I would regularly aspire to a wholly original sermon! Today, the teeth of reality bite hard and I'm grateful for any help I can get, from the bookshelf, online, friends and acquaintances...I have yet to ask the postman (but that's only because he doesn't arrive here till so late in the day that I tend to have abandoned all hope long since) but otherwise all and any contributions are gratefully received.
So, the offering I will deliver at the Family Service tomorrow originated in a book by Edward Hays : "The Ladder" and has been reshaped by a colleague on the PRCL list and then tinkered with a little more in conversation this morning with a friend.Thus it is in no sense original but I hope that it might still be some help as we try to think about what it means to have Jesus with us, but not visible and to live in the Kingdom of heaven, which is both now and not yet.
I HATE saying Goodbye – and this weekend I’m specially aware of this as Giles sets off on his Gap year adventure to Tanzania.
Of course, I really want him to go and to have a wonderful time, but I can’t pretend that this has made the process of letting him go any easier.
So, the accounts of Jesus saying Goodbye to his disciples that we’ve heard over the past couple of weeks have seemed particularly close to home. I’ve been reminded again and again that "Goodbye" is the quick way of saying "God be with you" – and that wherever we are, and whatever may happen – that is always and wonderfully true.
But we’ve just celebrated Ascension Day – when we recognise that Jesus isn’t visibly present as the man from Galilee in our everyday world… On Thursday the children from St Matthew’s School helped me to think about the ways in which Jesus is still very much here, though we can’t actually see him – but I want to share a story with you that looks at the Ascension in a rather different way.
Before I begin, I must remind you that whenever we talk about God, we find that our words aren’t really good enough. God is beyond our language just as God is beyond our understanding – so the ways in which we speak are mostly metaphor…using something we do understand to help us describe something that is too big to be limited by our brains or our language.
For example, we often describe Jesus as the Light of the world – but I’m sure that none of you think in terms of a light bulb or even a candle when you pray. We think about God as a rock, but that has more to do with the fact that we know we can rely on God’s loving presence, come what may , than any supposed mineral qualities.
So, when you hear this story, which talks about heaven as somewhere up in the clouds, I don’t want you take that too literally. It’s just a way of talking about something that’s way beyond speech.
But the real meaning of the story…that’s true enough, for sure.
So, if you’re sitting comfortably I want to share a story with you that has been told since the days of the early church - by the desert fathers and mothers, sitting around their camp fires -by St Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - and by many others we won’t get to know this side of Paradise. I heard the story from someone who’d read it in the works of Abba Sayah …He admits that it’s a story with only the shakiest of provenance - but there is no doubt whatsoever that it’s true.
As the gospels tell us, after forty days of resurrection appearances, Jesus knew it was time to leave his disciples – his mother, his brothers and sisters, all his companions in the Way. It was hard to say goodbye, but he knew that the time had come. After all, he was the Truth and we humans can only take so much of that.
So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief.
They knew that Jesus had said he would always be with them. But they also knew it wasn't going to be the same. There would be no more breakfasts by the seashore, no more late night discussions around the campfire, no more unexpected jugs of wine…and so they wept.
Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend.
As Abba Sayah told the story, as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.
"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”
And John shouted back,
"If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too."
Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg.
"I'm coming too," she shouted.
By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
"Ascend!" the voice said.
"Ascend?" Jesus asked
"Ascend!" the voice replied.
So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground.
But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...
And then - what was this? Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbours from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…
Young and old,- men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!"
But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
"Wait!” he shrilled, “I've lost my dog! Wait for me”
"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."
But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.
For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog. But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.
At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself. But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.
To cut a short story long: Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter.
But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him.
On Thursday we talked about the Ascension as “Christmas backwards”.
At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…
Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God.
Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.
And, as Abba Saya said. that's where we've been ever since.
So – let’s make sure we live that way, so that everyone we meet can tell that we are children of God and citizens of heaven.