Sermon preached by Fr John Pritchard
on Thursday 21st May 2020 (Ascension Day)
Acts 1.4–11; Ephesians 1.15–end; Psalm 47; Luke 24.44–end
When I was in Jerusalem several months ago, I visited the Western Wall. It is a relatively small segment now of a far longer ancient retaining wall originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple begun by Herod the Great. As I approached the security entrance, there was a sign which read: This holy site is the last remaining dwelling place of God in the world.
This powerful statement lingered with me and caused me to inadvertently dwell at the wall for several hours myself, not wanting to leave, enjoying the idea and experience of simply being with God. Of all of the holy sites I visited in Jerusalem, it was for me the most powerful and profound experience of being close to God, so much so that I went back, and over the weeks I was there harboured a longing to be there more often than I could.
At that site, thousands of people every day through prayer came into the presence of God, and his presence was affirmed by their individual experience of God, and by a single note on the wall, a potent statement of conviction.
At the Ascension, we might be reminded of the loss the disciples experience, losing from their sight and close contact, the Lord. Loss is normally hard – we have all realised this in these last weeks where we have clung onto relationships in a way which has helped us make sense of ourselves, especially when we have been isolated. But the idea of loss for the disciples was thwarted by Jesus.
Remember how his parents lost him in the Temple as a child, and how the disciples lost him at his crucifixion and death: only to be found. I suspect with minds opened, and eyes to see, they know he cannot, and neither can they be lost to each other again.
On Ascension Day, we acknowledge our belief that the friend and teacher to the disciples zooms through the clouds, no longer available for face time with them. God revealed in Jesus has a cosmic existence which falls outside of our understanding of time and place. And just as Jesus once looked upon our frail tortured landscape, and said to the Father, “Let me go there”… so now, the disciples, maturing in faith and understanding have to acknowledge his rightful place cannot be with them outside of the bread and wine given to the church through which know him. So, Jesus returns to his pre-incarnate, post-resurrection place.
Not since the intimacy of God in creation making humankind in his image and breathing life into their bodies, not since God journeying with his ancient people in the wilderness, not since the establishment of the Temple as a place of encounter between God and his people has God been so close to us. And now, the image of God closest of all… the resurrected Christ goes back to the Father. The distanced God who dwelt on the mountaintops, who became intimate with humanity, becomes distant again, albeit for a moment.
But this is not the reality for the disciples, for they have seen and believed, the sign for them was clear, that within them will be the dwelling place of God in the world, within them and within us.
So where do the disciples go to share their joy? They return to the Temple. Not to the upper room, not to the places where they had been meeting with the risen Christ, but to the place – “my father’s house” is what Jesus called it – the place of promise and the dwelling-place of God amongst so many dwelling places.
They don’t lament or exploit the loss, they don’t go back to the old religion, but with all that they have seen and heard, believed in and hoped for, their path is to rejoice with thanksgiving in their hearts for they have found the gift of the life in God, and this life will rejoice in the Holy Spirit.
It’s like we have gone full circle. That we have taken every part of God’s offering to us of God’s self. We’ve accepted our discipleship of Christ, our fellowship with the Holy Spirit and come back to the Father – we have drunk deeply from what God has offered and it is good.
You see, at the Ascension, as the early church awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit, it must have acknowledged also an understanding to be in relationship with God revealed in three persons of one substance, power and eternity.
Perhaps at last, God had fully revealed himself in a way they might comprehend, and now all that was required, was to taste and see, for them and us to desire to want to be known by God, and to live in relationship with God.
Creation had already been touched by the Spirit, humankind by the Father breathing his life into our bodies, and walking in the garden searching for us, journeying with his ancient people, and now Jew and non-Jew, were given access to the Father through the Son before the gift of God in the Holy Spirit was sent to unite us with God and with each other.
At last, we had seen God, and in seeing God, we had seen love in its entirety. No wonder the disciples went to the temple to rejoice. They had seen everything, scripture revealed, God revealed – joy revealed.
This is the day for each of us to remember the insights and revelations we have experienced of God. To recall that we too know God, in the intimacy of his life with us, and in his cosmic kingship.
We are reminded this Ascension Day, as we await the Holy Spirit, that our relationship with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, points us to God who is our Father and Mother, for there lies our beginning, and our always, our hope and our joy.
But brace yourselves, for like that wonderful western wall, we too are the last remaining dwelling place of God in the world, we just need to remember it… and remind others also that their life is full of God, risen, ascended, eternal, present, alpha, omega. The life of God which unites us is within us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.