A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
The Ascension of Our Lord
Christ Church St Laurence – 25 May 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the 24th Chapter of the Gospel According to Luke: While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. Like so many feast days in the liturgical year, the Feast of the Ascension has attracted a significant number of misconceptions and mythology. Rest assured, this is not going to be one of those sermons exploring the scientific probability of such an event, as entertaining as that would be. However, it is important to acknowledge that, rather like the Christmas story, our understanding of the Ascension is shaped by several complementary or even conflicting sources. Luke is the only evangelist to record the precise moment of the Ascension. Matthew concludes his Gospel with the Great Commission. Taking place on the ever-symbolic mountain top, Christ promises the disciples that he will remain with them until the end of the age. He could hardly then vanish before their eyes. Most politicians don’t even break promises that quickly. In John’s Gospel, the risen Christ commands Mary Magdalene to tell the others the good news, saying, “I am ascending to my father and your father.” The risen Christ predicts the Ascension, but the reader of John is not given an account of the event. If we wish to reflect on the moment of the Ascension, we must turn to Luke – the only source and authority on this particular subject. The only problem is that Luke gives not one, but two differing accounts of the Ascension. The most familiar account, found in the Book of Acts, suggests that this dramatic event occurred on the 40th day. However, in his Gospel, Luke states that the Ascension occurred on the evening of the first day. Although we celebrate the Ascension 40 days after Easter, Luke’s Gospel suggests that it took place on Easter Sunday evening, immediately after Christ appeared to the confused and frightened disciples. For centuries, the early church did not celebrate the Ascension on the 40th day; the early church did not even celebrate the Ascension as a separate event from the Resurrection. And yet, the Paschal Candle has been burning for 40 days in this church because, rightly or wrongly, the Ascension is now firmly established as an important event in its own right.
Despite the drama and joy of the Ascension, there is a slightly bitter or cruel aspect in this whole episode. We have to remember that Christ’s closest friends and family have endured horrific grief and bereavement. We have no trouble imagining their sense of loss. We only have to watch a news bulletin and see the absolutely devastated families of 22 young people killed in the City of Manchester. We only have to read a news article about Syrian refugees who have lost count of the number of innocent family members who have been taken from them. By standing among them, and bringing peace, the risen Christ freed the disciples from their pain and grief, but only to be taken from them again. It doesn’t matter if the Ascension occurred 4 hours or 40 days after the resurrection, the pain of yet another separation should have left them absolutely bereft… and yet, for reasons that we may struggle to comprehend, it doesn’t. We are told that, after he was taken from their sight, ‘…they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 2 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.’ In the midst of utter grief and loss, the resurrection had restored their hope, and nothing would ever rob them of this hope again.
On the 14th April 2014, the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from Chibok School in north-eastern Nigeria. As a father of daughters, I find it impossible not to be deeply affected by this horrific act, despite the fact that it happened on the other side of the world. The reality is that the Chibok girls were not the first to be kidnapped in this way, and they certainly will not be the last. Perhaps because of the scale of this evil deed, the kidnapping of 276 school girls resulted in worldwide media attention, and in an unprecedented social media campaign. Now being used as a political bargaining tool, 82 of the girls were recently released after intense negotiations between the Nigerian Government and the hostage takers. By co-incidence, and yet powerfully symbolic, the 82 freed school girls arrived in the Nigerian Capital early on a Sunday morning. On that Sunday, the day of resurrection, news started filtering through to families in remote villages throughout north-eastern Nigeria. Appropriately, the world media continues to focus on this dramatic story as it unfolds. Interviewed family members of the Chibok school girls have consistently expressed deep Christian faith. Although there must surely be unimaginable grief and anger, I have been stagged to witness how interviewed parents have consistently expressed hope and faith. We might expect this as parents are reunited with children after three years of painful separation, but I had not expected to encounter this same hope and faith from the parents who have not been reunited. One mother, who looked in vain for her daughter among the released girls said, “Even if she is not there, although I will be disappointed, I will still be happy for those families whose daughters have come back because some day the rest will be freed…”
In Luke’s account of the Ascension, Christ takes the disciples to Bethany—this is where he is taken from their sight. Bethany was the scene of another dramatic resurrection. Despite the joy of it all, the raising of Lazarus could have been described as a futile gesture. Lazarus would die again one day; this was not some experiment in physical immortality. Rather, the raising of Lazarus was also about the restoration of hope in the midst of grief and loss. Whatever happened to Lazarus after this dramatic event, hope would never be taken away again. At the moment of the Ascension those closest to Christ endured another painful separation, but this time, they did not lock themselves in a room. They had experienced the risen Christ; their hope had been restored. From this moment on, they had no choice but to share the faith that was within them. As we witness great suffering in our world, we continue to encounter people of faith; people who should live without hope. We see persecuted Christians in Syria who logically should renounce their faith; we see persecuted minority groups, even in our own society who should give up on a church that has given up on them; we see grief-stricken parents, still waiting to be reunited with their daughters, who should only express anger and hatred…but they don’t. Against all logic, even those who know unimaginable suffering, still express hope and faith. Once the hope of the resurrection has been experienced, nothing will ever take it away. No act of evil will be capable of destroying this hope that it is within us.
Christ is risen, Alleluia!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!