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

Friday, 11 May 2018

The Parting of Friends: a sermon on Ascension Day

How our hearts go out to those disciples, gazing at the empty sky into which Jesus has disappeared! One moment he is here among them, their Lord, their beloved, their friend. The next he is gone, taken from their sight says St Luke, and it is not only the sky that is empty but the whole world too. When Jesus had told them in the upper room that he must go away, their hearts were already heavy. Now the day for farewells has come when, in the picture language of ascension, he is taken up from them, and the cloud closes behind him like a door, and he is gone. It is a real parting of friends.
That’s not all there is to Ascension Day, of course. I’ll say more on Sunday. For now let’s stay with the image of the Christ who takes his leave of us and disappears. Because the gospels want us to learn the most important lesson of religion we can ever grasp: how to know, how to love, how to follow a God we cannot see, who comes to us as one unknown, who if he is among us at all is elusive and mysterious. St John tells of the disciple who was not with the others when the risen Lord appeared to them. Thomas has to discover what it means to be one of those who have not seen yet believe. St Luke’s way is to tell a story of ascension. The message is the same. How do we go on believing when there is nothing to see and no one to hear or touch?
The absence of God is a powerful and disturbing experience. I think we feel it collectively in a society that has largely lost its hold on public faith and has lost confidence in the church to put us back in touch with it. Last month I listened to a sociologist speak about the collapse of religious belonging and how people are finding new paths of spirituality and mindfulness to fill the void Christianity once occupied. And even for us who are a kind of remnant of belief in a secular age, faith is perhaps more difficult and challenging today than it once was. We look back across history and wonder nostalgically where the confident belief of earlier times could have gone, where the sunny uplands of religion vanished to.
Well, faith is not less faithful because it is more tentative. On the contrary: it’s precisely this absence of God, religion’s “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as Matthew Arnold put it, that allows faith to be faith rather than habit, custom, culture or just beautiful feelings. That’s why Ascension Day is important. For the story places us alongside the disciples staring wonderingly at an empty sky. It asks us, now that he has gone, what does it mean to believe that God is still with us, that the risen Christ is among us? How can being Christian today be not only a plausible life choice but the most important decision we can ever make in our lifetimes?
When I was a young parish priest 35 years ago, I used to get despondent at people’s lack of curiosity about God. Why didn’t parishioners “feel after God and find him” as St Paul says, for surely nothing matters more than to be a seeker after truth? What I had to learn was that to most people, especially those “just about managing” or not managing at all, getting through the day was enough to contend with. If I asked where they thought God was in daily life, I got answers like, “Why does he conceal himself so much? Why does he keep us guessing? Why won’t he show himself when there are so many suffering people who cry out to him?” They weren’t hostile to religion, mostly; they wanted the church to be there to celebrate the festivals and mark the great events of their lives at birth, marriage and death. But it did seem to them that God was far off, not a fact of everyday life let alone the ultimate reality we must reckon with. “Truly you are a God who hides himself!” said Isaiah.
One Ascension Day I felt it for myself, brutally. On that glowing morning, a church member I knew well, Joan, was killed in a car crash on the A1. We were shocked to learn about it as we came out of the eucharist. It felt as though God had taken leave of us, mocked his own bread and wine with which he had nourished us minutes before. What do you make of a God who isn’t there when your world breaks apart? I started reading the twentieth century Welsh poet-priest R. S. Thomas. He helped me to see that absence can be as overwhelming as presence, and as religious in its quality, charged as it is with memories and possibilities, and longings that aren’t afraid to hope against hope. He has a poem “The Absence” that I always associate with the Ascension.
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I love that tough poem because it asks me to be honest about my faith. To me it fits the mood of this day when the story looks up and down and backwards and forwards all at the same time. It pictures the world as a room someone has just left, that slight rustling of the curtains, the scent of a friend hanging in the air. But it’s also a threshold waiting for someone to be welcomed across, expected, looked out for but yet to arrive. I picture the disciples staring up and wondering about Jesus coming and going, and how faith would be different when their Lord was no longer with them. It must have felt as though they were about to take another big step of faith – as indeed they did when they went back to the city to wait for Pentecost, for what God would do next.
Perhaps this is where many of us are on the journey of faith – wondering where God is when the world needs him so much. Yet on Ascension Day of all days, we want to trust that despite the heartache and confusion, the fears and burdens our world is carrying in these times, his purposes are wise and good. We want to say with Mother Julian whose feast it was on Monday, “All shall be well”. We want to pay attention so as not to miss the signs of what God may yet do. To be aware of his comings and goings, to stand with people for whom his absence is the hard and painful fact of life, can help make us more aware, more compassionate, more responsive.
And more open to the sunbursts of hope and joy with which God surprises us. I like to think that on that bitter-sweet farewell day, the disciples were amazed that far from carrying heavy hearts back to Jerusalem, they left the mountain of the ascension with hopes high and a radiant sense of blessing for what they had seen and heard, and for all that was yet to be.
Beltingham Church, Ascension Day 2018
Acts 1.4-11, Luke 24.44-end

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