Sermon preached by Revd Canon Prof Mark Chapman on Ascension Day, 21st May 2020 via Zoom
Where has Jesus gone, and what does he look like? A question that is perhaps even more appropriate for this particular Ascension Day. Of course we know the answer in the creed. He has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. But what does he look like? We don’t have a lot of pictures of Christ’s sitting – although there is a big one in the old chapel. Jesus is on a kind of throne with orb and sceptre; the image of the post-ascended Christ got associated with the idea of Christ’s kingship and majesty very early on. Sometimes, of course, there are other images of the ascension in art – of Jesus going up into heaven, as on the slide. Lots of clouds and sometimes a pair of feet sticking out (like in Walsingham). But the ascension is a surprisingly rare picture.
Perhaps that’s because people in the past had trouble with these sorts of graphic portrayals of Christ sitting in heaven or going up into heaven. It’s probably even harder for us to picture this. We are taught to not to see heaven as above and presumably we are then supposed to conceive of heaven as somewhere else but precisely where isn’t at all obvious – and some people may have trouble seeing heaven as a place at all. A lot of people probably dismiss dogmas like the ascension as pious myth. The argument goes something like this – those sorts of things are all right for a world which believes that heaven is up there beyond the clouds, but surely it’s not appropriate for those of us in our sophisticated modern world who know so much better. After all, three-tier universes, with hell down below, earth all around us, and heaven beyond the clouds all neatly arranged in a kind of a pyramid are surely dead and buried.
But still there is something very important in the earthy pictures of bodies going up to heaven. These images of the ascension say something absolutely central about the Christian faith, and we should be reluctant to treat it as first-century myth. Jesus takes up space on earth and he still takes up space in heaven – ascension means he still has a body – the feet going into heaven are the real feet of a real man who walked on earth. Jesus was not an ethereal, ghost-like figure, but he had flesh and bones just like the rest of us. And just because he is one person of the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t mean he no longer has a body.
Now, most of us probably have little difficulty thinking about Jesus’s body during his earthly ministry – we can easily picture him teaching, talking and healing. From cradle to grave there are lots of pictures of the earthly Jesus. But what about the heavenly Jesus? If he is the same Lord after the ascension as he was before, and that is what Christians are supposed to believe, we also have to ask, where is his body now? Where is Christ’s body once he has departed from earth at the ascension?
Or again we can relate it to that other aspect of the doctrine of the ascension that I mentioned at the beginning – the ruling in power and might. We use the imagery in the creed of sitting at the right hand of the Father – but we probably scarcely ever think of what that sitting might mean. What sort of body is it that does the sitting? And where precisely is that seat? Is Jesus really dressed up with an orb and sceptre?
What matters is that Jesus is a union of body, spirit and soul, just like the rest of us. And that is something that continues after death and into all eternity. It may be impossible for us to grasp the meaning of all this in its fulness – but it is at the core of our faith. Heavenly bodies are generally beyond our grasp – we can’t touch them; and we don’t get too many glimpses of heaven. The fact is that Jesus’ physical body is gone from this earth; he no longer walks around as he did in Galilee. He is ascended into the heavens. His body has gone and now we await its return.
In fact, if we take his heavenly body seriously, we have to see the feast of the ascension as something of a double-edged sword – as well as being a feast of triumph and exaltation, it is also the feast of departure. The feet have moved beyond the clouds; the body is no longer here, because it is there – read the black rubric in your prayer books that some of you were learning about recently.
And that immediately means that we have to think about the return of that body to glorify this world – and consequently the ascension conjures up the spirit of expectation. Our stature becomes that of waiting – waiting in the city until we are clothed with power from on high: the body is in heaven and not on earth. The ascension points to advent as the world lives in expectation and in the hope of Christ’s return.
Now, obviously Christians talk about the church as Christ’s mystical body; but we can do so only if we live in expectation of the return of that real body exalted above the clouds. And without that sense of expectation, of waiting, of hope, then we can easily be prone to identify our church with Christ himself. But because Christ’s body is in heaven, then this is always a false move. However much we might try to represent him here on earth, still he remains beyond our grasp.
But there is more to it. What sense can we make of the presence of Christ’s body in bread and his blood in wine? Some people I know are really struggling with this at the moment – for most people there is a kind of Eucharistic fast going on. We can gaze on a distant host through the ethereal world of Zoom but not much more than that. But that sacrament is still happening – the sacrament doesn’t depend on us, but on Christ. Christ promises to be present and commands us to do it in remembrance. What is going on? What is absolutely obvious about the communion bread is that it is not a physical bundle of flesh and bones; it does not look like a human body in any way, shape or form, and I guess it doesn’t look like Christ’s heavenly body either; so what is it? Perhaps it is the presence here and now of Christ’s promise to return. And it is in that way that we glimpse something of the exalted heavenly body – but not simply or straightforwardly; again it is a sacrament of waiting; and in these circumstances that waiting is emphasised: but still we are waiting for the real flesh and the real blood, that real heavenly body of our ascended Lord and Saviour.
At the moment we long for the return of that sacramental body which all of us can share; but we also long for the return of that body which sits at the right hand of the father; and the good news is that God makes himself present in our longings – and he gives us his sprit to help us through as we shall remember next week; nothing we can do or say can bring Christ down to our level; only God himself can do this, and he does all this as his spirit takes us upwards to be with him where he reigns in glory. And that is really good news – and that’s how we can lay all our burdens down even in this very scary time. Amen.