St Michael and All Angels Church, Bedford Park

A Sermon for Ascension Day 2008
Sarah Lenton

70 or so years ago that great theatre manager, Lilian Baylis, was attending a cremation service with Sybil Thorndike. In those days you watched the coffin go up in flames on its pyre and Sybil noticed that Lilian was caught up and thrilled by the fire.

“"That's beautiful!” She said, “The cleansing fire - what a splendid end to our bodies - the real part of us released!” And I must say those of us who have had the misfortune of seeing dearly loved friends and relations slowly decay under the wasting effects of Aids, or the inexorable advance of old age, might sympathise with her. Surely the real us is trapped inside our bodies and our spirit set free at death.

It’s an attractive idea but, in spite of the fact that Miss Baylis was a redoubtable Anglo-catholic, it is completely unchristian. Not that you’d ever guess it from our literature. Most of us can remember the dialogue in Merchant of Venice, when Lorenzo and Jessica sit in Portia’s moonlight garden at Belmont and Lorenzo looks up at the stars and tells Jessica that each, set in its sphere, sings as it wheels through the Heavens,

“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st” he says,
“But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

This muddy vesture of decay – that’s our body. And though Lorenzo’s description of the glorious human body being made of mud is Biblical – insofar as we are made from the dust of the earth – the way he talks about it, muddy, gross and decaying, comes from the Greek neo-platonic tradition. (A very Renaissance enthusiasm)

In that system the world is only the centre of the universe because it’s the heaviest thing there is – it is in fact more at the bottom than the centre, where the debris of the universe sinks, where spirits like us are trapped in the muck and acquire these awful cloying material bodies. This was the fashionable faith when the Christian church was just starting up, and the New Age types of the time were swift to write their own ‘Gospels’ those of Thomas and so on, carefully explaining that Jesus didn’t acquire anything as vulgar as a body, that He never ate, or wept, or sweated, or indeed died. (Bits of that ‘Gospel’ are embedded in the Koran to this day).

And the corollary to this denial of Jesus’ corporeal presence was that neither did He rise from the dead either (not in a body anyway) and the Ascension story is simply a record of the moment when His fake body quivered for a moment, and shimmied out of view.

Against this we have to set the Christian, and indeed the Jewish, faith.
At the beginning of the Bible we get the story of creation. It uses the old Sumerian myth of creation – with a profound difference. Almighty God is not a primitive Marduk, making the world out of bits of things He finds lying about, He broods over the waters of creation and makes the universe from nothing, by the power of His Word. And, and this is crucial, He sees it is ‘very good’. That is said of everything – the fish, the birds, the trees, the animals, the earth and, supremely, man.

Of course it goes wrong. The world is spoilt, but it is only spoilt, it doesn’t start intrinsically bad. An apple can be spoilt, it can go bad, but you can’t create a bad apple – it always starts off as a good apple. How did the world get spoilt? Well that’s another sermon. St Paul gives us the most succinct explanation, it was spoilt, he says, by sin – and with sin, he adds, came Death. Decay appears the moment the world is marred. And it was this glorious ruined world that Jesus entered, in the first century, as an orthodox Jew.

You might remember the set of sermons given, an Easter or so ago, when we explored what it was to be a first century Jew, and what light that threw on the Resurrection.
We discovered that Jews of that period believed in a general resurrection, which they thought would happen at the end of time, and they believed most emphatically in a bodily one. Life after death, for them, meant dead bodies, coming back to life. That idea was in fact quite inescapable, given the Jewish doctrine of what it means to be human. Because, for the Jew, Man is a body animated by the breath of God.

In Genesis we read that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and he became a living soul. But the Jews had the sketchiest notion what a soul was. Many didn’t believe in it at all, others thought of it as the ghost that descended unhappily to Sheol at death, some people were beginning to use the word to describe the moral centre of man, but nobody thought of it as the essential component that made you human. To be a living man was to be a human body, animated by the breath of God, and if Jesus had
shimmered in as a spirit after His death, His Jewish disciples would have immediately considered He was very dead indeed.

But He didn’t, God’s breath animated Him, God raised Him from the dead. (He wasn’t resuscitated like Lazarus, Lazarus would one day die again). Jesus rose as the New Man, the True God, the one on whom Death had no power and appeared to His disciples in the sort of body we all should have had if that great primary disaster hadn’t ruined the world. Nothing more shocking to Greek sensibilities could be conceived. The muck of this world good? A god electing to retain his embarrassing human body? The epistle last week had St Paul preaching at Athens, the reading stopped as he mentioned the word ‘anastasia’ i.e. ‘resurrection’. It shouldn’t have done, we should have heard the response, the Athenians laughed at the word and Paul was hooted down.

Any Greek who read the Bible would have been disconcerted by the re-iterated ‘Behold it was very good’ of the creation story, and his feelings would have been indescribable if he’d got as far as St John’s Gospel. There, famously, John picks up the fashionable Greek doctrines and the fashionable Greek phrases, particularly the ideas buzzing round the word ‘logos’, and suddenly and abruptly says, “And the Logos (the Word) became flesh”. It was this incarnate Word that John and the other disciples saw, solid, human and glorious “And we beheld His glory (the glory as of the only begotten
of the Father) full of grace and truth” It’s all so familiar, but stop for a moment over the shocking words, “The Word became Flesh”.

The Word, that is the Eternal Son, didn’t wrap Himself up in flesh, didn’t assume flesh as a disguise, He became flesh. So, in His parting from this world, He didn’t shed His flesh either – God had raised Him, He is the first manifestation of un-ruined Man, and He goes back to Heaven in the flesh, in this new mode of being. What this means ultimately in the heavenly places is a complete mystery. The implications are staggering, not the least that one day we will find ourselves there as well, in our resurrected bodies.

“I know that my redeemer liveth
And that He shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth
And though worms destroy this body,
Yet in my flesh shall I see God.”

How is this possible? In what mode can one of the Persons of the Godhead bear a body? Nobody knows. What we do know is that the Word became flesh, that He entered history and acquired a Body and a Name. And that that Person, the risen Jesus, ascended bodily to Heaven on the day of this wonderful, heartening, and very logical feast.