An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Ascension: Christ’s superabundant presence

A sermon on Acts 1. 6-14 & John 17:1-11 by Garry Deverell

The story of the Ascension, where the risen Jesus takes leave of his disciples and is taken up into heaven by God, can be found only in Luke, the Gospel, and in The Acts of the Apostles. You will not find the story in Matthew or John, and the reference to an ascension in Mark 16 comes from a very late manuscript which almost certainly relies on Luke’s account. So the Ascension belongs to Luke. It is his story. But why does he tell us the story at all, where the other gospel writers do not? And why does he think it so important that he tells it not once, but twice—once at the end of his Gospel and once here in Acts? These are questions I’d like to consider this evening.

On a first reading, Luke’s Ascension is actually a rather distressing story, because it appears to both repeat and fulfil a narrative which has become very familiar in our modern age: the one about a God who deliberately takes his distance from those who need him, and who, in the end, abandons his people to their own powers of survival. Even the Church sometimes reads the story thus. On the television and in the press you will today hear religious voices, voices claiming to speak for the Church, who will tell you that God has indeed left us. Because there is no longer any authoritative teacher amongst us, they say, we must each of us invent our spirituality, invent our morality, invent our religious practices. Because Christ has taken leave of us, because God is either dead or permanently absent, we have no alternative except to accept responsibility for our own destinies, to assume the mantel of godhood ourselves. We are condemned, as it were, to a freedom without God. In his influential book, After God: the future of religion, the Cambridge philosopher Don Cupitt argues that from now on we must view Christian faith as a fictional novel which human beings, alone, have authored. In this thoroughly modern schema, Luke’s Ascension story is cited as a one of the primary figures of divine abandonment. First, God dies with Christ on the cross. Then he appears as an illusory flash of memory and wishful thinking in the resurrection. Finally, he disappears entirely into a cloud of superstitious obscurity at the Ascension. And what of the Spirit that Christ promised, the Spirit who would come to us after he had gone away? To the modernists, this “Spirit” is just another word for the spiritual life we invent in God’s absence. The Spirit is our invented meaning-structures, something like a collective unconscious in which we collect the stories we have written to rescue ourselves from absurdity.

Well, how ought one respond to such thinking, such theology? Perhaps like this. First, it is important to recognise the legitimacy of the experience from which it arises. For many folk, Christ has indeed left the stage. A Catholic friend recently told me she has stopped going to church because of the abuse of children by priests. She couldn’t understand how a Church full of the Spirit of Christ could allow such a thing. For her, any residual sense of Christ’s presence in the world has now disappeared. And who can blame her, or any of the victims of abuse or repression, for seeing things like that? Certainly not me! Yet, this morning I would bear witness to another way of reading the Ascension story, and, as a consequence, another way of understanding the experience of abandonment. For there is a bigger story here in Luke’s account, and I believe that if we can only allow ourselves this enlarged vista, then even the very real ‘fact’ and ‘experience’ of divine abandonment will turn out to be something other than what it appears to be.

Let me summarise what Luke has to say like this. While, by virtue of the Ascension, Christ is indeed no longer present as a particular human being who occupies a particular place and time, he is nevertheless, also by virtue of the Ascension, more abundantly present and active than he has ever been before. And this not as some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, says Luke, Christ is now present as the material body of Christian believers, brought into being and inspired by the very Spirit that made Jesus who and what he was. The Spirit now makes the Church what Jesus of Nazareth was, so infusing and shaping its life and work that the mission of Jesus continues in the Church as a real and tangible Christ-presence for the world.

If Luke were here today (and I believe he is, in the Spirit), I think he would say that the modernist use of his story seriously neglects certain crucial details. There is certainly a withdrawal of the divine presence here. Christ is taken from the community into heaven. But it would be premature and reductionist to then assume that the gap, the emptiness left by God’s withdrawal, may be filled only by the activity and imagination of human beings. Now, I want you to listen carefully, because this next bit is a little tricky. Presence is not, as the moderns insist, simply about being able to see and touch things in such a way that we can get our heads around them, to so imagine things that they take on an objective solidity that we can measure and put boundaries around. Presence is not, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl claimed in 1913, something which human beings make and cause to appear by the power of their thinking. On the contrary! Following Luke, I put it to you that presence is more properly what is given us in the resurrection and ascension of Christ. It is the irreducible power and authority of the Other (exousia in Greek), a presence which so exceeds and overwhelms ours powers of comprehension that when God visits us, we know he has done so, but we are left powerless to explain how or why. Even to ourselves. Why? Because the Other is a strong and passionate love that takes hold of us completely, body and soul, covering and surrounding us like baptismal water, entering our lungs as if to drown us. In a repetition of the death and resurrection of Christ, our human powers are put to death, our powers to know things, to objectify and use other people, to control who and how God would be. We suddenly find ourselves dispossessed of even our power to picture what God is like. So much so, that we imagine that God has abandoned us. We flounder, we struggle, we suffer terribly. We feel that God has left the theatre, and we are left alone with nothing but a forlorn hope. We despair. We die . . . But that is not the end. Finally, this Other arrives in our bodies as the power of a new life, life lived on a plane hitherto unimagined, life lived in communion with the God who is love. In that power, we are commissioned and sent to bear witness, not to the power of this presence in our lives, but to the power of our lives in this presence, a presence forever marked now by the sacred names of “Christ,” “Spirit,” “Love”.

Whew! Let me try and say all that in another way. In the wake of the Ascension, Christ remains present to us, but this presence is of a different order. It is what Jean-Luc Marion calls a ‘saturating presence,’ a presence which so pervades and infuses the world with God’s glory that it confuses and dazzles our limited imaginations. Ever heard the expression “He couldn’t see the wood for the trees”? It’s like that. While we may not be able to pin Christ down to a particular bodily form and draw borders around him which define where he is an where he isn’t, he is abundantly, even super-abundantly, present in material reality which we encounter everyday: in the body which is the Church, past, present and future; in the bread and wine broken and poured out for the life of the world; in the Scriptures read and preached; and in the stranger, the widow and the orphan we are called to meet in our ministry of care. Christ is ascended to the Father so he can be “everywhere present”. So says the Easter liturgy of the South Yarra Baptist Church.

But how, I hear you ask, does this presence really address our sense of abandonment? What good is a superabundant presence if it dazzles our eyes so much that we cannot see that Christ is with us? Here we turn, for a moment, to the passage we read from John’s Gospel, chapter 17. We read there a prayer of Jesus for the Church, which comes as the end of a long conversation which John stages at the Last Supper before Jesus is crucified. It is a conversation about how the disciples will cope when Jesus has gone. As with Luke, John does not portray Jesus’ imminent disappearance as a withdrawal of presence, pure and simple. In a profoundly paradoxical statement in chapter 14.28, Jesus says to his friends “I am going away; but I am coming to you”. Hear that? “It is by going away that I will come to you”. For John, the going away is exactly what is needed in order to accomplish a more profound communion with Jesus than was ever before possible, a communion which echoes and redoubles the love which Jesus already shares with his Father. For Jesus will now come in the Spirit to gather his people into the divine presence by the power (exousia again) of the Name which is “I Am”, the divine name, which signifies here a participation with Jesus in that sacrificial giving and receiving of divine love which we call, in shorthand, the Trinity. It is a participation which goes way beyond knowing and seeing, or even imagining. Love, you see, does not cling to the thoughts and images by which we would normally try to master each other. Love surrenders to the invisible gaze of this other who can neither be seen nor objectified, and learns to do the same by way of return. Love surrenders itself, as Christ surrendered his self. And in surrendering, it finally abandons its sense of abandonment.

I conclude with this. The Ascension is for Christians both a fact and a promise. The fact is this: that Christ is everywhere present as the authority and power of God, a power which before and behind us, a power which forever seeks our surrender to God’s love. And here is the promise: if we will first discipline ourselves, through prayer, to discern Christ’s presence in the midst; and if we will then surrender ourselves to his transgressive love, body and soul; then that wound of abandonment which haunts every human being will ultimately find its healing. For Christ has not left us as orphans. He comes to us tangibly and bodily every day, to love and care for us as only God knows how. If only we will recognise and surrender.


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