We don’t spend enough time thinking about what the ascension means, or how that impacts on our theology. So, slightly belatedly, my sermon from Ascension Day. This was greatly helped by Bishop Tom Wright’s ascension sermon.
Ascension day; Readings: Luke 24:44-52; Acts 1:1-11
Have you ever seen those primary school drawings showing what the children think heaven looks like or what God looks like? You might even done such drawings yourself. And you know what they mostly look like, don’t you? Angels with wings and harps on fluffy white clouds, an old man with a long white beard. And of course, we know that’s not heaven or God looks like. Do we?
So what do we think of when we think of heaven? If we don’t think of fluffy white clouds and harps, what picture does the word conjure up?
And if we can’t think of a decent alternative picture, does it even matter? Well, yes, it probably does. Because what we think about heaven has an impact on how we live, what we care about, what we do. If we think that Jesus was escaping from earth, and that we’re going to follow him, then that affects what we choose to do here. It affects our priorities, it affects our actions and our attitudes.
Because, lots of people have seen the ascension as Jesus finally escaping from earth, and giving us the hope that we can escape too. And that means that if we’re going to escape from here, if we’re going to leave, then things that happen here in the physical world, in the world of flesh and blood can seem less important, less worth worrying about.
I guess it’s the difference between renting a house, and owning a house. If you own the house, then we’re more likely to take care of it, invest in it, care about what happens to it. If we rent a house, well, we want our deposit back, but we’re a lot less interested in what happens. We’re not going to do things to improve it. That’s the landlord’s job.
So, if we see Jesus as escaping, then we might feel like we’re in a rented property. We’ll do what we need to, but no more. I hope that you’ve gathered I don’t think that’s what happened at the ascension. So, what’s the alternative?
Well, that goes back to what we think heaven is. It goes back to what picture we have of heaven. And the Bible’s picture of heaven is as God’s kingdom. Heaven is God’s space, and earth is our space. Heaven and earth are meant to overlap, to interlock. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven.
That’s why we’ll be celebrating communion later on. The physical, everyday objects of bread and wine are part of the overlap with God’s kingdom, with heaven. It is through those earthly objects that we can reach into heaven, reach into God’s kingdom.
Heaven and earth, God’s space and our space, are meant to overlap and interlock. That’s what we are looking forward to. Not just a new heaven, but a new heaven and a new earth. God cares about his creation. God cares about what happens here and now. And he wants us to as well.
That’s why seeing the ascension as Jesus escaping from earth is so dangerous. It encourages us to think about escaping as well. In reality, it’s the other way around. In the Ascension, Jesus takes earth, in his incarnated physical body, to the heart of heaven. God’s kingdom has been brought to earth, as it is in heaven.
And that is why, in the Acts of the Apostles, the point of the coming of the Spirit, which we shall celebrate next week, isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven. That is why Acts is what it is. A book of Acts, of the apostles, and of the Spirit, working in the world.
But that picture can lead to another danger. It can lead to the danger of us only seeing heaven on earth, building the new Jerusalem here on earth with our own hands, in our own strength. Or, even worse, of something that is claimed to be God’s kingdom being forced on the world by an over-powerful church. But, the book of Acts makes it quite clear that how the kingdom will come looks like how the kingdom should be proclaimed: suffering and vulnerable, praying and praising, celebrating and loving.
So, because we believe that Jesus Christ has risen to heaven, we are empowered to hold out the vision of God’s kingdom on earth. We are empowered to hold that vision perhaps particularly to those in power. We have to hold out the vision of God’s kingdom to those who are in charge, and to hold them to account when they fall short.
That’s why it’s great that Ascension day has fallen in Christian Aid week. Christian Aid is about working to give people in poverty the tools to lift them out of poverty. It’s about the kingdom coming through our actions as well as our words. That’s why the church was and is at the forefront of the fight against slavery, the removal of unjust debt, the Fairtrade movement.
The church claims the right, in calling Jesus Lord, to challenge the systems of corruption that dehumanize people and enslave them, and to remind the powers that be of what their duty actually is. The real message of the Ascension, is that the church, in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures.
What does our picture of heaven look like? Does it look like God’s rule and God’s love transforming all that it touches? Does it look like ordinary bread and wine becoming windows through which we can catch a glimpse of God’s light and love? Does it look like people spending 10p more to buy the Fairtrade teabags? Does it look like people standing on the doorstep collecting money for Christian Aid? Does it look like our risen, ascended, still human Lord praying for us at God’s right hand, waiting for the time to come when heaven and earth finally interlock and overlap. Let us pray that it does, and let us ask God by the power of his Spirit use that picture to make a difference in the whole of our lives. Amen.