Sermons 2014 ~ Easter 7

Rising above it all - The Ascension of Jesus

Acts 1:6-12

Many of us were in here on Friday night for a fascinating, and funny evening with an actor and an actress playing out ‘The God Particle’. It was also thought provoking, exploring as it did the love-hate relationship between science and religion.

Two characters, one a scientist, the other a vicar, meet in a pub and are strangely attracted to each other, not leastly through their frank and sometimes forceful manner of debating whether science – or religion, are rational, sensible, irreconcilable or irrevocably separated. In the end it turns out that the two of them have not only met before in a different era, but that they are in fact married in 1820, and they have somehow slipped through some kind of tear in the fabric of time, and ultimately decide that they in fact made for each other, are compatible if not somewhat argumentative bedfellows, and so they return to 1820, thereby disappearing from our sight, and so the comedy – which turns out to be a romantic comedy, concludes.

It was funny, laugh out loud, often, and even slightly risqué at times, but we can all cope with that! But underneath the comedy and the overt quotations from philosophers and theologians and the jokes about Brian Cox and Newton, there was a fundamental level on which the play operated and which is plain to see if we step back from the fun and games.

And that is that science and religion are effectively married to one another, and indeed, have been for a long time. And it is a marriage to be celebrated, renewed, repaired. And that, just as the Vicar and the Physicist in the play decide to go back to a time before Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and others set about manipulating nineteenth century science into the beginnings of hostility between the two and forcing an unwelcome divorce, it is time to rediscover and rekindle the natural affinity, intellectual similarity and emotional bonds between these two intellectual and spiritual disciplines which are ultimately united in their search for reality, truth and meaning.

Science and religion, which in the mediaeval period were basically the same subject, bring and yield similar intellectual and emotional attitudes and results. Religion and Science both begin with the hypothesis of truth, and its discoverability. They are both susceptible to fundamentalism – that is the idea that anything that falls outside what we already know must be rejected. There are fundamentalist scientists and religious fundamentalists. Both believe they are right and the other is wrong. They make up their arguments without proper rigour, often knocking down positions that conveniently disagree with their own views, but which in reality no-one actually holds. Richard Dawkins is particularly good at this – the God he says is a delusion, is in fact a delusion of his own, for no-one seriously believes in the deity he supposes we believe in, and therefore attacks. Although to be fair to Dawkins, it was reported this week that he considers himself an Anglican of sorts, he likes Evensong and the feel of old churches. And he says people should read the Bible. Well – there you go, there’s a bit more to faith than that.

And then there’s Stephen Hawking, whose religious scientific fervour is of a different kind. He says that there is a ‘multiverse’ out there - and no God. His calculations and insight into quantum physics and astronomy have led him to believe – I use the word cautiously – believe, that the only explanation for anything is that there are not only one, nor two, not even a billion, but an infinite number of universes, of which ours is but one. Therefore he proposes, there must be life like ours somewhere else, and so extra-terrestrial life is a certainty. You can see the logical progression – we have moved from supposition to belief to certainty in three easy steps. Here science has become a religion of sorts – it requires leaps of faith far greater than Christianity, and a deference to a high priest who has no tradition or scripture to refer to, but only his own, admittedly huge, brain.

So, it might be argued that two of the most respected and widely read scientists of our age, are using the tools of disreputable religion - fundamentalism and blind faith - to make their case.

I hope there is no place in science or religion, for either. We have minds and spiritual awareness, and we are called on, scientifically and religiously, as it were, to employ both. God calls us to use the gifts we have, and these are intellectual too. And the call of hard-nosed, rigorous science is to examine the world around us, seek evidence, apply un-biased methods, and check our results to produce proofs and theorems to make a case. And both science and religion call for rigour, blended with humility.

The fundamentalist preacher and the arrogant physicist who says there can’t be a God, are from the same basket. Joseph Conrad, in his novel, The Secret Agent, famously wrote that:

“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter-moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical.” (Chapter 4)

He meant that because they think the same, have similarly motives and are fundamentally built the same, they understand, even respect one another. Terrorism aside, I would say that the scientist and the priest come out of the same basket too, albeit a different one! For we are all addressing the same questions, with similar methods, and hopefully all in a spirit of humility and truth. For as Jesus said, the truth will set us free, and there is only one kind of truth, and that is not truth you make up for yourself.

Now, let’s draw breath…

Today, of all days, is a tricky one for the marriage between science and religion. For we have travelled through the periods of Lent and Easter, via the crucifixion. We have seen pain and death, resurrection and revelation. We have come close to humanity’s inhumanity to man, and we have heard of the empty tomb, and Jesus’ subsequent appearances to his disciples.

And now we reach the Ascension.

It is one of the most bizarre events in the New Testament, and it challenges even the most unscientific of minds. Going up to heaven – what is that all about? Some churched launch a rocket on Ascension Day (last Thursday), because that is the closest analogy we can think of to represent the departure of Jesus from our earthly sight. And yet, whatever it was that happened, it is an emotionally powerful as well as intellectually challenging experience that St. Luke has recorded for us at the beginning of his Acts of the Apostles.

Gathered on the Mount of Olives once again, and in what is the closest thing to a funeral for Jesus we might imagine, Jesus is taken from the disciples’ sight, and they are left to await the sending of the Holy Spirit. One might wonder if they shed tears in a place where Jesus had done only a few weeks earlier. Like mourners at a funeral they remain rooted to the spot, but need to begin the process of moving on into a new reality, fuelled by hope and memory. It is an emotional moment in a significant place.

The Mount of Olives, sometimes called Olivet, is the hill on the east side of Jerusalem that connects the City with the village of Bethany, home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, which became a retreat for Jesus from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. Nowadays it is where many pilgrimages to Jerusalem begin: it is possible to walk down its slopes to the Garden of Gethsemane along its winding, tarmacked, single track road, and many pilgrim groups do this, singing, and waving palms. At the top is the church of Dominus Flevit – ‘The Lord wept’, which is dedicated to the story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41.

The Mount of Olives is a place of tears, and of hope. It is associated with Jesus both going down and going up. He arrives in humble glory on Palm Sunday, with only a few days of normal life left to him, and he departs forty days after his Easter rising, commissioning his newly converted followers as ministers, witnesses and evangelists of the gospel of good news of salvation. Yet Jesus had walked up and down that gentle mountain many times before, he would have known its turns and bumps like the back of his hand. It was a special route and a tedious walk. Yet it was not very far. A Sabbath day’s walk was about a mile.

We often forget that the Ascension is associated with the Mount of Olives. There is however a small chapel dedicated to the Ascension to be found. It it not so often visited: it is now a Mosque, and its claim to house the rock from which Jesus actually ascended, in which is imprinted his footprint, is surely spurious. But it is on the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives has always been sacred to Judaism. Many Jews seek to be buried on its slopes overlooking Jerusalem, because of a tradition derived from Zechariah 14:4 that the resurrection will begin on the Mount. Accordingly there is now an extensive graveyard ‘overlooking’ the city, the view from which is perhaps ironically dominated by the Islamic golden Dome of the Rock, itself revered as a site of ascension: that of the Prophet Mohammed.

So one site of ascension looks down on another across a city of faith and ferment. In the week following the Pope’s politically deft visit to Jerusalem in which he seems to have impressed everybody, we remember that in that city three Abrahamic religions live cheek by jowl, with much in common and much to fight over. Their sites of pilgrimage draw thousands of tourists and pilgrims annually, although the Christian population of Jerusalem is now miniscule, having been squeezed out by Jews and Muslims, among whom the city is geographically divided, East and West. Perhaps one day it will be possible to rise above the conflicts and competition that have marred and marked the history of Jerusalem, whose peace and prosperity are still very much a focus for prayer today.

And if Ascensiontide teaches us anything in a week in which we have seen political electoral upheaval in Europe; a promising visit in the Holy Land and a romantic comedy seeking to reconcile the divorce between science and religion, it might just be this: that like Jesus, we should strive to rise above it all. We should try – as individuals and nations, politicians and voters - we should try to see the bigger picture, the birds eye view, we should try to rise with Christ and look with him on a fallen, broken world, but which can be healed and ultimately hoped for through the spiritual power of reconciliation, transcendence and love which Jesus Christ brings to every age and people.


The Reverend Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 1/6/2014

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