May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
It gives me much pleasure to have this opportunity to preach to you this evening here at St Mary’s.
An evening that is of great significance in our Christian calendar as it is the evening of Ascension Day. The Ascension marks the culmination of the earthly existence of Jesus as he is swept up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God and be glorified. Preceding this great event was the commissioning of the disciples and here I take my text from the Gospel of Mark. ‘Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation’.
Reading through other references to the Ascension in the New Testament, whilst we can find it in the Gospels of Luke and John and the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is no reference to it in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s finishing point is the commissioning of the disciples on the mountain of Galilee. Perhaps this is because it has coincided with the Resurrection. Luke tells us that Jesus leads the disciples to Bethany, then lifts up his hands and blesses them ‘withdraws and is carried up to heaven’. This blessing, according to the Jerome Biblical Commentary, is the only mention in the Gospels of Jesus blessing people. The only mention, but not so in art. By the 9th century, in the domes of churches we can find Christ making a blessing gesture with his right hand.
In John chapter 20 we have the powerful scene in which Mary Magdalene, having wept by the empty tomb where Jesus was laid, sees Jesus and tries to hold on to him. Jesus replies: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father to my God and your God. Here we find the universal application of the Ascension; it is there for all of us. Finally, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that the disciples will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Jesus was then ‘lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’. Two men then appear to the disciples in white robes telling them that Jesus will come back the same way. We can take this to mean that the Ascension will eventually be followed by Jesus coming again in glory. As the Nicene Creed gives it to us: ‘he shall come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end’.
The New Testament, then, is telling us of the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus and his ascension to heaven. Looking at these texts, though, I would say that it is a bit of a bumpy ride in terms of some uncertainties. Let us have a look at these uncertainties. First, there is a question mark over the Ascension narrative in the Gospel of Mark. If some of the most ancient authorities are right, then Mark ends at verse 8 of chapter 16 which would omit his Ascension narrative of verse 19. It is not certain but I think it is probable that verses 19 and 20 can be included because verse 20 contains the words ‘good news’ which is the expression used by Mark at the outset of his Gospel. His opening sentence reads: ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. These words ‘good news’ are I believe the defining words of Mark’s Gospel.
The ride gets bumpier when we look at the writings of the third century philosopher, Origen, who concluded that the Ascension was an ascension of the mind not body. Following the questioning posed by philosophy, if we look at today’s world, with its developments in science and cosmology, they do not sit easily with the concept of a physical heaven. In his book ‘Meeting God in Mark’ Rowan Williams responds that there is no evidence from heaven that God exists, but God changes things from the heart of the world, not by intervention from the sky. He does not need a banner in the sky to proclaim his existence.
The debates will no doubt continue but what stands out in my mind when reflecting upon the Ascension, is the cloud. The cloud that, according to Acts, lifted Jesus up and took him out of sight. This text would not make sense if it were an ascension of the mind rather than the body. The cloud features in depictions of the Ascension in art and the cloud of incense in our worship demonstrates that God is present but cannot be seen by us in our earthly life. As St Paul puts it, we cannot yet see God face to face, only in the mirror darkly. The Old Testament also gives us the cloud. In Exodus, God leads Moses and the Israelites in ‘a pillar of cloud by day’ to guide them on their way. The cloud means that which is above us, present, but we are to rely upon faith in God not the bodily presence of God.
When we look up at the clouds, climb mountains and send rockets into space, I believe that we are affirming that ascension is life affirming, exciting and joyous. In a ninth century manuscript, known as the Drogo Sacramentary, we see Jesus on his last step to the top of a mountain and God holding out his hand to lift him up. With this joy in mind, let me finish with the joy of the Psalmist who wrote in Psalm 47 that ‘God has gone up with a shout’.