The Ascension Challenge

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Ascension Sunday, Year C.

Jesus ascended into heaven.

Why do you think he did that?

This rock, around which a small chapel has been built at Mount Olivet, is the traditional site from which Jesus could have ascended into Heaven.

The Risen Jesus was capable of appearing and disappearing at will. He walked through a locked door to greet the Apostles on Easter Sunday Night. He disappeared after breaking bread with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Later, he would speak to St Paul in a blinding vision.

So why did Jesus make a special arrangement with his Apostles, that they should come to a mountain and see him rise into the air, disappearing into the clouds?

It certainly drew a line under the appearances of the Risen Jesus. He wanted to do something different so his followers would know he was NOT going to be appearing to them regularly. From now on the Church was to be entrusted to his followers – not on their own, but guided by the Holy Spirit who would soon be sent to them.

This gives us challenge number one: we preach a message about a man who was God and rose from the dead – but we don’t have his living body to show as proof! Do we really believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven? Or in other words, do we trust the eyewitness account of the Apostles which is recorded in the Bible?

The angels who appeared told the Apostles that Jesus was coming back in the same way they had seen him go. The apostles got the wrong impression – for the first few years they believed and taught that Jesus was coming back to judge the world ‘any day now’. As time passed they realised Jesus wasn’t returning as quickly as they thought.

This gives us challenge number two: we preach a message, and profess in our Creed, that one day Jesus will come back; this world as we know it will end; the dead will be raised to life; and all people will be judged by Jesus. Do we really believe that Jesus is coming back to judge the world?

There’s something more. Jesus wanted to give his followers a visible sign that his Risen Body was going to heaven. I think this was meant to give us hope – to remind us that our destiny, as followers of Christ, is for us to become like Him. One day we shall go to heaven. One day we shall also have bodies like His. But more than that, we are called to live like Jesus here and now!

This gives us challenge number three: Jesus promised the Apostles the Holy Spirit. If we’ve been baptised, we have already received God’s Spirit, given to make us Holy, living images of Jesus. If we have received the Sacrament of Confirmation, we have received the Holy Spirit in a deeper way, meant to give us the power to do Christ-like things in the world. That is, to love as Jesus loved, to speak as Jesus spoke, to bring light into darkness, to go the extra mile in helping those in need. But like any relationship, our relationship with God’s Spirit takes work.

Just as it is not enough to say “I do!” on a wedding day without waking up each morning with a firm intention to put your husband’s, or wife’s, needs ahead of your own, so it is not enough to be confirmed without waking up each morning saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, I need you!”

But it is not always a comfortable thing to allow the Holy Spirit full access to your life.

When God’s Spirit opens your mind, you become more aware of the small yet sinful habits which you have fallen into, and the Spirit will give you no peace until you repent.

When God’s Spirit opens your eyes, you notice that your neighbour in Cardiff needs a little of your care and attention, and that your neighbour in the poorest part of the world, living on a dollar a day, needs a little of your hard-earned cash.

When God’s Spirit opens your heart, you become more aware of how deeply God loves you – but also of the words of affirmation which God might want you to speak to others.

The question is not: “Have you got the Holy Spirit?” If you have been baptised and confirmed, then yes, you have. It is only grievous and deliberate sin which can cause the Holy Spirit to flee from the heart of a Christian soul.

The question is: “Has the Holy Spirit got you?” You will know when the Spirit has got you, because you will know, deep down, you are still being challenged to become an even closer image of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t happen on its own. Even Jesus’ own hand-picked apostles had to spend nine days praying – and we are told, praying continuously – before the Spirit could come at Pentecost. During this next week, the week leading to our annual remembrance of that Pentecost, perhaps we could at least take one minute each day to pray “Come, Holy Spirit, I need you!”

Let me finish by echoing the words of St Paul: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, send anew into your hearts the Holy Spirit. May he make you open to all the Holy Spirit wishes to do in your life. May God’s Spirit cause you to rejoice in the goodness of God and fill you with hope of a joyful reward at the end of a life spent in his service.

And have great confidence in what God can do – this promise is for you and for your children!