‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ These are the words of a Christian from the church of many centuries ago, a man called Irenaeus, who was a near contemporary of Justin Martyr, some of whose relics you have here in the church. ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ These words beautifully express the message of Ascension which we celebrate today. ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ What I would like to do in the next few minutes is to show how this feast of Ascension, which is often the poor sister of the four major Christian festivals, says something really important into our social and political life today and then I want to draw out a major challenge that it throws out to us all.
In my study is a picture of Desmond Tutu containing this quotation from him:
I am puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they suggest religion and politics don’t mix.
The Ascension placed alongside the events of last week show that religion and politics are inseparable. The events of the week to which I am referring are the stoning of a woman in Pakistan by her own father and the continued imprisonment of young woman in Sudan, condemned to death for being a Christian, and forced to give birth to her child while chained to a wall in prison – hopefully she is soon to be released, but that does not distract from the barbarity of the action. So why do these two events relate to the Ascension? The reason is that at the Ascension we celebrate the fact that our humanity is bathed in God’s glory and so the humanity of the women in Pakistan and Sudan are bathed in God’s glory. We celebrate the fact that Jesus, who was a full-blooded human being to his finger-tips and at the same time fully God, this Jesus, who walked the earth 2000 years ago, now sits with his Father in glory: this shows the love which God has for humanity, for you and me, and it is a reminder of the special relationship which humanity has with God. We speak about the special relationship between Britain and the USA, the Ascension seals the special relationship between human beings and God who was willing to give himself for us. Human beings are not mistakes, they are not accidents and certainly not freaks, but they are made in God’s image and have a place of honour with God himself.
All of this – the Ascension and the words of Irenaeus – are reminders that human beings reflect God’s glory. So, when human beings are mistreated and killed, as with the women in Sudan and Pakistan, then God’s glory is being diminished and it is the role of Christians to stand against such treatment. But, of course, it is not just in faraway places like Pakistan and Sudan that God’s glory is being diminished and tarnished, it happens in our own country, in our own county, in our own parish and sometimes in our own family. Whenever anybody, or any group of people, is treated as though they are aliens, outsiders, unacceptable, unwanted and unloved then we are tarnishing and diminishing the glory of God. Whenever we act violently and unjustly against others, whenever we do not respect their God-given humanity, we are tarnishing and diminishing the glory of God. Whenever we use others, against their will, for our own gratification, we are tarnishing and diminishing the glory of God. We are called to celebrate, to give thanks and to praise God at today’s feast – the depth of our celebration, thanks and praise is to be seen in the way that we respect and treat others outside our celebration. Our actions in the world are indicators of how much of ourselves we put in today’s celebration, thanks and praise. ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ Do we respect and venerate this glory when we see it in others?
Now to my second point – and for this I want to go back to the events surrounding the Ascension about which we heard this morning. The disciples, faithful as they were, quite understandably, were confused and disoriented on that feast of Ascension. They had been through a great deal with Jesus over the previous few years. They had followed and supported him through his ministry in Galiliee. They had nearly been arrested with him in Jerusalem. They had seen him crucified at Golgotha and thought that to be the last time they would see him. They were surprised to meet him yet again after the resurrection. Now they had to face the fact that he was going to leave them again. It had been an emotional roller-coaster. We can imagine that they did not want to let go of the Jesus with whom they had been through thick and thin and so the reading from Acts tells us that they could not take their eyes off him – and yet if they were going to be liberated and given power to move into the future and not simply hold on to the way things were, the disciples would have to let go of the Jesus they had known in order that he could come to them in a fuller way. This is the journey between Ascension and Pentecost. They would also be freed to move to new places with new tasks and new possibilities. ‘Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?’, said the two men in white. They found it hard to let go of the Jesus they knew….and yet they had to if they and the Church was to move forwards.
It is part of the journey of us all that there will be occasions when we will be called upon to let go of the Jesus we have got to know, the Jesus with whom we have made a relationship, in order for him to come to us in a fuller way. This is the journey between Ascension and Pentecost. It is hard to let go of the familiar face, the familiar ideas and the familiar way of working, but if we are to grow in faith and be open to new possibilities, then, like the disciples, we need to take our eyes off the Jesus who is wanting to leave us so that we can be prepared to receive him afresh. The Christian journey involves a willingness to embrace Jesus Christ in whatever way he comes. This is the journey between Ascension and Pentecost.
The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ This wonderful, colourful celebration reminds us that allhumanity, not just us, but all humanity belong with God. Secondly, there are occasions on our earthly journey, that we are required to let go of the Jesus we have got to know and has been a comfort in order to be ready to discover a deeper, fuller, richer Christ. It’s a tough call, but to God be the glory.
Preached at St. John’s, Higham, Medway, on the Sunday after Ascension
Readings: Acts 1.1-11; Ephesians 1.17-23; Matthew 28.16-20.
First image: Banberg Apocalypse (11th Century)
Second image: St. John’s Church, Higham.