Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Sunday after Ascension Day (16th May 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, which occurred on Thursday. Over the years this feast has proved a popular choice for artists. In mediaeval miniatures the Ascension was usually shown with the group of apostles gathered beneath Jesus’ ascending legs as they vanished out of the frame. The rest of his body had already gone. This convention for illustrating the Ascension actually reflects the reality of the event, for Jesus has indeed stepped out of the frame.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Jesus had spent his earthly life in Palestine restricted like any other human to the place where he was at any one time. After his resurrection Jesus managed to appear unexpectedly and in a variety of places, but he was still in one place at one time. Now all this has changed.  Jesus is no longer within the frame. He is no longer constricted by our human constraints.

For the Apostles gathered beneath the ascending Jesus the past few weeks must have provided a roller-coaster of emotions. After the excitement of Palm Sunday and the distress of Good Friday had come the thrilling discovery that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They had enjoyed weeks of surprise and exhilaration as the Risen Jesus had turned up to meet them on various occasions, but no sooner were they growing accustomed to this new form of Jesus’ presence among them than he was apparently leaving them again.

The Apostles could be forgiven for looking rather sadly up to heaven, but Luke records that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Jesus had prepared them for this development and had assured them of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would guide and strengthen them. As we know, they were not to have long to wait, as the Holy Spirit would be poured out on them at Pentecost. In the meantime they spent time worshipping in the Temple, confident in the promise that Jesus had made to them.

Where had Jesus gone? Luke tells us that he entered a cloud, and a cloud was a familiar symbol for the presence of God. Jesus had returned to his Father. No longer contained within the frame of his human experience, he was welcomed at the right hand of God the Father, enthroned like a young prince beside his father the King. It is reasonable to describe his Ascension in these human terms as we have no other way to do so. More important than the heavenly seating arrangements, however, is the fact that Jesus has ascended to heaven with his human attributes, and now in heaven reigning there in glory is one who has had his own experience of the human predicament, one ready and able to intercede from personal knowledge on our behalf before God the Father.

In his double telling of the story of the Ascension (at the end of the Gospel and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles) Luke has given us a simple message. Jesus now reigns in glory and will return one day to earth. Meanwhile his disciples are to communicate the truth of his heavenly reign. The Good News of Christ’s Resurrection has now been augmented. Jesus has not only risen from the dead, but has been raised to glory, majesty, and power. The disciples will be empowered to bear witness to this truth by the coming of the Holy Spirit.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Jesus explains to the disciples what they are to do, but they typically see it in their own terms. “Is this the time,” they ask, “when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” This is a rather ironic feature of the story, as the whole thrust of the Passion narrative had been to show that Jesus was not attempting to establish an earthly kingdom in Israel, yet favourite notions die hard, and the disciples persevere, rather like a child returning to the question that really interests him despite his parents’ efforts to divert or improve the conversation. In this the disciples are just like us, typically human. 

Of course Jesus was not about to restore a human kingdom to Israel. In a few years the Romans were utterly to destroy Jerusalem and its Temple. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. Nor would he be precise as to when he would return. We believe that he will do so one day, Scripture promises us no less, but Jesus clearly does not wish us to waste time wondering when that great event will be. 

How are we to respond to the story of Christ’s Ascension? We are to emulate the first disciples. They looked up to heaven, went back to Jerusalem, and praised God. We can look up to heaven and reflect that Jesus is now reigning in majesty, a glorious being who nevertheless has shared our life on earth, and through whom we may pray with confidence to the Father. That Jesus has ascended to the Father has removed him from the constraints of the human frame and he can be everywhere he wishes, not least with us here this morning. So by looking up we are less lamenting a departure than recognising a new level of presence, one that links us with our fellow Christians around the globe.

The disciples returned to Jerusalem.  As after the Christ’s Transfiguration on mount Tabor, the disciples did not linger on the mountain top but returned to their normal lives. Christ wishes us to celebrate his Ascension but also to carry on our everyday lives, lives lit up by the Good news of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus has called on us, like all his disciples, to bear witness to him, and this we may sometimes do by our words, but we can always do by our lives. How we live may speak louder than any words that we may utter.

The disciples praised God.  Soon they would be proclaiming the Good News in the power of the Holy Spirit, but immediately after the Ascension they spend time worshipping in the Temple. It is for us also to respond with gratitude and joy for all that God has done for us. This time of year may seem a mad rush from one feast to the next, but all these celebrations contribute to the wonderful story that we have to tell. How Jesus died for us, was raised from the dead, ascended to glory in heaven, and sent to his disciples the Holy Spirit, are indeed chapters in the Greatest Story Ever Told. Today we rejoice that Jesus is reigning in glory at the right hand of the Father, bringing humanity triumphantly into the Godhead. For that we may indeed thank God.