Sermon for Ascensiontide by Fr. Mark Stafford, Curate at St. Barnabas and Junior Chaplain, Merton College

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…But…we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”

 When I was a child I thought as a child. Specifically, when I was about 9 years old I went through a phase of refusing to wear any clothes that weren’t either white or black.

 Now that I’m an Anglo catholic priest of course I have left childish things behind me, but at the time my sartorial choices were strongly influenced by a desire to emulate Han Solo – the hero in my opinion – of the Star Wars films, although in truth I also very much wanted to be a Jedi Knight, like Luke Skywalker, the official blue-eyed boy of George Lucas (soon to be extended) Sci-Fi series.

 And the Jedi bit was trickier to pull off. Not having any diminutive Jedi masters at my disposal, my training in the ways of the Force consisted of blindfolding myself and, using one of my Dad’s golf putters as a ‘lightsabre’, hurling a tiny rubber ball against my bedroom wall, and trying to deflect it by ‘reaching out with my feelings’, whilst it hurtled unerringly towards where my dressing gown offered scant protection to my feelingest reaching out parts. 

 Fortunately, it wasn’t just the swordsmanship that appealed. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to levitate, or have Jedi Mind Control at their disposal, but, I think it was the combination of chivalry and spirituality that really fired my lasers. If there had been a Shaolin Monastery in Southport-on-Sea (they were the only actual Warrior-Monks I’d ever heard of), I would have shaved my head and signed up on the spot.

 Even so, as I say, these weren’t straightforward fantasies – it was still Han with his wisecracking worldliness that I admired most, not the airy-er, fairy-er, Luke, for all his latent Jedi tendencies. It was a confusing time. It’s a miracle I turned out to be so stable…

 What I needed in those days, of course, was Han’s ability to realise that life isn’t always black and white, and Luke’s ability to recognise that clothes needn’t be either. But in truth, thinking in excessively black and white terms isn’t reserved to 9 year-old Star Wars fans. It is something human beings are always strongly disposed to doing, and transcending those categories can be even more demanding than the Jedi ability to defy gravity.

 Which brings us to the story of another sky walker, to the Ascension, and to the numerous challenges it presents.

 At first glance we might be tempted to dismiss the details of Luke’s accounts – in our Gospel tonight – and at the beginning of Acts – as the stuff of childish thinking. Heaven isn’t in the sky, and ideas of Jesus making his way up into the clouds seem more like Jack & the Beanstalk or the Indian Rope Trick than grown up religion. But the Ascension, like the whole story of the man Christ Jesus, is one that deliberately defies black and white thinking.

 Above all, the Ascension, and the ensuing outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, completes the work of the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of our Lord, in undermining the black and white divisions between heaven and earth, between humankind and the Divine. And it does so by adopting, and subverting, our most basic religious vocabularies. 

 Of course a god, or a deified human would rise into the sky – after all in nearly every culture, the earliest gods worshipped, have been variants of a sky god – as though people looked up at the roof of the sky, saw light coming through it, and jumped to the obvious conclusion: that somebody must be home.

 Indeed, a great many of our more sophisticated expressions of worship have maintained something of a fixation with height. We’ve built towers or totem poles; our Holy men have gone up mountains or our gods frequented them, and our angels or messengers had wings and come down from on high. And at the same time our fear of crumbling back into the earth, has made soaring into the air a basic human aspiration. So, naturally, our heroes from Etana to Superman are skywalkers.

 But whilst the Judeo-Christian tradition is not less, but more keen to emphasise the otherness of God, his exalted status as set apart from his creation – the Ascension is neither about a rare individual attaining the status of the divine, nor a divinity returning home after a brief visit to the shop floor; any more than the resurrection is about a hero entering the underworld to rescue some treasure from its clutches, and return triumphant.

 We have such stories, but they only serve to reinforce the distinctions between high and low, life and death, sacred and secular, and to buttress the human hierarchies that arise from those ideas.

  No, this story is about the separating veil between the celestial and terrestrial being torn apart, about the beginning of a process that will see death destroyed, the heavenly city descend, the most high god make his permanent dwelling in the midst of his creation, and humanity itself bodily taken up into the eternal godhead.

 Just as the Incarnation saw the Divine and the human joined inseparably in the person of the man Christ Jesus, so the Ascension marks the beginning of humankind being taken into God through his dying and rising again. Just as the resurrection opened the grave, so the ascension opens heaven, not only for the Risen and Ascended One, but for all who are become part of his risen and ascended life – as inseparably, Paul says, as a body is part of the life of its head…

 There have been a great many mythologies and philosophies which have grown up out of the foundation stages of human thinking – that inevitable tendency to categorise, and divide this from that, out from in, white from black; there have been no shortage of sages calling for a blurring of those boundaries, no shortage of heroes transgressing them, or prophets refining them, but the Ascension reveals the possibility of finally uniting those things that we have had to hold separate, and transcending those categories our nature requires us to create.

 It calls us not simply to grow up in our thinking, but to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, the one in whom God is reconciling all things to himself. It calls us to live even now lives that defy the old distinctions – the eternal life of heaven itself, in the down to earth realities of the here and now.

 When I was in my black and white phase, I was unwittingly enacting a very old idea – one deliberately woven into the Star Wars story in its homage (witting or otherwise) to the Ascension – by trying to put on the clothes of my hero…

 In the first film the young Skywalker’s mentor mysteriously disappears leaving only his cowled Jedi cloak behind, and several films later, we see Luke wearing just such a cloak, having literally taking up his master’s mantle.

 The writer of the screenplay, just like the writer of our Gospel, no doubt had somewhere in mind – Elijah’s ascent to heaven, the passing on of his cloak to his young apprentice Elisha – which gave us the phrase that, as it happens, has filled our papers in recent weeks.

 “Moyes takes on the Masters Mantle.” “The Mantle passes to a new Pope…a new Archbishop…”

 We refer to Elijah’s Ascension more frequently than anyone might reasonably expect, but, in so doing, we remind ourselves of the core message of our Lord’s Ascension also.

 That where he goes we are to follow.

 That the whole reason for his going is precisely our following, not simply to demonstrate his exalted status, but to pave the way for ours. That in his going we are called to take on his mantle, we are ‘clothed with power from on high’ to take up his mission, to live the life of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

 And we are challenged, not to look up into the sky, but to grow up, together, into the likeness of the One who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things

 Finally, corporately, to be conformed to the image of the one who is above all, and through all and in all.

 “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…But…we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”



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