It is important to celebrate Ascension for it completes the great circle of birth, death, new life and return. In one way it is a necessary concluding link in the story of Jesus who came from heaven, became human, and then returned to heaven. It is the completion of the circular story of his life, death, resurrection and glorious ascension. And it is utterly important to us.
This Sunday is technically the first Sunday after the Ascension - which is kind of a strange “non-festival”! But it is important to celebrate Ascension for it completes the great circle of birth, death, new life and return. In one way it is a necessary concluding link in the story of Jesus who came from heaven, became human, and then returned to heaven. It is the completion of the circular story of his life, death, resurrection and glorious ascension.
But it is much more than a tidying up of the story of his earthly life and return to heaven. It is theologically utterly important to us. We proclaim that in the incarnation of Jesus – God becoming human flesh – that everything changed and was renewed. Creation and the created order have always been precious to God and determined to be good. But in incarnation that goodness becomes even more hallowed as God chose to dwell among us mortal creatures and become creaturely as we are. And in so doing all flesh is declared precious and sacred, the dwelling place of God. In his life Jesus constantly declared ordinary, sometimes very ordinary, human flesh beloved as he moved among those who were important and unimportant in worldly terms. Celebrating weddings, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out what afflicted us, and restoring the people of God to the fullness of life.
And in his death Jesus gathered into his own flesh and life all that was broken, bruised, and sinful and left it in the grave. So that in his resurrection we too are restored to life. But to have stopped at resurrection could have been just another version of Jesus here with us on earth without end. He needed to finish his journey so that we might one day finish our journey too. He has gone first where we will all one day go, through death to life. It is not that Jesus returns to heaven unchanged by his human life. He returns to heaven bearing the scars of the nails and the sword and the beauty and brokenness of the human condition in his heart. The one who sits on the throne, whatever we think that means, is the one who bears us on his heart, who has also suffered and enjoyed the human condition.
So what does all this fanciful talking about disappearing into the clouds above in glorious ascension mean to us? Firstly that the one who will judge us has been fully human and is utterly tender and understanding toward us, restoring us to right relationship with God. So much so that we are described as fellow heirs with Christ, also sons and daughters of God, even as friends of Jesus. Therefore we are called to live in the confidence and authority of that declaration living lives of joy, hope, commitment and dedication – lives of passion and peace. No matter how hard the struggle some days we are already the children of God, already precious, already apostles of light. Because of Jesus’ return to heaven we need to get on with living fully and well on earth.
Secondly, no matter how wonderful or dreadful this life is, and it is sacred and to be celebrated, it is not all there is. Now before I say much more about this I need to say what I don’t think Jesus is saying. Throughout the bible writers have struggled with this double description of our mortal and immortal natures. The Hebrew bible spoke of the chosen people and everyone else as the other or foreign as though a great divide exists between those who are in and those who are not. And yet in the genealogy of Jesus we have the names of four foreign women woven among the names of the patriarchs and the chosen. Chosen and foreign, all seamlessly part of the heritage of Jesus himself. The gospel of John and his letters talk about being in the world but not of the world in a way that has sometimes seemed to suggest utterly different worlds. And yet the world that “knows him not” was made through Jesus. Paul talks of the body and the spirit in a way that has sometimes been interpreted as distinctly different warring parties. But Jesus spent his earthly ministry healing the body and not despising it.
Which leaves us with a conundrum – we can read Scripture as stating that there is a great divide in the world between holy and unholy or we can hear the more complex but richer truth, that I believe Jesus was declaring in his words and life, that we have a dual citizenship. We belong to this world of flesh and blood – our fully ordinary life - and we belong to the kingdom of God - life of the spirit, life without end.
So we are to go about our life knowing that we belong fully – to what we can see and touch and what we cannot see or touch so easily. This makes all life holy and sacred. When we midwife the arrival of a child or a calf or a new idea; when we prune and weed our gardens and orchards and the growing skills of a child; when we bake cakes for our neighbours ninetieth birthday or for the cake stall that supports the school chaplain; when we remember in our morning prayers those who are struggling and visit those who are no longer able to get out and about themselves; whenever we honour the world of flesh in all its glory and vulnerability we are recognising the holiness with which the world is shot through and bringing the kingdom of God into this world.
Thirdly this world, wonderful though it is, is not all that there is. Life from time to time allows us opportunities to practice immortality as well as our mortal privilege. You know those moments when in prayer or meditation you feel your heavy physical body resting in its chair and you feel your lighter spirit body tug at its moorings a little like a helium balloon on a string – just practicing for when the time comes to be free. Those times when running a temperature and your body distorts and you can look down on your body on the bed from a little distance – just practicing getting ready to let go. Those times when walking on the beach into a headwind and for a moment you sense the wind go through you rather than around you – just practicing being insubstantial. Those moments when in the circle of family and friends you allow the conversation to go on around you as though you were no longer there – just practicing for when the circle continues without you. And sometimes as we sit with the dying we too inhabit two worlds. Glimpses of the overlap of heaven and earth, of mortality and immortality, life without end. We are citizens of this world which Jesus has made sacred. Hallelujah. And we belong to the world without end of his kingdom. Hallelujah.
But such a dual citizenship can at times be disconcerting as we feel those competing demands and priorities and the apparently endless tasks of this visible world always seem to claim our attention over the more whispered urgings of the kingdom without end. It is for this reason, among many, that we come to church and gather with others who are also aware of their dual or deeper and layered belonging. In our shared singing, praying, reflecting we reassert the priority of heaven and things unseen and feed the spirit within. As the old hymn declares ...”seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”
So let us go forth in courage and confidence and live in this world with gratitude and mercy and compassion, and live into the life that is not contained or constrained by this world knowing that those of us who abide in Christ are already living in a relationship, a world without end.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, risen and ascended one.