Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby preached at the Ascension Day Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London.
The service was broadcast live on BBC Radio 4.
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Ascension is about power and victory, but not as we know it.
If you’re a fan of Star Trek you’ll hear the allusion: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Though I’m told no one ever actually said that, any more than Sherlock Holmes said, “Elementary, my dear Watson”. But even though I am not a Trekkie it’s a good line.
Ascension is about power or victory, but not as we know it. The accounts include words like ‘power’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘witness’, ‘proofs’, and ‘promise of the Father’ – such that the disciples, who weren’t any quicker on the uptake after the resurrection than before, ask about the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
If power is going to be given to them surely that means conquest? If Jesus speaks of a Kingdom surely they are about to see it? Given theproof that he has overcome death, are they themselves the witnesses – the honoured heralds, sent in the name of the Lord?
No, it is not as we know it. The power is intangible and does not make us superman or wonder woman. The Kingdom is elusive and invisible. The proofs and promises will be disbelieved by many. The victory offers no conclusive culmination, only a beginning; while being a witness invites danger, leading to sacrifice and suffering, if not death.
The power that comes is to be given away not hung onto; Jesus was no Mugabe clinging to power. There would be no public glory or acclaim, merely hard work and sacrifice, like most of those who serve the church round the world today. I spoke to someone yesterday working for reconciliation in a civil war, whose name will never be known outside the circles of his own friends – yet he carries a cross of suffering for Christ.
Put like that it makes the worst of any recent party manifesto looks like words of gold, to which people would flock by contrast. Few would be elected on the manifesto of Jesus, surely?
Yet the church grew at such a rate, despite opposition and suffering, that 300 years later the Empire that had casually swiped away the life of Jesus with the sort of attention we might give to a mosquito, found itself honouring and converting to the faith. The same disciples who beforehand seem foolish and act only in their own interests, were willing to lay down their lives, confident in the promises of God, the Kingdom of God and the triumph of Christ.
The Ascension is victory, power and life, but not as we know it.
So what do we know, and where is our confidence?
The outcome of the completed victory of Jesus is that Christians cannot live enmeshed in the same concerns and despairs and joys any longer. The result of the completed victory of Jesus is that in all history there is only one inevitability: the promised return of Jesus the Christ. He will come back in just the way he departed, when the Kingdom of Heaven will be fully visible and tangible. No set-backs, no failures of the visible church, or its leaders; no powers on earth or in heaven are able to cause history to have any other conclusion. Jesus has established the way ahead.
Yet the path often does not feel inevitably leading to a glorious conclusion. The conquest of evil does not look definitive.
The Christian path is a path of suffering because the path of Jesus was a path of suffering - and his followers cannot expect a better time than he had. Not miserable and dour suffering, but a path that is full of the presence of Christ even if also the presence of evil. He has gone and we are to carry on, filled with the Holy Spirit, but carry on notwithstanding.
We are surely more than ever aware of the suffering, not only of Christians, but of all sorts and kinds of people, more than we ever have been. Their images, their agonies come to us direct, unmediated, calling loudly. Yet it should not be a path of solitary suffering, because the church is a family of witnesses to the reality of Jesus. Suffering is amplified by isolation and healed by association.
One visit abroad I made last year was so short that if you had blinked you would have missed it. Yet the local bishop, in a country afflicted with Ebola, spoke of the effect of us being there. Why? Because it told him he was not alone.
The path of suffering is also one where the church family is empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit does not give us the power to fight, to attack each other, to hate, to destroy – but the power to love, to witness, to declare repentance for those things that destroy life and forgiveness; a power that liberates us to a new future.
Last Sunday we remembered 70 years since VE day. At the service in Westminster Abbey was a bishop from Germany. That country has demonstrated repentance and has found renewal and forgiveness, and thus Europe has been given the light of reconciliation and the hope of peace. That is a sign of the work of the Spirit through human beings.
What could be more important than the message Jesus's followers are left to proclaim? What can be more essential to that message than the gift of power from God; power to liberate not dominate, to bring life not law, freedom not fear?
Ascension is about power or victory, but not as we know it. The Ascension set our destination, and in its compelling conquest assures us of the promises and mission that catch hold of us and compel us to change our world; never to despair, always to endure, to rejoice, to celebrate, to tolerate our failings, patiently to endure suffering – knowing that the victory of Jesus the Christ is certain.
Jesus brought us God – but not as we know it. Our challenge is not to make Jesus fit the God we know, but to realize that God is the Jesus we see.