May 16, 2021

Ascension: Symbolism & Truth

A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt

Acts 1:1-11

A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt

Sunday 16th May 2021

Acts 1:1-11

Open our minds to understand the Scriptures. Far easier to say than to do, regrettably. Even the most accomplished biblical scholars will – if they’re being honest – admit to never fully ‘understanding’ the scriptures, whatever their definition of ‘understand’ is. As to opening our minds, I wonder if we either consciously or unconsciously resist opening our minds about things like Scripture. After all, it’s the Bible, isn’t it. Aren’t we supposed to believe everything that’s in the Bible? Do we think that it’s always literally true, infallible and free of errors? Yes, those are meant to be provocative questions! My personal reply would be to say a resounding ‘no’ on all counts.

Here we are at the Ascension – being observed today, an important holiday in the church’s year. Only Luke’s Gospel and Acts – written or edited by the same person as far as we can discover – offer this story of Jesus’ final departure from earth; no more resurrection appearances. Jesus ‘withdrew’ from the watching disciples, and the stories give us some sort of impossibly surreal description of Jesus being ‘carried up’ or ‘lifted up’ and rising into the heavens, into the clouds. We may struggle with convincing our 21st century minds to accept the idea of a human being bodily rising into the clouds without a rocket or a flight suit. Our first reaction might well be – “you cannot be serious, do we have to believe that this really, literally happened?” And if we don’t believe this, then how are we to get to grips with other parts of the Bible which seem ridiculous or just simply not possible? How might we define “true” or “the truth” ? So much of the symbolism and hidden meanings are now lost to us over the distance of time, culture and social practices. So it’s even more important to look beyond the written words to find out what the messages and meanings of the Bible are.

We now have the experience of hearing about and seeing space travel. There is no God sitting on clouds “up there”. Nor will we see Jesus in those clouds or above them, whatever the Bible says. The first person in space was Yuri Gagarin 60 years ago in 1961, not Jesus some 2000 years ago on Ascension Day. In line with the Communist dogma of denying religious ideas, the Soviet leader of the time, Khrushchev, said, ‘Gagarin circled the globe and found nothing.’ Heaven is not ‘up there’. So, wherever Jesus went to on Ascension Day – it was not ‘up there’. The Greek word used for ‘he was carried up’ might just as well mean ‘he was exalted’ – meaning that Jesus was finally glorified with no mention of going up (or space travel) at all.

So where might the truth be in the Ascension story for us? Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances still anchor him firmly to earth and he has to be released, so that he and his meaning can be available to all creation without boundaries. He has to leave earth in such a way that there’s no doubt he’s gone ….ummm….somewhere else. It’s essential to complete Jesus’ story to make him timeless. He needed to make a final, absolute departure from human existence so that the disciples had to learn to do without him always being there, explaining his parables and teachings, guiding them into the ways of the new Kingdom of God, sorting out problems and providing answers. And just as it was crucial for them to realise that they would need to carry on without Jesus’ physical presence and get on with the work he gave them, neither can we cling to Jesus, we have to let his physical, human existence go so that we can grow up spiritually if not mentally.

I wonder if our growing up could mean that we realise Jesus is still there with us in our everyday experiences instead of someone exalted far beyond us in a heavenly haze. The Ascension describes a departure, but this departure really only removes Jesus from a human body of flesh and an earthly environment. He doesn’t cut himself off from any more interaction with humanity or creation, nor does the Ascension obliterate his presence with us. We, who are tied to earth, can find him in the broken bread we take and eat in the Sacrament as well as when we gather to break bread with our friends. He walks alongside us, constantly reminding us about what God wants us to be, as a guide and mentor we can listen to, complain to, rejoice and suffer with us.

To 1st century humans, the heavens and God were ‘up’ above the clouds, somewhere unattainable except by someone divine. Jesus rising up into the heavens reinforced the thinking that he was divine and part of God. The disciples ‘worshipped him’. Nobody is supposed to worship anything except God, are they?
Perhaps if we can approach the Ascension in a completely non-literal sense, we can see more clearly, have our minds opened more fully to how we can own it; instead of dismissing it as some sort of weird hallucination on the part of the disciples which says nothing relevant to us now. It can be a symbolic description of how Jesus truly becomes available to all times and all places, as someone divine who exists unrestricted by any sort of boundary.

Symbols, along with ritual – which in church is how we act out worship – are what we use to communicate things which words aren’t so good at describing. Language is often inadequate, or gets misunderstood, when trying to talk about belief, or religion, or God. Or, indeed, trust and love. A cross can be the symbol of what the ultimate price might be of complete obedience and selfless love. We offer handshakes as a symbol of agreement and trust, and kisses as one expression of human love. None of these need further words.

This morning as well as celebrating Ascension we’re also celebrating Alexander’s baptism – his symbolic rebirth as he becomes part of the family of the church. And there are powerful symbols we use in this ritual of his being born again. Water, essential to life, for washing away sins and becoming a new person. Symbolically; of course, because especially in his case how can an infant have committed any sins. Blessed oil for anointing him with a cross to mark him as one of Jesus’ followers. Scented oil called chrism, to seal the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with him. Lit candles to signify Jesus as the Light of the World, guiding Alexander throughout his life. All of these take the words we say into another dimension, a symbolic and spiritual one, of God’s presence, and Jesus being with us throughout all ages, nearly 2000 years after what the Bible says happened at the Ascension. The Ascension is the sign of our passport into the privilege of being able to know Jesus even though we’ve never seen or heard him in person. Because he’s now above the skies. Meaning….everywhere.

And so, here’s some questions for everyone: Do we have to open our minds to understand the scriptures? Do we have to understand the scriptures in order to believe? Do we simply have to open our minds, and not worry about understanding the scriptures? Do we need our minds opening for us, and who will do that? Can we come closer to God through symbols rather than the words of the Bible? How might we find ‘truth’? There’s some things to think about, now in the 21st century.

But all of those are other sermons….

©Leslie Spatt 2021

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