Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Walking with Christ

Seventh Sunday of Easter
2 June 2019
10.30 Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

A few years ago, I was invited to join the Society for Christians and Jews for an all-expenses paid tour of the Holy Land

Whilst I was on this wonderful trip, I came across the Chapel of Ascension in Jerusalem

The Chapel or/more accurately/ a shrine is found on the Mount of Olives and built on the site of a small cave where the early Christians used to meet 

Intriguingly, the Chapel contains a single footprint of what is believed to be Jesus’ last footprints on earth

There were, of course, originally two but/whereas one of the footprints remains in the Church/ the other was taken to the Al Aqsa Mosque

As Jesus is a major prophet in Islam, there is no question that Islam can lay equal claim to Christ’s foot prints too

Such are the complications of Empires sweeping backwards and forwards across the globe

Genuine or not/ whether Mosque or Church/ it seemed to me that the idea Jesus’s footprints still being here on earth, might help us understand Ascension more clearly

Ascension is not easy

Forty days after Easter – Christ ascends into heaven

  • It is an end of the resurrection appearances
  • It is the end of his ministry here on earth

We celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday but, again, today we heard two ascension readings

First, the ascension of Elijah followed by the ascension of Jesus

But like the Resurrection, ascension also breaks every conceivable intellectual paradigm,

Leaving us confused here on earth

Despite the difficulties, however I approach ascension as being like a piece of a celestial jigsaw.

When you slot the last missing piece into place, hopefully, the heavenly picture begins to make more sense

First of all, ascension is a reminder that, as Christians, we inhabit both an earthly and heavenly realm

 If Jesus – descends to earth and ascends into heaven – whilst we are ourselves are here on Earth – then the two realms clearly co-exist

Heaven and earth co-exist at the same time –

We often don’t stop and think about this and what it might mean

But, when we say in the Eucharist, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name”

We proclaim this co-existence each and every week in our service of Holy Communion

I was asked in my interview for Bolton Priory how we might increase our numbers in church?

I answered that numbers can never go down otherwise you undermine your Eucharistic theology

Secondly, the ascension of Jesus provides us with reassurance about our own heavenly home

In John’s Gospel (John 14: 1-6), Jesus says

“My Father’s house has many rooms and I am going there to prepare a place for you”

This passage is often read at funerals but these reassuring words are only explicable in the light of Christ’s Ascension

  • Christ tells us about the heavenly realm we will one day inhabit
  • Christ tells us he going there
  • Christ tells us that he will prepare a place for us

His ascension completes his foretelling and gives us the hope and comfort of our own place in heaven  

Thirdly, ascension vindicates Jesus’ earthly ministry

As we have heard in our Gospel readings since Easter, Jesus has been intimating that he will leave us here on earth

As he said in John’s Gospel last week, intriguingly

“A little while you will no longer see me and again a little, and you will see me” (John 16:23b)

His Ascension means that his words are true and that he is true to his word

As I used to say to my Confirmation students at Sherborne School “He is the real deal not just the meal deal”

But despite these insights into the meaning of Christs ascension,

Christ’s departure leaves us with the enduring problem of what some theologians call the “in between time”

That is the time between Jesus ascending to heaven and his coming again in glory

But how is the ascended Christ present – here on earth – in our lives today?

First, Christ is present in his Church

The Church and its founder Jesus are inextricably bound together

To quote St Ignatius “where Christ is, there is the catholic Church”

The Church is Christ with us

Christ did not leave the Church when he ascended into heaven

And the Church is nothing less than a continuation of his prophetic, priestly and kingly ministry

Secondly, Christ is present in the Eucharist  

“This is my body” – “this is my blood” – (pause)

We don’t say this for fun – these are Christ’s own words

Heaven again breaks into earth

His presence is real in the bread and the wine – at our Eucharist – in our Church

And finally, we also meet the risen Christ through direct personal experience in our lives

Christ is not only transcendent but imminent –

Last year / like so many who travel down to the South Atlantic/ I became fascinated last by the expeditions of Sir Earnest Shackleton

For those of you who don’t know the story of his third expedition, his vessel Endurance became stuck in the pack-ice in the Weddell Sea and eventually broke up

Shackleton took to the life-boats and made the courageous decision to leave some of his men on Elephant Island, whilst he and three others rowed to South Georgia  

This is not for the faint hearted – being a distance of 800 miles through mountainous seas

Even on arrival, Shackleton with two of his men then had to cross the Island on foot

Shackleton wrote in his autobiography

“I have no doubt that providence guided us across the storm white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing place in South Georgia. I know that during that long and arduous march over the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four not three”

And it was not just Shackleton who said this, but his companions

Frank Worsley said to Shackleton on the journey

“Boss, I had a curious feeling [on the march] that there was another person with us”

“I again find myself counting our party—Shackleton, Crean, and I and—who was the other?”

These experiences by Shackleton and others became immortalised in T S Eliot’s Waste Land

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

And so returning to the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem,

The supposed place of Christ’s ascension and the place where his footprints are still visible her on earth today

Footprints seem so relevant to the Ascended Christ

Whether in the Chapel of the Ascension, the Church and its sacraments, or trudging through the snow or with us in our lives

His footprints on the Mount of Olives remind us that Christ

Walks with us in our earthly lives

And walks with us here in Bolton Abbey