On Ascension Day we had Bob Callahan from Inclusive Church come to preach. He said lots of lovely things about the Church of the Ascension. He also talked about the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham where in the plasterwork of the ceiling there is a cloud sculpted, and disappearing into the cloud are two feet… It makes me think of Monty Python, but it is supposed to be Jesus’ ascending.
I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension. I am talking about the idea of the Ascension – Jesus disappearing into the clouds – rather than the Church of the Ascension – perhaps that’s another sermon there…
I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist – brought up to believe the Bible was given by God – that God dictated the text of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And so, if the Bible was so God-given then it was true in every way that it is possible to be true: spiritually, historically, scientifically…
So the story of the Ascension was difficult because it is just so hard to believe as a historical event. It works OK (just about) if you believe in the classical 3-tier universe: earth in the middle, the underworld below, and heaven above… But we know the earth is round, to quote John Lenon there is “no hell below us, above us only sky.”
As a youth I was not only a fundamentalist Christian, I was also a science geek (I was a glutton for punishment, and not very popular with the girls), and I worried about Jesus body. I worried because with our current knowledge of science we know that any human body would burn up on trying to leave the atmosphere, and even if God was able to protect Jesus body in a bubble of oxygen, there would be no where in space for Jesus to go once he was out there. (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I really want very popular with the girls…)
There were other things I struggled to believe, but this one just seemed so very odd.
Added to this I felt the Ascension was a strange day to celebrate, as it was a miserable occasion – it is a sad goodbye – a ridiculous day for a festival, and a ridiculous event to name a church after…
You will be glad to hear that my opinions have changed.
So we have this strange story of a seemly rocket-propelled saviour. You may wonder what really happened to make the first Christians tell this extraordinary story?
Well get ready, here is the truth.
First lets look at the Bible.
The early manuscripts of the earliest Gospel, Mark, do not have any resurrection sightings of Jesus at all, and so no ascension either.
Matthew has Jesus make a lovely farewell speech “remember I am with you to the end of time…” But he also has no account of Jesus departure.
The ending of John is my favourite, because it keeps us humble, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John has no ascension story, just an assertion that there is a lot we don’t know.
In the letters of Paul and other New Testament writes Jesus is described as “exalted to Gods right hand,” or “raised up” or even, “ascended on high.” But all of these could be spiritual rather than historical statements. It seems in the New Testament only Luke had heard the story of Jesus taken up into the clouds.
Turning to our readings for today, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manucrips of Luke. In some of the earliest manuscrips it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later manuscrips add “and was carried up into Heaven.”
So Acts has the only solid account of the Ascension.
So what do we make of this tale, seemingly known only to Luke?
The key line for me is “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
The truth is that it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter. Now, I can already hear people bristle. How can the truth not matter?
Personally, I don’t take this story literally. I don’t think this story presents itself as literal, historical fact. If you need proof of the non-literal nature of the story, just look at the two accounts, both written by Luke, one at the end of his Gospel, the other at the start of Acts. In Luke the Ascension happens in Bethany. In Acts it happens in Jerusalem.
It is fascinating to reflect on what made the early Christians (or Luke, at least) come up with this story of Ascension. I could regale you with the latest theories. But that is to miss the point.
I am not being anti-intellectual here, I am not saying just “I don’t believe this, but its best not to think about it too much.”
As a liberal Christian I have to insist on the orthodoxy of non-literal interpretation of the Bible. As an Anglican Christian living in our wonderfully diverse tradition I also have to insist that people are free to interpret Scripture differently to me. Bishop Richard Holloway put it very well in his marvellous book Doubts and Loves when he said that while Christians are free to believe whatever they like it is not the church’s job to ‘preserve antique mental furniture…’
The Flat Earth Society still exists. They claim that the idea the earth is round is a hoax and a conspiracy (and they sometimes use the Bible to back up their claims). It is not the job of the Church to try and eradicate the outdated and bizarre views of the Flat Earthers. People are free to believe whatever they like, but it must never, ever be the job of the church to “preserve antique mental furniture.”
Every time I have led an adult confirmation class someone has asked me “I don’t have to believe in this Virgin Birth thing to be confirmed do I…?” or “I believe in evolution, can I still be confirmed…?” The idea that we have to believe the impossible to be Christians is out there, and it damages the Gospel.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
I believe that the Ascension is not about doctrine, it is about a challenge.
That is true of Christianity. The greatest enemy of orthodox Christianity, from the earliest days of the Church, was Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that salvation was all about having special sacred knowledge. With knowledge of the secret truths you drew closer to God. This was in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity which was often called “the Way.”
A Way of life, following Jesus teachings of a radical, inclusive love, versus a set of sacred truths.
This has been the battle the Church has fought and refought over the centuries. The Creeds were drafted to combat Gnosticism (and other heresies) and then became exactly the kind of thing they were created to defeat – a set of sacred truths that measured your Christian faith. I believe that modern day Fundamentalism is just a new manafestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy. Our oldest and most insidious enemy.
We follow a Way, not a set of dogmas.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?.”
And so the Ascension, this strange story of a flying saviour is not to be a statement we have to believe, to tick off on a list of dogmas that make up a true Christian.
This story of a sad goodbye, is also a happy festival – it marks a coming of age. Christ trusts us with his mission, as he disappears from our sight. We can stare up into heaven no longer, its time to follow on the Way…
The truth of the Ascension, the truth that I think this Church of the Ascension has at its heart, summed up in the famous words of Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but ours.
no hands but ours,
no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which be blesses now.”
We have to decide how we understand the will of God, and then it is up to us to do it. The Wash House youth club, offering free ESOL classes, our involvement in Holy Trinity Centre, in LEWCAS, our involvement with Majority World charities, our Visiting team, our commitment to Christian Aid, are just some of the manifestations of our commitment to the only truth of the Ascension that matters:
Christ has no body now on earth but ours.
no hands but ours,
no feet but ours.
And as we trudge around our neighbourhood with a bundle of Christian Aid leaflets, or we attend a really dull meeting about financing one of our community projects we must remember that we are doing this to follow Christ. This is the message of ascension. Perhaps it is the most challenging of all the celebrations of the Christian Year. Perhaps the most fitting name for a Church. The Ascension reminds us that we have a responsibility. The truth of the Ascension is that the work of Christ is now up to us.