Our Conversation is in Heaven
A sermon for this coming Thursday’s Feast of the Ascension by the late Robert Crouse, an Anglican luminary and friend of this parish.
“Our conversation is in heaven ”(Philippians 3:20). “Let us exult, beloved, with joy of soul, and rejoicing with fitting praise in God’s presence lift up the now free eyes of the soul to that place where Christ abides. Let not earthly things hold here the souls that are called above; let not perishable things fill the hearts that are chosen for external things. Let no false allurements hold back those who walk in the way of truth”. Thus St. Leo the Great addressed a Christian congregation fifteen centuries ago, celebrating the festival of Our Lord’s Ascension.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus ascended to the heavens, and the Church has always celebrated that event as one of its greatest festivals. But what does it mean? To begin with, the Ascension of Jesus is an historical event, witnessed to by those “men of Galilee” who were left gazing up into the sky –no doubt greatly astonished – as a cloud received the Risen Lord out of their sight. What a strange and bewildering time that must have been for Jesus’ disciples. An historical event, no doubt, but of a very strange and wonderful sort. What could it all mean?
The Gospel lessons for the last few Sundays after Easter go a long way towards explaining it. They are taken from St. John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper discourse, in which he explains to the disciples that he must go away. “It is expedient for you that I go away,” he tells them, “for if I go not away, the Comforter [the Spirit] will not come to you. But if I depart, I will send him unto you.” That is to say, only in the loss of his worldly presence could they come to know his presence as Spirit.
St. Augustine explains it this way: “He is taken away from their bodily eyes, and they no longer see him as man. What was in their hearts that arose from natural affections is now as it were mourned within them…When ten days had passed he would send the Holy Spirit, to fill them with spiritual love; taking away their earthly affection…They could not be filled with spiritual understanding unless the object of their earthly love should go from before their eyes.” All this grief, all the bewilderment, would be as pains of travail, as new spiritual life came to birth in them. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again”.
The Ascension is all about that spiritual birth. Jesus takes humanity – his humanity and ours – and transforms it, elevates it, endows it with new spiritual life. As an ancient hymn puts it: Yea, angels tremble when they see / How changed is our humanity; / That flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, / And God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned. The Ascension of Christ proclaims and celebrates our spiritual destiny as sons of God by adoption and grace. We are born of the Spirit, and therefore we are spirit; and spirit cannot ultimately be bound by worldly ends and earthly limitations. By the comfort – the strengthening, transforming power – of the Holy Spirit of God, we are to be exalted “unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before”. “Our conversation is in heaven”.
“Our conversation is in heaven,” and in the Church’s liturgy, we find ourselves engaged in precisely that conversation, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”. Here, in liturgy, all the arts conspire to solicit mind and heart, to wean the soul from worldliness. “A door is opened into heaven”. In a secular age, and in an increasingly secularized Church, such a liturgy as this perhaps seems anomalous, perhaps even an act of defiance. Well, so be it, and so it should be. This festival defies all our futile worldliness. Thank God for it. The Feast of the Ascension affirms, and our liturgy today affirms, a destiny and a spiritual calling which can rest in nothing short of the infinite goodness and the truth and beauty which is the very life of God. We find ourselves on the threshold. Lift up your hearts! Habemus ad dominum. “Our conversation is in heaven, whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The morning shall awaken,
The shadows shall decay.
And each true-hearted servant
Shall shine as doth the day.
Then all the halls of Sion
For ay shall be complete,
And, in the Land of Beauty,
All things of beauty meet.
This essay was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on May 14, 2023. Image: WikiArt.org.