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Ascension Sermon: Body Language

June 10, 2011

Texts: Acts 1:1-11       Ephesians 1:11-23

The life of the church is a matter of hope. It is nothing if it is not hope… Paul’s prayer for the Christians atEphesusis that:

‘… with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.’

The inheritance of Christ is hidden in the church… sometimes very well hidden… our eyes need to be opened to it… but it is in the church as a matter of hope. Paul binds these two things closely together for us today ‘the hope to which he has called you’ on the one hand, and ‘the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints’.  What is the link between hope and the church?

One thing about hope is that it is incomplete. Hope is very conscious of the incompleteness of the world now… in this case the church now.

When Paul talks about church, he is not talking about a special kind of club, a new human endeavour. He sees instead the work of God gathering and reforming humans. He sees in it the culmination of God’s work in Christ… Christ’s work as Lord over all things is ‘for the church which is his body’.

To our ears this might sound like special pleading for some organization – one that claims “God is on our side”. But I want to suggest that it can be read differently. It can be read as declaring that the culmination of Christ’s work is the transformation of human beings into something new (and we call that something new ‘Church’ (although not everything that we call church is that something new that God is doing)…  A bishop of the ancient church called Irenaeus once said

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive”.

It could be here translated. The glory of God in Christ is a human community fully alive.

The God who loves all of creation and wants it to be restored to something new… has a special place for the restoration of human community in that plan. God’s mission depends on it. As stewards of creation, as participants in God’s mission we are called to be ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’.

It’s an enormous claim.

What I think it means is that when (for example) we gathered together on Saturday to think about our future and when we gather again to reflect a little more deeply on the different visions and why they differ and what they have in common… we are not concerned merely with our future… we are concerned with something that lies deep in the heart of the God who fills the whole universe. The God whose life is demonstrated and seen most fully in the crucified and brutalized man Jesus is now to going to communicate his life in and through us. In our flimsy attempts to look like Jesus in Coastal Unity Parish… even there God’s image is being formed and reformed.

Today is ascension Sunday. Ascension is the time we remember and retell the story which marks the end of Christ’s bodily appearances in resurrection and at the same time marks the beginning of the church’s present situation. So it sets the scene for our life and mission here. Jesus is not going to be with them in the same way any more. They must have felt … fearful, disoriented…After all the disorientation of the cross and resurrection, now things are changing again.

So what does it mean for us… to believe that not only is Christ risen, but Christ is ascended.

This story of Christ’s ascension has two things to tell us.

Firstly, that Jesus doesn’t just merge into the church, as a head might be thought to be part of its body. Jesus is alive for us and addresses us from ‘heaven’ (“whatever that means”, I hear you say) Remember Mary at the tomb told not to hold onto Jesus. It might seem comforting for us to have Jesus dropping in on us bodily… But this is not God’s purposes for us. God needs Jesus to be free of our clasping and insecure hands. We don’t have Jesus on tap. He’s not the kind of thing we can organize into our world… domesticate. In fact as he says before his crucifixion, ‘it is better for you that I go away’. Archbishop Rowan Williams posted a wonderful sermon on this just this week. He asks how it can be better for us if Jesus goes away… if the greatest sign of God’s life and love (Jesus) is invisible to us. After all we can understand something of the disciples fears, because we know something of what it means to live in a world that looks as if God is absent.

Williams says

“So if the world often feels like a world without God, is that a sort of caution to us?  Be careful not to think that God is there to fill the gaps, to solve the problems, to fit in in our terms.  God isn’t a thing among other things.  God is the depth of energy out of which every single thing comes. If we can’t instantly ‘see’ God in the world, perhaps it’s because he is like the air we breathe, so all-pervasive that we can never pin down its presence as if it were an object.”

So to say the human Jesus has not only risen, but ascended is to say that he has gone ‘deeper into the heart of reality” – ours and God’s – that’s what we mean by heaven. The human Jesus is part of the divine life – he comes to us from beyond us – he can still surprise us. Having shown himself, in the resurrection, to be the very source of our life, the energy of God, he now draws us into that from the invisibility of eternity.

Secondly, it tells us that although Jesus is (quite independently of us) at work in the healing of creation, he nevertheless has a central place for us in his mission to the world. We read before: “You will be my witnesses, inJerusalem and in Judea andSamaria and to the ends of the earth.” Witnesses… It means we communicate something… we are the bearers of a story… but it’s more even than that according to Ephesians. We witness, we communicate, because we are ‘full’ of Christ… because Christ animates our life… because what will empower us is the Spirit of Christ ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”… power to communicate a witness, power to communicate the life of Jesus, power to be [quote] “the fullness of the one who fills all in all”… power to be Jesus to our generation… our world… our context in Caversham.

This is not a demand on us to do something…

This is a promise. You will receive power. You will be witnesses. The promise is clear… and in many ways the role is clear. The world needs to see Jesus. We have complicated that in all sorts of ways. There will always be complexities as we discover what that means for our future, for what we do as a parish… but the basic point is simple. The world needs to see Jesus in our life together and our life for the world. Only then does our life matter.

We exist to bear witness… in the absence of a body… body now ‘ascended’, we are in a similar but different sense, the body that the world will see. We are not the body merely for some kind of internal exercise in supporting one another – yes it’s true, everyone has a part to play… we know that well. But the more important point is… We are the body so that Jesus is visible. And it matters for the world that Jesus is visible.

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