A Life Completed

Sunday 24th May 2009
Year B, Ascension Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-55

Jesus Christ, incarnate Son of God, teacher and performer of mighty acts, condemned by the Jewish religious authorities, executed by the occupying Roman power, strangely manifested after his death. RIP.

Today is the day when we should be studying the obituary of Jesus, for this is the last time we will meet him in some kind of earthly form. He appears not long afterwards to Paul and throughout the ages to saints, but this is the end of what we might call his life.

There is some difficulty of knowing how to draw the line because any conventional account would end with the entombment; but, then, the descriptions of his appearances after the Resurrection are not easy to comprehend. He was physical in some senses, but not in others: he walked along the road, broke bread, ate fish and honey, cooked breakfast, and allowed Thomas to touch him; but, on the other hand, he appeared through locked doors and 'disappeared' from the home of his Emmaus hosts. And then, today, he somehow disappeared for good.

As usual, the theology of the mystery of the Ascension is more important than trying to work out the mechanics. as a child, I was deeply uncomfortable with the story of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by brandishing shamrock; and for today I would be uncomfortable with, say, the analogy of the incarnate Jesus being like ice, the Resurrected Jesus being like Water and the ascended Jesus going up in a cloud of steam; you know what I mean, chemically all the same but physically different; just as I'm not very enthusiastic about carbon and diamonds, the caterpillar and the butterfly. These sorts of pairings and sequences are all very clever but they are trying to answer the "how question" when the one that really matters is "why?"

To answer this question, we need to imagine where we would be without the Ascension. Jesus has been killed and has, in some way which his followers recognise in a visceral and deeply spiritual way, overcome death and returned to them. He has instructed them on the road to Emmaus, in the 'upper room' and 'on location' in Galilee; and, right to the end, he is instructing them and promising the Holy Spirit. It has to end some time. Why? Because the whole point of his Incarnation is that he was a human like us. If he had lived an extended life after his death the way we look at him would switch from being incarnational to thinking of him primarily as a spiritual rather than a physical phenomenon. The magnificent, affirming but limited purpose of the Resurrection was to under-write what his death had already proclaimed; that love is strong than death and that his Resurrection pre-figures ours. Having fulfilled his purpose in a very real way for his followers, he had to make a definite end, to abandon his incarnational existence and send The Spirit, God in us but not with us in the way that Jesus was with us.

We should, then, not puzzle so much about the traffic between earth and heaven, of which Jesus was the most startling instance; we should not worry too much about the mechanics of appearance and disappearance which are a regular Biblical theme; but we should think about what I would call Incarnational Closure. The Resurrection under-writes the Crucifixion but we, being human, would have been left puzzled had it ended there. We, of course, being 21st Century sophisticates, do not believe that Heaven us "Up there", in the way that Luke describes it; but we live in the constant care of the Spirit and in the comfort of knowing that our feeble attempts to establish The Kingdom on earth are a necessary precondition to being in God's Kingdom, the purpose for which we were created.

To understand how we would feel without the Ascension, we only need to look at the distress caused by the uncertainty of existence: the McCann parents; wives whose husbands are reported lost at sea; children who disappear into nowhere; pilots who go missing. We want to know, for better or for worse, what has happened. Because we are physical and earth-bound and lovers of patterns, we have to have what we call 'closure' such that we are mostly better off knowing that the beloved is dead than not knowing whether he or she is alive or dead. The ascension meets a deeply human need; but it also attests a fundamental attribute of our Christianity; it says that we can look forward to a form of completion, that our untidiness and muddle are temporary. All these phrases are explanations of the somewhat difficult concept of "hope". I think we are all pretty well struggling with faith and charity but I am not sure how much consolation we draw from hope. Sometimes we can't find God and sometimes we can't love our neighbour - or God, for that matter - and it is then that we need to turn from the teaching of Jesus to contemplate the mighty acts of God wrought through and in him: we need to remember the Transfiguration, the raising of the young man of Nain and Lazarus, the raising of Jesus himself, the extended liturgy of Emmaus, the powerful affirmation of our survival in the book of Revelation and, today, the Ascension of Jesus, leading where we shall follow.

Now some people will argue that all this is rather fanciful and peripheral, that all that we need to do is to focus on the crucifixion,  on the "fact" - a term we should suspect deeply - that we have been "saved from our sins" but the point of being a Christian is not that we have been saved from our sins, which is a negative way of understanding existence but, rather, that we exist to share in God's life and that, as such, we all contain within ourselves the promise of being enfolded in God's divinity just as Jesus was enfleshed in our humanity. To repent of our sins is a necessary part of aspiring to a condition of love but that is quite distinct from the idea that we can somehow be saved from our sins; we can't. Neither can our sins be written off nor wiped away as if they did not exist; our sins are part of who we are just as our love is part of who we are; but what God is saying to us today is that our sinfulness, our capacity for making wrong choices, will not bar us from ascending, from following Jesus back to God.

It is therefore important that we do not confine our contemplation of the hope of the Ascension to this single day. We are children of the Resurrection but that is only the beginning, for we will attain fullness of life, spiritual completeness in our 'ascension' to being enfolded back into the divine love.