Most priests will preach to more people in their life times than Jesus ever did. Let me say that again a different way, it is likely that every individual priest will themselves preach to more people about Jesus in the course of their ministries than the number of people that Jesus preached to himself. Now I am not making any comparisons about the quality of my preaching, and that of my fellow priests, to the preaching of Jesus – that is not the point. I am simply talking about quantity.
It is worth while for every serious Christian, every now and again to open up their global atlas and trace the places where Jesus visited. What becomes quickly clear is that Jesus’ earthly ministry was limited to a very small geographical area. He didn’t travel nearly as far as most of us have done in our lifetimes, and his whole ministry, including his death and resurrection, all take place relatively close to where he was born.
Of course we know from the Gospels that he impacted every single person that he met, whatever the decision that they finally came to make about him, but the number of people who actually encountered him was relatively small – 5,000 here, 7,000 there, 12 close friends and certainly a wider group of men and women who gave up everything to follow him. Even if we presumed that he met every person in every area that he visited during his life time, these numbers would be a very small pool of water compared to the great lake of human beings who were alive at the time that he was walking this earth. As far as we know he never met an Australian aboriginal, never saw a kangaroo, the light of the angels at his birth did not brighten the skies across the whole of Europe – well you get the idea. His earthly ministry was focused and intense, local and not global. Even in his resurrection appearances we here only of Jesus making himself present to his close followers and to a few thousand others. As far as we know he did not travel the world appearing in his resurrection glory. In many ways that is how we understand God to act.
We value the localness of our worshipping community, we know the need for a local Parish Church here in East Maitland as a symbol of God’s presence in this neighbourhood, and as a venue for the things of God to be mediated in, and from. One of the great gifts of our Anglican heritage is the assertion that there must be a local Church in every community of people, and that every single person (whether they realise it or not) lives within the boundaries of a parish, and has a priest who is available to support them. As Anglicans we value the local.
But we also know that God’s presence is global: everywhere, and in everytime. So there is a global reality to God’s local actions as well. We know from the ministry of Jesus that God is interested, involved, in the miniscule in our lives – present with us in our need, celebrating with us in our joy. We must never forget that what is true for us locally is true for every group of people. God is involved locally as Jesus was, but unlike the earthly ministry of Jesus, God is not just at work in one place, he is involved everywhere.
So how do we move from one to the other? From the localness of Jesus’ ministry, to the global and universal love and purpose of his Father? The Church teaches that it all happens in the Ascension. In the Ascension of Our Lord, Jesus’ local significance, amongst the people that he met, and taught and healed and offered hope to; takes on a universal significance, as he becomes the Lord of the Church, and the one who intercedes eternally to the Father for us.
There is a great story, you may have heard it before, about a priest who finds three boys who have wagged school for the day and are sitting by the side of a local river fishing. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” he admonishes them. “I certainly do, Father” two of them reply, but the third says, “no Father, please not me!” “What’s the matter?” says the priest to the third boy, “you mean you don’t want to go to heaven when you die?” “Oh, when I die!” explains the school boy. “Of course I want to go there when I die. I thought you were gathering up a group to go there now!”
If we want to cut through all the theologising, all the many reflections of the Church down through the centuries about this momentous moment, of Jesus being received back into his heavenly home, then this is the simple point. When Jesus ascends into heaven he does not take those who have loved him and followed him with him. They are left there, rather bemused, certainly frightened once again, as they were before the resurrection – standing there looking up as he departs from them. If you or I had been there we might have been tempted to simply stay there, looking upwards, hoping that he might come back down in a few moments time to take us with him.
There is a legend in my own family, of a relative who I have never met who lived in Tel Aviv, not all that far from where Jesus’ disciples would have been left standing and wondering after he ascended from them. My relative was well known (so the story goes) for walking the streets of Tel Aviv and randomly stopping at a road junction and looking and pointing upwards. In a place like Tel Aviv it does not take long before you draw a crowd of people who stand with you looking in the direction that you are pointing.
Jesus’ disciples could have done that, they could have simply stayed there wondering and waiting, but they didn’t. And Jesus could have taken them with him, but he didn’t. He left them there, waiting and praying, not for Jesus to return back down to them, although they did believe that he would return at some time, but rather waiting for the Advocate, the promised Spirit of Jesus who would be with them, the one who we heard about in our Gospel reading and in Deacon Wendy’s sermon last Sunday. I think that they waited with expectation and hope, as well as all of the other human emotions that they had come to experience, because Jesus’ last words of instruction to them, according to the writers of the Matthew’s Gospel, were for them to take all that they had seen and come to understand about Jesus locally, and spread it globally. “Go,” says Jesus, “and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And remember that I am with you always even to the very end of the age.”
So what has been known locally, is to be shared globally: not as some kind of impersonal global franchise – but as the same experience, the same reality of the intimate involvement of God in our lives, not just where Jesus had physically been, but everywhere. If Jesus had taken his disciples with him the story would be over. There would have been no hope for you and me, in fact it would be extraordinary if we had ever come to know anything about Jesus. None of us were born knowing the story of Jesus, we only know about the Gospel because of his Church. But Jesus did not take his disciples with him. And so, in the Ascension of Jesus all that has become known locally is offered globally, universally, as Jesus once more steps back out of time into the eternity of God’s love, and entrusts his Church with continuing to share the good news, the Gospel, of salvation.
Saint Augustine, one of the great teachers of the faith puts it this way: “The Feast of the Ascension he said, “is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together… For unless the Saviour has ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing… and his passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been useless.”
At the beginning of our great Easter celebrations we lit a fire outside this Church building – at our Easter Vigil – a sign for us and for all of our neighbours that the light of Christ’s resurrected life is here in the world. From that fire we lit this Easter paschal candle which has burned brightly throughout this Easter season, symbolising Christ’s close presence amongst us, as we have reflected upon his resurrection encounters with his disciples each weekend. At the end of our Eucharist today, the Easter candle will be extinguished, as a reminder that Christ has ascended into heaven. And I have to say to you that I find the extinguishing of the paschal candle rather a sad experience. Our paschal candle will no longer be lit, except when we baptise children and adults into the Body of Christ, and when we commend those who have died in Christ to God’s everlasting love. But before the Easter candle is put out we will light candles from it ourselves, as a very visual and physical reminder that that light – the light of Christ – has now been transferred to us. Christ’s light still shines, but it shines through this Church… through us.
One of the Early Church fathers reminds us that Jesus came to earth without leaving heaven, and now returns through the ascension to heaven without leaving earth. That wisdom points to the coming of the Holy Spirit that we await at Pentecost. It is also points to the commission placed upon us all, to live as Christ for others. Next Sunday we will see a very visual reminder of all of this at the 9.30 am Sung Mass as our Bishop lays hands on our catechumens and prays that the Holy Spirit will be confirmed within them, to guide them and to strengthen them as disciples of Our Lord.
One of the greatest temptations for any Christian is to believe that our experience of God at work in our lives is somehow our private property. But the local and global phenomenon is true for us as well, what was true for the first disciples is true for you and me. What we receive from God locally, in our own lives, is to be shared globally, with others, and we express that in our liturgy this morning.
Saint Teresa of Avila puts all of this better than I can, “Christ,” she says, “has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
“Go,” says Jesus as he ascends into heaven, “and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And remember that I am with you always even to the very end of the age.”