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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon

5th May 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Ascension Day

'The day when he was taken up to heaven.' Acts 1.2
'He was lifted up.' Acts 2.9
'He was carried up into heaven.' Luke 24.51

Busy beaches, crowded parks, happy children, BBQ's sizzling; we come alive on glorious spring days. No longer do we wander with eyes downcast, looking at the pavement. Words used to describe the weather and our moods have a cosmic dimension, looking up to the skies, looking down to the earth.

They also reflect ancient Christian beliefs about the place of the spiritual. We are uplifted as we worship God in heaven. We hope to escape hell downstairs, the fiery pit beneath the earth. Such pictorial language can correspond with our spiritual understanding and experience.

Today the Church celebrates the ascension of Jesus. Those phrases from Luke/Acts from our readings talk of Jesus being taken up, lifted up and carried up into heaven. The moment came when the disciples were parted from Jesus. He had been somewhere particular, a place and a time. Now he seemed to have gone, to be nowhere. Soon came the Pentecost moment when the disciples received God's Holy Spirit. Now they realised that Jesus was everywhere, present in Spirit.

The Ascension expresses the Christian belief that God exalted Jesus to glory in heaven and that he is now king of the universe. It is a difficult idea to take in. The small scale, (Jesus as a baby in a manger or teaching as an adult or dying on the cross), is easier for us to grasp. Luke in his Gospel and in Acts was particularly concerned with this. In Acts he tells Theophilus how in his gospel he 'wrote about all that Jesus did & taught from the beginning. Now we are invited to consider the big picture. Jesus who was somewhere is now everywhere.

The key word is glory. When we look up for whatever reason we catch a glimpse of the glory of God and we become part of it. The best is yet to be. The Christian faith tells us that if we place our faith in Jesus we will be granted the full vision of the glory of God in eternity. Anything glorious that encourages us to look up can lead us to respond to the divine invitation to share in the Glory of God.

Many of the readings used in the daily offices for Ascension Day are full of such references to glory. At evening prayer on the eve of Ascension Day II Samuel compares the glory of God to sun rising at dawn on a cloudless day and to the way the green grass sparkles when the sun breaks through after rain. Presumably we are meant to apply those words to Jesus.

In the classical world people were well used to pictures of the gods exalted in glory. The Romans portrayed Caesar as a god in such terms. The exaltation of Jesus the crucified one as Lord of the universe is described in the epistles. This seemed blasphemy to the Jews and foolish to the Greeks and subversive to the Romans. Later in the East, after the conversion of Constantine, Christ was portrayed in churches as the Emperor judging the world.

In all this there is the inevitable danger of being so taken up in the glory of Christ in majesty that we lose sight of the simplicity of the Gospel. A final Ascensiontide image acts as a foil to this. It is Hebrew's description of Christ as the true high priest making constant intercession for us. The Ascension is about prayer. We are taken up into the prayer of Jesus. What is taken up in prayer is the whole of life, the good, the bad & the ugly.

When Jesus is taken up he remains the crucified one, he bears his scars. When we share in the prayer of Jesus we enter into a dynamic relationship with God. If we focus on the glory of God we will find ourselves led to contemplate the sufferings of the world. If we begin with human suffering, our own suffering even, we are taken through the cross to contemplate the glory of God. We move constantly from one to the other, from glory to suffering and then back to glory.

Ascension Day is rightly a triumphant feast as we celebrate the glory of the Risen, ascended Lord, triumphalist but not about escapism from earthly reality. The Ascended Christ embraces the world of suffering, of disease, hunger and war and in so doing brings about the possibility of glorious transformation.

So, glory yes, but also the General Election!

Thanks be to God.


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