Looking Up – Ascension Sunday

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 28 May 2017

Don’t ever get the impression that your Minister always gets it right. That he is the fount of all wisdom and always makes the right decision. It was Ascension Day and the Principal and staff of a previously mentioned Theological college where I was clearly not fitting in pursued this Ascension Day ritual very seriously. To me it was absurd. But nevertheless this annual non-event was celebrated by all the staff and students climbing long and winding stairs to cram themselves on to the top of a central tower of the college building. There they sang their hymns and looked what they considered to be heavenward maybe in the vain hope that the ascension would somehow come back to life. I decided that if they really did want to go through this fiasco then they should take it seriously and when all their number had assembled looking to the sky and crept out and locked the door from the outside leaving them to a cold May morning to continue their somewhat stupid devotions. However the real stupidity of the whole event was, of course, evidenced in the person who did the somewhat cruel act…ME.  Because all they had to do to figure out who had done this was to look around to discover the only absentee from that tower.  So yet again I was in the theological soup. How stupid am I?

What really riled me about the whole thing was the celebration of a non-event.

Jesus did not rise up from the ground to ascend to his Father in heaven. This whole story is yet again not a literal record of what happened. It’s the normal teaching method of the day to illustrate a truth.

The world of Jesus and his Disciples was that of a flat earth, heaven above and hades below. God was up above the clouds and in their thinking if Jesus had come from God, who is up there, then he will have gone back to him, up there.

But consider for a moment that if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light ie. 186,000 miles per second he would still be within our galaxy.

Also even the biblical record of this event is very very murky. It is only Luke who records this both in the Gospel and in Acts, but even he contradicts himself.  In the Gospel the Ascension took place on the same day as his resurrection whilst the same author records it as happening 40 days later. (We know that even 40 days is not literal. It’s just biblical shorthand for a significant period of time. ..Like it rained 40 days on Noahs Ark, Moses went to the top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days, Goliath confronted Israel for 40 days, Jonah gave Ninevah 40 days to repent, Jesus went into the desert where the temptations took place for 40 days….I’m emphasising this to make the point not to take the scriptures literally…….the people who wrote them and who read them originally didn’t, nor should we.)

I want to tell you the story of Larry Walters. When this Californian boy was 13 years old he became infatuated with hot air balloons and when he was 33 years on July 2nd 1982 he decided to fulfil his lifelong dream. On that day he tied 42 helium filled balloons to a deck chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro California. With the help of his friends, he secured himself into the chair that was anchored to the bumper bar of a car. He packed sandwiches, a 6 pack of beer and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out that way. When he cut the cord anchoring the chair, the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of levelling off at about 30 ft as planned, he rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons. So he stayed up there drifting, cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the flightpath of Los Angeles Airlines.

The first person to spot Larry was a Pan Am pilot who quickly and with a certain amount of dis belief radio’s the tower saying he’d just flown past someone in a deck chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Authority was not amused! He started to shoot the balloons but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting a few hours he eventually got entangled in some power lines and survived without injury.

Now that is a historically accurate ascension which provided a lot of amusement to many people. It was also adapted into a movie which demonstrated that this very act gave to the deck chair pilot a wonderful experience as well as a source of inspiration and affirmation to people who experienced the amazing event.

Now Luke’s account of the ascension did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them for ever.

The Early Christians were doing their best within the confines of their first century knowledge to reflect theologically on their experience of Christ.

You see because they saw God in Jesus and because he’d now gone, then he had gone back to God. And because they believed in a 3 tier universe, then naturally he went UP to God in heaven. Additionally Luke built on the Old Testament story of Elijah who also believed because he was so close to God could likewise only go UP to God in heaven.

So for us today then, the most interesting question is not how we understand the ascension…but what does it mean to us today and how do we now understand its central message.

  • Well for me the first thing it teaches us is that our spirit can be lifted up.

No matter how dark the clouds seem, we can be lifted above them. Remember the disciples had seen Jesus captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed. Their whole being would have been dark and down. Yet they were lifted up to look upwards with hope and confidence. This is the same for us, even in the direst circumstances. You also know only too well, that some days we’re down in the dumps and other days we’re on cloud nine or on top of the world.

For us the ascension is about our souls internally being lifted.

Let me quote Thomas Merton a 20th century Trappist Monk, theologian and mystic.

“Ascension is the feast of silence and interior solitude….when we are taken up into the heaven of our own souls. To rest on this quiet peak, in the darkness that surrounds God. To live there through all trials and business with the tranquil God who makes all things tranquil”

I repeat for you to consider and ponder: “This is the grace of Ascension day…to rest on this quiet peak, to rest on this quiet peak in the darkness that surrounds God”

This individual spirit power can come in all shapes and sizes and often at the most unexpected times.

My dog Oska and his predecessors consistently have touched my spirit. Pet owners will know this the way he wags his tail so excitedly and is so so pleased to see me if I’ve been away. Yes it’s lovely but it is also spirit filled.

There are many moments in our lives when we feel that. It is being lifted up. Immanuel Kant would reflect on the way “the starry heavens above” would fill him with “awe and energy”

  • The second thing it teaches us is that our spirit can lift each other up to the sky.

Our spirit can lift others up in a way you might never know.

There was a time when I was CEO of a national organisation that stretched across the whole of the UK. I was based in London and had offices in 52 Radio stations and 12 TV networks. The furthest south was in Cornwall in the furthest south of England and the furthest north was in Aberdeen, North-West Scotland. Inevitably I spent my whole life on the road, in railway carriages and in strange hotel rooms invariably chasing problems. It was not a happy time. I was exhausted and dispirited. I decided I was going to cut down on a few places and just let them sort themselves out.

I remember I had a call from my member of staff in Edinburgh, one of the most distant and problematic offices. She appealed to me not to stop coming she said “When you walk into our offices the whole culture changes….you “Lift us up”. It was a salutary experience for me. I was just dismissing it as business visit or chore that I complied with…but she saw it completely differently. Think of that when you’re a bit fed up with someone or they’re getting on your nerves.

Doesn’t this remind us of Jesus’ words “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria’…lets also say “in Edinburgh, in London, in Footscray, in the City, in our street, in our home, at work, at the bowls club, at the theatre”.

This Christian Joy was what the Disciples experienced and felt about the ongoing presence of Jesus in their lives and world. In his departure they discovered that they could love as generously as he did. They could heal and reconcile just as he did.

  • The third thing it teaches us is that we can be lifted up by others.

We can all recall people who lifted us towards the sky whenever we met them. Whenever they touched our lives. Just think of them now for a moment. They’re still pointing us upwards and we honour that.

This is why we come to church to lift and be lifted up by those around us. What we share here is so much more because we share it. We share music, singing. Quietness, reflection and learning together.

It does our spirit good to be surrounded by those of a kindred spirit.

I remember when I played Rugby as a team we really bonded together, but more than that even the opposition. You could pull, tackle and gouge, and swear at the opposition on the pitch, but afterwards in the clubhouse you would be great mates because with all the difference you had so much in common.

And you were able to lift each other to console on a loss or even to share a victory.

As you know I am President of Melbourne City Churches in Action and this gives me the opportunity to connect with all the clergy in the city. I remember only a short while ago when I met the Coptic Orthodox Bishop, Bishop Suriel.  In so many ways we are miles apart in culture, theology, dress, liturgy and yet there is something special which connects us.

On the Way of the Cross walk on Good Friday the very high Anglican Priest of St Peters, Father Hugh put his arms around me and said what a privilege it was to connect.

Do you get what I mean?  In this congregation, in the Uniting Church, in this city there are so many different experiences and backgrounds, different colours, sexualities, understandings of faith, skills, wealth, age, hopes, dreams, problems, joys.

This we celebrate. The spirit stimulates and excites us and gives us a future.

When the dying embers of the Disciples experience of Jesus were slowly fading. The spreading flame of his message took off, set them on fire and changed the world. They inspired each other, lifted each other. Together they didn’t bow their heads in grief …….they looked up with excitement and energy.

That’s still our commitment today….to continue to share the good news…to share love, joy and peace……..to people across the whole of this city. So that this church will be on fire and that people outside this building will know about us, will be inspired by us, will come to find out about us and even become one of us.

I quote Thomas Merton again: “Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone….we find it with one another.

This is the story of the early Church and it’s our story. AS our spirits are lifted together, as we look upwards together…we can achieve wonderful things.

If the ascension myth is about doing the impossible…then we can do that. We become Yes people.  We become a Yes church.

Being a Yes church is the message of the ascension.

Lifting our own spirit

Lifting others up

And together being lifted up

Doing the impossible and making great things happen.

The 150th year of this building will be a watershed moment for us. Together we will be looking upwards.

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