Herewith a version of a sermon that I preached on Ascension Day in Biggleswade. It was good to be back if not a little odd. It was lovely to see some familiar faces and there was a real sense in a way of being at home - amongst friends. Jo Gurney even missed Emmerdale to come - now there is commitment... :-)
Today Jesus returns to the glory of the Father, taking our humanity with him. What that means is that our human nature and God's nature are not opposites. The Ascension assures us that our destiny too is to become divine.The difficulty is that most of the time we see ourselves as the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche did as ‘human all too human, ‘ broken, weak and failing. Yet, today of all days we are encouraged with those first disciples to look up, and as Christ disappears from sight, to remember that as Jesus fully God returns to be with his father in heaven, he also returns as Jesus fully human. The Ascension is about seeing humanity from God’s perspective of history - humanity that is human, gloriously human!
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is one of the normal ways of talking about faith - as St Athanasius put it ‘God became man so man can become God.’ Divinity is what humanity is for. It’s our destiny, and we needn’t be shy of saying so. It is the point of this living relationship with God that we’re called into called faith. If you doubt me, go and read your Bible thoroughly! There’s an important passage in John chapter 10 where Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. They want to stone him because he has called himself God’s son. And his answer is very interesting. He quotes Psalm 82 at them, where God says, ‘I have called you all gods, even though you die as men’. ‘Look’, says Jesus, ‘if God calls all people gods, even though they are mortal, why do you want to stone me for saying something that’s potentially true of you as well? If only you’ll let me in, you can realise your destiny too, and become children of God yourselves. That’s what you’re made for’.
As far as the Bible is concerned, the trouble is not that we are too human, we are not human enough. If we were fully human, as God made us to be, then by definition we’d be divine as well, just as Jesus was fully human and fully divine - Son of Man and Son of God. Because God made us in his image, it's when we are most human, most truly ourselves, that we are most truly like him. It's a sign of the church's failure that to many people outside, Christianity doesn't seem to make you more human but less. Jesus talked about faith ‘giving you life more abundantly’, but it often doesn’t look that way. If anything, people suspect that Christianity narrows life down, takes the fun out of it, and de-humanizes you with a lot of unnecessary hang-ups and hypocrisies.
Speaking of Jesus, St Augustine wrote: “You ascended from before our eyes. We turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts.” In other words, if we’re looking for Jesus, our faith tells us his presence will be discovered in our humanity, in each other. Discovering Christ in each other can take a leap of faith to say the least! But if we’re looking for Jesus, our faith tells us his presence will be discovered in service to those in greatest need. Mother Teresa talked about her work and how important the contemplative life was as she said: “First we meditate on Jesus, then we go out and look for him in disguise.”
In the Gospels it's clear that the humanity of Jesus was rich and full. He was open to every kind and class of person, and he allowed
others to be themselves. He didn't narrow life down; he enriched it and enhanced it. His kind of holiness didn't raise barriers, it broke them down, to the extent that because of the company he kept,
he was accused of being a womaniser and a drunkard. He managed to make people feel at home who would feel completely out of place in our churches today: all the people on the margins, all the disreputable people gathered around him, because he saw past the labels and simply took them for what they were: human beings, brothers and sisters made in the image of God.
There’s a lovely passage in the diary of Thomas Merton, where he describes an experience he once had of suddenly seeing the divine in people. He writes:
I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the shopping precinct, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, even though they were complete strangers. It felt like waking from a dream. It was as if I could see the secret beauty in their hearts, the deep self where sin and ego can't reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God's eyes. Ofcourse I couldn't say it. You can’t go up to people and tell them they’re walking around shining like the sun. But if only they could see themselves as they truly are … If only we could all see each other that way all the time. I suppose the problem would be that we'd fall down and worship each other.
A real Christian church is one that shares that vision and does what Jesus did: accepts us as we are, but sees the potential in each of us, and helps us grow into that divine self that we already are in God’s sight. Karl Marx, of all people, once remarked that the Church ought to be the ‘heart of a heartless world’, a place where we can discover and accept one another as real human beings, with
all our wounds and complications, and can then begin to grow together into something more.
The real Church of Christ is not an exclusive club for the religiously and morally respectable that you must qualify to enter. On the contrary, the one qualification for entry is knowing you can’t qualify. The real Church is a free hospital for damaged souls, looking to be healed by love, and growing by love to become more human, not less - and in the process becoming divine.
Back to St. Augustine, who talked about our lives lived in this tension between humanity and divinity and offered this advice: “Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security. God’s praises are sung both there and here. But here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there by those living in their own country. So then let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors.”
You should sing as wayfarers do sing, but continue your journey sing then, but keep going.