Daniel 7:9-14. Luke 24:44-53
The interesting thing about the Ascension is that Mark and Matthew don’t tell us about it, and nor does John. And you will look in vain for any reference to it as an event in the epistles. It’s just Luke that tells us about it – twice. In the bit we have just read, at the very end of his gospel. And at the start of his second book, Acts. And that’s important. The Ascension is a kind of bridge between the Gospel – the time of Christ – and Acts – the time of the church. It is perhaps less an event, and more a vision: an utterly crucial vision of Jesus received into the glory of the Father. And as a vision it runs through Acts and the Epistles like a thread. It’s there when Stephen looks up the heaven as the first stones rain down on him, and he sees Jesus seated in the glory of the Father. There in the visions of the book of Revelation, and in between, it’s there in verses like:
Jesus Christ who died and was raised, and sits at the right hand of God. (Romans 8:34)
Seeing we have a great high priest who has passed into the heavens….. (Hebrews 4:14)
Set your minds on the things that are above……(Col 3:2)
But what exactly are we to set our minds on? It’s hard for us to grasp this now, but the Ascension puts together an almost impossible juxtaposition of images: God in majesty and the crucified Jesus. Stephen’s judges must have been profoundly shocked when they heard him tell of what he saw: impossible that God should seat a criminal beside him. To a devout Jew God was always wrapped in majesty and holiness. And the cross was a place a curse, firmly outside anything holy. And if you were not a Jew, but a gentile genuinely interested in Jesus’s teaching, the vision would still be disturbing. The cross is a sign of failure – suggesting that Jesus life too was hardly successful. It doesn’t point to a good reputation. Surely God is on the side of winners, not losers.
And for the disciples too: the cross was shattering, not easily forgotten. And on the cross Mark tells us Jesus appeared to end his life in despair. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Mark gives it us in Aramaic, Jesus own language, as if to emphasise that this really is the truth. And Jesus dies. There is an end. A chill, cold body, the end of us all. Is this really the kind of teacher who can turn the world upside down? Can his words really be words of life? Associated with God?
Important we see all of that, summed up in the torn, bleeding crucified body. The new testament writers never forget that body of Jesus. Christ rises, still carrying the wounds of the cross. And that is the Christ, who, in the vision of the ascension, God wraps in his arms. That is the point we are to grasp. Some of those medieval paintings of the Trinity capture it exactly: the dove hovers above, and the venerable Father, ancient of days, wraps his arms around a Jesus who is still nailed the cross.
It is a startling, unexpected vision: God embraces the pain and the suffering and the agony. God even embraces that profound despair that knows only the absence of God. God embraces the forgiveness that Jesus spoke, and always embodied. God embraces the curse of the Cross, its failure and its shame. God even embraces death, that place of non God in the ancient world.
So if God embraces all of that then it means that God loves all of that. God is prepared to be in the very heart of despair, in no way holding it against us, but staying with us, knowing it all. God loves the persecutors and the scandalised; the traitors and the finger pointers. God clearly does not care two hoots about reputation. God forgives, and will never seek vengeance. And God will always be God to us, this side of death and beyond, ending once and for all our obsession with death.
That’s the vision of the ascension. And it shows that this extraordinary love was the inner dynamic that drove of the life of Jesus. It bewildered his contemporaries that he was conspicuously holy, immersed in the scriptures, and he talked with the religious. But he also embraced tax collectors and sinners. Now we see the profound love that seeks to bring together all the opposites into the great wedding banquet of joy Jesus so often talked about. A love so great that it followed the inner logic of itself to the utter end, never counting the cost.
But visions are not pictures on a wall to be looked it. Visions change our hearts, reshape us. When you see and hear that vision, it’s not that we have to be told to go out and put it into practice – though that is what we and the disciples are told. If we look at it, and embrace it, our reshaped, continually transformed hearts push us that way. Setting our minds on the things that are above we really can learn to forgive the weak, the scoffers, the traitors, the persecutors, the executioners. We can because we learn that they are loved as we are loved. This is not an ethical issue, or even sensible. It’s just love. Before this vision I learn that I am embraced by a love that loves not just the good bits of me, but all of me – including the dark bits I hardly dare admit to. A love that stays with me even when the going is hard. And that coming together of opposites makes me whole and changes everything. You and I can love, because this vision catches us up into a love that comes from the Father and flows out from us to the world. That’s the dove in the image of Pentecost and the medieval pictures, just as its the river of water flowing from the throne of God and the lamb in the Book of Revelation.
You and I are dove and water. And God and Christ and dove and water can turn the world upside down.