When I was an ordinand, a returning student of the College, I found myself at the end of one year at Mass in Lower Church presided over by the then Principal and at which all the others present were leavers preparing to be made deacons.
There was a hitch. When it came to the Creed, this started confidently enough but petered out as we launched into declarations of faith in the Son undermined by shaky memories.
“Oh Father,” cried one leaver in distress, “does that mean we can’t be ordained?”
To which Fr Lane relied, “It’s not necessary to know the Creed, but to believe it.”
And maybe there are some here today about to disperse, to leave, and wondering if, after 2 or 3 years of the finest theological education, you yet know what you need to know. After all, the risen Christ in today’s reading from Acts entering into glory tells his gathered disciples, “You will be my witnesses”. It’s no light matter.
And at ordinations the Bishop warns the Archdeacon who presents candidates to take heed that they be ‘apt and meet, for their learning and godly conversation, to exercise their ministry duly, to the honour of God, and the edifying of his Church’.
This doesn’t sound much like Jesus’ friends as they were, gathered on Mount Olivet, glad to be together in his company but unaware of what was about to happen.
They – still – were looking for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.
They were in the company of their risen Lord, but they hadn’t quite grasped that there was a bigger picture.
They might have listened to the prophet Isaiah:
“It is too light a thing you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
And we could do with hearing that, too – when we’re embroiled in the concerns of the Church of England and, hearing the news, mentally write off so many parts of the world, as too troubled or too distant from the gospel of Christ. When we forget our brothers and sisters in Christ who live and witness there.
What else do we hear of the disciples?
Jesus responds to their question by telling them, “It is not for you to know times or periods”.
Their Lord, their Teacher, is sending them out without the kind of insider information that could be their strong suit – that could put them one up on their hearers. They’ve followed him over many years; they’ve seen amazing things. But they remain simple ‘men of Galilee’. They’re not meant to impress by esoteric knowledge.
Remember St Paul, as we heard recently in his First Letter to the Corinthian Christians: “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom.” “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
So Jesus says to these Galileans: “You will be my witnesses”. Jesus is sending them to Jerusalem, with all the political dangers of “the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it” – these are words which are to be fulfilled to the letter in the Book of Acts.
Jesus sends them to the tensions of Judea and to the compromising accommodations of Samaria. And he sends them into the unknown, “to the ends of the earth”, where they – those whom Paul calls the foolish, weak and despised in the world – they could hardly expect God’s writ to run or the name of Christ to carry weight – unless, of course, they kept in mind Psalm 139,
“If I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.”
And notice it is just then, with this commission ringing in their ears, that Jesus is taken out of their sight. So not only do these witnesses not possess superior knowledge, but the Lord whose name they speak is hidden from them. They are witnesses who don’t know and who don’t see.
Yes, they are to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, and we do so too, but to pray that is to place ourselves, unseeing and unknowing, into the hands of God. It is an act of faith.
And the disciples feel it. They’re there, slack-jawed, gawping into mist and thin air. They want to keep their eyes fixed on heaven, on things eternal and, above all, on the glory of their Lord and friend. But he’s not to be seen.
What comes to us as transcendent can’t be bottled and kept. It couldn’t at the Transfiguration and it can’t here at Christ’s Ascension.
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” As a question that’s a pair with the earlier one, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We’re looking for the wrong thing.
And, as an aside, if you’ve found here at Mirfield touches of God’s transcendent presence, well, that can’t be bottled either. Don’t hold onto a memory of this place (and time) as a touchstone of real faith, real worship.
I’m laying this on a bit thick, of course, and, as ever in reading scripture, there’s another perspective. Today we’ve just heard it in the gospel reading from John. In Jesus’ prayer in the Upper Room in John the glory is present, the knowledge of God belongs to the disciples and the vision is not of the diverse and the far off but of intimacy, unity and protection.
Jesus prays, “I am asking on their behalf … Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.”
John ties together our being sent with the relation of the Father and the Son. Jesus chooses us to participate in the mission of God, bringing unity, recapitulating all that is fair and good and all that is true in this world into its ever-present source and destination. Your task – our shared task – is not to plant the flag like an imperialist claiming territory, but the Eucharistic calling to be one: one with Christ and one with each other.
And for some encouragement in this – let’s hear from Luke’s pair of sardonic angels who make their re-appearance in his story of the Ascension:
“This Jesus” they say, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
He will come.
He will come to us.
And in a way we recognise.
All those representations of the Ascension which show footprints left on the ground, as in the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem – they draw our attention back to the earth. Our risen and ascended Lord goes ahead of us, and the places where we will recognise him are the places he sends us to,
it’s there we’ll meet him; he’s already present,
already the transforming power of the kingdom of heaven among us.
And by way of conclusion,
and just in case what I’m saying seems only to apply to those going on journeys, going out,
it’s worth remembering that the movement from what is close at hand, what is known, to what is distant and what remains unexplored –
this movement is equally a movement through time,
and it’s a movement that is interior as much as it is exterior.
Each of us can expect that Christ will come to us as the transforming power of heaven, whatever our calling, wherever we are.
And that Christ is ever praying to the Father for us.
As the hymn puts it:
“Lord let me see your footmarks and in them plant my own.”