Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2014
29 May 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
We sometimes think of time as having an inexorable logic. The seconds pass, the minutes tick away, the hours are gone. The clock seems to govern our lives. And yet we know of times that seem to stretch into eternity and other times which are gone in a flash. And, while some people seem to take their time and are slow to achieve anything, others pack into a day more than anyone else can imagine and make good of it all. If you want anything done, we often say, ask a busy person. So there is a flexibility about time: time stretching into eternity. Even so there are moments of transition.
The day when we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord marks a profound moment of transition, an ending, and a beginning. Jesus’ closest friends and followers, his disciples, would not after this day see his body again. They had suffered the terrible loss of his crucifixion, his passion and death; they had heard rumours on the first Easter Day that he was alive; many of them had seen the empty tomb; many of them had encountered the risen Jesus in some kind of mysterious but genuine physical manifestation. They had rejoiced, but still wondered, uncertain as to their own future.
The two disciples who had met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus had been going back home to get on with their ordinary lives. But once they had found their hearts burning within them as Jesus interpreted the scriptures to them and assured them that the Christ must rise from the dead and once they had definitively recognised him in the breaking of bread, they returned to Jerusalem and shared in the life of the disciples there, watching and waiting in the Upper Room, from time to time witnessing the presence of Jesus with them.
Now was to come the last moment in which they would have a strong experience of his risen presence, would see him and hear him, as we see and hear those who are alive around us. Now would come the parting of the ways. We heard earlier how St Luke described the scene. ‘As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’ St Luke also tells his readers how to interpret the moment. ‘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.’’
We understand this final resurrection appearance of the risen Lord, this transitional moment between earth and heaven, as necessary for two particular reasons. The first is that a localised physical presence of the risen Christ is understood to prevent his universal presence. If he is here, he cannot be there. If he is there, he cannot be here. But the risen Christ has to be everywhere. The second is that the means of the presence of the risen Christ everywhere is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit, bringing into being the universal Body of Christ, constituting the Church. The Ascension had to happen before the Christian Pentecost could happen.
I said earlier that time seems inflexible when we think of our watches and wonderfully flexible when we think of moments when time seems to stand still or to drag or to fly. Our lives are governed by time and space. But in truth time and space are but aspects of the created order. We cannot imagine existence beyond the bounds of time and space. But our Christian faith and reason assure us that God is not bound by time and space, just as joy, happiness and love are not bound by time and space, are not limited qualities or quantities.
God holds within his own Being all time in one and all space in one. At the moment of his Ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ went beyond the constraints of time and space. If we can imagine the perfection of love, joy and peace, as we can if we remember such moments within our life that have seemed to be limitless, unconstrained, then we can have some glimpse of what the life of eternity must be.
And the deep and wonderful truth of the flexibility of time, and of the flexibility of space in God’s dispensation, leads to the amazing truth that the risen Christ is everywhere through the power of his Holy Spirit and that everywhere and every moment is transparent to and transfixed by the Spirit of God and the glory of God.
This moment is transfused by eternity. This place is transposed into heaven. Where God is, there is heaven; here God is, so we are in heaven. We may only have a fleeting glimpse, such as when our prayer is deep and real, or when the choir sings Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua; Hosanna in excelsis.
But that fleeting glimpse is a moment of insight into the deep and eternal reality of things. In Christ, heaven and earth are one. In Christ, all time is one. God holds within his own Being all time in one and all space in one.
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
The angels keep their ancient places;--
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.