Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’ Cuddesdon on 13th May 2018.
Readings: John 17; 6-19.
Words from John 17: ‘I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’
The author of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, both written for the readership of Theophilus, or ‘Lover of God’ offers a literal description and interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. After the resurrection, Christ, in bodily form, is seen eating, drinking, walking about and talking. No ghost, no metaphor. However we wish to interpret that resurrection, and St. Paul himself seems to move in his theology from a belief in a physical resurrection, to a more spiritual understanding of it, in his first letter to the Corinthians, I wonder in what sense we can interpret the ascension as a literal, vertical rise of a person into the skies.
And why, in St John’s Gospel which we just heard, when Jesus prays for his disciples, does he raise his head to the skies as if his Father is up there?
A few years ago there was a BBC series called the Passion, which was a dramatization of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The final scene, the ascension, was not portrayed with CGI technology showing Jesus ascending into the clouds, but he simply walked into the crowd. We saw him for a while, caught glimpses of him amongst jostling heads of people, and then he was gone. Was that a fair portrayal of the Gospel narrative?
Whatever our interpretation of the facts, the ascension was, for the disciples and for us, not the end of a dramatic story. It is, rather, a beginning. And the rest of the story, of the early days of Christ’s Church on earth can be read in the rest of the book of Acts, and the theological development continued in the epistles.
Well, for all our hierarchical concerns about spatial imagery, we should not deny that Christian believing has its own cosmological imagery, of heaven and earth, transcendence, this world and the next, which can be problematic. For if we imagine that Christ has ascended into the heavens and sits there in judgement, then a top-down order of governance and power seems both ordained and endorsed. But that would mean a Christ in heaven that is not that same Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet on the night before he died: the one who died for us in humility. For God’s love will not be contained by this world, or by crucifixion. The life of God, which is love incarnate, bursts forth at Easter, bringing the new life of the resurrection to all. The doctrine of the Ascension teaches us that, by uniting himself to humanity, God draws us up into his own life, so that the perfect offering of love which we are unable to make for ourselves, is made for us by Christ, who represents human life in the life of God himself.
It is in the context of Christ’s saving work and perfect offering of love that I am struck by two particular aspects of this morning’s readings. Firstly, in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples from John’s Gospel, he explicitly states that he is not praying for the whole world but only for those whom God gave to Jesus as disciples:
‘I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.’
In John’s Gospel there is a clear distinction between those who follow Christ and the rest of the world’s population. And what Christ prays for is that his followers, following his ascension might be secure and unified:
‘…protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’
The second aspect that I wish to highlight is how, following the Ascension, the disciples and women followers, return to Jerusalem and devote themselves constantly to prayer.
Both of these passages present a challenge to us as believers. As Christians we have been given over to Christ by the gift of faith. This is not true of everyone in the world and, as we have seen this week, not everyone in the world seeks out the causes of goodness, love and kindness. With that gift comes a dual responsibility of response: firstly that we must strive, with God’s help, for unity, as Christ has prayed for us. Secondly, that in order to achieve this unity in love, we must devote ourselves constantly to prayer.
This morning, in this Church, we are going to enact these two important imperatives of unification and prayer as we join in prayer with Christians throughout the world in the Church’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ event. Between 10th May and 20th May, communities and churches around the world are gathering together to pray that their friends, families and neighbours come to know Jesus Christ. Prayer events of all shapes and sizes will take place across the 10 days, including 24-7 prayer rooms, prayer days, prayer walks and half nights of prayer. Cathedrals, churches and other venues will host Beacon Events, gathering people across towns and cities to worship and to pray for the empowering of the Holy Spirit for effective witness. We in turn are invited in our own way to join this movement of prayer through using the novena booklets or taking a prayer walk through the fields of Cuddesdon, or intentionally holding five different people before our Lord Jesus in prayer each day to praying daily at St Mary’s or in the Chapel here with the students. So what will be your act of prayer this week in join in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world and for whom will you pray?
In a divided world and, to put it bluntly, a world full of Christian division, this task is more important than ever, because the promise of heaven which the Ascension denotes is in fact, nothing less than the confirmation that Jesus ministry was effective; his living, dying and rising worked; for Christians the Ascension asserts that we must order our lives and imagine a world only by the drama of the passion and resurrection of Jesus – and no other. Just as, in the book of Acts, the disciples continue to praise God in Jerusalem as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, so we now praise God, and witness to his living power, which is able to transform the world. So let us pray:
your ascended Son has sent us into the world
to preach the good news of your kingdom:
inspire us with your Spirit
and fill our hearts with the fire of your love,
that all who hear your Word
may be drawn to you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.