Ascension day 2009
We meet in ruins. It could be a picture of the church today. A once mighty institution that has been humbled. A church in a culture that is happy for us to stand as a monument to a past by-gone age, but that has very little place for it.
And yet we meet to celebrate the ascension of Christ, that Jesus Christ has been made Lord of all things.
I guess we can look at the story of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and dismiss it as a fairytale. Of course the story has a meaning, just as every fairytale or myth has a meaning - but there is no reason why this myth is more privileged than any other myth
Or we can stand with the disciples and as Jesus goes up, as a cloud hides him from our site, gaze open-mouthed, and begin to realise that the world is a much bigger place than we first thought.
It is our choice. We can look at the ascension in the light of the world's wisdom, or to look at the world in the light of the reality of the ascension.
And Paul prays in Ephesians, that we will do the second.
'I keep praying that [God] will give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation'
'I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened'
He prays that God will open our eyes. And specifically, he prays that we will see three things:
1. He prays that we will look up: to the hope to which he has called us (v18).
Christ is seated at the right hand in the heavenly realms.
Of course this is picture language. We cannot begin to talk of a reality which is beyond our categories of space and time in anything but the language of space and time.
We have a hope. The hope that the Jesus who went away from us at the ascension, is now reigning and will one day return.
He is reigning. To ordinary eyes his rule is virtually invisible. We see glimpses of his kingdom when astonishing things happen: when people give themselves in self-sacrifice, when they kneel down and wash the feet of others, when they extend hands of friendship across cultural barriers, when they forgive the unforgivable, when astonishing things happen and people are healed or released from something that has held them in bondage, when we experience moments of heaven, when God gets hold of individuals and lives are turned around - dramatically or slowly - it does not matter. His kingdom is seen in our daily struggle to let go of our pride and self-sufficiency, to receive his love, and to submit our lives to Jesus Christ so that he will reign in us and through us. The reign of God is seen in the miracle; it is also seen when a man or woman simply gets up in the morning, and rather than do one of the millions of things that are demanding to be done, stops and either comes to communion or picks up their bible, reads, reflects and prays
Our hope, and the hope of creation, is that one day this kingdom will be visible: that as Jesus ascended and went from us, so one day there will be a day, an event, when he returns. On that day everything will be laid bare. It is a bit too easy to point the finger at politicians. On that day, everything will be laid bare, and the finger will be pointed at us. He will come as judge. But he will also come with mercy. He will bring his rule of peace and right-ness. I cannot imagine it. No one can. He will bring a transformed, a transfigured space and time. But it will be glorious.
2. He prays that we will look around: the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (v18)
There is some question as to whether Paul is saying that the saints are the inheritance; or that the saints are the vessel which holds this inheritance. I suggest that it might be both.
Ephesians suggests that the inheritance is the message of Jesus Christ. The church, the people of God, has been given the message of reconciliation: that because of Jesus there is a new humanity. We have been made one in Christ. So the message is this, 'You can become a new person, part of a new creation. We who were enemies of God can become friends of God. We who were blinded so that we could not see the things of God can begin to see. We who are sinners can find forgiveness. We who despair whether there is a future - either for ourselves or the world - because of him do have a future.
It is the message that as part of this new creation, we are placed within a new network of relationships. The barriers that existed between God and us, and between you and me have been broken down by his death on the cross. I no longer need to define myself by my biological family, nationality, colour, sex. I can define myself by Jesus Christ, by his love for God, for me and others.
But more than that - it is the church that embodies this message, that is this message lived out.
So look around here: people from different churches and different traditions, united by our common confession that Jesus is Lord. We are not here because we are friends, although I hope we are friendly. We are not here because we agree about everything: we probably disagree about most things - politics, music, about church orders, liturgy, baptism, what godly living is all about, how we should understand the bible and many other things - but we are still here - together - because we acknowledge the Palestinian Jew crucified on Good Friday, risen on Easter Sunday has now been made Lord. And we recognise that in some mysterious way, we belong to each other, we are part of each other: that what happens to you actually does affect me; and that our destiny as children of God is ultimately tied up together.
And of course, it is not just us here. It is bigger than us. Our destiny is tied up with those who confess the name of Christ in other places and in other times. We stand in a place where men and women have confessed Jesus Christ for over 1000 years. Our eyes may just see ruins. But look! We are surrounded by, we are part of , countless angels worshiping God, and thousands upon thousands who are worshiping Christ.
3. He prays that we will look in: his great power working in us (v19)
The power of God that brought Jesus Christ back from the dead, that makes him supreme over all things (in other words, that is greater than all things), is working on our behalf.
This is the power that means that when things look out of control, they are not out of control. This world, this universe is not controlled by blind fate; it is not ultimately controlled by the laws of natural selection, survival of the fittest, or by principles of entropy; it is not controlled by an absentee god or gods.
This world is ultimately controlled by the Son of God, who loves us, who became a human being, who suffered and died, who was raised from the dead and who has been made Lord over all.
And this power is available for us.
This is the power that can take us: self-centred, fearful, weak, messed up human beings and begin to transform us into sons and daughters of God.
This is the power that gives us the faith to pray, the passion to act, the courage to persevere despite suffering, the boldness to speak
This is the power that takes self-centred individuals and begins to build us together into one people
This is the power that will transform our frail and mortal bodies so that they will be like his glorious body
This is the power, Paul says later, which enables us to begin to know the love of God, and to be filled with the love of God.
So today we pray that God will open our eyes; that he will help us to look at this world with a new vision, in the light of the ascension; that we will see beyond the ruins; and that we will look in - to the power of God at work in us and for us; look around - at Christ's inheritance; look up - to our hope: the risen ascended Christ who will one day return in glory.