Ascension Day

This is the text of a sermon for Ascension Day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures referenced are Luke 24:44-53 and Ephesians 1:15-23.

So often, when we think about Christ’s ascension, we think of it from the earthly side.  We imagine something like the picture on the front of tonight’s pew sheet; Jesus ascending into clouds, the apostles and their companions standing around gazing upwards, all of that.  But if that was problematic or even a crisis point for the people standing on earth, I read one author who suggested it was just as much of a shock to the angels in heaven; Christ returned, fully human, and sat on the throne at the right hand of the father, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.

You see, the point about Christ’s ascension is not so much about his going away, or the physics of where or how he has gone, as it is about locating him now.  About having the wisdom to recognise that he is at the right hand of the Father, in the heavenly places, with all things under his feet, and is head over all things.  The imagery is spatial but it is one way of articulating relationships of comparative power and status, which have implications for the church, the physical created world and even for heaven.

Christ is now in the presence of the Father, in the place where events of even cosmic significance are decided; and seated in the position to which every other power and authority must defer.

In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians which we heard tonight, Paul writes about Christ’s superiority to “all rule and authority and power and dominion,” and in the language of the time, this was understood to refer to demonic power, which Jewish thought saw at work behind idolatry, and all the practices, dispositions and structures which alienate people from God and from one another.  For the Ephesians, Christian converts in an environment where pagan worship and the practice of magic were both common, this reminder of Christ’s superiority to all such things was, no doubt, timely.

But even to us, who may be more hesitant in identifying demonic forces behind our own experiences of alienation and dehumanisation, it is helpful and timely to remember that the reign of Christ surpasses – and will in time bring to an end – all rule and authority which would see God ignored and human beings reduced to less than the image and glory of God.

The mention in the text of “this age but also…the age to come” points to the reality that although Christ’s rule over all things is already determined and established, it is yet to be brought to its fullness.

Paul prays that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you;” hope that has been begun in and which draws its life from Christ, raised from the dead and seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places.  That hope is not yet brought to fulfillment; God’s will is still unfolding, and we – the body of which Christ is uniquely and personally the head – find ourselves caught up in the drama, somewhere between the overture and the final curtain.

But because we have been given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, we know something of the final scenes, have caught a glimpse of that hope, the final reign of God in which all that is wrong will be put right, and God will be all in all.  As the church, the body of Christ, even, the text says, “the fullness of him who fills all in all,” we are called to participate in bringing that about.  Hope is not primarily an emotion, but an expectation expressed in the orientation of our priorities and our lives.

And I should say that this is not only an outward-oriented reality; as if Ascension Day might have much to do with social justice but not so much about anything else.  Make no mistake; this is just as much an internal reality as well.  The reign of Christ must be as much in each of our hearts, and has as much to do with individual holiness and obedience – unfashionable terms though those are – as it does with social justice.

In that regard, I’m reminded of the words of a worship song which I’ve sung a great deal elsewhere.  I won’t sing it for you, but just read you a couple of verses:

Lord, take up your holy throne,
deep within my heart.
Take the place that is yours alone,
deep within my heart.

Lord, take up your holy throne,
throughout all the earth.
Take the place that is yours alone,
throughout all the earth.

And of the increase of your government,
there shall be no end,
there shall be no end,
there shall be no end;
you are worthy, Lord, to reign.

I can think of no more fitting prayer to finish with on Ascension Day.

 As a bonus, here in the blog I can add a link to a youtube version of the song I quoted, so you can listen as well as read.

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