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Ascension Day, 30 May 2019 – Solemn Eucharist
Acts 1:1-11 Luke 24:44-53
If your family’s at all like mine, you’ll have a favourite, go-to, feel-good film that you watch at significant times when the family gathers together – like Christmas, for example. I’m fairly confident that this notion of a family film is a universal phenomenon because I checked out with my colleagues whether there was such a film in their families and they didn’t need a moment to think about it. So I’ll leave you to work out what these films tell you about my colleagues and their families. The Dean: Love Actually. Canon Peter, who’s not here because he’s on holiday: What we did on our holiday. Canon Michael: Elf. Catriona, who’s not here because she’s lost her voice: Singing in the Rain. Abi: Beauty and the Beast. And me? Cool Runnings.
Cool Runnings tells the highly improbable story of a Jamaican bobsled team, which enters the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Improbable though it may sound, it’s actually based on historical events. The challenge, of course, is that bobsledding requires ice and there’s not much of that in Jamaica. So the team trains using homemade go-cart-like vehicles over entirely unsuitable terrain, so that crashes are frequent, with wheels spinning off all over the place.
Their inspiration is Irving Blitzer, a two-time American Bobsled gold medallist in the 1968 Winter Olympics, now living in seclusion on the island in disgrace, having cheated in the 1972 games. Initially he wants nothing to do with these deluded idiots but, to cut a very long story short, he does reluctantly agree to coach them.
When they eventually arrive in Calgary, they’re the laughing stock of everyone. Their clothing is inadequate, they’re constantly bickering and arguing, they got next to no experience and they haven’t even got a bobsled to enter the competition with. Against all the odds, they manage to surmount all these obstacles. Despite the prejudice of the judges, they do manage to qualify in the heats and it even begins to look as if they could be in the running for a medal.
All continues to go well but in the crucial race a nut holding the steering mechanism in place comes loose. Careering down the course at a colossal speed, the bobsled loses control and crashes. There’s no movement whatsoever from any of the team, and then we hear Derice say, ‘Shanka, ya dead?’ The reply comes back, ‘Yeah, man!’ Miraculously, none of them is seriously injured and, as they climb out of the bobsled, they see the finishing line not too far away. They hoist the bobsled on to their shoulders and with their heads held high they walk across the line, determined to complete the course. The crowd goes wild as they cheer them on towards the finish. The German team, who’ve ridiculed them all along, congratulate them, say they’ve earned the right to compete, and tell them they’re looking forward to seeing them again in four years’ time.
Now those of you who know me well know that I’m a bit of a softy really. It doesn’t take much to make me cry, but when that bobsled’s lifted high up on the team’s shoulders I feel a torrent of tears welling up and ready to gush through my eyes. I find it intensely moving. It’s more, I think, than just the British love of the underdog. There’s something universal in human experience which longs to see things coming right in the end against all the odds, along with the sheer joy when they do.
I hope the resonance between this and the great Feast of the Ascension won’t actually need too much spelling out. In essence, what we celebrate today is the fact that the most improbable and unlikely of stories ends in triumph. The fact that the story ever reaches its completion is something in itself. From the humble beginnings of a fragile birth in a hostile environment, Jesus – as Luke portrays him – becomes a great teacher, prophet and healer, bringing hope to those who feel abandoned, proclaiming the good news of God’s love and presence. Some adore him, others perceive him to be deeply threatening. Despite his popularity with many, he’s too uncomfortable for the establishment and they plot to do away with him. Crucifixion’s probably about the worst kind of suffering and death anyone could undergo, yet this is his end. He dies in disgrace and humiliation, ridiculed by the political and religious authorities, deserted by those closest to him, with the exception of a handful of faithful women. All the promise he brought turns to nothing; it was all a pipe dream.
Then on the first Easter morning something mysterious occurs. The one who was dead and buried is said to be alive again. He appears to some and life begins to emerge in a new way among those who are forlorn and dejected. They’re told to wait for the coming of the Spirit, which will release new energy and vigour in them, enabling them to live the same pattern they saw in Jesus himself.
In the light of all this, the ascension can seem a bit like an also-ran. What, we might ask, does it add, what more does it say? Well, quite a lot. Not only is it God’s affirmation that what looks like failure on one level is actually success. Not only does it assure us that this life, the life of Jesus, is the one which illuminates the meaning and purpose of our lives. More than that, it affirms that the whole of our experience, with all its twists and turns, its triumphs and tragedies, its successes and failures, the very interplay and dynamic of these things, is the way in which we’re drawn into union with God. At the ascension, Jesus takes the whole of our human experience into the life of God. The Christ who ascends is the one who still bears the marks of the nails and spear, the wounds of the crucifixion in his risen body, and takes this into the mystery of God’s life and love. Because Jesus is divine, God experiences in him all that we experience, knows it from the inside and makes it God’s own. Because Jesus is human, he takes the totality of human experience and us with him into the fullness of God’s own life. Our lives are forever hidden with Christ in God, from whom there’s no separation.
The Feast of the Ascension, with all its wonderful symbolism that no longer quite fits our view of the world, can often seem little more than a relic of a bygone age. In truth, it celebrates something so profound and mind-blowing that it’s only really symbols that can evoke and articulate it. And the truth is this: that there’s nothing in life that can finally act as a barrier to the fulfilment of our longing for union with God. The tragedies, failures, disappointments and setbacks are often the very things that can draw us in more closely. In Christ the whole of our experience has been taken into God and, in so doing, turns it into triumph. Because of the ascension, we are already where Christ is, in the very heart of God. Now that’s a cause for tears, not of sadness, but of exuberant joy.
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