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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

17th May 2007

Fr David Shepherd

Ascension Day

‘…he was carried up into heaven.’ Luke 24 v51

‘…so we in heart and mind may also ascend.’ Collect

‘…we may set our hearts in the heavenly places.’ Post Communion

Go into many an ancient church with good eyesight or even a pair of binoculars and eventually you will come across a popular image of Our Lord’s Ascension. What will it look like? You will most likely be looking up and what you will see are the soles of two feet disappearing in a cloud! ‘Amusing’, we will think with a smile. May be the medieval artist wanted us to smile – medieval religion was not afraid of parody and send up. Even so what he depicted reflected his view of the universe, earth (possibly flat) with heaven above and hell down below. At his Ascension Jesus ascended in a kind of cosmic elevator to heaven.

I’m being crude – in danger of caricature but you’ll recognise the truth in what I’m saying and also the problem it raises. Star Trek and Dr. Who apart, we no longer see things quite like that. And yet our readings and prayers are full of such ideas. I picked out a few at the start.

I was struck by the words from the Post Communion, what I wondered, might it mean for us as Christian people to ‘set our hearts in the heavenly places’?

Before thinking about that we can affirm the essential spiritual truth behind the traditional biblical and iconographical depictions of the Ascension. Jesus who lived among us as a human being in a particular place and time and who died on the cross was raised from the dead. He appeared to his disciples, convincing them that he was (is) alive. (Acts) Those appearances stopped but not the Spirit fed conviction that he is alive and is now Lord over all creation, from the particular to the universal, from somewhere to everywhere. We can affirm that there are spiritual realities beyond our normal experience and that Jesus embraces them. It is there, in ‘the heavenly places’ that our hearts are to be set. What does it mean?

  1. That we belong to another country. Christians are pilgrims heading for home. Ours is another country, we don’t quite belong, and we stand for different values and beliefs to many prevalent in our society. There is a danger of ‘pie in the sky when we die’ in saying this. It is avoided if remember that we are pilgrims on earth and that this life is good and God given. A greater danger for Christians is that we seek to belong to another country, where they do things differently – the past!
  2. The Kingdom of Heaven. Some have said that Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom but we got the Church instead! The Church is ‘us’, people who seek to proclaim the kingdom of God. It is a heavenly kingdom but one found in our midst. Think of the Lord’s Prayer with its concern for daily bread! Think of the practical concerns of Christian Aid Week. To set our hearts in the heavenly places is to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, with its call to change, to repent.
  3. Witnessing. To set our hearts in the heavenly places is to receive our Lord’s commission to proclaim what we have witnessed, to tell others about Jesus and what he means to us. We may well perceive the things of heaven but it is here and now that we are to speak of them – no other worldly escapism here.
  4. Receiving the Holy Spirit. The disciples were told to wait to be clothed with the power from on high – the Holy Spirit who would equip them for the Lord’s service. They worshipped while they waited. In our worship, through our Baptism, in the Sacraments we receive the Holy Spirit who enables us to dwell with Jesus, to be with him, to live with him.

Far from reflecting an outmoded idea, a kind of spiritual ‘beam up Scottie’, the Feast of the Ascension draws us more deeply into the mystery of God. We are reminded that whilst our feet may be set firmly on earth we nevertheless belong to another country. We are recalled to our task of proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and of witnessing to our Risen Lord. We receive the Holy Spirit who equips us for this task. Not head in the clouds, rather feet on the ground, very practical and yet giving us a glimpse of heaven.


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