The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s166g10  Sunday after the Ascension 16/5/2010

‘he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’  Luke 24.51

Last year I had to migrate my web-pages on the Bigpond site to an Apple site as Bigpond was no longer providing the space in my plan.   This turned out to be a useful necessity before moving to New Zealand, and I have also been sorting out my lectionary and scriptural indexes to my old sermons while I am on long service leave and ‘unemployed’.   I have also finally found that I can edit these index pages using ‘Seamonkey’ from Mozilla rather than my old Claris Home Page which doesn’t work on Mac OSX.   In the process of doing this I realise that I have never actually ever preached on the Ascension, always being a Thursday every year.   However, no doubt with this in mind, the lectionary gives us the option of using the Ascension propers on the Sunday following.   Hence I am doing this, this year.

I recall Bishop John Spong making the observation that if Jesus was raised physically and vertically from the earth 2000 years ago at the speed of light, he still would not have left our galaxy yet.   We can see longer ago than this through telescopes.   So we are dealing with symbolic pictures here.  

And immediately it makes me comment again that scripture is essentially a work of art, a literary work of art - for no other form of artwork was available in those times, that was likely to survive down the centuries.   Scripture is an art-work, imperfectly describing reality as the painter, the author, saw it.   It is not a video of the event itself, and even if it were a video, different angles would produce different aspects of the same thing.   And even a video would fail to capture essential elements of the event, like the effect it had on the viewers.

But while being symbolic, the Ascension is important for it describes the risen Christ leaving the disciples.   The risen Christ is always above and beyond what the disciples might have imagined.   The risen Christ is always above and beyond what the church, the descendants of the disciples might imagine.   The risen Christ is always above and beyond what I might imagine.    For the imagination of the human heart is ever towards thinking that God is reserved for people who think like me, worship like me and live their lives like me - particularly when we assume that God thinks like me, is the one I alone worship truly, and I alone live as a true disciple.   The Ascension tells us that this is entirely too restricted both on a personal and a corporate level.

A couple of weeks ago I was reflecting on the words of Jesus: ‘Where I am going you cannot come’ and the realization that we are not to be taken out of this earthly existence, but be incarnated into it - just as Jesus was.  And as I have been reflecting further about the desire of the ancient people of God, reflected of course by countless ‘christians’ as well ever since, to be distinct from other people.   The text that caught my eye was the words of Moses to the Lord: ‘For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?   In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’  (Exodus 33.16)

But the desire to be distinct is totally inimical to being incarnate.   Following Jesus is not to follow him away from other people, but to follow him into relationship with other people, and as I am wont to say, all others, whatever their creed, culture, race, colour, gender or with whom they choose to share their intimate affections.

The Ascension tells us that any desire to be with Jesus, apart from others, is a waste of time and energy.   And time and again the New Testament tells us that now there is no distinction between people - this is the essence of our faith.  It is precisely our openness to others that makes us distinct :-).

So St Peter says: ‘God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving (the Gentiles) the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.’  Acts 15.8,9   And St Paul states: ‘the righteousness of God has been disclosed .. through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.   For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.  Romans 3.21-23   And later he writes, quoting the prophet Joel (2.32): ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.   For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."’  Romans 10.12,13

It is a fundamental mark of Christianity that there is no distinction between people.   Jesus made no distinction between the religiously devout and the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners.  The early church came to the conclusion that there was no distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

And the Ascension tells us that as ‘christians’ if we want to follow our Lord we follow the Lord into the world not out of it, away from our own selves and the others, like family and friends with whom we are naturally familiar.      The one and only distinction we have as ‘christians’ is that we have a faith that calls us into relationship with all people.   If we were to have a faith that took us out of this world, into a holy huddle of the like minded, we would have a faith essentially identical to those who had Jesus killed.

And it seems to me that also the Ascension tells us in no uncertain terms that there are no places more sacred than others.   We will find the risen Christ everywhere we choose to look.   The most sacred of objects has always been people themselves.   It is people for whom Jesus died and rose again - not bibles, sacraments, crosses, churches, altars, pulpits, prayer books, coffins, graves, monuments or anything else with which we clutter up our worship.

So the Ascension is not away from humanity but towards humanity, towards others towards all.   And as someone who has recently travelled from Australia to a different country, I know firsthand the blessings of such movement.   I would rather be here in a strange land than back there stuck in a rut where I had always been, keeping an old Mac to use an outdated program to update some web-pages.  And if I have been blessed I will be a blessing to those around me.   If I am stuck in a rut, then I will be no help to others stuck in their own ruts.   The Ascension assures us that we are ever destined to move, to progress and to grow as we relate to those God puts around us who are different.

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