Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Dayadmin | 24 May 2009
“The end of all things is at hand”
“It’s the end of the world as we know it and we feel fine,” or so Great Big Sea claims. But do we feel fine? Or are we fearful and afraid, worried and, like Martha, “anxious about a multitude of things”? St. Peter’s words sound either a note of foreboding or a note of rejoicing. Which is it? A note of impending judgment or a note of joy, indeed the fullness of joy? Everything depends on what we mean by “end”? Do we mean a sense of judgment and finality or the sense of accomplishment and purpose; in short, do we mean by “end”, death or life?
On The Sunday after Ascension Day, we celebrate two related but almost forgotten teachings – the Ascension and the Session of Christ. What do they signify?
The Ascension signifies the homecoming of the Son having finished his course, having accomplished the will of him who sent him, and now returning to the Father. The whole life of the incarnate Christ is about his going forth and returning to the Father in the power of the Spirit. The Session celebrates the rule of Christ with the Father in the bond of the Spirit over the whole of creation. He is King. “See the conqueror mounts in triumph,/ See the King in royal state,” as one of our hymns puts it. Why? Because in his going forth and return to the Father, he returns all things to their source and end, to the divine life which he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Why the Ascension? Because the Ascension is the culmination of the Resurrection, the fullness of its meaning. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not to the world; it is to the world in God. Everything is gathered into the primacy of the spiritual relationship of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit realized in the celebration of the Ascension. Ultimately, it signifies the meaning of prayer, the lifting up of all things to God.
“Lift up your hearts.” Prayer is the motion of the Ascension in us. “We ascend,” says Augustine, “in the ascension of our hearts.” We ascend in the lifting up of our hearts. We have someone and somewhere to lift them up to.
The Epistle to the Hebrews might well be called the Epistle of the Ascension. No other New Testament writing is quite so full of the meaning of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The Ascension of Christ is directly related to Jesus Christ as the “High Priest” of our salvation whose perfect humanity is the vehicle for our redemption and whose perfect sacrifice is the forgiveness of sins. He, alone, is the mediator of the new and better covenant. “For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb.9.24).
Prayer enters into the presence of God because of the Ascension of Christ.
The Ascension and the Session of Christ signify the redemption of the world and bring out the true joy of our human lives. This true joy is about our being in the presence of God in the fullness of his truth and life. For therein lies our perfection. The Ascension is, as the Fathers say, “the exaltation of our humanity” (Leo the Great, et alia). “He has raised our human nature” as a hymn puts it. And the joy is made all the greater because of our redemption and because of our repentance. It means “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” and our lives; our end because he is our beginning, our Alpha and Omega, as the very structure of this building so eloquently reminds us with its Alpha and Omega beams.
The Ascension signals the perfection of the purpose of Christ’s mission. The Son has run his course, having accomplished the will of him who sent him. “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father” (John 16.28) as we heard last Sunday. And, as Luke alone especially indicates, Christ’s Ascension is the occasion not of sorrow but of great joy for the disciples. “They returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24.52,53), their feelings following perfectly their understanding. It is the occasion of great joy because the disciples have got the point of his Eastertide lessons. Christ will “not leave us comfortless” because his going from them is not into the barrenness of death but into the fullness of life.
The Ascension of Christ signals “the promise of entering into his rest” (Heb.4.1); the Session signals the rule of Christ in our lives. But we have to will it in order for it to live in us. It means prayer. Prayer is to the Father in the Son and through the Spirit. Prayer gathers up all the motions of our human lives into these comings and goings of God which have the fullness of their meaning in the Session of Christ “who sitteth at the right hand of the Father”. Our lives have an end, a purpose and a place with God is the simple and happy lesson. The meaning and purpose of our lives is found in the comings and goings of God who engages our humanity in its fullness and truth in Jesus Christ.
For us it means our “looking unto Jesus, the Author and the Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Heb.12.2). The moral order of our lives depends not upon our self-righteous posturings but in our penitential prayer to the Father in the name of the Son and by the power of the Spirit. It means that “the end of all things” is indeed “at hand”, at “the right hand of the Father,” in Christ, who would have us be where he is. That makes all the difference for our lives. Our liturgy is precisely our participation in that “end of all things” in Christ for in prayer and praise, in Word and Sacrament, “we ascend in the ascension of our hearts” through him who lifts up our hearts and the whole of Creation into the joy of heaven. Our end is our life with God in the joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
“The end of all things is [indeed] at hand”
Fr. David Curry
Sunday after Ascension Day
May 24th, 2009