Posted by: owizblog | February 22, 2013

Ascension Day Sermon 2005

Acts 1:6-14 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 John 17:1-11


I want to talk to you this morning about something called phenomenological time. Fancy, eh? And it’s something you all know about. I once sat in the dentist’s chair for six and a half days, non-stop, having a tooth filled. The clock on the wall said I’d only been there for twenty-three minutes – but I knew it was lying. Whatever that clock said, I had been in that chair for six and a half days. And I can remember a particularly good and intensive training course for a voluntary organization years ago that had me feeling that the two hours one evening a week I was with them lasted far longer than the remaining 166 hours of each week.

We’ve probably all had experiences like that.

Time must have stood still over that supper table on the Thursday evening when Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper together. And in the garden as he prayed and they slept. And it must have raced, as he was arrested, taken away… Good Friday from nine till three must have seemed an eternity for those watching, and the following day longer than eternity. And after that, time must have slowed down, sped up, stopped, like a learner driver first time out.

And then – according to Luke – it all settled down. For forty days, there was a pattern. Sometimes he was with them – and with them overwhelmingly really. Sometimes he wasn’t. Most of the time, he wasn’t. But it would have seemed, so Luke seems to hint, as though he was. And despite the extreme specialness of this period, the disciples feel that something like normality – a new normality – is asserting itself.

And then he takes them to the Mount of Olives. And he leaves them. And for long moments, they gaze out over a scene that doesn’t have him in it, and won’t again. Not in their lifetimes.


What do we make of the story of the Ascension?

Only Luke has it, and he tells it in two different ways at the end of his Gospel, and at the beginning of Acts. The other Gospel writers have nothing like it.

They offer us the stories we already know, or half know. The resurrection stories – Emmaus, Mary Magdalene and the gardener, doubting Thomas.

But for all the Gospel writers – and for Paul, too – there is nothing corresponding to the Ascension. For them, it seems, the appearances of the Risen Christ just tail off and stop. For Paul, the last one takes place on the Damascus road, far and away the last one, to far and away the last of the Apostles to be called. It was, he says himself, like an untimely birth.

But Luke is different. Oh yes, Luke gives us the resurrection stories. And one of them no-one else gives; the exquisite story of the Road to Emmaus. And Luke adds the detail that in his appearance on the evening of the first Sunday, Jesus eats a piece of fish. He isn’t a ghost.

But Luke gives us something nobody else does. He gives us a timescale. A framework. He tells us explicitly that for forty days, Jesus was with the disciples in a very special way. Not constantly. And yet there is a constancy to it. And although his presence with them is very different – doors, walls and locks can’t keep him out – he is clearly at the same time the same presence, the same person, who tramped the Galilean roads with them before they came down to Jerusalem. That’s what the piece of fish is all about. It’s about this presence, that is so much more than the limited, clumpy, bumpy presence of a human being among other human beings, also being a living, human presence. It’s a transformed, transfigured presence. But it’s also the same presence. And it’s in no way less living than the presence of Jesus of Nazareth was before Good Friday. In fact, Paul’s words seem to sum up the transformation in this life, this living presence, that’s simultaneously so obviously the same, and so utterly different:

Christ once raised from the dead dies no more…

And this lasts for forty days. And for forty days, this little group of people feed their faith on his presence, and begin to learn that his absence isn’t really that, either. He comes, and he goes, and he’ll be back. And unbeknownst to them, he’s teaching them how to be the Church.

And then, one day, it’s different. He takes them out to the Mount of Olives, and he leaves them. And the heart of it is that this time it’s different. Something has come to an end.

And something has not yet begun…


And we can say that much without embarrassment. Because – let’s admit it – the actual story of the Ascension is difficult for us. It’s difficult because we have seen Apollo 13 blast off from Cape Kennedy, and reach orbit twelve minutes and thirty-four seconds later. It’s difficult because we know that if we look out at the star Betelgeuse, in the top left hand corner of Orion, straddling the southern winter sky, that we’re seeing it as it was not there and then but six hundred years ago – because it’s six hundred light years away. Light, travelling at 186, 282 miles a second takes six hundred years to get here from Betelgeuse. And we can’t see heaven between here and there.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know in saying this. I’m not mentioning anything you won’t have thought about. If the Ascension is the story of Jesus going up to heaven, we can’t hear it without asking how fast did he go up, and how long did it take him to get there.

And we also know that if we ask questions like that, we are missing the whole point. Luke tells us that as the disciples watched, Jesus was taken from them into heaven, and a cloud hid him from their eyes. They didn’t see what happened, says Luke. And that’s the whole point. That’s what the story of the Ascension is all about. Jesus Christ will take us as far as we can go. But there comes a point at which we run slap into our limitations. We can’t go any further. He takes us out to the edge. To the very limit of our existence.

And this is what the Risen Christ is doing with the about-to-be-born Church. The nascent Church. In a sense the Risen Christ is doing with them what Jesus of Nazareth always did with them. He’s taking them to the edge. He’s taking them to the point where the easy formulations of a comfortable faith run out. He’s taking them to the point where the traditional language, the old, slick phrases, suddenly stop working. And – and this is the hardest thing of all to bear – he’s taking them to a point at which all the old comforts cease, too.


The edge is not a place we like to be. In fact, the edge is a place we’re very scared of. It’s not where life is usually lived. Life, for us, is so much a matter of pattern, and routine. Of familiar and comfortable things, that we can take for granted. Oh, we like the new, and the unfamiliar in homeopathic little doses that we can easily cope with. But when the scaffolding of what we’re used to falls away, that’s when we can become very frightened, in short order.

Actually, in the world we live in, this sort of living on the edge is more and more a daily experience. Years ago, the futurologist Alvin Toffler made the point that it isn’t just that there’s so much change. It’s that the rate of change is constantly speeding up. It isn’t just that the world is changing faster. It’s that the speed at which the world is changing faster is accelerating.

No wonder we cling to the familiar, the routine, the comfortable. No wonder our homes become cocoons against all this change. No wonder we cling to anything that gives us some measure of stability and unchangingness.

No wonder we like our religion that way too.

And it’s so easy to slide into a practice of religion that is all about comfort, and reassurance. And easy answers. And black and white, and no ambiguity.

The trouble is, that there come times when we can’t hide from the change. The uncertainty. The anxiety and the fright and the panic. Because that’s what real life is like. But if our faith is all about comfort, and reassurance, and easy answers – then what becomes of it at that point?

And that’s why the Risen Christ leads his disciples out to the Mount of Olives. And he leaves them there. He leads them out of a period of security, and routine, and comfort and reassurance. Because it can’t always be like that. Faith in Christ isn’t just about those times when everything is secure, and snug, and predictable. It can’t be. It’s about real life. And real life isn’t always like that. In fact it very often isn’t.


Let’s put it another way. There are tremendous consolations in the Christian faith. But it isn’t just about being consoled. It isn’t just about everything being put right, and being OK. It’s also about coping with things as they really are. It’s about being able to face whatever we have to. It’s about knowing that what we have will see us through.

The disciples, on Luke’s account, have had something profoundly special. But now that’s over. And they stand on the Mount of Olives, gazing after it. They are literally staring into the past. And that’s inevitable. Something has come to an end, and they have to let go. But if that thing, that special time, hadn’t come to an end… what would they have missed? And how would they have known?

And that’s why the story ends as it does. Two figures almost tap them on the back:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

And of course, there’s a tiny joke here. They actually didn’t see him going into heaven. “A cloud hid him from their eyes…” The American evangelist and presidential hopeful Pat Robertson apparently made plans at one stage to televise the Second Coming. There were going to be cameras all over the world, but with most of them at Jerusalem. Apparently they even discussed the problem of camera-flare if Jesus Christ was too bright. People who think like that don’t read Scripture properly. What is here is a mystery, something which boggles tiny minds like ours. Which is why when we try to depict it, we end up with something laughable, instead of something immense.

The ancient term for what this verse is talking about is  – which is just the Greek word for “presence”. What it means is the Christian hope that the world will be filled with the presence of Christ, and in a way we can’t possibly imagine from where we are now.

And what do the disciples do then?

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away

In other words, “Auld clathes and purrage!” Normal life. It’s over. Back to the world as it is. Just as happens to us when the service comes to an end.

The Greeks have more than one word for most things that are important. And they have two words for time. One is s – which gives us words like chronometer, and chronology, which basically means the time that clocks tick away. The other is s, and that is different. It means the time at which something happens. Or happened. Or will happen. Something special, significant. Time ticks by as we live our lives, and propels us, harrassed, from one thing to the next. They say that if you wait until you see someone look at his watch, then ask him what the time is, he won’t be able to tell you. He was looking to see how long he had until he had to be at such and such a place, for such and such a thing.

Small wonder that it’s sometimes only as something is coming to an end that we suddenly realize “Yes – that was actually very special!” Something happened there…” Often we only just realize it as real time is starting up again, and special time, which often seems to run at different speeds, or even to stand still, is coming to an end. The s is over, and s is ticking by again at its regular rate.

What Luke gives us is a pattern. And it’s the pattern of the worship of the Church. Christ comes to us. And he takes us up with him as high as we can go, as far as we can follow. And then he leaves us. The s is over. And what beckons now is real life. And that’s where, for each one of us, faith has to be lived. That’s where, for all of us together, we have to be the Church.

Not on the hilltop, but down there in the city. Not here in Church, but out there in the world.

Once again, the message of the Gospel is “You can’t stay here…”

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