Sunday, 5 June 2011

7th Sunday of Easter: Time for some serious Ascension theology!

7th Sunday after Easter - Sunday after Ascension Day

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

John 17:1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

I’d like to begin with a story. It was a windy evening that was hovering on becoming stormy, and Joel was standing on the station at Moor Street. Although well sheltered from the worst of the elements he wrapped his coat tight around him, listening to the rain slamming into the platform roof. His worst fears were concerned when the sky was suddenly lit up by the first of many flashes of lightening.

He counted the seconds off, just as he had done so since being a child. ‘One elephant, two elephant, three ele...’ And then a huge crash of thunder arrived. The storm that had been threatening for hours had now arrived in full force. Panic stricken Joel looked again at his ‘phone with the message from his mother-in-law in bold letters saying, ‘Come home now, Jenny has started labour’.

Again he looked up at the message board hanging over the platform but still it said the same thing, ‘Dorridge 19.22 - Delayed.’ Again he texted his mother in law and his beloved Jenny to say he was stuck and could someone come and get him. Suddenly his phone bleeped and he looked down to see a message saying....

And now you all want to know the ending. Who was the text from? Was someone coming to fetch him from the station? Did Joel get home in time for the arrival of his first child? We all hate it when a story is left on a cliff-hanger and we don’t know the ending because we want things to resolve. We want to know what happens.

Yet having said all that, by and large as a church we ignore the story that wraps up the ending of Jesus’s earthly ministry. We’ve done all Christmas birth, the Lent preparation, the Good Friday horror, the Easter Day glory of the resurrection, yet the end of the story, the conclusion of Jesus’s life on earth barely gets a mention.

Ascension day falls on a Thursday, last Thursday, and so we never really get to grips with the impact that event has on everything. The Ascension of Christ closes the circle and so it’s really important that we think about what happened and what it means. So let’s do some theology together because there are important implications for us as believers, and about how the ascension changes us too.

Let me start by saying something pretty obvious, but also quite radical. Before the birth of the Son of God on earth, he already existed. We know this from that famous passage with which we’re all familiar from our Christmas readings, the beginning of the Gospel of St. John. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Jesus also speaks about this time before time in the words of the Gospel reading, when in his prayer he prays:
“So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had in your presence before the world existed.”

That word, ‘World’ is the Greek word kosmos, which is a word you may be familiar with. In this context Jesus is probably referring to the whole universe, not just the world as in this planet. So, just as it says in the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking about the time before anything was created, when it was just God the Holy Trinity.

So far, so good. This is the kind of stuff we talk about at Christmas and isn’t really new. So now let’s open it up a little to one of those things which is quite obvious when you think about it, only it’s not something we normally think about. The Word of God, the Son of God, was always divine, that’s what we’ve just said. However, he wasn’t always human.

As I said, that ought to be fairly obvious really. If we’re referring to a time before creation, then we’re thinking about a time before there were any humans. So if Jesus is God, and was existing before there was any creation, then it’s actually pretty logical and obvious that he cannot have been human in that time before time.

The humanity of the one we know as Jesus was not there in the beginning. His humanity was not a part of him until he was born as one of us, as Jesus Son of Mary. That’s what we celebrated back at Christmas.

In Jesus we see an intermingling of our humanity and God’s divinity. Jesus was unique because he was completely and totally human and yet he was also completely and totally divine. The only reason we didn’t see his humanity overwhelmed by his divinity is because he emptied himself of it when he was conceived, yet even so there were echoes in his life, such as the transfiguration, when his glory began to shine through him, and Peter, James and John received an inkling of what he was really like.

So grasp that fact because it’s vital to what we’re learning this morning. Before he was born, the Son of God had no humanity in him, his divinity was all. Now that’s very important in comprehending the significance of the Ascension. Only after he had been born as Jesus, the son of Mary, did he take on our humanity.

The next significant event was his death and resurrection, the events we celebrated just a few weeks back at Easter. Jesus suffered pain as one of us. He suffered the separation from his heavenly Father on the cross, and then he died as one of us.

It was only when he was raised that we see things had changed a little. We know that he was raised as one of us, but he was quite clearly raised with a superior humanity to the one we have. His body didn’t seem bound by the same laws that bind ours, since he was able to do such things as arriving in a room without walking through the door. Yet he demonstrated that he ate food, so clearly wasn’t just a ghost.

In that sense Jesus was the first-fruit of a new humanity, showing us what we will be like after our own resurrection. This new humanity is still human, only more so. Nevertheless, he was raised as a human. But what makes all of this so significant is that it was this Jesus, the one who was both fully human and fully God, who ascended into heaven.

What makes this so remarkable is that I believe this ascension changed something within heaven, indeed within the Godhead itself.

Let’s recap. Before he was born as one of us, the Son of God was divine, but now the Son of God is both divine and human, and when Jesus returned to the presence of the Father, he didn’t leave his human part behind, he returned to the Father as both divine and human. In other words, he took our humanity, which he had made perfect, into the very heart of God, incorporating our humanity into the Godhead.

That has some startling implications for us. You see if we are baptised believers, then the Ascension of Jesus means that in some way, we are already in the heavenly presence of God the Father. Let me say that again. If we are baptised believers, then we are already in the heavenly presence of God the Father.

No ifs, no buts, no reason left to fear. It’s a simple truth which is delivered to us because of the ascension of Christ.

How is this so? Well, if we are baptised, then we are baptised into Christ. In other words we are ‘in’ him, we dwell within his nature. So if Christ is in the presence of the Father, and we are in him, then we must also dwell in the presence of the Father. Let me say that again. Jesus, both divine and human, is in the presence of the Father, and if he is in us, then we, too, are joined to that presence with the Father.

Now I hope that’s clear, but before I go on, let me recap. Before being born on earth, the Son of God had no humanity within him, but by being born as the Son of Mary, he took our humanity and intermingled it with his divinity.

When he died and was raised, he was raised with his humanity perfected in the resurrection, the first fruit of the resurrection that will be given to each of us. When he ascended into heaven he took our humanity with him, right into the heart of the Godhead, and so if we are baptised into Christ, then we are in him, just as he is in the Father. And so we, too, are in the presence of God the Father through him.

Now, that’s the theology, what are the implications for us? Well first of all this is good news for us, the kind of good news that we really should be inspired to share. We don’t deserve this treatment, yet we are fully known and accepted by the Father as we dwell in his presence through his Son. And consider this, what do you see when you look into your own heart?

I don’t know about you but I’m not particularly keen on what I see in myself. I have no right to be loved by the Father; quite the opposite to be honest. Yet if I am in Christ because he took our humanity into the Godhead at his ascension, what does the Father see when he looks at me? He sees Jesus.

All of the things that we do wrong, all our inherent weaknesses, the Father is able to see past those right into our hearts because he sees us through the lens of his perfect Son. And not only that, Jesus stands in the presence of the Father, constantly interceding for us, knowing our needs because we are in him. This is the firm hope that we have as Christians.

Jesus, stands in the presence of the Father, drawing us with him, and as he stands there he talks to the Father on our behalf. If you have ever doubted that God could love you, please realise the implications of this. You and I are loved more than we can imagine, with God both within us, as the Holy Spirit, and in the presence of the Father, as Jesus the Son, on our behalf.

We’re not worthy of this, but that doesn’t matter. Those of you who are parents will know that you don’t judge whether to love your children dependent on how worthy of it they are.

But there’s one more thing to be considered. There is also a movement implied here. Jesus is leaving the disciples physically, moving back to heaven, but he tells them that soon they will receive the Holy Spirit, and will then be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem but then travelling throughout the world. This ending of his first earthly ministry is also the beginning of his new earthly ministry.

As I have said, just as we are in him, and so in the presence of the Father, so he is in us, through the Holy Spirit, something which will be celebrated next week at Pentecost. And if he is in us, then Jesus Christ is loose in the world. We’re present to the Father in him, but he is present to the world through us. Two thousand years ago he had only one pair of hands. Now look around. Even in this one church there are many pairs of his hands, all waiting to be used.

It is only a week to go now to Pentecost, but we don’t need to wait until then to recognise how intimately the two are tied to together, and what the implications are for us. Our Lord Jesus is making us present to God the Father, but we also have a duty, a missionary duty, which should be in the hearts of every one of us here. We are called to make Christ, who is within us, present to the world.

And so the obvious question which we must take from this is; what are we doing to make Christ present in the corner of the world in which each of us has been placed? That, finally, is a mark of the reciprocal nature of the ascension. Jesus Christ is loose in the world, through us, but can anyone see him?

What are the gifts God has given you? Those are the ways in which he is to be made obvious to others. People should know who God is because of the way he works through the gifts he has given us, which obviously means we should be thinking about what we do with what we have and who we are.

So, when the dismissal is given at the end of this service, take to heart the word, Amen, so be it, which we will say. That is our agreement to make the risen ascended Christ present to those with whom we share our lives, as we give thanks for the way he makes us present to the Father. We are in the Father’s presence through him, and he is loose in the world through us. Amen.

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