Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Dayadmin | 20 May 2012
“The end of all things is at hand”
‘Endism’ is very much with us, I am afraid, the idea that everything is falling apart and that things are in disarray. It is part of the fearfulness and uncertainty of a culture that is no longer sure of itself and its future; all the assumptions of the ideology of material progress, the idea that everything is getting better materially, physically, economically, socially and politically, begin to look like a cruel joke. And yet, globally speaking, it would be unwarranted and wrong to deny the many, many improvements to human life that have occurred in modern times. At the same time, it would also be unwarranted and irresponsible to deny the very real threats to peace and life. So where does this leave us?
With the task of acquiring a much more thoughtful and a more prayerful outlook. At issue is not whether things are improving and getting better but our assumption that things should always be progressing. This is to forget the nature of the finite and the grimmer realities of human sin and presumption. It is really a kind of anti-intellectualism. At issue, then, is our grasp of the spiritual and intellectual principles which shape and inform our understanding. In a way, “to be is to be understood” (Gadamer on Heidegger, in Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing), which in turn requires some understanding of ourselves in relation to God. It is exactly that idea that is missing in action, I fear, paradoxically, in our churches, as well as in our culture, the absence of which paralyzes us in the face of dark and difficult times, whether culturally or individually.
The Sunday after Ascension Day speaks profoundly to our uncertainties. I do not presume to suggest that it provides us with certainties; after all, it is our dogmatic certainties about material reality that is our problem. I do think that this day offers us a way of thinking about our world and about ourselves, and, more importantly, about how we are understood by God. It does so by recalling us to the dynamic of God’s redemption of our humanity and our world. Ironically, the Ascension is about the truest form of upward mobility, the raising of all things to their end in God, the “lift[ing] up our hearts”. It speaks to us about our home, the homeland of the spirit, our home with God, not just by-and-by but here and now in prayer and praise. In short, we find our place with God because God has placed us with him through his Son. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus tells us.
Christ ascends to sit “on the right hand of the Father” as the Nicene Creed puts it. A lovely image, it captures the fuller meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and it brings out the deeper truth of Christ’s Resurrection. Christ’s ascension is his homecoming. “I came forth from the Father and am come into the world; again I leave the world and return to the Father.” That too is a marvelous picture of the dynamic of God, the living and active reality of the Divine which is the principle of all reality. In the Ascension, the Son returns to the Father having accomplished all that belongs to the redemption of the world and to the redemption of our humanity. Everything is gathered back to God from whom all things do come and in whom all things have their being. In a way, it is the strongest possible affirmation of the spiritual nature of reality that embraces the physical and the material without being collapsed into them. It is not quite the reverse: the physical and the material, the empirical and the experiential aspects of our world and day, are gathered into God, not collapsed into God. They retain the integrity of their truth and being which are found in God as the Creative and Redemptive Principle of each and every thing.
How much more so for you and me; in short, for our humanity? The Ascension affirms, in the fullest possible way, the radical and astounding idea that we are made in the image of God, an image that has been defaced and scarred by sin and folly, to be sure, and experientially so, but redeemed by Christ who overcomes sin and death and carries us into glory. We find our true home in God. We have an end in God.
But it means a far different way of thinking about ends and about endings than what usually prevails in our mundane and so-called practical pursuits. Peter speaks about “the end of all things [being] at hand”. He is absolutely right but end here means more than simply the conclusion of a sequence, the end of a series (will there ever be an end to the Stanley Cup Playoffs? To the student protests in Montreal? To … well you get the idea). End here means something much more profound. It means the sense of purpose and fulfillment. Such an idea speaks to our spiritual identity – to who we are and what we are called to be in the sight of God. To let that idea sink into our souls is already the greatest antidote to our fears and worries. It gives us a renewed sense of dignity about ourselves which is, in itself, a way of being able to face the dying of the light of culture and communities. Why? Because it reminds us of the greater light of God’s truth, the light that is not only greater than the darkness but has overcome the darkness of sin and death.
We are recalled to our communion with God. Christ’s Ascension is one of the great creedal teachings of the Christian Faith. Closely associated with it in the Creed and in the meaning of this day, is the doctrine of the Session of Christ. He sits “on the right hand of God the Father.” This sitting is not like our long weekend plans of sitting in the sun, pleasant as that may be. There is a kind of activity implicit in this image of ascending and sitting. It has to do with God’s greater delight in the world that he has made, his greater delight in the redemption of creation. The heaven of the Ascension is paradise plus, we might say, something greater and more than paradise, something greater and more than the golden ages of antiquity and the subsequent utopias that have been invented and attempted and, of course, have failed. The greater delight is found in the return of the Son to the Father who returns the world and our humanity as restored and forgiven to God. God rules. And that is a comforting thought.
“We ascend in the ascension of our hearts,” as Augustine says. He is reminding us, I think, about the radical nature of prayer. Prayer is the motion of the Ascension in us, the lifting up of hearts and minds, the lifting up of our lives to God. In the Session, too, we find the meaning of prayer; it is about our place with God. Prayer places our thoughts for our world, for one another, and for ourselves with God. It is about our homecoming and the reminder to us that we are embraced now in the love of the Father. This Sunday gives us this powerful sense of purpose and place. It is at once what we look forward to and that in which we participate now in Word and Sacrament, in prayer and praise, in service and sacrifice. Somehow all the everyday activities of our lives are made worth something by being gathered into the eternal life of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This Sunday reminds us of our end with God, meaning that our lives find their purpose and meaning in God.
Augustine wonderfully says that “we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.” We already participate in that sense of end as purpose and fulfillment. We do so in our lives of prayer and praise. And so we can say with comfort and confidence what Peter here has said.
“The end of all things is at hand”
Fr. David Curry
Sunday after Ascension Day, 2012