Backdated: Ascension stories

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and it’s getting busier, so while I still can, I’m dipping into the archives again. This week’s homily time travels from Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, on the Eve of the Ascension 2009, and uses the Ascension lectionary for Year B. Next week, the same service from 2010 will come visiting; by the following week we should be back on track, in Year A, risen, ascended and relieved!

“Tomorrow marks the fortieth day after Easter, and in our gospel traditions that is the day on which the risen Lord Jesus ascended into heaven and, in the imagery of the creeds, took his seat at God’s right hand.

But for me, one of the most curious things about this curious and wonderful story is the reaction of the disciples.

What has happened to these people in the few short weeks since Easter?

They are different men (and, I suspect, different women, too).

After Jesus’ arrest, they ran away. There was violence done in the garden, and the disciples scattered and hid. They watched the crucifixion from a distance, while others stood around the foot of the cross beating their breasts. They denied ever having known the Christ.

Fear and doubt and bad feelings abounded.

But now, seeing their friend and master taking his leave from them once again, and so soon after they had received him back from the dead, these same disciples are filled with joy.

They are overflowing with joy!

They worship Jesus and they bless God continually in the temple in the days that follow.

What a difference forty days make!

What was it that could turn these disciples around so completely? How was Jesus able to turn so much fear, doubt and bad feeling into this temple singing, God blessing joy?

In this last story of Luke’s gospel, Jesus charges his disciples with proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to the whole world.

Repentance.

One of the great archbishops of the twentieth century, William Temple, had this to say about repentance:

We have lowered the term ‘repentance’ into meaning something not very different from remorse … To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of you own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God.*

Repentance. Adopting the viewpoint of God, being in fellowship with God. If that is the transformation which the disciples had undergone, no wonder they were joyful.

When the risen Lord had first appeared before them, they were terrified, haunted by their own knowledge of how they had let him down. But Jesus said, “Peace.” He offered them peace; he told them to be at peace with themselves. All was forgiven.

To see from God’s point of view, we are told in this gospel, is to see with a forgiving eye.

Forgiving is complicated; perhaps even more complicated than joy. It is not to forget the past, or to pretend that we have never been hurt, or have never hurt anyone else; but it is to live without bitterness, without becoming mired in regret. It is not to ignore the lessons of our failings, or to fail to protect ourselves from future harm. It is, perhaps, to wear the past loosely, and to keep our hearts grounded in the present and hopeful in the future.

I build up barriers of guilt and regret all the time against this perfect repentance. The fear and doubt and bad feeling of the disciples; those are emotions that we live with every day, when we know that we are in the wrong because of what we have done or left undone; or when we worry about what other people think of us, or when we can’t seem to find our joy; but repentance is itself a gift from God, which means that as often as we resist it, God offers it. Through the gospels, through the church, the sacraments and through prayer, Jesus has explained to us, just as he did to those disciples, that we are forgiven, and blessed by God.

So I wonder: what do we look like, seen through God’s eyes? What do we look like, forgiven? What opportunities for healing do we see when we have the courage and the grace to make or to accept an apology? What gifts can we grasp and use when we set aside our need to be perfect? What possibilities are opened up, to give and to serve and to love and to be loved, when we can accept that word of peace, when we can truly repent and enter into that temple singing, God blessing joy?

The most curious part of this story, for me, is not that Jesus was carried up into heaven. Jesus was transformed by the manner of his conception, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, into someone who would live at God’s right hand. Jesus was, is and always has been God’s Son. It’s there all the way through the gospel stories.

Jesus’ ascension is amazing and astonishing and mysterious and wonderful, but, after all that we’ve learnt of him along the way, I’m not sure it’s terribly surprising.

But the disciples; their transformation surprises me.

Jesus was transformed and sits at God’s right hand.

The disciples were transformed by knowing Jesus.

And most curious of all: if we only allow ourselves, we with them can be transformed by repentance, from fear, doubt, and bad feeling into temple singing, God blessing joy.”

*William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, 67, quoted more fully in L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1998), 2

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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