Ascension Sunday and visit of Rowan Williams to St Paul’s Anglican Church Athens
Fr L W Doolan
They say ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’. Open for debate, I think. A few years ago I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in the centre of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The preacher the Sunday before my preaching engagement was none other than one Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Follow that.
Well I find that I am in the same situation again. Bishop Rowan Williams preached here last Sunday, so I find myself in a somewhat unenviable situation again. ‘Lightning doesn’t strike twice’. If I put a positive spin on this, I could be grateful to Rowan Williams as my ‘warm up’ guy.
Bishop Rowan was with us in Athens for 5 days, and we had a varied programme, a programme devised by me to exploit the world-wide prestige of this man, and the esteem with which he is held by the Orthodox Church here in Greece.
The consequences of this highly significant visit will emerge over the months and even years ahead, and I believe some excellent seeds were sown that will mature into good fruits.
It was my privilege to be in attendance throughout, and I wanted to take some time to share with you all the ingredients of the visit. There will be sequels to this historic encounter. Throughout it was the crucified, risen ascended and glorified Christ who was at the centre of the visit.
So we turn our attention now to today’s celebration of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven.
Like the consequences of the visit of a distinguished theologian and Archbishop great books and films have sequels too. Sometimes these sequels are successful, other times the sequel has none of the freshness and excitement of the first book or film. With some films, of course, sequels have gone mad – Terminator 5 or titles like this.
Today we can rightly be thinking of sequels. The closing verses of St. Luke’s gospel are preparing for a sequel. You get the sense of it in the words of our Lord, ‘I am sending upon you what the Father has promised’ and ‘stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ You might say the author is preparing the reader for ‘part 2’.
This is exactly what is going on. The author of the gospel whom we call St. Luke, is also the author of the book referred to as the Acts of the Apostles. The author admits as much. Look at the first few verses of both the gospel and the Acts and you will see what I mean.
Both are written to someone called Theophilus. One states that the facts surrounding the life of Jesus will be the theme, the second will tell of the works of the ones chosen as the apostles.
The pivot is the death and resurrection of our Lord, and the words of Jesus that end the gospel, are the words referred to at the start of Acts.
Ascension into heaven is the connecting point between the first and second volume of St. Luke. In Bethany the risen Christ is taken from the sight of the disciples and in his physical place the apostles are granted the eyes of faith, insight, as pure gift from the Holy Spirit.
The apostles have their direction changed – they gaze up to heaven following the ascended Christ, but they are told not to look for Christ in heaven but in the world to which he had come as Word made flesh. They are re-envisioned by the message, just as we are.
So where is the risen, ascended, and glorified Christ to be found and experienced? Maybe the words associated with the great hymn St. Patrick’s Breastplate will give us some clues.
‘Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all who love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.’ What difference does this make to your faith and practice, and mine? Are we looking in the right direction for Christ?
This theme of Christ encountered in friend and stranger, recognizing Christ in the other, was an underlying theme of Bishop Rowan’s sermons as you may recall from last Sunday – it underpinned his other conversations and formal presentations, such as the themes he highlighted from his book, Being Human. I only have to mention the centrality of this truth today, somewhat humbly, as I know that my warm up act has expressed it far better than I can, or indeed than any of us could.’
Lightning doesn’t strike twice.