Preached by Canon Roland Riem, using Acts 1.1-11, at the Festal Eucharist for Ascension Day on Thursday 17th May 2012.
There’s a moment in Bambi, harrowing for the young who watch it and perhaps their parents. Man is in the forest. The animals flee, including Bambi and his mother, but the shot rings out and Bambi is suddenly running by himself. His father comes to him and tells him gently, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” It’s the start of Bambi’s journey to adult life.
At Ascension Jesus is taken from us (Acts 1.11) – he is taken from our sight; he is taken up to heaven. But make no mistake, either way, he is taken away. Jesus can’t be with us anymore – not in the way he was with the first disciples.
The first disciples, having experienced the recognisable presence of Christ in their midst after his death, naturally did not wish to be doubly bereaved, but the pages of the NT bristle with the question of how Christ was going to continue to be present.
Matthew Gospel ends with Jesus’ affirmation, ‘Lo I will be with you always, to the end of the age’, the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel promises the gift of power from on high, and in Mark the women flee in terror with the news of Christ’s presence going before them into Galilee ringing in their ears, running from an empty tomb filled with glory.
In John’s Gospel Jesus prepares his disciple for his departure by telling them that unless he goes away from them he cannot return. Things will be different ‘in a little while’.
If we ask how Christ is present in the world today there’s no simple answer, except to say that it’s not how it was like before, not like it was for the first disciples during his ministry and not like it was for his disciples immediately after his death. In theological language we say ‘Christ has ascended into heaven’.
Jesus Christ’s life is with now with the Father. He sits at his right hand, sharing his rule, rewarded for his faithful, saving work on earth. And actually if we care about Jesus Christ for his sake, and not simply for our own – in other words, if we love him – we will rejoice that he is now where he is and not with us as he was.
This transitional time between Easter and Pentecost is a good time to consider our relationship with Jesus. If we talk about knowing Jesus, following Jesus, listening to Jesus we are using this language in a different way from knowing Fred, following Jane or listening to Gill. Our relationship with the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ is other than this.
The Church places the life of Jesus in a Trinitarian framework for good reason. Firstly because it does the fullest justice to the Bible stories about Jesus’ divine origin, his earthly life, death and resurrection and his ongoing impact in creation through the Holy Spirit. But, secondly, because it does justice to our experience of how Jesus is present with us today.
Jesus is not with us anymore as he was, though he has not left comfortless. Far from it: he reigns over us; he intercedes for us; his power touches us and changes us, and much more. But he is not overly available. CS Lewis left us a wonderful legacy in the figure of Aslan. I remember as a boy fearing his presence when he appeared and noticing his sheer elusiveness in the drama. When he came, he did not come to be toyed with
And actually the whole of the New Testament is written in this light. What scholars used to regard as a problem – who was the historical, factual man, Jesus of Nazareth? – is actually a testament to the multiple levels on which we meet the living Jesus, in the memory of who he was in history, in the struggles of the first communities of faith to make sense of what he was doing through the Spirit and in the anticipation of what he would do on his return.
Christ is not here like you and I are here today. He is not available like that. Psychologists talk of ‘transitional objects’, things which tide us over in situations of discomfort or distress. They are really a substitute for mother’s love and comfort – like a teddy bear. But as for Bambi, growing up means doing without these.
And my plea today is for a grown-up faith – and it’s also an invitation. When Jesus now says to his disciples ‘follow me’, he means follow methrough death, resurrection and ascension, to the point where he is present but absent, and Christian maturity means living in this paradox, in this faith and hope.
We can be very sophisticated in our comforts. Jesus can be very useful to us in the scary business of changing the Church and transforming the world; but we always need to reflect, is he quite with us in the way we would expect or absent from where we are and present ahead of us and with others? Following Jesus is not the same as following your best mate or even your best teacher.
Many will know Titian’s masterpiece capturing the moment at the end of John’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene recognises the risen Jesus as her teacher, and he replies, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’. Titian’s account is sensual, to say the least. Mary is kneeling before Jesus and reaching out towards his groin which is covered by a gathering of otherwise diaphanous white cloth. The very leaves of the trees reach out towards his body. But Christ gathers up yet more of his robe from behind him, as he bends his trunk away from her, and sets it between her and his manhood, meanwhile fixing her with an utterly loving regard.
The painting teaches that even our desire for Jesus has to be reset by his real mission; and his desire is not to be with us in the way we would most crave; in Mary’s case, warm by her side, close and fleshly. He must ascend and we must grow up, and grow into people who can live within the height and depth, the light and ‘dazzling darkness’, of divine love.
We do still have his flesh, but in bread. We do still have his presence, but in Spirit. But we do not have him. He himself reigns with the Father: he has us, his adult disciples – in his grip, in his purposes, in his everlasting kingdom.