Sunday 13 May - Sunday after Ascension - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Sunday after the Ascension – John 17.6-19

+ Jesus said, ‘now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world’

Last Thursday, the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, at 8am we celebrated the Eucharist in the dormitory garden and afterwards repaired downstairs for a fine cooked breakfast. Why did we celebrate the Ascension outside? Well, so that Jesus wouldn’t hit the roof when he ascended. The front cover of your booklet has my favourite image of the Ascension, from the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham, just Jesus’ feet disappearing through the roof of the chapel. Today we are still remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven, but it seems more the stuff of jokes than a doctrine that can help us today.

We know the story. Jesus was killed on the cross, rose from the dead – showing he had overcome death – he appeared to his followers for forty days, and then, on the Mount of Olives he promised the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, was lifted up from the earth and a cloud received him. As if rising from the dead isn’t difficult enough, Jesus flies up into the sky. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was supposed to have said on his return, ‘I looked, and I looked and I didn’t see God’. Well, the cloud is the clue here. You can’t understand the Bible unless you can understand symbols and the cloud symbolises the presence of God, as at Jesus’ Transfiguration. The Ascension of Jesus doesn’t require a three-story universe with heaven up there and hell down below. Actually, Gagarin was a devout Orthodox believer and it was the Soviet leader Khrushchev, not him, who said those words.

The question remains, however, what does the Ascension mean? Firstly, an absence. Jesus was around and now he isn’t any more, at least he’s not going to walk around the corner. He is no longer in the world as a man, but he is still with us in his Spirit and his sacraments. Christianity is a provisional religion of a real absence as well as a religion that gives us a foretaste of God’s real presence. It is a religion of hints in the dark.

Secondly Jesus’ ascension into the cloud of heaven, a sort of transport into a new dimension, means that our human nature is not only united to God in the mystery of Christmas, our human nature, which we all share, is in heaven. And this is good news. Yesterday at Jeremy Wilson’s funeral here, his son Colin read these words of Jesus, appropriate for an architect like Jeremy, ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions (dwelling places). If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’ We don’t know where heaven is, we don’t know what it is, but we are taught that, because of his Ascension, Jesus will welcome us there. It is a brave doctrine that you dare to bring out at a funeral, in the face of the finality of death. Christ’s Ascension is our hope.

Now, you may be wondering about that picture in your booklets. That picture of Stephen Hawking’s empty wheelchair, with him strolling up into the heavens with his hands in his pockets. When the famous physicist with motor neuron disease died two months ago this image appeared on social media. It inspired fury. Hawking had famously said that there is probably no God, no heaven and no afterlife, but it wasn’t the suggestion that he got a big surprise after his death that offended people. It was the implication that a disabled person is a second-class human, that they should always seek to not use a wheelchair, that the disability is purely negative rather than something positive to work with. This may sound silly, who would want to be disabled, but you can only become who you are in the circumstances you are given. Take them away and you become someone else.    

Look again at Jesus’ feet on the front cover of our booklet. They still bear the scars of the nails that fixed him to the cross. We know that they were there because the risen Christ showed his wounds to doubting Thomas. Like Stephen Hawking, Jesus physical wounds are part of who he is and they are not taken away. I was recently asked an excellent question that got me thinking: why do we still have the big Taizé crucifix up in Eastertide – Christ is risen not dead? The short answer is that with all our minds on Easter and the Bicentenary we forgot to take it down. But the long answer is more profound. In Christianity pain is not forgotten it is transfigured. Jesus’ wounds do not disappear. In Revelation Jesus appears as a lamb who was slain. In our first hymn ‘Hail the day that sees him rise’ we sung ‘See, he lifts his hands above; see, he shews the prints of love’ – his wounds – and in the Wesley’s great hymn ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending’ we sing: ‘Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears.’ It’s all very earthy and bodily.

In our Eucharistic Prayer we are going to say together ‘We recall his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension’. It is all one and all present in the Eucharist. When I was thinking about it, I thought of bereavement. People say you don’t get over it, but you just find a way of living with it that can be very creative and life-affirming. I have seen that again and again, but one can even go further. The philosopher Pascal said, ‘Christ will be in agony until the end of the world’ and that is literally true because we are his body and we continue to suffer. Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are in the world. Christ is still crucified in his children. The risen Jesus said to Paul, ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me’ - when he was persecuting Christians. As long as people suffer, Jesus suffers. Even in the glory of heaven Jesus still bears his wounds. And this is our hope and glory. In the face of terrible suffering and pain we can offer no explanations, but we can stand in solidarity and point to Christ on the cross saying ‘he lives in glory’.