An Ascension Day sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral, 5th May 2016
Readings: Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.44-53
‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6)
+ In nomine Patris…
You need to wear your shades if you go into the Lady Chapel of Guildford Cathedral on a sunny day at this time of year. The steps take you up into the chapel and, for a moment, your sight line is directly up at the windows perched high up above.
The sun is quite dazzling. And one’s gaze cannot be held. And so one must look down again, back to the mundane, but also a place where manifestations of God’s glory are also to be found: the altar, the table of the Lord; the Blessed Sacrament, the presence of the Ascended Lord in bread and wine; and the people of God gathered for worship.
Ascension Day gives us a scene of people gazing up into the sky looking to the glory, exaltation and ascension of Jesus Christ. They know and are told that they cannot stand gazing up there for ever. They will have to look down again and out and about.
And, like them, we will look out for something that is coming: ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in them the fire of your love’. And in these days before Pentecost, nine days, hence the term ‘novena’, we are asked to pray especially in Jesus’ words, ‘thy Kingdom come’, the Kingdom that the Spirit shapes and leads us into. ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
This is what we look out for: the coming Kingdom of the Father, made known to us by Jesus Christ, into which the gift of the Holy Spirit will lead us.
You can sketch this movement of the head if you look up, then down, then left, then right. In doing so you are tracing the shape of the cross, and you are shaping yourself in the directions in which Christian disciples’ are called to look.
We look up, a motion expressive of our seeking out the Lord who has ascended from this earth, who reigns supreme over all things. From gazing up at the stars, to spotting Colonel Tim Peake’s space station, from rockets jetting up into space or a helium filled balloon, there is a deep human yearning is to gaze upwards and outwards. We want, we need to gaze so far beyond ourselves because in doing so we sense that we can reach out and touch the face of God.
But the Ascension of Jesus Christ tells us we cannot keep our heads tilted upwards forever. Only a spiritual cramp of the neck comes from that. The Ascension of Jesus Christ tells us we must look back down too. As the disciples were asked, rhetorically, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ (Acts 1.11).
As we look back down we are not looking down on the world in a superior or supercilious way but, for a moment, we consider a heaven’s eye view of our world, a world that we are called to inhabit and love, as God does: as the creation account reminds us, ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Genesis 1.18b)
The prayer of Jesus to the Father, ‘Thy Kingdom come’ captures this vertical gaze, up and down, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.
But our gaze is not just vertical it is horizontal too. As the Spirit swept over the waters in the beginning, so our gaze goes left and right: we look, with the eyes of Jesus Christ, at a world full of joy and lament; violence and healing; blessing and curse. We are called to walk as if on patrol, looking for the signs of the Kingdom, ‘thy Kingdom come’, looking left, looking right. As St Paul puts it, and I use the Authorised Version unashamedly, ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly, redeeming the time, not as fools but as wise, because the days are evil’ (Ephesians 5.15, 16). ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
Circumspection literally means looking all around. Up and down, left and right. And time is redeemed and changed as we look for the coming of the Kingdom, a kingdom already amongst us, yet to come, and of which we are citizens. As we pray with Jesus, ‘thy Kingdom come’ we pray ‘Come, Holy Spirit, make us citizens of the Kingdom, reveal to us the ways of the Kingdom, strengthen us to live the Kingdom’. We look around for a kingdom not of this world, but in this world. This means being fully engaged in society and politics, like voting, even when there seems little point.
Churches and Christians that only ever look up will miss what God is about on the earth. Churches and Christians that only ever look down will be bogged down in the things of earth and never notice the power from on high (Luke 24.49). Churches and Christians that only ever look side to side miss the vertical dimension of faith that is more than just about a kingdom being restored to Israel, more than social and political action. The Kingdom of God is richer than that.
This looking around in all directions connected with the coming Kingdom is reflected in a prayer we often use at the preparation of the altar at the Eucharist, drawing on a second century prayer:
As the grain once scattered in the fields
and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
are now reunited on this table in bread and wine,
so, Lord, may your whole Church
soon be gathered together
from the corners of the earth
into your kingdom.
We are ready to be gathered in, but also to be sent out. As we go out having been fed at this table, may we be at the same time both lookouts for, and signs of, the Kingdom, looking up to heaven, looking down at the earth with a heaven’s eye view, left and right, in see a world where the exalted Christ is all in all (cf Ephesians 1.22,23): in other words, ‘Thy Kingdom come’. We wait in eager longing. ‘Come, Holy Spirit’.
© Andrew Bishop, 2016