Ascension Sermon

My sermon from this morning was about the Ascension; Ascension Day was on Thursday.

Ascension

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 — 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.

5 thoughts on “Ascension Sermon”

  1. Spoke to Hilary, my vicar, yesterday. Going through a, what?, sort of mental crisis, burnout, what ever you might call it., although logically it sounds pretty stupid. I have withdrawn from Cubs, Leader Training & the Christmas Fair for a while, all a bit too much with home & work, need to clear the mind. I don’t want to go to church at present. She said that she & my friends would do my praying for me, until I can do it myself again.
    This morning I am catching up on the backlog of cleaning & house maintenance. To this end, I was searching the net for sliding wardrobe doors, instead of being on Rememberance Parade ( I am remembering what others have given me in private, espesially my father) & just about to log off when I clicked on this entry in Google.
    It made me cry, (I haven’t been able to do that for weeks) because God has contacted me, here in my home. To quote your serman “a further demonstration of how much God loves us.”
    Thank you
    Karen

  2. Bless you Karen. Thanks for posting such a lovely reply.

    Sometimes we do need to take time out. Jesus did it alot. And God often is able to speak to us in those quiet moments, because we’re not busy trying to do, do, do his work.

    With love Gx

  3. I am preaching on Sunday and wanted to take a bit of time to read someone else’s sermon about the ascension as I feel like a never actually ‘take’ anything from church but just ‘give’ all the time.

    This ‘sermon’ was a breath of fresh air on a really stuffy day and reminded me why I do the job that I do…..and that stuff about Thomas….I have been reading the bible for 20+ years and had never thought of that.

    Cool.

  4. God does work in mysterious ways. Waking up early this morning I thought I would browse through my bookmarks and spotted something about potting sheds. Being a gardener I wondered why I had bookmarked this page. Read your Sermon then looked at comments . Karen expressed where she was in Gods plan at the time ,which is where I am at the moment after taking a gap year from Church (I’m 70 by the way) I felt more” Churchly” than” Godly” and felt those around me were the same. But your Sermon about how God felt and who God is has helped clear my head. It’s Remembrance Sunday tomorrow a good day for me to go back to Church.
    John

  5. I too was curious about th ascension an the days after resurrection leading upp to the ascension..we don’t hear too much about these day inbetween..thank you for such a different perspective on the ascension. I too feel churchy instead of godlly.. bless you all for your comments.

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