Our Director, Angus Ritchie, preached at St Paul’s Cathedral this morning on the calling of the Church to help us “learn together how to be more fully human, and how to make a more human world.” Here is the full text of his sermon…
Ascension Day, which we celebrated last Thursday, is one of the great feasts of the Christian year. But it isn’t the easiest festival to understand. When we think about the other great feasts, it’s fairly obvious what they teach us.
Christmas speaks to us of a God who becomes flesh – who enters into the human condition, becoming like us in everything but sin. At Epiphany, as we recall the visit of the Wise Men, we remember that the Gospel is meant for all nations. Holy Week and Easter speak of God’s willingness in Christ to suffer and die for us, and the power of his suffering love to triumph over sin and death.
But what exactly does the Ascension teach us? How should it affect the way we live? The words of today’s liturgy provide us with some answers.
Firstly, they remind us, it is a bitter-sweet festival. While the ascension may have been a glorious and miraculous event, its effect was once again to leave Mary without her Son and the disciples without their leader.
That sadness was reflected in today’s Collect; the prayer we heard before our Bible readings. After celebrating Jesus’ exaltation “with great triumph” into heaven, the prayer went on: “we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us”. We have not experienced the particular loss known by Mary and the disciples. But many of us do know what it is to be spiritually comfortless. We know the times when God seems absent, and his will seems unclear.
The words of today’s service do not only speak of our sense of need, our fear of being comfortless. They also speak of God’s response, his gifts of hope and power. The Ascension is above all about hope. It marks the completion, of Jesus’ earthly work. In him, God has entered the human condition to heal and restore it. Jesus shows us what a truly human life should be. We could say, without exaggeration, that Jesus us the first fully human being since the Fall. Our lives are not fully human. We are only partly the creatures God made us to be, as his image in us is marred by sin and death.
This is reflected in our day-to-day speech. When we have had a refreshing holiday, or are enjoying glorious sunshine like today’s, we say: “I feel more human.” It’s a recognition that we spend most of our lives feeling less than fully human. We have a sense that there is something – a fullness of life, a generosity of heart, a deeper connection with others – something we’re made for, which is largely missing from our lives. We are not who we should be, who we were made to be.
What, then, were we made to be? That question is answered in today’s Gospel. Human beings are made in the image of God, a God who is love, fellowship, communion. When we love one another, we participate in the fellowship which is at the very heart of God. That is why Jesus prays:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, … so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.
That is the purpose of humanity, that is what we were made to be: made to share the very life of God, by living in his love.
Martin Luther defined sin as “the heart turned in on itself.” In Christ, we see humanity restored, its heart uncurled, loving as God created us to love. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer of our salvation.” He has gone before us, living the life we should have led, dying the death we should have died, so that we can become fully human, can live in a restored relationship with neighbour and with God. Now, as our final hymn reminds us, he has taken that humanity into the presence of the Father.
In his ascension, Jesus shows us where the journey is leading, he shows us the end for which we have made: to be in the presence of the Father, to see God face to face. This is the deepest, truest hope we can possibly have. Our destiny is glory.
But Christianity is about more than our eternal destiny. It is about transformation, glory, restored relationships, here and now. That is why today’s service speaks of power as well as hope. Today, we do not just look back to the Ascension. Our Eucharistic Prayer looks forward to Pentecost, the feast we keep next Sunday. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit transformed the disciples, both in what they said (preaching the Gospel with boldness) and in what they did (sharing their goods in common, so that everyone had enough).
As we look at the state of our own hearts, and the state of our society – where the lust for wealth and domination dehumanize us more and more – when we look at this, we recognize our need for God’s transforming power.
This is the power we see, however imperfectly, in life of the Church. The Church was born at Pentecost. It is called to make Spirit’s power is known in hearts transformed by grace, in lives turned outwards in loving service. The Church is about more than just individual transformation, it is called to rehumanise our common life, That is why we see so many of this city’s churches organising for justice in London Citizens, working with their neighbours for a Living Wage, affordable housing, and a genuine welcome for refugees. That is why so many congregations support Credit Unions, and host Foodbanks for those who are hungry and Night Shelters for those without a home.
Of course, the Church does not always live up to its calling. We are all, to some extent, hypocrites. We fail to practice everything we preach. The Bishop of Chelmsford has a wonderful response when people say the Church is full of hypocrites. He says, we may be hypocrites, but we’re not full yet. There’s room for some more. Come and join us.
If you stand on the edge of the Church – either because you don’t think it is good enough, or because you don’t think you are good enough – I encourage you to accept that invitation. Come and join us, so that in Christ we can learn together how to be more fully human, and how to make a more fully human world.