I think most Christians today, if someone was to ask them, what was really important about last Thursday, might reply – um, not much. And yet – according to St Augustine the Feast of the Ascension – which is traditionally celebrated 40 days after Easter Day – is the crown of the Christian year, representing as it does the triumph and glorification of the risen Christ. These days we give the Ascension a quick nod as we make our way from the season Easter to Pentecost and the long green season of ‘Ordinary’ Sundays – I think modern Christians are a little perplexed and possibly even a little bit embarrassed by its clunky literalism and its unabashed triumphalism. It was only a couple of weeks ago, you might remember, that we were solemnly assured by Harold Camping that proper Christians would defy gravity on May 21st and slide gracefully up to heaven accompanied apparently by the corpses of long-dead proper Christians who would be rejuvenated on arrival. It was never, unfortunately, properly explained which way up actually is – if it’s above your head when you are standing in North America then for antipodean Christians it’s somewhere down there – but in any event the date came and went with no mass departures of Christians orbiting the planet a few times before presumably heading off somewhere in the direction of Saturn or Jupiter and beyond.
Which of course is half the problem for modern, scientifically savvy Christians – we no longer know how to take this kind of stuff seriously, if our sense of what’s realistic no longer allows us to take it literally. And for Christians all too aware of the Church’s failure in recent centuries to provide a moral compass or to coherently proclaim the truth or even to agree consistently on anything much – the image of the exalted Christ and by implication the glorious Church can be a bit hard to swallow.
And yet, I suggest, the Feast of the Ascension is every bit as important as St Augustine thought it was. Because – well, to borrow another space-travel idea – the ascension represents the apogee of the gospel – the farthest point of an orbit of a satellite before it changes direction, perhaps springboarding off the gravitational pull of a planet to gather speed for its rush into the depths of space. Ascension is a turning point for what it means to be a disciple, from focusing on our own life and our own community as followers of Jesus to looking outwards to the needs of the world, recognising that we have been empowered and commissioned for a task and pausing briefly before getting on with it.
Part of the key to understanding this is to remind ourselves that Luke the Evangelist wrote his story in two parts – the Gospel that bears his name is just part one of Luke’s good news, and it’s just the first half of the orbit, the meteoric rush of Jesus’ life and ministry which begins and ends in Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles is the second half, the turning of the story which tells of the gospel flowing outwards from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. In the Gospel, the great Temple in Jerusalem is like the centre of the orbit, everything is pulled back to the centre. The gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies, where the angel Gabriel appears with the news that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s elderly wife would soon give birth. The son born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is the forerunner, John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke keeps returning to the temple - for Jesus’ naming, and for his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple, including in the fateful last week of his life. Finally the gospel ends with the verse, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”
Then in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then the story veers outwards in a dramatic arc, like a satellite that uses a planet’s gravity as a springboard to propel it out to the farthest reaches of the solar system. The gospel drives the early Church outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not exactly to the ends of the earth, at least to the centre of Empire, to Rome and beyond. And along with the journeys of Peter and the other apostles, we get Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the Apostle.
In Luke’s Gospel, everything is focused on what it means to be a Christian community, on what it means to be a disciple. In Acts, the community of followers that hardly has even had time yet to realise that it is a community is shot out from the centre point. Pentecost is going to come like a third-stage rocket, that catches the spaceship at the farthest point of its orbit and magnifies the pull of gravity to accelerate it toward the stars. Ascension Day is the apogee, the pause point that holds those two halves of the story together. This is where the inward focus turns and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus begins. Or to put it another way, this is where the reflective, contemplative part of the cycle of Christian life morphs into the active spirituality and Christian vocation of service.
Acknowledging that for some the claims of Jesus floating upwards on a cloud are too much to take seriously, while for other Christians the idea of Jesus literally defying gravity aren’t necessarily out of the question – the real challenge of Ascension, I suggest, is to focus on what it means – and what it accomplishes. Jesus’ followers – whether they thought they were ready for it or not - were in the process of becoming apostles, which means people who are sent - and for that to happen they needed Jesus to leave - so that they would stop hanging around and get on with the job. As sustained and challenged and reassured and forgiven as they were by being the community of Jesus’ disciples, the time had come when what they now needed was to let go of a particular experience of Jesus so they could get on with doing what the community actually existed to do.
And Ascension Day works. With Jesus departure – however that happened – the disciples become apostles. They stop looking for Jesus here or there, and they began to pray for the Holy Spirit – the spirit of Christ who would be with them always in a new way. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.
So the point of Ascension Day is that it re-focuses us, it forces us to ask ourselves whether we have accepted the vocation of sharing God’s love that we find in Jesus with a broken and confused world, or whether we behave more like a club that exists mainly for the purpose of reassuring and serving its own members. Because for us to be a Church means that what we are actually here for is to strengthen and encourage one another to take part in Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. The Church exists to further God’s mission – which is the reconciling the world to God – and to be a Christian is to be a missionary, which means to be a person who sees their vocation as enacting and proclaiming the love of God in everything you do and even, as St Francis put it, from time to time in words.
This need to turn outward is so crucial, that maybe at the end of every Eucharist someone should say to us, “Women and men of Cannington, why are you standing around looking up toward heaven?” Because these words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples’ gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission.
Actually, we do hear those words, or something like them, at the end of every Eucharist, in the dismissal when the LA says to us: “Go in the peace of Christ”. It’s not just the welcome end of a long dull service. It is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar – that place where we last encountered Jesus. The dismissal we hear at the end of every Eucharist is a reminder that while the worship is finished for today, the service of the week ahead is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.
The circumstances and the pattern of our lives are different, our weekly journeys take us to different places and different people, even different cultures and ways of life, before we meet back here again next week. But we have one common task, which is to give flesh and blood to the love of God that we have known in Jesus Christ, to allow God’s love access to every corner of God’s earth that we travel to this week – and if necessary – yes – to talk about it.
This is the transformation of Ascension Day. Our weekly orbit has reached its apogee. In a few minutes, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Then we leave this place to begin to fulfill the mission of the Church in the unique journey that every one of us undertakes in the week ahead. Today is the day for turning our eyes outward, for changing our focus from seeing Jesus to seeing Christ in the needs of the world around us. And to make a fresh start in loving and in service.