‘Why do you stand there looking up to heaven?’
It’s no wonder the disciples were caught staring up at the place where their friend and teacher and Lord had bid them farewell, but the angels are right to point the disciples back to the world – we are not to be so heavenly that we are of no earthly use.
It seems to me that the Ascension is, above all, a feast of the body of Christ – as is this Eucharist that we celebrate this morning, just a few days afterwards. It’s the period in the church year when we remember the departure back to heaven of Jesus’ earthly, incarnate form, the day when his presence stopped being particular (tied to a specific time and place and material form) and started to be universal – present to all times and places ‘even to the ending of the age’ (Mt 28.20).
But the ascension is but one moment of this process of the particular becoming universal. Jesus fed a crowd with a few loaves and fish, and called himself ‘the bread of life’; at the Last supper he explained his own body in terms of bread and wine, which he then broke, poured out, and distributed. On the cross his actual body was broken and his blood flowed. At the resurrection his body was both physically real (which he proved by eating and drinking) yet also able to go unrecognised and walk through locked doors (a step up, perhaps, from walking on water?). Then at his ascension, that physical body disappeared into glory, and in its place was left a group of bewildered disciples left with the task of carrying on their teacher’s work.
By the time St Paul started writing his letters to the early church, he had started calling the christian community ‘The Body of Christ’ – something which we still do, and to which we continue to aspire. There was one final thing that needed to happen before those early Christians could assume the role as Christ’s new body on earth: that body had to receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, which we can read about in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) or indeed in the quieter version in John’s gospel where the risen Christ breathes his Spirit on his friends in the upper room. It is that which we look forward to celebrating next Sunday.
So during the course of this process, the Body of Christ which begun as the incarnate Son of God, born as a baby in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, being baptised and undertaking a three-year ministry of preaching, healing and teaching, and culminating the cross and resurrection – that Body of Christ is transformed into the Church – established by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in co-operation with God. Thus, Jesus’ particular body (limited to one time and one place, two thousand years ago) becomes universal, filling the whole world, and for all time.
We talk about the universal church, but really is that what we mean? In the end, to be true to the Christ whose body we try to be, we come full circle: in the Church, the body of Christ becomes not, after all, merely ‘general’ or ‘universal’ but particular again, incarnate in the individuals and christian communities in which the Holy Spirit dwells. If we are, in Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ’s hands with which he blesses people now” then our action in the world is particular, in the places where we find ourselves. The church may fill the world, but if it is truly to be the Body of Christ, then it cannot be ‘general’ but must always be active in the places where it finds itself. If we are the Body of Christ then we must be incarnate, too – through the ascension we will always have a heavenly life, but here and now our calling is to continue, in his name, the work that Christ began.
You have heard the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’ – hear also these alternative words of distribution at the Eucharist: ‘receive what you are’. These challenge us to connect what happens here in church with what happens in the other 167 hours each week. We are the body of Christ not just gathered in a church building to hear the word and bread bread together, but in everything that we do and think and say.
At times like these, when as a nation we face again the reality of terrorism, violence, hatred and fear, we must grasp more than ever the need to work out what being the body of Christ looks like in real life. What will it look like for us to be Christ’s hands and feet, his eyes and ears, today, this week, this month? How will we be active in continuing the work of God in the world? How will we be continuing to live out Christ’s own manifesto, as we receive the Holy Spirit afresh, and proclaim, as Jesus did, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to preach good news to the poor; he has sent us to proclaim freedom to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ We have seen this week the inspiring and humbling response of the people of Manchester. Their refusal to meet hatred with hatred and evil with evil. Their solidarity in diversity, and their embracing of one another in shared pain and fear so that there might instead be the transforming power of love.
When Jesus said ‘do THIS’ in remembrance of me, he cannot have been talking just about the breaking of a piece of bread in a closed room. He must surely have been talking about everything captured in the phrase ‘This is my body, broken for you’ – the totality of his incarnation, life, ministry, preaching and teaching, passion, death and resurrection, so that as we do ‘this’ and remember Jesus, we may truly receive what we already are, and go out to love and serve the Lord as his body on earth, ready to bless and heal and reconcile and bring something of the love of God to a world in desperate need of it.