Diocese of Hong Kong IslandDiocese of Hong Kong Island   Hong Kong Sheng Kung HuiHong Kong Sheng Kung Hui   St. John's Cathedral, Hong KongSt. John's Cathedral, Hong Kong



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Ascension Sermon 2018
Preacher: The Revd Will Newman

Ascension Sermon 2018

Last Thursday the church celebrated Ascension Day, when we remember Jesus, 40 days from Easter, returning to be with the Father in heaven.

St Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who tells the story. The Ascension is not included in the gospels of Matthew, Mark or John.

So what happened on that Ascension Day? Luke tells the story twice, once in the gospel I just read, and again at the end of the Acts of the Apostles – which was also written by Luke. In the gospel, Luke says ‘While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.’ In Acts, Luke says ‘As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’

St John’s Cathedral in Central has a splendid picture of the Ascension in stained glass. Unfortunately it’s covered up at the moment by scaffolding and repairs, but when you can see it, this is what you see. There are the disciples all gathered round and looking up at Jesus, who is up above them in mid-air. There’s a church somewhere in England with a similar scene in stained glass, where all you can see of Jesus is his feet sticking out from the bottom of a cloud.

Maybe Luke thought that’s what actually happened. And it makes sense if we think of the earth as the home of humans, and the sky as the home of God. That may be how people thought 2000 years ago. The sky, with its wind and clouds and thunder and lightning, was, to ancient people, the realm of the gods. It’s in the bible: when there was thunder, people thought God was speaking; and they thought that clouds could be a sign of God’s presence: for example in the Exodus, Moses meets God in a cloud on top of a mountain; and for wind, in 10 days’ time when we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we read about the mighty rushing wind of the Holy Spirit. For ancient people the sky was beyond reach, and thunder, cloud and wind beyond their understanding or control; this must be the realm of God. So if Jesus is to return from earth to the Father, obviously he must go up into the heavens, taken up in a cloud. St Paul, in the Letter to the Ephesians, says that God has put everything under Jesus’ feet.

I think it was Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man in space, who said ‘I looked out of the window but I didn’t see God.’

To which we would reply ‘Well of course he didn’t see God. God isn’t like that, and he isn’t up there.’ When we fly in an aeroplane and go up through the clouds, we don’t look out of the window and wonder if this cloud is the one God or Jesus is on.

But if in the universe we know God isn’t up there, then why does Jesus need to ascend? Do we really think, do you really think that Jesus floated up into the sky, as he does in that stained glass window?

If that image doesn’t work for us, then the story Luke tells needs rethinking for our own time. Then the question to ask is not ‘Did it happen just like it says?’ The question is, ‘What does it mean?’ What lies behind the story? What is beneath the surface?

The Ascension follows and is closely linked with the Resurrection; the Ascension reinforces the message of the Resurrection, that Jesus is risen. The Resurrection and the Ascension both tell us that Jesus is not pinned down by death; Jesus is not constrained by the physical world. Because (as St John puts it), Jesus is one with God the Father. And God is beyond death.

So when we say in the Collect for Ascension Day, ‘We believe… Jesus to have ascended into the heavens’, what we mean is that we believe that Jesus is with God. And we pray that we may also be with God.

In the story of the Ascension, while the disciples are looking up into heaven at the disappearing Jesus, suddenly two men in white – men or angels? – are standing by them. They say to the disciples, ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ There’s a parallel here with Luke’s story of the Resurrection, when the women go to the tomb on that first Easter morning and find it empty. ‘Suddenly,’ says Luke, ‘two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them… and said ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen.’

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?

It’s as if the disciples are always one step behind. Like generals who try to fight the previous war, although weapons and tactics have moved on. The disciples keep looking for Jesus where they last saw him, but Jesus has moved on.

We don’t need to look for him in the tomb. He isn’t there. Tombs are for dead people. Jesus is alive! We don’t need to look for him in the sky, in heaven, like Yuri Gagarin. He isn’t there. The men in white, or angels, say to the disciples, ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ You’re looking in the wrong place.

If you want to see Jesus, don’t look up. Look around. Look at each other, look at the people around you. Jesus comes into our world again every minute, because we are called to see the face of Christ in the face of each other. In our Eucharistic Prayer we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ I often want to change one word: not Christ will come again, but Christ has come again. Christ is come again. Christ is not up there in heaven, checking his watch to see if it’s time to come down again. He’s not waiting up there until we make such a complete and terrible mess of things that he has no choice but to come down and put everything right. Christ is here, among us. If we will only recognise him. And give him a home on earth. That home is in us.

Right at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke’s gospel, we are told that Jesus was full of the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit that Jesus promises to the disciples a few moments before the Ascension, the Holy Spirit that comes at Pentecost and empowers the disciples to proclaim the Good News, is the same Spirit that has already been at work in Jesus. The Ascension, like the Resurrection, is God’s continuing affirmation of Jesus; and the Holy Spirit that blows your way and my way is the Spirit that empowered Jesus, the Spirit of God, alive in you and me.