Sunday, 21 May 2023
Provost John Conway
Eternal life, the life of heaven, where Christ now is, is known now in our knowing of Christ, our dwelling in him.
Acts 1.6-14; Psalm 68.1-10, 33-36; 1Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11
While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
I don’t know about you but there is something theological indigestible about the language around the Ascension. Now some of you may know by now that I’m not averse to a bit of theology, but I will admit to struggling with the language around Ascension. However much we know that the story we heard in the book of Acts, of Jesus being lifted up, and a cloud taking him out of the disciples’ sight, however much we know that this is figurative language, and that he didn’t literally board a rocket ship and blast off into space, it still leaves us with the question – where did he go? And the answer to that question usually takes us to the language of heaven, of Jesus now being with the Father; of taking our human nature into heaven. And maybe that language speaks to you, but I have to admit to finding it all a bit indigestible. And my unease lies alongside the further and perennial question of faith: if, in the Ascension, we celebrate the risen and ascended Jesus as Lord of all creation, why does the world not show more evidence of that Lordship?
In the Eucharistic prayer for Ordinary Time – the one we shall use again from Trinity Sunday in two weeks time – there is a remarkable statement: 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. That wonderful exchange suggests that we have perhaps got the question wrong. It is not so much where is Jesus now, as, where are we? The wonderful exchange recognises that as we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, his return to heaven having lived out the way of love, so we now abide in him. His residency in heaven, is our residency in him.
Two weeks ago I suggested that the many dwelling places in the Father’s mansion, that Jesus speaks of a little earlier in John’s Gospel, are best understood not simply as final destination, but places on the way, places to abide in with Christ. And the language in today’s gospel reading from John is very similar: ‘this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ So eternal life, the life of heaven, where Christ now is, is known now in our knowing of Christ, of our dwelling in him.
But what does this knowing, this dwelling, look like? You may feel that I’m not offering anything more digestible here. But actually the Ascension takes to the heart of the Good News of Christ, that is both profoundly simply, and life-changing, has a profound depth, all at the same time.
The Ascension marks a turning point, that wonderful exchange, where the work of Christ – the way of cross and resurrection – is handed over to the disciples. Christ’s work is done, and it is now theirs, and ours. Our Epistle reading from 1Peter makes that clear, addressed as it is to an early church suffering persecution. It is not that the ascension of Christ – his Lordship over all creation – means that everything is now sorted, redeemed to use the theological language, alright. As the early church knew, that is far from the case. But just as Jesus proclaimed a faith that, again and again, overcame fear, so now the disciples are invited to dwell in the Christ who provides that freedom from fear. 1Peter uses the evocative language of a prowling and roaring lion, to summon that sense of faith as resistance to our fears and anxieties. Christ’s ascension into heaven invites us to find our centre of gravity, our heart and soul, there – in a place beyond the anxieties and fears that beset us.
And that is the work of prayer, into which the wonderful exchange invites us. Prayer, most fundamentally, is that waiting on the Spirit who enables us to dwell in the heart of Christ, and Christ to dwell in us. And in that mutual indwelling, that wonderful exchange is our freedom – the freedom that flows from knowing Christ has conquered.
And so faith in the ascension, and joyful prayer in response, begins the journey that sets us free: Free from the compulsions that tells us we are never good enough, that we always need something more to fulfil us; Free to love not just the familiar and the lovely, but the unloved and the strange, and so refuse to participate in the hate that divides us from one another; Free from the anxiety that our fearful society fosters, the fear that means we look for the security measures that will keep us safe, rather than turn strangers and adversaries into friends and allies.
The Lordship of Christ, if we are to use that language, the Lordship that we celebrate today is not the manipulation of all things to make everything alright; it is the everpresent love that casts out fear, the love we are invited to dwell within. The world, we proclaim today is under new management, ever-new management.
Like the first disciples, our response to the Ascension might be to stare up into heaven. But like them, we need to hear the voice of those who say, 'This Jesus will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ He came walking the dusty roads of our world, to heal and love us into life; to suffer and to serve; and that is where we meet him even now, that we might rise with him into the freedom of heaven. Amen.