Ascension Sunday – We go up!

The end of all things is at hand:
be therefore sober and watchful in prayer!

Ascension - deColoswar15thcp
Ascension, Master Thomas de Coloswar, 1427

This morning in the Church we remember that in-between time – between Ascension and Pentecost.  The Ascension is when 40 days after Easter, Jesus went up bodily from earth into heaven before the eyes of the Apostles; Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out from heaven onto the Apostles on earth.

You can read about what happened at the ascension in three places in the Bible: in the last chapters of Mark and of Luke, and in the first chapter of Acts of the Apostles.  After Jesus gave the disciples a few final words and a blessing, Luke writes, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.”  [We extinguished the Pascal candle, which has lit since Easter, after the Gospel reading last Thursday as a figure of Christ’s Ascension.]

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Ascension of Elijah, Icon

This morning in our first lesson [2 Kings 2:9-15] we had the account of Elijah being taken up from the earth – and Elisha, his student, saw it happen, and was given his request of inheriting a double share of Elijah’s spirit for being there by Elijah’s side to watch him.

We heard it this morning because it is an Old Testament figure for us of how we can inherit that blessing.  In Elisha’s case, before today’s reading we are told that Elisha stayed closely by Elijah in his travels to be sure to witness his departure.  “If you see me when I’m taken from you, [you will receive a double portion of my spirit.]” As followers of Jesus, we are to stay close to Jesus, keeping our eyes fixed upon him, that as he ascends we might inherit a share of His Spirit.

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Why is the Ascension an important feast for Christians?

The ascension of Jesus is the completion of all his works on earth – his birth, his life of teaching and miracles, his passion and death, and his resurrection.  The Ascension is Christ seated at the right hand of the Father – it is a picture of his work completed, and the beginning of His rule from heaven.

Christ’s ascension brings about an ascension in us!  In our Baptism, our souls and bodies were united to Jesus.  That union is strengthened and becomes fruitful only as we turn to him with a living faith.

When two people love each other, they begin to think about what the other is thinking.  Because of our union with Christ, because of our love of Him, His grace lifts our thoughts to eternal things, moves our hearts to care about eternal things – righteousness, holiness, Truth, Wisdom, Love.  Because we are joined to Jesus Christ by the Spirit, our ascension is the most natural thing possible – we actually have to stop it for it not to happen.

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Dante and Beatrice – Illustration by Botticelli

Dante speaks about this in the first Canto of the Paradiso – the third book of the Divine Comedy.  He is with Beatrice, his beloved, who is more spiritually mature, and speaking with her, and is surprised that he has suddenly been lifted to such spiritual heights.  Beatrice chides him, like a child in a delirium, saying, that what is strange is that when we’ve been given the flame of love in our hearts, that we would somehow stay earthbound.

No more amazement should it bring to you
that you ascend, than if a mountain stream
should tumble rushing to the plains below.
But it would be a cause of just surprise
if, free of every bar, you should remain
like a still flame on earth, and not arise.”
Then to the heavens she turned her gaze again.

[Dante’s Paradiso, Canto One, Esolen’s translation]

The love from God in us makes us ascend – makes us go upwards.  It is for us simply to allow ourselves to be captured by that love – like an eagle carried upwards in an updraft.  Strangely, the truth is, we often are actively fighting against love’s impulses to move us to the highest ends.

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What does it look like to be captured by love and how does it happen?

St. Peter, in our Epistle reading [1 Peter 4:7-10], makes some suggestions about what we can do – something that very much appeals to us!  He says, The end of all things is at hand…

St Peter is not speaking about a temporal end, but about the final end towards which all things are moving – Heaven, God, who is our end – is at hand – is very close to us.  This is true especially because of our baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, through which the Holy Spirit is poured out on us. [Rom 5:5].

Be therefore self-controlled, says St Peter, and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.

We live our lives, in a disciplined way, so that our prayer life is guarded and protected and nurtured.  Because it is in prayer that we ascend to God.  If we over-eat or under-eat, if we don’t get enough sleep, if we are too distracted by many activities, we are not able to pray. Sin affects our ability to pray – if we are ashamed of something we’ve done, we may try to hide ourselves from God and stop praying.  Maybe it is just the reassertion of our self-will, fighting against God, that draws us away.  Be therefore self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.  Being serious about our prayer life, sober-minded, is about being serious to follow Jesus in all things, but it doesn’t mean lacking joy at all, in fact, it is finally living in the true joy of God.  A serious spiritual life is a life of underlying joy.

Peter goes on to say, Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.  It is other peoples’ sins that we are to cover with love – by letting them go – it is the difficult call to forgive others – it is allowing God’s love, in the form of mercy, to flow through us.

Finally, the Apostle says, As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.

Think again of that image of the eagle, soaring and being lifted on the air currents that are rising.  It is getting its lift naturally, it doesn’t have to create the wind.  But it does have to cooperate and direct its wings, so that it rises on the wind.  An eagle is very conscious of how to work with the wind to go up.  Likewise we, when we are filled with the Love of God, with his Holy Spirit, we don’t create the love, that comes from above, but we participate, we cooperate with that grace, that love.

Paul is suggesting there is something we can do to be taken up in love again – attend to our prayer life, love one another, forgive, exercise the gifts we have of the Spirit.

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Jesus told the disciples to wait in prayer in Jerusalem for the Comforter – and then they would be witnesses to Him.  They no doubt thought about the promise he made to them in his farewell discourse, from which we heard today’s Gospel [John 15:26-16:4]: “When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth… He shall bear witness to Me: and you also shall bear witness …”

For the disciples, this time between the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost was a time between promise and fulfilment, between hope and its consummation, between uncertainty and clarity of mission – once the Spirit fell on them they immediately began preaching in the city square.

For us it is not waiting for the Spirit to be poured out for the first time…but it might be waiting for the renewal of this Gift in us.

In moments when we feel powerless, easily annoyed, bitter, uninspired, lacking imagination, our hearts cool, not knowing how we might be ministers of Jesus – in other words, when we have fallen out of Love – let us remember always this example of the disciples.  Following our Lord’s command, they took time apart in prayer and waited – not one day but 10 days! they set themselves apart praying and watching.  Pray that God would re-inspire us – a dream or a vision, the smallest indication, confirmation, affirmation of His love for us and that He has a plan for us – it makes all the difference to receive that response from the other side!  We can wait in prayer and we should expect it!

On the local Church level – with the church plant in Amersfoort many have left, and many new people have come.  We have some certainties about what we’re called to, things relevant over the past 2000 years and always relevant – preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, provide pastoral care, make disciples, mission outreach.  But we also have some uncertainties about the specifics of our calling here in this place at this time.  We are planning an Away Day for our congregations at Holy Trinity on June 4th.  I invite us all to take some time deliberately in our prayers over the next couple of weeks to be inspired by God’s vision for Holy Trinity in Utrecht and to share what the Lord is speaking to us at the Away Day.

This morning we have taken time out – a day of rest, to gather with other Christians, in His Name, to be encouraged and to recall what Jesus has done and to be filled with his Spirit.  We are singing songs of praise and thanksgiving for what Jesus has done.  Perhaps we feel like we are utterly spent, with no more love to give.

Jesus is always ready to replenish us, he is ready even now.  He invites us to receive his anointing from above, even the gift of His Body and Blood, to assure us that we are forgiven, to strengthen us, to renew our faith, restore our hope, and most of all, to kindle the flames of holy love in our hearts, so that we might ascend even now to dwell with Him in the heavenly places.  Amen.