Ascension Day

Have you ever looked at the same story or fact from two different perspectives? Let me give you a couple of small examples.

During WWII General Creighton Abrams found himself and his troops surrounded on all sides. With characteristic optimism, he told his officers, “For the first time in the history of this campaign, we are now in a position to attack the enemy in any direction.”

A man read an ad in the newspaper, “Hunting dog for sale, £2,500.00, but well worth it.” He called the number and the man told him that he had to see the dog in action. The next morning they met and went hunting early. The dog flushed two birds from a clump of bushes and when they fell into the water, he walked on top of the water, grabbed the birds, and walked back on top of the water. The man was amazed, and bought the dog on the spot. The next day he persuaded his brother to go hunting with him. They flushed a couple of birds and the dog again walked on top of the water, retrieved the birds, and walked back to their boat on top of the water.
He asked his brother what he thought of the dog and the brother replied, “So, you bought a dog who can’t swim.”
Perspective, like punctuation, makes a vast difference in meaning.

We have just heard two different readings about the same story: the Ascension of Jesus to Heaven. Same story, but two different perspectives.
Indeed, they are very different in terms of narrative and engagement. At a first glance, the Acts of the Apostles’ recount of the ascension is fantastically dull. Even as a letter, its tone is more pedagogical than anything else. Theophilus is more like a fictional than a real name, and the author of the Acts seems to feel the need to connect the beginning of this new book with Luke’s gospel more than engaging with his community. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t seem to be interested in stirring up a particular audience but rather concentrate on explaining the continuity of the mission entrusted by Jesus to the apostles at the moment of his ascension. His question must have probably been: “Now what? What happened after Jesus left them?”

It might have been the case that the author of the of the Acts and Luke’s gospel were the same person, but that’s not really important. What’s really striking here is that the end of Luke’s gospel is full of emotions and passion while the Acts of the apostles is more like an account of what happened before in order to start narrating the beginnings of the early Christian community’s life. In Luke’s gospel, instead, the disciples express their feelings very openly. It is a profoundly humane narrative. As a matter of fact, we can easily identify ourselves with the disciples.
Just remember that a few passages before the ones we read today, Jesus appears to the disciples and, when he says: “Peace be with you”, they are terrified and alarmed, and think they are seeing a ghost.
Now imagine for a moment this scene and place yourselves in their shoes. Would you not be terrified seeing the one who was crucified and dead, now alive before your own eyes? Yes, you probably would. It is an entirely human reaction.
Their reaction to Jesus’ appearance in their midst then generates puzzlement and disbelief. There is a real dialogue and engagement between Jesus’ words and presence and the disciples’ doubts and bewilderment. What’s fascinating about this encounter between the risen Jesus and his disciples is that is not his body and physical proofs of his resurrection what makes them believe, but his words. “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”. What follows then is the result of this encounter between Jesus’ words and the disciples’ minds.
This is perhaps the best key to understand the gospel. Sometimes we may be tempted to waste too much time on reflecting on what sort of body Jesus had, and what body we would have in the afterlife. But here the gospel is talking to us now.
The end of Luke’s gospel is amazingly glorious. However, we should concentrate again on the disciples. They worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy and are continually in the temple blessing God.
It is an extraordinary experience! They went from terror and bewilderment to joy. It is also a marvelous description of the experience of God, which we can have during the Eucharist or perhaps intense moments of prayer. Again we are looking at a contemplative scene that we may find depicted in many beautiful paintings. Copley’s Ascension which is closely modeled after Raphael’s Transfiguration, one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance,is a splendid example of this. If you have the chance to look at Copley’s painting you will see that he depicted the two angels pointing at the sky while they talk to the disciples, which has a clear reference to the Acts of Apostles’ passage where they say:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”.

I said at the beginning of my sermon that the Acts of the Apostles’ recount of the ascension is fantastically dull, which is true. But it is crucial to understand the beginning of the early church and its mission. The contemplative scene described in Luke’s gospel cannot be the end of the disciples’ spiritual journey, but just the beginning of it. The ascension is moment of contemplation, but now the Acts remind the disciples, and us, that our worship and prayer also involve empowerment by God through participation and collaboration.

The Ascension Day then reminds us that our worship is not true worship is we don’t make our journey from being people who speak to God in prayer to be people who speak for God in action and participation in the spread of the Good News and the Kingdom of God, which is justice and righteousness, as prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah would say.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Paraphrasing the angels’ appeal to the apostles, we could probably say: “People of God in Chiswick, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? Go and proclaim the gospel. Be a proactive and creative Christians in your workplace, family and local community”. Are we vocal enough about our Christian commitment in Chiswick? Can we do more?

The Bedford Park Festival is certainly a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the revolutionary message of our faith to the world. Don’t be shy about your faith and your Christian love to this local community, and at the same time speak for God to the people who need to hear his message and might join us because they see, hear and taste how good the Lord and his people are.
At the same time, in the aftermaths of the terrorist attack in Manchester, this gospel resounds even more strongly in our hearts and minds. We fight back terrorism by proclaiming a gospel of peace and love. It’s hard to say, especially when the victims of this massacre are children and young people. But we already know that violence will just generate more violence. I’d like now to invite you to pray for the victims of the terrorist attack in Manchester and their families by keeping a minute of silence.