Bishop David's Sermon for Ascension Day
22 May 2020 IN: Bishop
I love those stained glass church images of the Ascension. The ones where an awestruck posse of apostles gazes upwards; looking in mystification at a pair of feet disappearing into the tracery above the window. I love those images because, paradoxically, they bring me down to earth. When I am tempted to over intellectualise, to so focus on the meaning that I forget the man, pictures like this bring me back to the heart of our faith, to Jesus, truly God and truly man. And if it requires some slightly kitschy art to get the point across to me, so be it.
Here are a pair of very human feet, not old by modern standards, but calloused by the constant travel they have undertaken; three years of public, itinerant ministry, crossing and re-crossing biblical Israel. And marked more obviously by the nails that had been driven into them, not yet six weeks before. Unlike the images of the feet of Christ on the cross, there are no streaks or spurts of blood now emanating from them. These are healed wounds, but they are wounds none the less. Unfaded, through forty days of resurrection appearances, Christ now carries them in his body, as he ascends to heaven. I find it really matters to me that the one who pleads for me, at the right hand of the Father, bears in his ascended and glorified body, the marks of what both human living and human sin inflict on human flesh and blood.
In this week of Mental Health Awareness, it matters to me too that the healed wounds of Jesus, borne up with him, include the invisible scars of trauma, abandonment and betrayal, alongside those more obvious physical marks of suffering. The experience and memory of all manner of pain are now present in heaven, no longer confined to earth.
The impact of this stretches across so much of our theology. The one who invites us to pray, “deliver us from evil” has himself experienced the hurt that evil can inflict. The one who invites us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” has known in his body the sharp pangs of hunger and in his heart the longing to see that hunger satisfied. The one who invites us to plead that our sins may be forgiven, knows the damage that sin sustains.
We all know how much harder it is to forgive those wrongs of which we ourselves have been a victim. Witness what happens so often when the perpetrator of some awful crime is released on licence, to serve the remaining portion of a long custodial sentence in the community. Caseworkers may declare them ready, and of low risk of re-offending. Society as a whole may accept that it is time to move on. But to the direct victims of the offenders misdeeds, and their closest kin, and often also to those who have suffered from similar crimes, it feels like cheap and unwarranted forgiveness.
Our Heavenly Father longs to forgive us, his wayward children. We worship no vengeful deity, bent on exacting full retribution for our offences. We worship the God who is love, and who reaches out to us in that love. Yet forgiveness must be more than the whim of one who has sat enthroned since time began. It must come through the prayer of the Christ who still bears in his body, in his mind, and in his heart, the healed wounds of suffering. Through Jesus alone is our salvation accomplished.
“Forgive us our sins” we recite, but the rhythm of the prayer carries us on without pause, “as we forgive those who sin against us”. We too are wounded. It is from the heart of our woundedness that we are called to forgive. Jesus, we know, uttered the words “Father forgive” even as he hung on the cross, the blood still dripping from his pain wracked body. Yet it is the healed wounds of the ascended Jesus that complete that prayer, and extend it to all of creation. If we are to work on being a people of forgiveness, we need also to work on the healing of our wounds.
In the first weeks after the coronavirus reached the UK, the focus was almost exclusively on ensuring that acute health services were not overwhelmed. Flattening the curve was the mantra, and the chief tools chosen to achieve it were a combination of strict social isolating, plus frantic procurement searches for everything from ventilators to face masks. The rapid progression of the disease has been significantly slowed, and our NHS has coped. Fewer than feared have been hospitalised, and all who needed them have, as I understand it, been able to access intensive care treatments. The daily death rate has dropped. Yet whilst the need to reduce transmission continues, evidence is now emerging that recovery is far from simple. Those who have been hospitalised are returning home in far from robust health. Physical complications persist, and there are worrying signs of potentially long lasting mental trauma. Others will lie in the grip of a bereavement exacerbated by not having been able to make their farewells in a manner acceptable to their customs and beliefs. For months, if not several years to come, one of our cares as Christ’s Body on Earth will be to work as ministers of healing for these wounds.
Our communities and our nations will be deeply wounded too. Many will have lost work, or the potential for work. Young people will have missed out on important aspects of education and formation, as well as losing the space and time in which to forge and frame the relationships beyond their families that are an essential aspect of growing up. Inevitably the blows will have fallen most fiercely on the poorest and most marginalised. As we seek to fulfil our call to service of our communities, we will need to work for the healing not just of individuals but of our common life and common wealth.
Many of you know, especially if you follow me on Thought for the Day, that I hone my theology through reflecting on novels and popular TV drama more than from reading Theological tomes. Apologies to those of you who pen the latter. At the centre of the American programme Westworld, which has recently broadcast its third series, lies a theme park populated by convincingly lifelike robots. Frequently killed by each other, or the human guests of the park, their wounds are seamlessly repaired and their reanimated bodies sent out to repeat, endlessly, their designated parts in the role play. Everything restored to its former status, nothing changed, nothing learned. As our world and our church emerge over the coming time from this modern day plague, the goal of our healing will not be to restore ourselves, our neighbours and our community, to what we were before; to obliterate, as it were, the wounds that scar us.
Rather our work is to heal those wounds, and yet, like those familiar images of our Lord's Ascension that adorn the church buildings where we long to be able to meet again with our congregations, to carry the scars of our nails with and within us. Our healed wounds can and must be the motivation behind our remaking a better world, a more just and caring society, a greener future for our planet, and a Church formed more beautifully in the likeness of Christ, fit for mission. A Church, as you have heard me say all too often, for a Different World.