A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 21, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Acts 1: 1-11
The biologist E.O. Wilson described humankind’s real problem like this: ‘We have palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.’ It’s certainly true that some parts of civilisation are way ahead of others. I reflect on this every time I’m in a multi-storey car park. There seem to be no two designs alike: yet all of them provide a labyrinthine and perplexing route to the exit. It’s the same with brands like golden syrup, for which there is still no way to replace the lid without getting everything in the kitchen sticky, and Kendal Mint Cake, which doesn’t seem to have changed its marketing since 1934.
One such antediluvian curiosity is the communication cord on a train or underground. I often look at the ‘In an emergency break glass and pull’ sign and wonder how there doesn’t seem to be a more sophisticated way of achieving the same effect. The very name ‘communication cord’ seems a historical relic given the myriad forms of contemporary communication technology.
In the Christian tradition Jesus Christ’s ascension into heaven sometimes feels like one of these historical relics. Christmas, a young vulnerable mother in a stable on a starry night, never goes out of fashion. Good Friday horrifies because you know that, if a perfect man of perfect deeds came among us today, we’d still end up crucifying him, if not on a cross then by some other method. Easter’s mesmerising because of the chemistry of a man meeting a woman in a garden and everything changing for everyone. Pentecost is about ordinary people finding empowerment by embracing diversity: you don’t get more 2023 than that. But Ascension still feels clumsy, and locked in the first century, and wedded to a physics and cosmology we’ve left behind.
I want to suggest to you that the key dynamic in the story of Jesus parting from the disciples and being taken up to heaven is not about the tension between up and down, with earth down here and heaven up there – but between past and present. Ascension marks the threshold between the conception, birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – the historical Jesus, if you like – and the present-tense ministry of Jesus, the heavenly Jesus, traditionally described as sitting at the right hand of the Father. Put another way, the real question the Ascension raises is not, ‘How did he levitate all that way and where did he go?’ The real question is, ‘We know a lot about what Jesus did in his incarnate life among us, but what is he doing now?’
What is Jesus doing now? It’s a huge question, but we seldom ask it in this precise way. To answer it, let’s begin with Christmas. At Christmas, or you could say nine months earlier at the Annunciation, Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, steps out of the reverie of the three persons in harmonious conversation, and enters the earthly realm. He transfers from eternity into time, from forever into now. Then at Ascension he resumes his place as the second person of the Trinity in the same way as before Christmas. He transfers back from time into eternity, from now into forever. That’s what it means to say Ascension is the other half of Christmas. To ask what Christ is doing now is very similar to enquiring what was Christ doing for the stretch of eternity that came before the first Christmas.
But there’s one difference. Before the incarnation Jesus was preparing to bring the fulness of God face-to-face with us. If you imagine trying to get a swimming-pool of water into a thimble, you get an idea of what this means. The incarnate Jesus has a human body, and the Holy Trinity embarks on an attempt to communicate its whole eternal being into that tiny time-bound body. You could imagine that would take a good while to do. By contrast, after the ascension, Jesus has a different and opposite task: he’s seeking to bring the fulness of humankind and creation face-to-face with God.
It’s an interesting question which task is the more difficult – somehow turning the eternal and infinite member of the Trinity into the temporal and finite body of a human being, or bringing flawed humanity and finite creation into eternal encounter and relationship with God. The fact that there isn’t an answer doesn’t stop it being a question one could ponder a very long time. But what’s not up for debate is that the second one constitutes the answer to the question with which we began: what is Jesus doing now? Jesus is bringing flawed humanity and finite creation into eternal encounter and relationship with God.
There’s two dimensions to this activity, an individual one and a collective one. The work of the Holy Spirit among us and Jesus eternally is to prepare each one of us to come face to face with God – not just for a fleeting encounter, but to be in God’s presence and to abide with the Trinity forever. That’s the individual part. The collective part is that the Holy Spirit has been preparing the whole creation to be the theatre for that everlasting relationship with God and that on the last day Christ will bring the whole creation into eternity with him – he will lead the whole creation on the journey he himself made on Ascension Day, from time to eternity, from now to forever.
In case that all sounds a bit abstract, which is a bit harsh for the whole activity of God from Christ’s ascension until the last day but may still be true, let me make it a bit more concrete. I want to remind you of that quaint relic from an earlier era on an underground or overground train: the communication cord. A communication cord on a train is surrounded with advice never to use it, but I assume if you do use it, it tells the driver to slam the brakes on. It’s a cry for help.
Let’s imagine what takes place on Ascension Day is that Jesus lays out the communication cord between the passengers and the driver – or we might say, humankind and God. Imagine Jesus carrying a string from time into eternity, from now into forever, and then resuming his role as the second person of the Trinity and crucially, never letting go of that string. Which means that we always have a string, or cord, by which we can communicate directly with God. Our connection with Jesus takes us right into the heart of the Trinity at any time we so desire.
What does it mean to tug on that string or pull on that cord? Well by now you’ve probably guessed what this is all building up to. The Christian name for the communication cord that connects us to the Trinity through the ministry of the risen and ascended Jesus is… prayer. Prayer is our communication cord. Prayer is the name we give to that activity by which we are seeking to be aware of, communicate with, and align our lives with God. In the ascension Jesus takes our full humanity into the heart of God, and he takes with him a communication cord by which, when we pray, we can enter the heart of God too.
Think about the different kinds of prayer. We may say at a football match, ‘What a magnificent goal!’ If we say it slightly differently, ‘Oh my God what a magnificent goal!’, we’ve turned it into a prayer of praise at the wonder of God. We’ve pulled the communication cord, with those three words, ‘Oh my God.’
We may say, ‘Phew, I’m so relieved my child got a place at that school!’ If we say it slightly differently, ‘My child got a place at that school, thank God!’, we’ve turned it into a prayer of gratitude. We’ve pulled the communication cord, with those two words, ‘Thank God.’
We may say, ‘I feel terrible that I just cut that man off in mid-sentence – he must have thought I was so rude because I was so preoccupied with the idea I’d just had, I forgot he was speaking.’ If we say it slightly differently, ‘God forgive me, I feel terrible that I just cut that man off in mid-sentence…’ we’ve turned it into a prayer of penitence. We’ve pulled the communication cord, with those three words, ‘God forgive me.’
We may say, ‘Those poor people in Bakhmut, it must be unbearable to live in a besieged city like that.’ If we say it slightly differently, ‘God in heaven, save those poor people in Bakhmut,’ we’ve turned it into a prayer of petition. We’ve pulled the communication cord, with those four words, ‘God in heaven, save…’
In the process of discovering what Ascension is, we’ve discovered what prayer is. Prayer is pulling the communication cord – not to stop the train, but to give us instant access to the driver. Prayer is allowing the Holy Spirit to bring us into the heart of God, where Jesus is in constant conversation with the Father. Being in God’s presence evokes wonder, induces thanksgiving, triggers repentance, and offers opportunity for intercession. All of these depend on Christ taking that communication cord into the heart of the Trinity, that we might ultimately come to belong there ourselves, forever.
So that’s the answer to the question, ‘What is Jesus doing now?’ He’s preparing heaven to receive the whole of creation. And he’s hearing the prayers of us all, receiving them from the Spirit and offering them to the Father. And here’s the amazing thing. Those two activities, preparing heaven and hearing prayers, turn out to be the same thing. Because finally all our prayers become part of the great and ultimate divine activity of Christ being with us and the Spirit turning the folly and finitude of creation into the wonder and glory of eternal life together.