Stretching those Wings
A sermon for the Feast of the Ascension by Nathan Nettleton, 25 May 2006
Christ is always stretching the boundaries beyond what we can comprehend, and his ascension stretches his presence to encompass even what seem to us to be his absence.
My family have never been big on dramatic farewells, but my wife’s family seem to love them. She and all her siblings have been overseas several times, and often for extended periods, and it almost seems like an unspoken rule that as many as possible have to turn up at the airport, and the same again whenever one of them returns. But even though it seems a little excessive to me, whenever I’m at the airport with them, I am aware that there are always other families doing it in even more dramatic fashion, with floods of tears and endless clinging hugs and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And of course, in at least some of those cases, it would be perfectly understandable if only I knew the stories behind the departures I was witnessing. In some of them, a young adult who has never left home before is heading off overseas and won’t be back for a couple of years at least. In others, a family unit is emigrating , leaving behind grandparents and siblings and cousins, and contact that has been close and regular will now be reduced to letters and emails and phone calls and a visit every five years or so. In others, it might be the case that people are farewelling a loved one who they know they will never see again. The emotion and tears are understandable, and so are the awful aching feelings of emptiness afterwards, when the parting is complete, the plane has disappeared into the clouds, and there is nothing to do but go home feeling like your heart has been ripped out.
There must have been something of all that in the experience of the disciples when Jesus was carried off into heaven. No matter how much he reassured them about the imminent arrival of the Holy Spirit, or how much he promised that he was only a prayer away, or how clearly he spelled out that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, it wasn’t going to be the same anymore. The Jesus they had known face to face, and walked and talked and ate and laughed with, was not going to be with them that way anymore. I don’t blame them for standing there, rooted to the spot, staring dumbly into the sky. What they had so enjoyed was over. They had been almost inseparable for three years, and then he had been taken away and killed, and then everything they had ever known and believed was turned on its head as they got him back again, but now, forty days later, he was gone again. And this time he wasn’t just ducking off for the long weekend. This time it was the full flood of tears at the airport, end of an era, nothing to hold on to, parting. And they were left standing there, blinking dumbly into the sky, wondering what on earth to do now.
And don’t we often feel a lot like that about our relationship to Jesus the Messiah? No doubt this story was included in our scriptures because followers of Jesus in every age relate to it and recognise themselves in it. However much we try to reassure ourselves that we have a close personal relationship with Jesus, there is much of the time when it feels anything but close. There is much of the time when, at best, it feels like an other-side-of-the-world, letters-and-emails kind of relationship.
But maybe we are taking our own experience a bit too much at face value here. Maybe we are trying to read our relationship with Jesus to much through the lens of the other relationships that we know about, and while that is valuable up to a point, it runs into some problems when we are dealing with Jesus. Our own experience tells us that when you see someone killed and buried, that is the end of the story, but with Jesus that proves not to be the case. With Jesus, the boundaries of what is possible are always being stretched, or even torn open. With Jesus, things that appear to be impossible become possible, and apparent opposites that appear to be irreconcilable become reconciled. Jesus seems able to stretch his wings to gather in things that seemed so far apart that nothing could ever reach them.
We see this pattern especially in the way he embraces people who we imagine to be beyond the pale and reconciles them into one body. We are frequently scandalised by this. Parables like the prodigal son’s older brother, and the full-day workers who got paid the same as the one hour workers, remind us that the extravagance of God’s grace in Christ frequently angers and offends us. It can’t be fair. Such outrageous generosity and mercy surely cannot be reconciled with the demands of justice, can they? Or can they? No matter how tolerant we are, or how radical we are in our convictions about the world’s marginalised and scapegoated people being accepted by Christ, Jesus will still stretch further than us and graciously welcome someone who we thought was beyond the pale. And the scandal of the cross is precisely the scandal of those who God is willing to include in the mercy that was poured out there. And the scandal will be at its most painful when we see the seating allocations at the great banquet of the kingdom of heaven and realise who we are being asked to sit next too. And whoever it is, they will probably be just as outraged at being expected to make peace with and sit next to us!
Now this may have been a bit of a tangent, but I think something a little like this is at work in the ascension of Jesus too. To our minds, absence and presence are opposites. Even with the technological wonders of the internet and video conferencing, absence is absence. No one can be both absent and yet present at the same time. It’s impossible. But is anything impossible for God? If the comprehensively dead can be raised and be even more alive than ever before, then maybe absence and presence are not as irreconcilable as we imagine.
Indeed, I believe that that is part of the message of the placement of this feast of Ascension. The season of Pascha, or Easter, is not forty days which close with Ascension. It is fifty days with Ascension as a stage along the way. We are not celebrating forty days of the risen Christ being with us and then he’s gone. Instead Ascension is a part of our ongoing celebration of the risen Christ’s presence with us. How can this be? Let me try a kind of physical spatial image for you.
Rather than taking off for some other place and becoming absent from our place, it is as though Jesus has instead gotten bigger. Just as in his relating to people he has kept stretching and stretching his wings to gather in all sorts of irreconcilable people, now he is stretching and stretching the boundaries of his own presence. While walking the streets as one of us, he could only be in one place at a time, but is that still the case? Well in way perhaps it is, but perhaps he has expanded his presence to such an extraordinary extent that the one place where he is present is now bigger than all the places we could possibly go. Now instead of occupying one place in the universe, the universe occupies one place in Christ. He has become so much bigger, that we can no longer stand back far enough to see him, but this is no sign of his absence. We might often experience it as his absence, because we are so used to interpreting absence and presence through categories we know and understand from the absence or presence of other people. And that experience of absence is a real experience and it needs to be taken seriously as part of our struggle to be the people God would have us be. But just because the experience is real, doesn’t mean our interpretation of it is accurate. Part of the journey of healing and growth into the full likeness of Christ, the full destiny for which we were all created, is to begin to live into this bewildering paradox of knowing the presence of the risen messiah who seems absent to all our sensory faculties, but who yet is more all-embracingly present than ever. The gracious wings that have stretched out to reach even us, have stretched out to reconcile even absence and presence. As one of the Celtic prayers from the Abbey of Iona puts it, Christ has ascended into heaven to be everywhere present. Not to leave us behind as he goes off to enjoy some distant heaven, but to fill the heaven that is all around us, so that as the psalmist put it, whether I fly towards the dawn or plunge down to the depths of the earth, even there I find I am still in your hands.
This is the great mystery we celebrate this night. Even when the Christ is killed, yet behold, he lives. And even when he departs, behold he is present with us, stretching his wing still to embrace us all in the glorious love and grace of God. Hallelujah!