Sermon: Ascension Sunday -The Seventh Sunday of Easter (A) – 1st June 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15- 23; Mark 16: 15-20;

Ascension Day is the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, commemorating the Ascension of Christ into heaven; an important part of the resurrection.
In the Eastern Church this feast was known as the taking up and as the salvation, denoting that by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption through the resurrection.  The terms used in the Western Church, signify that Christ was raised up by his own powers.  Tradition designates Mount Olivet near Bethany as the place where Christ left the earth.  Ascension Day falls on Thursday but recently churches across the world such as ours offers an alternative, today the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

The observance of this feast is of great antiquity.  Although no documentary evidence of it exists prior to the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time.  Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles.  The Pilgrimage of Sylvia (speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in which tradition suggests that Christ was born.  It may be that prior to the fifth century the fact narrated in the Gospels was commemorated in conjunction with the feast of Easter or Pentecost.  Representations of the mystery are found in diptychs and frescoes dating as early as the fifth century.

Certain customs were connected with the liturgical celebration of the feast, such as the blessing of beans and grapes, the blessing of first fruits, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by the deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle and triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven.

These days the Paschal candle is extinguished on Pentecost Sunday because Easter it is understood to not be completed by Ascension but with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.  Easter is resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit.  It is all one act.

There is an English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing a lion and at the foot a dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in his ascension over the evil one.  In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church.  In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.  On one Ascension Day in England Christine and I went with members of the local church in Devon up to the church tower to sing hymns to welcome the Ascension.  It was very cold!

To say that Jesus was taken up or that he ascended does not necessarily imply that they locate heaven directly above the earth; no more than the words “sitting on the right hand of God” means that this is his actual position.  In disappearing from their view “He was raised up and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), and entering into glory he dwells with the Father in the honour and power given by the reading.

The celebration of the Ascension, reminds the disciples and us that we are the ones who are to demonstrate what it is like to live in the footsteps of Jesus.  When their Lord Jesus was taken from the disciples, when the clouds received him, there was no sky gazing for them, watching after their ascended Lord.  The proclamation of the good news would no longer be through Jesus, but through Jesus’ disciples, down through the ages, as they lived out the faith he had brought to them.  Disciples then and now have a mission.  By the witness of believers, the word spreads from Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth.

Even though there were just a few witnesses to this Ascension event, it had great implications for the future of the entire church.  Up until that moment, Jesus was seen only where he was, in and around the towns surrounding Galilee. Now, with his Ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth, present to all believers.

This is the great paradox of the Ascension.  By removing himself from the world, Jesus would no longer be confined to a single place or a single moment, but he would be alive and available in the Spirit to all people for all time.  While it seemed at first glance to be an isolated heavenly event, in truth that moment opened the way for the message that Christ is risen and has conquered death to spread throughout the world forever.  The message reminds all people that wherever people live in his Spirit by faith the Spirit abides in them.

The church is the Body of Christ, his presence in the world and it is only as we live as the Body of Christ in our lives that the good news of the Resurrection can continue to be spread throughout the world.  We are his presence in the world, seen by all as they observe how we treat one another, in our work and in our worship.  This should bring to all of us who call ourselves by his name, who call ourselves Christians, an awesome sense of responsibility.  Such responsibility is why we are staging our “Fully Alive: Fully Human” festival week beginning on Trinity Sunday in two weeks time.

In many of our churches these days, the celebration of Ascension Day is in danger of becoming a forgotten practice.  However, in church or out, the message of the Ascension of our Lord continues and the proclamation of that message of Easter that falls to each of us.  We are to proclaim that Jesus’ does metaphorically sit at the right hand of God.  He is in God’s presence pleading our cause.  In the early church this proclamation fell to the disciples.  Unsure as they were they were able to muster their strength and go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to do the Lord’s work.  As frail as we are we too are to go forth rejoicing the power of the Spirit to do the Lord’s work.

All of us who are baptized have that same Spirit, and now it is our turn to proclaim our Lord’s message of love and forgiveness, to bring the good news of the Gospel to this weary and war torn world.  Let us go forth.

As we carry out our proclamation of the message of God’s saving grace being freely available to all, we should bear a few things in mind.

The resurrection is the ultimately decisive event for human history, not merely something spectacular that happened to Jesus.  Thus resurrection faith is not merely believing that a dead body came back to life, or that a tomb was empty on Easter morning.  Those who believed that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead did not have resurrection faith.  The soldiers and chief priests who knew the fact that Jesus had “come back to life” did not have Christian faith in the resurrection.

The resurrection itself is not to be described.  No one was there to see it take place.  No Gospel narrates the resurrection, only the discovery and appearances of the risen Christ.  The event happens offstage, a matter of testimony and proclamation, not of empirical observation.  Therefore we should understand that the stories of the Resurrection are the vehicles of faith, but is not to be identified with it.  The Easter stories are not to be harmonized, but each describes a different view of the Easter faith, much the same way we each have different ways in which we have come to faith.

The resurrection is not merely the happy ending of an almost tragic story of Jesus.  The resurrection permeates the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and it is testimony to the risen Lord of the church.  Without the resurrection, the whole story evaporates: Jesus is meaningless.
Resurrection faith does not arise on the basis of evidence, of which the chief priests and soldiers had plenty, but on the basis of the expected presence of the risen Christ by accounts of those to whom he appeared, and by his own continuing presence among his disciples today.  Faith in the resurrection is a matter of worship not of analysis and inference; it does not exclude doubt, but takes doubt into itself.  As Jesus said to Thomas, “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Resurrection faith is not to be identified with faith in an empty tomb.  The whole New Testament affirms the resurrection, but stories of the empty tomb are only one way of expressing it, a way found only in the Gospels.

All of us who are baptized have that same Spirit, and now it is our turn to proclaim our Lord’s message of love and forgiveness, to bring the good news of the Gospel to this weary and war torn world.  Let us go forth.