Ascension Thursday

A sermon by a Dominican friar

The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God.

One of the things that proves the divine origin of our religion is that the doctrines of Christianity exceed the powers of the human mind. I don’t mean only that these doctrines are beyond the power of the human mind to comprehend, but that they are beyond the power of the human mind even to invent. Consider, for example, the Incarnation. The pagans had their stories about their gods coming to earth in human form; but they never imagined that the one true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, while remaining perfect God, would assume to Himself a true human nature and be born of a Virgin. No one could imagine it before it happened. Again, even if some human being had somehow conceived the idea that the true God might take to Himself a human nature and live among us as a man, he would not have imagined that the God-man would live such a life as our Lord Jesus Christ lived on earth. He would have supposed that the life of the God-man would be one of continual glory and honour, perhaps accompanied by military victories, and that He would very soon be recognised as king by all the nations of the earth. Never would he have imagined the garden of Gethsemane, Calvary, and the tomb.

Even after the Resurrection of our Lord, we find the same, so to speak, divine unpredictability. Surely, we might think, now that Christ has suffered everything which was written of Him, now that He has conquered death and the devil, and been manifested as the Son of God in power by His resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4), surely now it is time to bring the world as we know it to an end. Surely it is time for Him to reign in the sight of all flesh. The apostles themselves seem to have felt in this way. We hear it in the question that they ask Jesus this morning: “Lord, wilt thou now restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Surely, now that the king has triumphed, his kingdom will be made manifest to all!

Yet, as the prophet Isaias says, God’s ways are not our ways. The King has indeed triumphed, and He is going to reign, but not on earth; not yet. He is going to restore not the kingdom to Israel, but the kingdom among the holy angels. The kingdom of heaven had been wounded by the fall of many angels, at the beginning of time. Christ is now going to restore that kingdom to a glory greater than it had possessed before, by reigning there as king, and by introducing into heaven the saints from this world who will gradually fill the places left by the rebel angels.  But on earth, no. His kingship will not yet shine forth in such an overwhelming manner as to compel the submission of every human creature. 

Here is one of those unpredictable divine decisions of which I spoke at the beginning. Who would have imagined that God could come into the world in person, and then leave the world again, and that many things would continue as if He had never been here? Before Christ came, the human race had been marrying and having children and farming and trading and building cities and dying, and after the Ascension, the human race continued to do all these same things. Before Christ came, the Roman emperor had been the most powerful man in the world, and after the Ascension, the Roman emperor continued to be the most powerful man in the world.  Our Lord allows men to decide for themselves whether they want to remember Him and serve Him, or to forget about Him. Such is His humility and magnanimity.

Yet, although Jesus Christ is not reigning over the world in such a way as to compel the submission of every human creature, He is reigning over it. St Mark says that He “sitteth at the right hand of God”, which means that Christ reigns from heaven over all creation.  If the world continues with all the ordinary human activities which have been performed by human beings since the beginning, this is only because Christ permits this. Men imagine that the important business of the world is politics, or the arts, or trade; but it is not for the sake of any of these things that God permits the world to continue. These are only the background to that activity for which the world is permitted to continue. What is this activity? He said to them, Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. Our Lord allows the world to continue because the gospel is still being preached to mankind. When He sees that it has been preached sufficiently, there will no longer be any purpose in the continued existence of the world. And so, on that day, He will return.