Sermon for Ascension Day 2014, by the Dean of Salisbury, the Very Revd June Osborne
Acts 1 v 4-11
Ephesians 1 v 15-23
Luke 24 v 44-53
I’ve just written a short article for ‘Country Life’ magazine about St Osmund who was the bishop in this diocese at the end of the 11th century. He’s of particular significance for us in Salisbury because the framework of life he created, of a community shaped by daily prayer and hospitality, the Cathedral still pretty much follows to this day. Yet the world in which Osmund lived was remarkably different, not just because of all the obvious social contrasts between our world and the end of Dark Ages in Europe. Osmund lived in a more enchanted world where the divide between earthly issues and heavenly salvation was much more blurred – you might say ‘porous’ – than our society is now able to deal with.
There was one idea in my article which I struggled over how to express. I wanted to say that for the people who built the first Cathedral at Old Sarum and indeed this Cathedral as well, they had a strong sense of the sacramental nature of creation and so for them all of life was suffused with a sense of God’s presence and the cosmic significance of the material affairs of the universe. I wasn’t sure that the readers of ‘Country Life’ would be instantly familiar with the idea of something being sacramental, material things expressing spiritual and eternal realities, but it was hard to find another easy phrase to describe that idea. The modern mind is fond of compartmentalising its realities. Many people accept the notion that they are spiritual beings but the penetration of the world of the spirit into the firm hold of the rational and material is felt by most to be weird and untrustworthy. And so for people like you and me, modern man and modern woman, we find it hard to practice a theological imagination whereby everything we encounter is alive with divine significance, where earthly days are interwoven with mysterious meanings, and where, as Augustine said, God is closer to me than my own breathing.
Which is partly why the popular images we attach to the Ascension narrative strike us as faintly ridiculous. Artists have long depicted Jesus’ departure from the company of his disciples by painting a couple of feet dangling beneath a cloud. Disciples searching the distant sky for a last glimpse of their Lord and Master as he swoops into the heavenly blue yonder strains our literalistic minds and belittles the dignity of what we believe about the transition between Jesus present on earth and Jesus transcendent in the heavenly realms.
We’re better helped to see what’s happening here by the commentary we find in letters written to the church of the New Testament era and by their language of poetic imagery. In the letter to the church in Ephesus which we heard just now the apostle Paul speaks of God putting his power to work in Christ and after his saving work was accomplished God then seats him at his right hand, giving him authority over all that exists. Similarly, in his letter to the Colossians Paul tells us that the Ascension is a symbol of how God in Christ holds all things, visible and invisible, together as a single reality.
So what does this mean for how we think and how we live? Here are some radical outcomes built on what the Ascension story is trying to convey.
· There is no place we can go which is beyond God. There is no part of our material realm which can claim to be beyond the grasp and concern of God. If we want to have a sense of eternity we don’t look into the distant horizons but we start here, in the qualities of human life which speak of enduring love. We’re invited to know that the world is porous, heaven and earth meet in this place, in your life.
· Those who claim that there is no God make themselves the centre of their cosmos and that ultimately means that there is no meaning beyond themselves. If instead the risen Christ is the centre of the world we know then He is universally present and we see his glory shine through the world he has created. Even in our turmoil or tragedy and certainly in our ordinary days we’re invited to catch glimpses of the glory of God.
· There is no person who owns God more than another. And so a church is created which is not for any one racial or cultural group more than another, where there is no partiality. The universal church recognises that God’s reach is equally available whatever our background.
Can we capture the sense Osmund had of God being ever present and everything coming under his sovereign power, of Christ being Lord of all the earth, of all times and seasons, of all history and all eternity? I’m sure we can but it feels harder to do that in a world which so loves to put a human being at the centre of his or her own world. The readers of ‘Country Life’ will want such a truth expressed in terms they can understand. My hope is that they might be drawn to a sense of an enchanted world, perhaps through a Cathedral like this one, for in such places the beauty, grandeur and tradition of prayer reminds us that there’s a cosmic drama still going on and in which Jesus continues to save us, pray for us and bring us safely home at last. Thanks be to God.