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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Nearer Than Our Own Souls: another sermon for Ascensiontide

Last Thursday was Ascension Day. I preached about the disciples gazing up into the sky that had swallowed Jesus up. There is absence in the cracks of that story, hints of bewilderment, even loss. Maybe faith often feels like that, I suggested, being left on our own, wondering if it was all as real as we had supposed, longing, waiting for what we don’t quite know, and yet we do know - waiting for what God may do.

But as I also said, there is a great deal more to be said about the Ascension. And it begins with what St Luke says about the disciples at the very end of his gospel. “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” So far from being paralysed by this crisis of Jesus being taken from them, so far from it being another crucifixion and another loss, there is joy. They worship him, this Jesus who has gone, this Son of Man whom human eye can no longer see. They are learning that where sight fails, faith comes into its own. They bless the one whose final act, on saying farewell, was to bless them.

I spoke about the imagery of the story, Luke’s picture-language of up and down, Jesus being released from his earth-bound existence into the heavenly realms of the skies above. The New Testament writer to the Ephesians helps us catch the sense of this way of speaking. His theme is how the Ascension leads to the bestowing of gifts upon the people who are left behind, like a Roman triumph where the victor rides through his city scattering gold and silver and precious stones to the crowds who acclaim him. He writes: “he who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things”.

This is a profoundly important insight. For it’s precisely as Jesus disappears, as he is lost to our sight, that he becomes the universal presence he is to the eye of faith, the one who fills all things. Out of emptiness and absence have come fulness and presence. Out of searching and loss have flowed discovery and joy. “O that I knew where I might find him!” laments the lonely sufferer in the Book of Job. But now the veil is drawn back. It is Christ’s day of enthronement when his kingship is declared to all creation. He is Lord of all. His glory and his love suffuse all things, all life, all people. He walks among us as our contemporary, our king, our friend. His presence is everywhere, like the air we breathe. He fills all things. We do not see him, and only faith can tell us he is there. But we believe, and therefore we worship, and our hearts are full of joy.

The poets come to our help as we struggle to make sense of these things. Here is a well-known poem by George MacDonald that charts the movement of the human heart from the sense of bewilderment and loss that I conjectured the disciples must have felt when they realised that Jesus had gone, to the discovery that he was among them all the while, closer to them than they could ever know. It’s called “Lost and Found”.

I missed him when the sun began to bend;
I found him not when I had lost his rim;
With many tears I went in search of him,
Climbing high mountains which did still ascend,
And gave me echoes when I called my friend;
Through cities vast and charnel-houses grim,
And high cathedrals where the light was dim,
Through books and arts and works without an end,
But found him not--the friend whom I had lost.
And yet I found him--as I found the lark,
A sound in fields I heard but could not mark;
I found him nearest when I missed him most;
I found him in my heart, a life in frost,
A light I knew not till my soul was dark.

This seems to me to be the kind of faith we should cultivate in these days after the Ascension. Perhaps preachers like me can fall into the trap of talking about faith as something heroic that will banish doubt, win the world for Christ, make sense of suffering and rise above the sheer ordinariness of human life. But as I grow old, I realise that the practice of religion in our common days is very much a matter of reaching out in our perplexity, fostering a deeper awareness, being attentive to what is around us, glimpsing meanings, feeling after God so that we may find him and know him and love him with quietened spirits and a heartfelt love. Isn’t this simply what it means to be a human being? “The unexamined life is not worth living” said Socrates. But to reflect on who and what we are, become attuned to the One who lives and moves and has his being around and within us – isn’t this to become more human, more the people God intends us to be? And yet I found him acclaims the poet – and you hear his voice catch with astonishment and joy. I found him – because he was there all along, nearer to me than my own soul. When I began to live the examined life, he was there!

The church is here to help us on this lifelong journey. The disciples were told to wait for the time when they would be “clothed with power from on high” says St Luke. This promised coming upon them of the Holy Spirit meant many things, but one of them was the conviction of knowing what God was calling them to do and to be in the world after the resurrection. So we ask ourselves, on this Sunday before Whitsun, how can we be good and credible witnesses to faith in Jesus Christ in our own day? One answer is: simply to practise our faith with genuineness and integrity, understanding its ebbs and its flows, its tides of absence and of presence, cultivating stability amid the changes and chances of this fleeting world.

And when the moment comes, being ready to speak about it with anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is within us. Our lived experience of faith is the best evidence for thoughtful Christianity that I know. Pray that the Spirit may give us all the confidence to live it and testify to it in these times when in matters of faith, there is so much hunger in the land.

Henshaw Church, Sunday of the Ascension 2018

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