Modern liturgical practice considers the Sunday following Ascension Day as the last Sunday in the Season of Easter. Accordingly, the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that link the beginning of the season with its close. So the first reading repeats the passage from the opening chapter of Acts that recounts Jesus’ final Resurrection appearance to his disciples before his Ascension.
The Gospel -- from John – takes us back to Holy Week, however. It occurs just after the long ‘Farewell Discourses’ that Jesus addresses to the eleven left in the upper room once Judas Iscariot has fled their celebration of the Passover. He turns his thoughts to God and says, “I am coming to you, Holy Father”, a prayer appropriate to ascension, but uttered when he has the long and arduous path of trial, condemnation and death still to tread. It is striking, though, that it is at this moment, and not the moment of ascension recorded by Luke, that Jesus declares “Now I am no longer in the world”. What can he mean? Even when he has risen from the dead, he appears in Galilee. Doesn’t his departure from ‘the world’ have to wait for Ascension?
At one level it does. The eternal unity of Father and Son is renewed with the Ascension when Jesus visibly ascends from earth to heaven. At another level, however, the mystery that underlies this unity relies upon a proper understanding of the relation between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. It is a fact of human experience that ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’, the earthly and the heavenly, are often at war within us. Contrary to what people commonly suppose, this does not mean that the spiritual or heavenly realm is radically divorced from the material or earthly one. Rather, as this week’s Gospel makes it plain, we are not to think of heaven as another world purged of all its imperfections of this one, a place we travel to when we die. On the contrary, as this week’s lesson tells us, Jesus did not come to promise bliss in the future, but “to give eternal life” now. Importantly, the Gospel then adds: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In other words, eternal life begins not at death, but when we first truly know God in Christ. At that point, the human spirit is offered a new way of living an earthly life that transcends mortality, regardless of when that may come.
We are free, of course, to turn down the offer, and continue in our ordinary ways. What difference does accepting it make?? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle from the First Letter of Peter says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”. Such advice, however, can only be part of the answer. A lot of the time, as we know very well, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, so that self-centred anxieties continue to dog us. It is precisely at these moments, however, that Peter’s words speak most powerfully to us: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”.
The real Good News is that ultimately we are not at the mercy of our own efforts which are often misguided and feeble. Jesus is properly called Saviour because, even when we beset by fear, weakness, and ignorance, he loves us in just the way that God loves us. Given the anxieties about public health that currently dominate our lives, this is welcome news. Faith is a two-way relationship. We hold out our hands, but it is God who reaches down to us. We open our hearts, but it is Christ’s saving spirit that enters them. We lose the ability to pray, but the Spirit prays for us, in ‘sighs too deep for words’. And this reassurance, fittingly is the promise of Pentecost, the liturgical season that is just about to come.
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Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
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07718 278 145
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