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Ascension Day Eucharist, 2019

May 30, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using  Luke 24.44-end at Festal Eucharist on Thursday 30th May 2019, Ascension Day

The middle ground, we are told, has disappeared from politics, or at least from the great political issue of our time. Labour and Conservative, in trying to fight on this middle ground, the ground of compromise, have been pushed aside in favour of parties with an uncompromising stance, either for or against Brexit.

The Church of England was for a long time wedded to the middle ground, not too catholic, not too reformed, conservative but not necessarily with a capital c, with a Goldilocks liturgy, not too fervent and not too dull, but Just Right – expressive yet restrained. You get the picture. The beliefs of the Church likewise had, above all, to be reasonable, the sort of thing to which a sensible and respectable chap might offer a passing nod. The middle ground was where we loved to be, embracing the nation with unlimited and benign benevolence.

But the ascension destroys the middle ground and leads us to extremes. We are asked to believe in a doctrine best pictured by Christ leaving the earth in triumph. It would be better to believe in Jesus’ feet dangling through the clouds than to believe that this in any way boils down to how the disciples ended up feeling about Jesus, alive but absent. There’s nothing in Luke’s Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles to suggest something so bland and unexceptional. No, the ascension demands that something extreme happened to Jesus.

You can’t get to the moon without escaping the gravitational pull of the earth. Likewise, Jesus could not return to God his Father in heaven without leaving the earthly realm. He achieved this by ascending, leaving his disciples without his presence but with a promise of being re-empowered by the Holy Spirit, sent as the Father’s gift from on high.

This Spirit, when he comes, does not inhabit the middle ground. The Spirit reverses what happens at the ascension, coming right back down among the people in wind and fire, immediately reversing the curse of Babel, where culture was fragmented through people and nations overreaching themselves, and instead creating a common culture where diversity is joined in unity, in and through the Holy Spirit.

This radical refashioning of human community could not possibly have begun to happen had the Holy Spirit not plunged into the depths of our social and psychological reality. In the Spirit God becomes earthed in creation in a new way, in a way patterned on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – which, incidentally, is why we can say the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Spirit’s life is the gift of Jesus’ unique life, brought universally into the world.

There is no middle ground in the life of God. Jesus ascends to the highest heaven and the Spirit descends into the waters of chaos and death to renew creation. It is utterly extreme and worth all our wonder, joy and jubilation.

But what does this mean for us today? Firstly, that the church can survive in extreme conditions. If you visit our new Kings & Scribes exhibition, you will see how the Church here prospered as this nation was born, and how it survived major social upheavals such as the Reformation and Civil War. We do not need temperate conditions in order to live a gospel people.

To be honest, we may even thrive better in the more difficult times. I have learned a lot from the Muslim community in Winchester, whose life here is not easy, seeing the way they live out their faith simply and sincerely in a community structure comprised of about 50 families from many different nations, without the benefit of a mosque. Their warm hospitality and strong faith and values are going to win them much favour in years to come.

The ascent of God into heaven and descent of God to earth also means that we can and should live between two worlds, as citizens of heaven and sojourners on earth, as those who hearts and minds move between the two. The early Christians were known for living between two worlds. They did strange and anarchic things, like refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor, as normal people did. They refused to join the state military. They cared for the poor and sick and forgave their enemies.

How will we respond to this mandate to live between two world in these days of climate emergency, when the young especially seem to be developing a new ethic largely outside the church, when the idea of somehow  ‘making a difference’ has become a driving ethic, endorsed even by Prince Harry?

These challenges will stretch us. There’s no cosy middle ground, only the heavens and the earth joined together in one body, united in Christ and in the Spirit, a body of which we are members and whose calling and mission we are privileged to share.

Rather than moderation, we now need inspiration, and a desire to share in word and deed a life that knows no sensible limit but leads us extremely, into the height, depth and breadth of divine love. So we pray:

Almighty God,

your ascended Son has sent us into the world

to preach the good news of your kingdom:

inspire us with your Spirit

and fill our hearts with the fire of your love

that all who hear your Word

may be drawn to you,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.