Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
For my second Ascension Day in post, I thought another high vantage point was in order. I’m here at the top of the Cathedral tower. The views are amazing, despite the 218 steps to get up here!
When we lived in Sussex, most years we would go to the Wintershall Passion Play. It took place on a large estate in Surrey nearby. Over the course of a day the whole story of the gospels was played out with a cast of local actors. The acting was a times homespun – the person who played Jesus was a local postman. Members of the family and friends took the other roles. But it had grown over the years into a major event with thousands attending. One year on a family visit the audience of several thousand gathered in hushed silence around the crucifixion scene. We found ourselves right at the front. It was particularly graphic, sombre and moving. Unfortunately, it wasn’t helped at the deepest moment of the silence by my youngest son, at that stage about 4, at the top of his lungs shouting, “Dad, this is really boring!”
Later on, by a real lakeside the scene of Peter’s re-instatement played out to the smell of grilling fish. The Ascension scene followed swiftly without drama. Jesus simply walks off into the undergrowth until he disappeared from view. I don’t know why, but it was that scene that always got me every time. I felt like shouting, “come back there is still so much to do!” Surely it would be better if you’d stayed around to answer our doubts, intervene decisively in our internal church disputes and prevent the worst excesses of human wickedness.
The ascension marks one of the greatest risks in the whole Gospel enterprise. To be born without the benefits of modern medicine, subject as others to disease, danger and death was one thing. But to go through all of that and entrust the work of building the kingdom to the disciples as they’re presented in the gospels seems the greatest risk of all. Despite the stories of the Gospel accounts themselves, which would have likely survived, this greatest risk is of being forgotten, or worse still to be so misrepresented that people are put off. And it started fairly early. Pauls towering words to the Corinthian Church about bodies of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit were written to a dysfunctional, venal group of people who by their practices denied the very gospel they proclaimed.
The very survival of the Church to the beginning of the 21st century seems to me one of the best bits of evidence that the Gospel is actually true. Jesus started with such unpromising material! Something must have happened to them for them to achieve what they did. Over the last 2000 years the Church has survived some of the most concerted efforts of human beings to wipe it out. The Roman’s tried – really hard, but just had the opposite effect. Islamic armies largely extinguished the church from north Africa. Yet today, even in the most spiritually repressive regimes, people have dreams about Jesus and become his followers. In China, the Church was driven underground in 1949, and yet today, some estimates put the committed Christian population of China at a higher percentage than western Europe. We are currently having consultations about the next phase of our diocesan strategy. The available evidence suggests that the best thing to get the church growing again would be an outbreak of widespread persecution. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) that’s isn’t something we can engineer.
But Jesus was clear. In John 16: 7, Jesus said, “very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away.” There is of course a balance scale of much good the church has achieved to balance the crusades, the inquisition, racism and a church sanctioned slave trade. Mother Teresa, Wilberforce and others are the tip of the iceberg of countless world transforming acts of service. Jesus’ departure means he has left himself with no hands but ours. When we point the finger at Him and
ask why he doesn’t do more, we find, as with any finger pointing, three pointing back at us. His extraordinary intention was that Christian communities were meant to be an extension of the incarnation. However much we might wish it different there is no plan B. This is our calling: to know Christ, make him known and demonstrate the reality of his love through our loving service of his world.
And if such a calling seems impossible, as in human terms it is, we need to remember the words of St. Augustine as he reflected on the Ascension, “You ascended from before our eyes, and we turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts.” But that is the Pentecost story, and more of that next time.