A sermon for Ascension Day
May 13, 2013
This week has been a week of great joy for me, and for lots of us as we’ve basked in the spring sunshine after the longest winter on record. I’ve had a few days of in the White Peak with a German friend, who like me, is a lover of the great outdoors. We’ve watched ravens nesting, dippers diving and swallows returning. We’ve delighted in woods carpeted with anemones and hillsides strewn with cowslips. We’ve found snakes-head fritillaries, exotic and gorgeous, and eaten lemon drizzle cake while taking in a grandstand view of a greater spotted woodpecker. Now I call that joy.
And then it got even better, because next month marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination, and to celebrate I met with four clergy friends, also celebrating their ten years of ministry. Since our ordination we’ve met twice a year to pray and share and support each other. As our tenth anniversary treat we went to a Peak District Spa Hotel which boasts a hot tub with a fantastic view of meadows and hills. I don’t know why, but it’s somehow impossible to get into a tub of warm bubbling water without laughter bubbling up as well, so there we were, five middle aged women priests, laughing and basking together in warm bubbling glow of celebration at the joy of ministering in Christ’s church, at ten years of friendship and sharing. You just had to be there!
Recently I read an article by the TV writer Stephen Moffat. He said: “There’s much too much nostalgia around. We’re in a golden age of TV drama now, and we need to celebrate it now, and not look back at it nostalgically in years to come. If we’re going to be nostalgic, let’s be nostalgic for the present.”
Let’s be nostalgic for the present. There’s a deep spiritual wisdom in that. The Quakers talk about the sacrament of the present moment; the Christian mystics invite us to enter contemplatively into the nowness of God’s now. We live our lives in the flow of time, and there’s always planning and anticipating and clearing away and stacking the dishwasher, again. Yet in the midst of it all there’s the nowness of God’s now. And the joy of that. The joy that we are by grace caught up in the flow of God’s creation, the ongoing creativity by which new galaxies are exploding into being even as we sit here. The joy that the saving, healing, reconciling love of God of Christ is constantly drawing us like a tide, flooding over us, immersing us by baptism into his death and lifting us up with him into his risen life. The joy of the Spirit that energises us with gifts and insights and the synergy of relationships which occur within the koinonia, the communion of Christ’s people which is our place of belonging and becoming. This joy undergirds our Easter faith, our Pentecost faith. Christ on the cross has faced death and hell and stepped through it to the other side. In the nowness that is God’s present moment the possibility of joy is offered to us, and that joy, I want to suggest, is the keynote of Ascension Day.
Ascension Day finds its place, of course, in the continuum, the flow between the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Pentecost, between the raising of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and the pouring out of the Spirit on Jesus’s followers and companions. As we looked at the resurrection texts at St. Columba’s this year we noticed how the resurrection brings with it a sense of confusion, disorientation, of fear even. It’s hard for the disciples to follow what is going on when Jesus is risen, let alone to make sense of its significance.
Yes, of course Jesus had told his friends that that Son of Man must suffer and be raised on the third day. And yet. We can prepare ourselves intellectually for momentous life events, but that only takes us so far. No amount of ante-natal classes can adequately prepare us for the heart stopping moment when we first hold the baby. No matter how much we mentally prepare ourselves for the reality that one day Mum or Dad will die, the lived reality is a different matter. Getting to grips with a risen Jesus, as opposed to a human Jesus, takes the disciples some time. Insight comes gradually and patchily.
Yet insight does come. Our Ascension Day gospel tells us how Jesus himself enables his disciples to interpret their experience, how to relate it to their scriptures and to what they’ve already picked up from Jesus about God’s coming kingdom. Luke tells us that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” The parting gift of Jesus here is the gift of clarity, of intellectual and spiritual insight into the momentous events that he and the disciples have shared in. And there is a joy in that, the joy of coming to the truth, of the understanding of the heart. In George Herbert’s great poem, “Prayer” he speaks of prayer as “The milky way, the bird of paradise, the land of spices, something understood.” The something understood of prayer is the clarity of spiritual insight, the work of the Holy Spirit who, we are told in John’s Gospel, will lead us into all truth. The risen Jesus is taken from the view of the disciples, but the experience is not one of absence or loss, but rather an experience of something understood. Finally, they get it. Now the kaleidoscope of God’s loving purposes settles into a clear image. The universe becomes purposeful, and meaningful and coherent. “And the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
With Christ’s ascension the disciples can look back at the past with the clarity of understanding, and they can look forward to the future with anticipation, waiting for the promised Spirit. Yet just for the present moment there is the great joy of being in the now of God’s present. And that is where we are too, right here, right now.
How curious it is that Christianity should have become a gloomy and joyless religion. We guilt-ridden Catholics and over-anxious Protestants have let our own hang ups obscure the reality of the glorious freedom of the children of God, the reality in which we dwell. “He who kisses a joy as it flies” writes William Blake, “lives in eternity’s sunrise.” And eternity’s sunrise is surely where Christ is calling you and me and all creation to be.
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes or your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
(Ephesians 1: 17 – 19)
Frances Eccleston, May 2013