Last week a dysfunctional family, jealousy, partiality, arrogance got Joseph on his way.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, one of our less celebrated Christian festivals, and easy to ignore. Many years ago when I was living in digs in North London I was familiar with the BBCs habit, before the 8 am news, of playing a few bars of "God save the King" (as it then was) if a royal birthday happened to fall that day. But one Thursday, sitting at breakfast, I was startled to hear the 8 oclock pips followed, unannounced, by a choir singing the first verse of "The Head that once was crowned with thorns". And I remembered that it was Ascension Day. And that started a good conversation round the breakfast table.
"Crowned with glory now" Whats the Ascension all about? Only one author in the New Testament describes the event, and that is Luke, who describes it twice, once in his Gospel, and once in the second book he wrote, the Acts of the Apostles. The oldest Gospel, Mark, doesnt take us beyond Easter Day (except in a postscript added much later by someone else, though its still printed in the Authorized Version of 1611). Neither does Matthew. Nor does the author of the Fourth Gospel. And "ascension" is an unsatisfactory word for us today, as it implies a literal understanding of what happened. Long ago in India I heard an elderly evangelist telling the story of Jesus to a Hindu audience, and ending, "So Jesus went up to heaven up, up, as if he was in an aeroplane". The word he used viman is an ancient word, traditionally used in North Indian languages for a heavenly chariot: but today it simply means a plane: so it didnt help the story much! Archbishop Rowan Williams says that were using metaphor here, and I would agree. Marcus Borg whom some of you have been reading in a study group, and who had a whole page in Crosslight recently - would perhaps say that it was a parable : and I dont think Id agree there. As for the forty days they dont appear anywhere except in Luke, and Matthew and John both seem to assume that Jesus resurrection appearances ceased almost immediately after Easter. But forty days was the mark of a holy time, a time of testing like Israels forty years in the wilderness, or Jesus forty days of temptation in the wilderness and this was such a time. I have no doubt that many of the disciples did truly experience the presence of the risen Jesus at the first Easter: but whether those experiences went on for forty days or were packed into a shorter time is not very important.
Lukes account of the Ascension is really an attempt to answer the question, "Where is Jesus now?" Easter marks the culmination of the story of Jesus life on earth: how he was born, how he lived, how he died, how he overcame death, how large numbers of his friends and followers had experiences of encounter seeing, hearing, even touching which convinced them that he was not dead but alive. But now a new story begins: its the story of how Jesus, whom until now only a limited number of people had been able to encounter, suddenly becomes accessible to everyone, because he is no longer limited by time and space. This happens through what the Church has for centuries called the Ascension. The story of the Church begins here.
Lets look at the account as Luke tells it in Acts 1. The risen Jesus and his friends are on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. They ask him if he is at last going to make his take-over bid and establish the kingdom of Israel, with himself as King. He replies that that is none of their business; that kind of thing is in Gods hands. But then he says, "You will receive power when Gods Spirit comes upon you. And you will go out as witnesses to me and to my way of life to the Jewish people, to the Samaritans and to the whole world". And suddenly he is gone from their sight . But very soon his promise is fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thats Lukes account in Acts. The author of the fourth Gospel doesnt mention the Ascension at all, but his account of the first post-resurrection encounter of Jesus with his male disciples (the primary witness of the Resurrection was of course a woman - Mary Magdalene) is very like Lukes account of the Ascension. (John 20:19-23). The scene here isnt the Mount of Olives: its a locked room in Jerusalem, where the risen Jesus suddenly appears to his friends, and says "Salaam alechem, Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you". And he breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Easter and Pentecost are combined: and the story of the Church has begun the story of the Churchs mission to the world.
So how do these accounts answer our simple question, "Where is Jesus now?"
Well, they say that Jesus is alive. That Jesus is with God. Other parts of the Easter story tell us that Jesus is still fully human; his hands still bears the mark of the nails. And other NT authors make this very clear, especially the author of the letter to the Hebrews. I think of the Scottish paraphrase of a passage in that Letter, which some of us may remember singing here in Presbyterian days:
Though now ascended up on high,
He bends on earth a brothers eye,
and still remembers, in the skies,
His tears, his agonies and cries
I havent given a text yet for this sermon, but here it is now: and its from that passage of Hebrews (4:15-16): We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
The Ascension is associated with a heavenly throne. The earliest New Testament writer, Paul, uses that language of the ascended Jesus "seated at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1), and so do the people who wrote the Gospels (eg Mt 19:28). Jesus is with God. And in some strange way God is Jesus-like; the Power, the Force that drives the universe, is a Jesus-like force; it is love. God is not against us: God is on our side because Jesus once lived on earth, because Jesus is still one of us.
These accounts, and the way they are followed up by Paul, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and the author of Revelation, make it clear that Jesus invites us to share in the life of "heaven" and I use that word because there isnt a satisfactory alternative. The book of Revelation speaks of "a door opened in heaven" (Rev 4:1), and I think that its especially in worship that we pass through that door. We are invited to live, as it were, with one foot in heaven. Or maybe one ear in heaven! (The music there will be even better than the best that Bach and Handel and Mozart and Andrew Blackburn and the choir can provide!).
The biblical language about heaven is both exhilarating and disturbing for us today pearly gates, walls made of precious stones, angels and trumpets, thrones and incense the kind of razzamatazz you find only on television spectaculars, or perhaps at a huge papal Mass in Brazil. Can that really have anything to do with the carpenter from Nazareth? Apparently the early Christians thought that in some ways it could. Great occasions, great architecture, great music are important. Why do we go to concerts, and operas, and art exhibitions? Why do we respond to the best that architecture and light and colour and music and painting and language can provide? We have a natural longing to experience the best, the most beautiful things and moments that humankind can produce; and that makes us realize that even these are not the climax; that beauty and joy and love itself can be even more perfect than the best we can imagine. "Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him, be unto him, that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb" those words from Revelation (5:13, and from The Messiah) can do something for us. We can share for a moment in the glory of God, the Creator, the Absolute, the Power whatever term we like to use. All that is one way of describing where Jesus is now. But theres another way which is equally true, and which Paul uses when he speaks simply of life "in Christ". "To me, life is Christ", he says (Phil 1:21).
For this is the God who came to us in Jesus, who suffered hunger and thirst, who was tortured, who died, who comes to us in our loneliness and sadness, who shares our pain. Where is Jesus? The Basis of Union of our Uniting Church (para 4) tells us that Christ is present when he is preached among us. Yes, in the reading of the Bible, in the preaching of the Word, Christ comes to us. And when, in a few moments, we come to the table of the Lord, and receive the elements of bread and wine; those elements, John Calvin tells us, become effective symbols symbols which effect what they represent, symbols which enable us to receive Christ into our lives and to be nourished and gladdened by his presence. Because of the Ascension we are able to live simultaneously in heaven and on earth: to know that Christ is present with us here in all our pain and earthiness; and yet that we can also share in his risen glory, in the joy of heaven.
A final and vital - point about the Ascension is that it is inextricably bound up with the Mission of the Church. The very last "earthbound" words that the New Testament ascribes to Jesus are "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth". Jesus did not come in order that we might have a quiet, comfortable, private relationship with God, and devote our time to the cultivation of our own spirituality. He came to share our life on earth in all its messiness; he came to give us an anticipation of the glorious life of what we call heaven in order that we might share this good news with everyone, and might work to establish justice and peace and love throughout the world. In Greek and Russian Orthodox churches it is common to see, as you look up into the dome, a fresco or mosaic of Christ throned in glory: its called "Christ the Pantocrator", the one who rules over everything. We have that same image in this church, in that wonderful window over there; and theres another version of it on the cover of todays Order of Service. People often think of that picture as Christ seated in judgement. And Yes, the element of judgement is there, because its an image of sowing, and reaping, the judgement between wheat and weeds, Gods steadfast opposition to all forms of falsehood, cruelty and injustice.. But who is this Pantokrator? He is Jesus of Nazareth, and to quote that paraphrase again
Our fellow suffrer still retains
A fellow feeling of our pains;
And still remembers in the skies
His tears, his agonies and cries.
The risen, ascended Christ, the Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father, is the source of forgiveness, and love. He is the one who says, "Come to me all you who are weary, and have heavy burdens to bear and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28). I dont know how many of you have read the novels of Philip Pullman, who is generally described as a great opponent of Christianity. He certainly doesnt much like the Roman Catholic Church, or any church which he sees as domineering, negative and inhuman. You remember how he uses the idea taken from the Greek philosopher Plato - that every human being has a "daemon" perched on his shoulder: really a sort of guardian angel, though it usually takes the shape of a small, friendly animal. And the great power of Evil is the power which tries to sever that friendly guardian daemon from the person he or she is protecting. Pullman sees that interfering, love-destroying power as the power of organized religion. Well, if thats what religion is - if thats what God is - I agree with Pullman that its terrible. But the God he is demolishing reveals the God he really believes in; he believes in love and justice. Jesus gives us the clue to what God is really like: loving, forgiving, liberating, empowering Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Palestinian, Christ Pantokrator ruling in love and sending us out into the world in mission.
Today we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Part of me says I should have been preaching about unity today for Ive spent a good deal of my life working for the ecumenical movement. But, for Jesus, the unity of his followers was geared to mission. And mission in Christs way begins with living "in Christ". Suddenly, at what we call the Ascension, Jesus ceases to be localized in Palestine, and becomes available to the whole world, and to people of every race and culture. And he gives them and us - this extraordinary possibility of sharing in the glorious life of heaven and at the same time living it out here on this troubled earth. We are citizens of two realms "on the way" and "in glory"(in via, in gloria).
We are coming now to the table of the Lord, where we not only remember Jesus in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, but we receive the bread and wine, symbols of his broken body, his shed blood, and pray that in doing so we may receive him, be nourished by his love and power. And then we go out into Toorak Road with its cars and trams and people - "to live and work to his praise and glory".