Sermon preached by David Shepherd, 20 May 2007.
Out of sight, out of mind
It is often said: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." But I think it would be more true to say: "Out of sight, out of mind." When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he was away for such a long time, that the Jewish people assumed that he had gone for good. In his absence, they appointed his successor and made themselves a golden calf, which they thought would suit their lifestyle better than any old commandments.
So Jesus was taking a distinct risk when he departed from his disciples. Their track record was not very good. During most of their time together, they had been thinking about power — sharing his power — in a political sense. James and John had even asked whether they could sit at his left and right hand in his Kingdom.
So it is no surprise that, when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, we still hear one disciple plaintively asking: "Lord, will you at this time be restoring the Kingdom to Israel?" Is it too late? Of course it was too late!
There was never going to be an earthly kingdom. Because, by definition, all political power is corrupt — and corrupting. (As we see every day in our newspapers.) Indeed, the world would be a happier place if all the politicians could take a trip to Mars and come back in five or ten years time. They might be surprised how well we could get on without them!
Leaving the disciples here — to run the Church — with the little knowledge they had — and the powerful egos they possessed — was a dangerous business. On their own, it would have been a disaster. The Church would not have lasted six weeks. This is why Jesus told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would inspire them, guide them and lead them into all truth.
Being the disciples, they had no idea what Jesus was talking about! But through the experience of the Spirit, they discovered that Jesus was still working with them.
Not gone. But still here. Perhaps they also discovered that Jesus was now closer to them — in the Spirit; than he had ever been — in the flesh.
So the Ascension did not mean an end. But rather a change of management. Jesus was no longer a foreman with a collection of fellow-workers. He had returned to head office — propelled back to head office, we might say — as King of Kings and Lord of Lords ... To put it no higher, "he was at the right hand of God." (We notice that their theology was not yet sufficiently advanced for them to say that Jesus was God himself. But within twenty years, St John and St Paul had given them the final push in this direction!)
The Church is still governed by Jesus — in his glory — working through the power of his Holy Spirit. As we know, its chief functions are worship and service. And, like disciples in every age, God must find us rather slow, ignorant and uncooperative.
Because, when God looks at the world, he sees endless possibilities. When we look at the world, we see impossible problems. Too great for us to tackle. But, as Jesus constantly reminded us in his teaching, we are not alone. Ask — and we will receive. Seek — and we will find. Knock — and doors will open for us.
For years, I have been telling people that, when they have a problem, they should take their complaint to the very top of an organization. Write — or speak — to the Managing Director...the Chief Executive Officer... The people at the top are likely to be more competent and efficient than the people at the bottom. They have the power. They control the communications in a business. And when a rocket descends from head office, it is more likely that things will get done, because it carries weight and authority from the people in power.
In the same way, in our prayers, we go to the source of all power and authority — to God himself. And we should expect results. If we have the faith, He has the power. And he has told us to use it. Christians have immense power at their disposal; but we rarely use it, because it is not immediately obvious that the power is there.
Which brings me back to my original point! The ascended Christ is invisible. And, for most of us, "out of sight is out of mind." We can relate to what we see. But it is difficult to take on board the invisible, the infinite and the eternal in solving our problems and difficulties. It is the unconsidered option.
And yet, every day, we are surrounded by invisible things which dramatically affect our lives, our habits and our ways of thinking. Genes, chromosomes, DNA, enzymes, bacteria, micro-organisms of all sorts, determine our character, our behaviour, our appearance — and our reaction to events. The air we breathe is a subtle combination of different gases. Our bodies are continents of cells constantly reproducing and dying. We cannot see what these things are doing — but our lives depend upon them. Like the house dust mites, they are there! And if you think about it, the invisible aspects of our lives are more important than the visible.
Let me take this one step further. As Christians, we believe that we are surrounded by an invisible world of people — those who have passed through death into eternal life. We think that we are the ones who are real...vital...living. I would suggest to you that they are more alive than we are. And there are more of them!
The writer of the book of Hebrews speaks of us being surrounded by a great number of witnesses which no one could number. We are a small part of something which is much bigger; something which is much more alive. Like the earliest disciples, we are blinkered. We do not see the whole picture. Angels, archangels, the whole company of heaven.
In the Ascension, we take note of this greater, invisible world, which we will join in due course. A world which is not far away. A world which directly co-inheres with our own. The disciples could not understand this. And we have similar difficulties perceiving the reality of that brighter, more glorious world which surrounds us continually. A world where God is; where our loved ones are; where our prayers are heard; where our difficulties are fully understood.
If we understood the reality of this other, invisible world, there would be more than twelve members of the congregation present in church on Ascension Day; more than twenty on Christmas morning; and more than forty on All Souls' Day. Just because God is invisible doesn't mean he should be ignored. He is not five million light years away. He is still very close to all of us. Working is us — through his Spirit every day. As Christopher Wordsworth says in his great Ascensiontide hymn:
Mighty Lord, in your Ascension
We, by faith, perceive our own.