The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      29th May 2022
Empowered by the Ascension
Jeremy Fletcher

Ascension Day was last Thursday. It’s a profound Christian festival: I was interested to read that depictions of the Ascension appear in Christian art a century or two before depictions of the Crucifixion. The importance of the Ascension is marked by many countries having public holidays on that day: I was emailed by a congregation member now in France who was enjoying just that on Thursday. Here you do get an Ascension Day service on Radio 4 in the evening, at least, but no holiday. In as far as a nice church like the Church of England can do this, we do say you are meant to come to church on Ascension Day, but most people don’t, so we have a Sunday after the Ascension to reflect some more. You can’t escape! 

The Church of England, in common with many denominations, is good at commemorating things – saying what used to happen, or what happened once, and reminding people about it. Graham spoke movingly on Thursday about the small domed building on the Mount of Olives, built around what are said to be the footprints Jesus left when he went up into heaven. That’s a kind of commemoration and reminder, and the event is depicted in all sorts of ways in art, glass and stone in our churches. Some of the art portrays the amazement and possible sadness and devastation of those left behind. Jesus had been with the disciples in a miraculous way for over a month – 40 days. And then…he’s gone. At the end of all this there is nothing left, nothing to show for it. 

How would you feel? For forty days they have had the promise of the presence of Christ, in his risen form. They have spoken with him, eaten with him, been challenged and enthused by him. The event on the Mount of Olives leaves them in no doubt that this is not one of his amazing disappearances and appearances. This is final. They are clear that he has gone to be with his Father, as he said he would to Mary Magdalene on the day of his resurrection. For them this is symbolised by the direction of his leaving them – up rather than down – and by the cloud, a sign of the presence of God. He has gone not to come back.

But the scriptures say that are not forlorn or fearful. We might ask why they are not even more bereft than after Jesus’s death? He has now left them for good. I think it is because they know what is in store for them. Jesus has spent his time with them promising that his resurrection is for ever, that it is eternal and universal, that it cannot be undone. He has promised them that the power at work in him, and only fleetingly and unpredictably available to humanity before Christ came – the Holy Spirit – will be released to everybody who opens themselves to Christ by faith. Wait, he says, and you will receive. And his words before his death become a little more accessible. They have overheard his prayer recorded in John 17. They know, now, that what he prayed will come true. They can’t wait.

What there is to show for the Ascension is not just a commemoration, or some kind of holy ‘blue plaque’ noting an event long in the past, even if the footprints at the Mount of Olives are rather holy in their way. What there is to show is you and me, is this place, is God’s church, is God at work in open and hidden ways in the world all around us. The Ascension does not mark the abdication of God from human life, the end of Christ giving it his best shot and going home to Dad. The Ascension marks the next stage in God’s dwelling with humanity and humanity’s dwelling with God – of God in us and us in God. Christ, confined to one place in his life on earth after the resurrection, is now unlimited, present everywhere, for all of us. It’s not Jesus going. It’s us arriving. 

What is promised to us then, by the Ascension? Not only the presence of Christ in us, by the Spirit he promised, but also our presence with God, at his right hand, in Christ Jesus. Christ has gone to be with his father in the body of our resurrected humanity, carrying the wounds of his death and passion. Christ has not left us. He has taken us with him to the presence of God: we are at home, and await the time when that is fully revealed. In the words of Colossians, our life is safely secured in Christ – ‘hidden’ in him. We are where he is. 

I was thinking of this doctrine, our presence in heaven already because Christ is there, when I heard of a speech that President Nixon never gave in 1969, during the moon landings. He’d had a speech prepared in the event that the mission failed, and the astronauts were left stranded on the moon.   At the end of the speech he would have said this: 

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

There is a corner of heaven that is forever humanity, redeemed, restored, forgiven, healed and born anew in Christ. 

What is there to show for the Ascension? The earthly body of Christ: the church awaiting the revelation of glory and glimpsing heaven on earth. And the resurrection body of Christ at God’s right hand, and of us with him, in his redeemed humanity. 

That body of Christ on earth is also empowered, enlivened, filled, by God’s Spirit. Wait, says Jesus, and you will be filled. And so they do, and so, sort of, do we. Of course the Spirit is with us and in us. But we celebrate that filling again at Pentecost, next week. Wear red! Christ ascends so that we can all know him through the Spirit in us? What will the Spirit empower you to do? 
May we on earth be a people, a church, a body expectant that the fullness of all this will be revealed, and here and now worshipping the risen and glorified Lord, now, and until the Kingdom comes. Amen.

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