Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Ascension, Year C, 9 May 2013
Acts 1.1-11; Ps 110; Eph 1.15-23; Lk 24.44-53
At St Philip's Ascension Day service, our rector, the Revd Rebecca Newland, read this homily by the Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, which had been circulated by Bishop Stuart.
A small group of Anglicans gathers today to celebrate in word, and sacrament the ascended Jesus Christ. Some might see this as a gathering of nostalgics, looking to the past for orientation, huddling around an old-fashioned ritual for some comfort—gathered at some remove from a world that's moved on. Little do they know! The Ascension of Jesus looks forward, not backward—forward to the coming fulfilment of all things in Jesus Christ, of which the Ascension is a sign and a foretaste. And rather than looking inward today, away from the challenges of life in the real world, the Ascension drives us outward, in hopeful commitment, to engage with the real world—the world that today, in faith and imagination, we see as coming under the Lordship of the Risen Jesus Christ. The faith of Ascension Day is a faith that gives confidence and clarity of purpose to the Church and its ministers—to know our mission, to find our voice, to live and speak our good news.
Our readings today offer meditations setting out this vision, a vision of confident Christian faith in its fullness, and of our lives in light of that faith. In the Gospel today, Luke imagines the moment when the disciples made their big breakthrough, when at last they understood the meaning of Jesus' perplexing suffering and death, his resurrection, and the mission he was giving them—to be clothed with Jesus' own power, right in the city where they lived, and thus to become proclaimers of repentance and forgiveness of sin in Jesus' name to all the nations. This passage comes at the end of the Gospel; it's the final act when all is revealed, when at last Jesus is fully appreciated, when at last Jesus is worshipped in his own right. And the way Luke imagines this breakthrough in the understanding of the disciples is with this story of an Ascension, with this story of Jesus exalted to God's place, to God's status—exalted as fulfiller of the Scriptures, which he was able to interpret; exalted as key to the meaning of life, and of God, and of history.
So to believe this about Jesus, to look to him and to his story for your bearings in life—this is the main content of belief in the Ascension. The faith of Ascension Day is faith in Jesus' life and death and ongoing life with us as uniquely real, as uniquely reliable, as uniquely significant; and it's also faith in our own unique role as his witnesses, as his messengers, as his ambassadors, as his sacraments even, you and me. This is what Ascension means. It's not primarily, or even necessarily, an eyewitness account of Jesus going up in the air; rather, it's a poetic rendering of Jesus' attractiveness, of his Lordship, of his energising offer of meaning and purpose for the whole of our lives.
Luke gives us a different version of how the Ascension went at the start of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, from which we also hear today. There he gives us forty days to think it over, to get used to the idea. Perhaps this reflects the fact that it took a while for the early Christians to really understand Jesus and what he meant for them, just as it's taken you and me years to grow to our present stage of faith and understanding. Indeed, we know from Church history that it took Christians centuries to sort out good, better and best in their thinking about Jesus, about his divinity and humanity, in the age of the Church's creeds. Luke's forty days in the Acts reading today reminds us of what our personal and our collective experience teaches: that coming properly to understand these things takes time.
But when the early Christians do come to understand, according to today's Acts reading, they're imagined as experiencing Jesus' Ascension. And immediately a story about their explosion onto the world stage begins—a story full of their adventures, of their triumphs, of their failings, of their world-shaking faith. But isn't it interesting that a book about the doings of apostles, and of their Church, begins with this story about God's action, about God vindicating Jesus, and giving his power to Christians to change the world, so that thereafter any story about what the Church is doing, any story about what we're doing as Christians, is first of all a story of what God's doing? In other words, the story of our Christian life and our mission is first and foremost God's story. This is Ascension Day faith, according to our Acts reading today. And it's a cure for any who despair of the Church as an institution, or who think it's going to pot. The Church is God's business, and God will not abandon it.
So let me sum-up my understanding of Ascension Day faith. It's not another addition to a long list of things we have to believe about Jesus, things I might add that many people find unlikely, like this image of him going up into the air. No, instead of another thing we have to believe about Jesus, Ascension Day faith is a comprehensive statement of the one thing we already believe about Jesus: that Jesus is Lord, and that our lives have been grafted into his life and into his mission through our baptism. To believe this is to find a new courage and a new resolve to boldly be the Church, at a time when that's not always an easy thing; to believe this is to properly understand the poetic image of Jesus ascending through the heavens to God's right hand of power; to believe this, as the great Collect for Ascension Day puts it, is for us also in heart and mind there to ascend, and with him continually dwell, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.