The ‘Truth’ of the Ascension

I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension.  I am talking about Ascension Day rather than the Church of the Ascension  – perhaps that’s another sermon there…

As our regulars will have heard before, I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist.  Northern Irish Baptists make the sandal-wearing guitar-strumming Baptists of England look very tame.  Belfast Baptists are hardcore!  I 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 nowhere in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I was very neurotic – its a wonder I’m so well-balanced and ‘normal’ today!)

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, brace yourselves, for tonight I will reveal 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 do not 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 tonight, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscripts it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later versions add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So if Luke is in doubt, then the book of 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 historical truth not matter?  Isn’t truth important?

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.  There are narrative reasons for that – the sort of reasons that makes Game of Thrones nerds sit up and point at the screen when the TV series changes locations and merges characters that are in the books.  (I speak as a Game of Thrones nerd.)

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 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 something like: “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.  We are not to gaze into heaven, but roll up our sleeves here on earth.

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.

The Ascension is not a story of a sad goodbye but 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…

Christ has to go, so that we can grow up to spiritual adulthood.

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 day for a patronal festival.  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.

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

Amen.

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The Other Sheep

A sermon on John 10v11-18

Our Gospel reading places us as a sheep belonging to Jesus, our Good Shepherd.  Those who have been coming for a while know that I sometimes like to start my sermons with a joke, just to wake everyone up if the readings were dull or no one knew the last hymn.

I try to find a joke that somehow cleverly fits the theme of the sermon.  This week I was trying to find sheep jokes and failed to find anything remotely relevant.  But this is Marathon Sunday, and lots of our regulars are cut off or at least have their transport here disrupted…  I was tempted to treat it as a teacher treats the last day of term and suggest that you all just “bring in games.”  I have no excuse for the following jokes, other than that I am bringing in games!

So:

  • What do you get if you cross an angry sheep and a moody cow?
  • An animal that’s in a baaaaaaaad moooooood.
  • Why was the sheep arrested on the motorway?
  • Because she did a ewe-turn!
  • What Christian denomination is most popular with sheep?
  • Baaaa-ptist.

Finally, my personal favourite:

A man in a cinema notices what looks like a sheep sitting next to him.
“Are you a sheep?” Asked the man, surprised.
“Yes.” Said the sheep.
“What are you doing at the movies?”
The sheep replied, “Well, I liked the book.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are “the sheep of [God’s] pasture.”  We are the “sheep” for whom the “good shepherd” lays down his life.

Feeling a bit sheepish this morning?

I know that some members of this congregation struggle with the metaphor of God’s people as sheep.  None of us want to be sheep – we want to be powerful and important, not bleating animals that follow the crowd.

One of my standard Christmas talks is about the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem, and how shepherds were outcasts of the day – poor wild men who slept rough on the hillsides – hired for a pittance, barely above beggars in the social hierarchy.

I’ve heard kids use “MacDonalds Worker” as an insult;  in first century Palestine the kids may well have taunted unpromising peers with “Shepherd!”

Shepherds were hired to look after the sheep.

Sheep were not a particularly highly regarded commodity at the time.  They did have some religious significance, but only because they were slaughtered in their thousands at Passover, so that the floor of the Temple ran red with their blood.

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of being called a “sheep” it’s worth considering that sheep had no better image in Jesus’ day than they do now (and shepherds had a considerably worse image!)

The metaphor of Jesus as a Shepherd and his followers as sheep is not a cutesy image.  It’s about outcasts caring for the insignificant.  But it’s about finding beauty in the everyday.  It’s about saying God is interested in things that society ignores or undervalues or despises.

Having set the scene, I want to spend a bit of time reflecting on one verse and what it might mean to us:  Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus calls the disciples, the Christian Church in embryo, “a sheepfold.”  The place where God purpose is worked out on Earth…

But Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Early Christians were struggling with the Jewish authorities as the two religions began to go separate ways… They were distrusted by the Roman government who were soon to attempt to exterminate them.

They were harassed on every side, it would have been easy to fall into exclusive extremism, but instead they record and pass on the words of Jesus:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus is clear that although his ragtag band of scruffy, mostly illiterate followers are infinitely precious to God, they are not the only people of infinite value to God:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

We, in the Church of the Ascension, sometimes feel embattled as a liberal church – the hierarchy seems obsessed with money, it seems like the churches that are succeeding are conservative, interested only in evangelism and not in helping their communities, society is indifferent at best, and at worst tars us with the same homophobic brush as it does our fundamentalist brothers and sisters.

But we are doing well and doing important work in our community, but this is not the only place where God’s work is being done:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

But it’s worth considering that there wasn’t another group exactly like the disciples out there that Jesus was referring to when he talked about his “other fold” – Jesus was talking about other religious expressions, outside of Christianity, outside of Judaism:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

What was true in the first century is true today:

In Churches of all traditions, Catholic, Protestant, liberal, radical, conservative, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

In temples and synagogues and mosques and gurdwaras, in humanists, and campaigners and protestors:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Gospel of Jesus is life-changing and life-giving, but Jesus recognised that there were more truths, more ways of giving life, than just one.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

I close with an Interfaith Prayer prepared by Christians, Jews and Muslims:

Eternal God
Save us from weak resignation to violence
Teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power
That thoughtfulness and tenderness are marks of the strong.
Help us to love our enemies
Not by countenancing their sins,
But by remembering our own
And may we never for a moment forget
That they are fed by the same food,
Hurt by the same weapons,
Have children for whom they have the same high hopes as we do.
Grant us the ability
To find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In the striving for justice and truth.

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows  everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”