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Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams
Ascension Day 10 May 2018 – 5.15pm Eucharist
Daniel 7:9-14 Acts 1: 4-11 Luke 24: 44-end
‘See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49)
Some of the Minster community are spending this week on the Scottish island of Iona, whose abbey has been a site of Christian prayer and pilgrimage for fifteen centuries. It was the 20th-century founder of the modern Iona Community, a Church of Scotland minister named George MacLeod, who said of the Ascension: ‘There is a human being in heaven; one of us has made it’.
One of us. Not one like us: not ‘one like a human being’, as the prophet Daniel put it, but a real human being: a real human being who is also God. We’ve been trying to get our heads round the mysterious truth of Jesus’ identity since even before St Columba first arrived on Iona, in the middle of the 6th century. And the Ascension marks a key moment in our understanding of that identity. Early this morning, as we do every Ascension Day, members of the chaplaincies of both York’s universities climbed the Minster tower, and my colleague Kevin said to the assembled students that Ascension is Jesus’ graduation: the fulfilment of both his humanity and his divinity.
We use the language of ascending and descending- up to heaven, down to earth- as a way of trying to make sense of our feeling that there is a distance (maybe even a separation) between us and God: as if we belong here, and God there. Jesus forces us to rethink that idea. For he is both here and there; both with God and with us; both then and now.
All the ways we have of understanding how time and space work are simply too small to comprehend how God can be both human and divine. We’re confronted with the same problem at the other end of the liturgical year: Ascension and Advent are opposite sides of the same coin. At Advent, we experience a similar knot in our linear understanding of time: we await the arrival of a baby who is simultaneously timeless, present in creation from the beginning of all time; and fixed in human history in first-century Palestine; and eternally present as we await the fulfilment of all time. At Ascension, we see that just as God transcends our understanding of time- past, present and future- so too God transcends our understanding of space- up and down, here and there. There is no division between heaven and earth. God is, was, and ever shall be here. God is, was, and ever shall be one of us: from the beginning of time to its end.
Jesus tells his disciples to ‘stay here in the city until you are clothed with power on high’. There’s that spatial language again. For it is here in the city- this city and every city, the here and now where we live, work, study and rest, among other human beings like ourselves- that we are to work out what it means to be made in the image of God, for our humanity to be transformed by sharing in divinity. It is here, and now, that we are to build the Kingdom and live out the truth of God, until we discover for ourselves what is beyond this life, beyond our current capacity to imagine or comprehend.
The disciples of Jesus do not know how they will manage without him. They do not yet know what they can do; and they do not yet realise what it will cost them to do it. But their task is not to wait for Jesus to return at the end of time before they act. It is to begin the work now of transforming the world we live in into the kingdom of heaven. It is not that God belongs there and we belong here. Quite the opposite. There is a human being in heaven: and because there is one, wherever human beings are is also, already, touched with the divine.
‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ It is all around you. There is a human being in heaven. The whole world belongs to God, across every boundary of time or space: and it is here in the city that we are to find him.
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