My sermon from this morning was about the Ascension; Ascension Day was on Thursday.
Luke 24: 44—53
What are we to make of this rather odd story in our book of scriptures? Of a man — a prophet? — who has toured, and taught and healed for three years; who is arrested and in a rather biased and rushed trial is condemnded to a brutal, criminal’s death on a cross; who three days later is witnessed to be alive and journeys with two disciples to Emmaus, explaining the scriptures to them, opening their eyes more fully to God’s work in the world; and now he ascends into the clouds, launches into the air and disappears in front of their very eyes, like a first-century Superman crossed with magician David Copperfield. What are we to make of these extraordinary events? What possible connection can there be made between this remarkable Galilean who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, and our faith today? What can the Ascension say to us as we struggle to be faithful to God in every aspect of lives in Scotland in 2005?
To answer this, I want to go back to a basement flat in Belgravia, in central London, in the latter weeks of Lent, 1996. Because it was there that I remember vividly the moment — like an epiphany … but in Lent! — when I realised that Jesus’s death on the cross had also affected God the Father. I had been asked to preach on Easter Sunday, and as I was preparing the sermon, and pondering the readings it suddenly occurred to me, for the first time, that the death of Jesus had had a profound effect on God the Father. It sounds obvious to me now, but at the time it was a revelation.
I think, I had previously viewed God the Father’s involvement in the crucifixion as though He were some head-coach, or a military general: standing at a safe distance, in overall control but not directly involved in the action, and aware of the collateral damage that would ensue. It was part of God’s plan: Jesus would be crucified â€” God the Father knew that. All He had to do was give Jesus up, sit back and wait for Easter Sunday.
But what kind of Father is that, who sits back while His Son is killed — calculating, stoically unmoved, emotionally detached? It’s not the kind of father that I had — and therefore it is not the kind of Father that I expect God to be. When I realised that, I knew that I had to revise my view of God the Father’s involvement in the crucifixion of His Son.
The only conclusion I could come to was that the crucifixion of Jesus (God the Son) must have had a profound effect on God the Father, if we are to take the concept of a Trinitarian God seriously. The way that I put it then was that “God the Father must have grieved the loss of God the Son”. It was a realisation that Jesus’s cry “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” was not only the cry of God the Son to His Father, but also the cry of God the Father to His Son.
In my exploration of this I discovered a book by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann called The Crucified God. In it he writes:
“When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event.” (The Crucified God, p.205)
This I found staggering! It confirmed what I was thinking, but pushed me beyond. I realised that I was regarding God as two separate persons here, partly detached and independent of one another though somehow also empathising with one another. But Moltmann brings these two persons together and says: the cross happened to God the Trinity. What happened to God the Son happened to God the Father happened to God the Spirit.
I remember visiting an old, priest friend of mine in Tweedbank, near Melrose, before I was accepted for ordination training. Canon Dover asked me a simple question: What is God like? I’d been studying theology at St Andrews for two years by that point. I should have had an answer! But I struggled. My favourite answer was one that St Anselm had come up with: “God is that than which nothing greater can be imagined”; in other words, if you can imagine God, then you’ve not imagined God, because God is mysteriously greater than anything that we can think of. Canon Dover listened, smiled, and said gently “if you want to know what God is like then look at Jesus.” How foolish did I feel?!
If you want to know what God is like then look at Jesus. But we often choose to take that to mean the Jesus who wandered around the Judean countryside teaching, and healing and raising the dead, and forgiving sins and generally being a nice kind of guy — the heroic sort of person we might aspire to be. And it does mean that.
But it also means the Jesus who was nailed to a tree. It also means the Jesus who was “an outcast, accursed [and] crucified” (Moltmann, p.205). And that Jesus — the broken Jesus nailed to a cross — that Jesus, too, shows us what God is like. And therefore anything that we say about God after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ has to be said in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because that is how God has revealed Himself to us: As Moltmann says, God has revealed Himself to us in the “resurrection of the crucified Christ”. God has revealed Himself to us in “the cross of the risen Christ” (Moltmann, p.204).
This, it seems to me, is what Thomas was concerned with when he told the apostles in the upper room that he wouldn’t believe unless he saw the wounds of the Risen Jesus. He couldn’t believe in a Messiah who was crucified but then returned three days later as though nothing had happened. And I think Thomas got it absolutely right. If the cross was so important to God’s plan for the redemption and salvation of humankind then the Risen Christ had to bear the marks of it. And He did. And Thomas’s response when he saw Jesus’s hands and side was “My Lord and my God”. The man Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ, bore the physical wounds of what He (God and man) had endured, and on the Day of Ascension Jesus took those wounds to be forever a part of God in Heaven.
We could spend hours considering what actually happened, from a scientific point of view. How did Jesus manifest Himself? Where did He go? Where is Heaven to be found? But I don’t think that that is terribly important.
What is important is what the Ascension symbolizes for us today. The Ascension is not Jesus’s escape from the world, but the affirmation of what He has done on the cross. It is an affirmation that in His death and resurrection God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) entered into the pain and suffering of humanity and redeemed it, and that He still bears the marks of that event in Heaven. It is, as it says in the 1982 Eucharistic Prayer: “In Christ your Son our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might forever dwell in you” (p.7). The Ascension, then, is a further demonstration of how much God loves us. God became human, that we might become divine.