A POLITICAL DOCTRINE Easter VII - Sunday after the Ascension 16th May 2021
We are in Ascension-tide – but for many Christians in the 21st century The Ascension story is something of an embarrassment. The idea of Ascension is not your everyday topic of conversation. It seems to have more to do with fantasy than the world of hard fact.
As far as we are concerned, when anyone 'ascends' they move up into the air and out into space. So an early astronaut returned to earth and said that he did not encounter God 'up there', only endless space - and we wonder why he bothered to make such an obvious statement. Those who take religious language literally, as if it were flat and one dimensional, are bound to end up, at times, with a kind of nonsense.
We cannot speak about everything in the flat terms of measurable fact. Some things are best dealt with that way, as when you are designing a building or an aircraft. Poetry will not do when precision of meaning is at a premium and calculations have to be exact. But there are other areas of life and experience which cannot be spoken of clinically. How can you measure the extent of love, or calculate the depth of joy, or weigh the heaviness of sorrow? Metaphors, parables, the language of the poets; some things, often the most important things of life, can only be said that way.
So when we read of Jesus ascending and sitting at God's right hand in the heavenly places we won’t get out a telescope to find where that is. Instead, we have to listen to the words, and between the words, and ‘see with the imagination' in order to get the meaning. In the 'world view' of the Bible the Ascension is all about authority and power. We live in a world where these are constantly big issues. Questions of authority are always arising in our homes, schools, churches, businesses, law courts, on our streets, in our Parliaments and internationally. Who has the final 'say' on matters of law, economics, behaviour, medicine, education, the use of force? Where is authority? And who has power? Sometimes, at moments of unease, of threatened disorder in the world, the so-called ‘great powers' get into conference. What is their power? It is usually economic and military. Power is understood as the ability to apply so much influence that you can get what suits you and your interests best in any situation. By contrast, the powerless have no real freedom of choice. Decisions are made for them by the powerful.
Such power and authority are hard to maintain. Governments can make wrong decisions, like parents or teachers or church councils or clergy, and so they lose authority or it is taken from them. And once 'great powers' who had vast empires can lose their influence in world affairs. When power and the desire for it become badly unbalanced then the result is beyond tragic.
Is this what we are left with, a constant moving, unstable flow of history where money and might can appear to be right? Yes, this is what much of our world’s politics and power is like. It is why the history of the world is told as a strange mixture of grief and glory, of utopian dreams and brutal, brutalising wars. Struggles about power and authority are at the heart of the human story. But there is a different picture.
This different picture focuses on Jesus, the Son of Man. We know his story. He had some initial popular appeal as a preacher, teacher and healer. He spoke of a different kingdom, often in stories - engaging, sometimes disturbing stories. But the powers of the day found him subversive. He challenged their claims. He questioned their authority but they had enough power in the end to finish him. They crucified him, putting him outside the city, which is the home of authority and power. They killed this challenging, disturbing, dangerous man. He never did get to sit on Caesar's throne. In the real world of real power he was a nobody. However, there is a basic principle in the Bible (Psalm 118:22 & Matthew 21:42) which is contained in the phrase: “The stone which the builders have rejected, has become the chief cornerstone.”
The Christian Gospel takes common perception and turns it on its head. Look at the Magnificat: “The mighty he has put down from their seat, and he has exalted the humble and meek”. The New Testament story centres in on an astounding claim. It is that this Jesus, despised and rejected, is the one God has raised from the dead. It is not Pilate or Caesar with all the power they had. It is not Caiaphas, with all the authority of religion behind him. Neither these, nor their successors in politics, religion, commerce, the media, has God raised.
But, says the Christian story, this Son of Man, who spoke of extravagant love and lived it, who shared his meals with the unwanted, who taught that in God's kingdom the weakest are first, who taught that greatness lies in service, and that to receive your life you must give it away, this one man whose values turn the accepted patterns of life on their head, this one man, who was discarded, God has raised! And the Ascension stories tell us that it is to him that full and final authority are given.
His way of exercising power and authority is not like ours. It is the way of service, patience, sacrifice and love. In those terms alone it is 'out of this world'. The story of the Ascension is good news, especially for the ignored, the pushed-aside and the powerless, because it tells us that the way of Jesus is what ultimately matters.
So, far from being irrelevant, the Ascension is the most directly political story in the New Testament. It proclaims who is to be obeyed, who has authority in heaven and on earth. It affirms that far from being discarded this Son of Man is at the heart of things, still subverting and challenging our pretences, still offering the hope of a genuinely new world.
The story of the Ascension and its implications for how we live together should leave us gasping. The language may be weird but the implications are urgent.