SERMON: Homily for Ascension Day

SERMON: Homily for Ascension Day

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley on 7th May 2024

Acts 1. 1-11
Ephesians 1. 15-end

If you read my May newsletter you’d see that I wrote about the importance of endings and beginnings. I spoke about ending well and related that to my own recent experience of ending at Christ Church and beginning here at St Mary’s.

Ascension commemorates both an ending and a beginning.

On Monday night we went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar at the New Theatre. It’s not the most accurate of accounts of Jesus’ life and death to say the least, but I love the music and it was an edgy performance with incredible choreography.

What irks me though with this production is the musical ends with the ending, with the cross.

There is no resurrection of any note, and so there is no beginning. This means it ends with very little hope.

The Ascension of Jesus marks the end of his earthly ministry. This is the very last time Jesus will be physically present with his disciples. In the days and weeks following the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to them numerous times. He had walked with them on the road to Emmaus, he had eaten fish by the lakeside, he had appeared in an upper room offering peace and reassurance. He was physically present – he was not a ghost or spirit; Thomas could place his hands in his wounds, he ate and drank with them.

This moment of ascension was an ending. Jesus had completed everything he needed to do on earth and went to take his place with the father.  

His very final physical act was to bless his disciples, and in the midst of this final blessing, he was taken up into heaven, the bible says, he ‘withdrew from them’, ‘he was lifted up’. In medieval art this is depicted as Jesus rising up into the sky rather like a rocket, and I’m sure you’ve seen images of in painting and sculpture of Jesus rising up with just his feet hanging down.

(The Anglican Shrine in Walsingham)

We no longer think of heaven as up there, and hell down there; we have a deeper understanding of the cosmos than medieval artists did. But at this moment Jesus was somehow taken from them. I imagine it more like a ‘whoosh’ where he is enveloped in light and cloud.

However it happened, the disciples just stood looking up, gazing in wonder.

Jesus taught that those who believe in him are one with him, and so when he ascended he took our humanity with him into the heavenly realms. It’s a mysterious truth to contemplate.

Sam Wells, in BBC Thought for the Day last year puts it beautifully:

“For Christians Ascension is saying that however invested we may be in the fever of life now, our true home is not here but lies in the realm of forever. At Christmas Jesus comes from God’s forever and dwells in our now. At Ascension he leaves our now and returns to God’s forever”[1]

It’s no wonder the disciples gaped in awe and the angels, two men in robes, have to interrupt them and remind them that this is just the beginning: ‘why are you gazing up into heaven’.

It is the start of them (and us) ‘being witnesses’ to the Good News of Jesus ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1.8)

On Sundays we’ve been reading John’s Gospel and we’ve been hearing Jesus’ final words to his disciples. As part of this teaching, he said to them:

‘It is to your advantage that I go away’. (John 16.7)

Jesus needed to physically leave for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be fully released to all people.

Jesus was not to be a Superstar or a Superhero. He was not to be lone figure saving the world on his own. The new beginning was that from this moment all God’s people would be raised up and equipped with the Holy Spirit for continuing his work in building his kingdom.

Many years ago, I spent time with a community in Rome, (Community of St Egidio) who look after the poor and vulnerable. At the front of their church, they had a statue of Jesus who had no arms, which they found in a skip. They told me it was a reminder that they are now to be the physical arms of Jesus in the world. 

As we contemplate the ascension of Jesus, we give thanks that Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of the father as King of all, interceding for us.

But this is just the beginning. We are not to stand gawping skywards like the Men of Galilee in our reading.

No. Our response is to do as those first disciples did – to get on with the job of prayer and proclamation, and to grow God’s church in holiness and truth.