we adore it.
When we receive the host we no longer see it. It has disappeared from sight, but it has disappeared so that Jesus can be within us, and be present to us in a new way, and an even more powerful way than when he walked our earth in the flesh. So, like the first disciples, we are not sad that Jesus has disappeared from sight but happy, happy because he is still with us through the Spirit.
So did it happen exactly as the Acts reading describes it? Jesus being lifted to heaven on a cloud? Why not? Nothing is impossible with God. In the end though, the imagery matters less than the lessons of the Ascension: Jesus is with the Father. Jesus is always present to us through the Spirit. The two men in white robes assure us that Jesus will return. Meanwhile we have to stop staring up at the sky and get busy being the witnesses Jesus has asked us to be!