Below the sermon audio is the text for the sermon. I was very encouraged to hear responses that indicated a deeper understanding, reception of the doctrine/the story of the Ascension of Christ. “The man with wounds in heaven” was a metaphor (is that the word?) that seemed to strike deeply in several hearts.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday May 28th 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Enthornment”
This past Thursday the church universal, quietly as usual, celebrated the Feast of the Ascension; this is the story recorded by the church historian Luke in volumes one and two of his history – Volume One, the Gospel of Luke and Volume Two, the Acts of the Apostles. Listen to the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles (sometimes called the Fifth Gospel or the Gospel of the Holy Spirit): “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen…” – the first book, the first volume.
In the early 80’s I served a second curacy in the University Church of Southampton, UK. At the church was a sexton named Dave. Dave, like me, was born in the center of London (in the sound of Bow Bells); Dave, like me, was therefore a Cockney but Dave, unlike me, had kept his Cockney accent – an accent slowly (maybe deliberately softened) by London and Oxford Universities and, of course, by the stately Church of England. Approaching the celebration of Ascension I shared my anxiety with Dave. “What shall I say about this strange and weird doctrine?” Dave’s answer, in Cockney voice, was simple and direct, “Well, Alan, I believe what goes up… must come down.”
And there you have it, friends – however we process, integrate, assimilate this untoward event (“as he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight”), this is the primal truth that should ring in our hearts, enliven our minds and make strong our wills – as he was taken so he will return.
The Ascension is often described as the Coronation of Christ (and, yes, I warm to that theme of course); Christ is enthroned on high and so the Psalmist affirms, despite all to the contrary, the Lord is King, the Lord Reigns.
Listen to these glorious words spoken by Archbishop William Temple to a gathering of bishops at Lambeth Palace in the early twentieth century: “While we deliberate, he reigns; when we decide, he reigns; when we decide foolishly, he reigns; when we serve him in humble loyalty, he reigns; when we serve him self-assertively, he reigns; when we rebel and seek to withhold our service, he reigns—the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
The doctrine of, the belief in the Ascension affirms when we are dumb, conceives when we are blank, resonates when we are inert that the Lord is King, the Lord reigns and He will return to establish that Kingship – “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
National, global horrors of terrorism occur that again pummel us with the fragility of our existence; personal, familial tragedies occur that shake us to the very core – at such times, brothers and sisters in Christ, we need gather and declare that the Lord has not abdicated, He reigns.
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu writes, “Our world is in pain, groaning and longing to be liberated from futility and decay. The deliberate targeting of children and their families – with a calculated and callous equation of evil – demonstrated brokenness. A deliberate act contorted and twisted within the framework of a brutalist ideology that exists outside the understanding of shared humanity. “ And, but, he continues, “The love that we have witnessed stands in stark opposition to the evil that sought to taunt it…. It is the kind of love which contends with tragedy, endures hardship, and is steadfast in difficulty and in the end wins out. The love that many waters cannot quench or blow apart. The love that is so strong and so passionate that it refuses to die even when we ourselves may die or pass away” – the Lord reigns and, therefore, Love (authentic love) reigns too; no coup can overthrow its government.
But then this peculiar doctrine of the Ascension speaks to our hearts another truth – it says plainly “there is a man in heaven with wounds”. I know that here our language breaks down and cannot carry the enormous weight of this glorious truth but, nevertheless, it is true… as the writer to the Hebrews says, “We do not have a great high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” When we bring in prayer the murdered, the maimed, the ones who mourn and are in our despair – we bring them to the One who understands, sympathizes, identifies and is present.
Long ago I remember the story of the young girl who woke from an awful nightmare screaming; her parents ran to her room, calmed and soothed her. Leaving, they placed her favorite doll on her pillow. But as they turned to leave, the young girl said, “No, not enough – when I hurt, when I am scared I want someone with real skin on their face.” And so do we… and so we have the Man in heaven who prays for us with hands marked by wounds.
In 1974 Donald Coggan became the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite, as you can imagine, the most careful proof-reading of the ceremony – the most egregious mistake was made on the very front page of the service leaflet. Instead of reading “The Enthronement of Lord Donald Coggan”, it read “The Enthornment…”
His grace was wise and astute enough to use that error and in his sermon described how vocation was always accompanied by sacrifice (how fitting to remember this on Memorial Day weekend), that enthronement was always accompanied by enthornment.
The enthronement and enthornment of Jesus is a real and present comfort to the soul but also a stark and resolute challenge to any who look for the glory of office without the ready embrace of woundedness.
Our Psalm today urges the people of God to be merry and joyful; this is no Polly-Anna neglect of reality but rather the result of seeing the divine, substantial reality behind all of life – the Lord Reigns, the Wounded Lord Reigns.