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Last Thursday, on Ascension Day, St John the Divine and Christ Church Cathedral shared in a celebration of the feast at our Cathedral. It was a glorious service with beautiful music, and the recording of the whole event is available on the Cathedral's website here Christ Church Cathedral | Anglican Church in Victoria, BC

The sermons are no longer shared as audio files by the Cathedral, so after the service a number of people requested the text of the sermon be made available, it is reproduced below. 


Ascension Day (2024) Year B RCL Eucharist

Metaphor and reality

Looking back over our shared Ascension Day services of the past years – a service I am very glad that St John the Divine has been sharing with our Cathedral for some years –  and I realize I’ve preached at nearly every Ascension Day for over a decade so I am somewhat concerned that I may have said all I can say about this important festival.

So on that note, thanks very much and goodnight.



Sorry, you don’t get away that easily.

Actually I learned something new this week, well, I learned lots of new things this week, as is common when we’re always looking out for new things and new understanding, but I learned something which started my thinking about this year’s Ascension Day sermon.

These thoughts which were shared with me from a friend in the UK, so thank you Reverend Steve Day, for this thought provoking introduction –

Steve writes about something called the Left Angular Gyrus. This isn’t some kind of new traffic intersection (anyone who has ever been to London and driven on the North Circular Road will know of the Hangar Road Gyratory in whose purgatory some remain for hours, or possible years)  or an eye-watering yoga position, it is in fact a small part of your brain, situated roughly behind the top of your left ear.

A study about 8 years ago, and published in Scientific Journal  Nature, revealed that this part of our brain is where we understand metaphors. So when you hear someone say “he’s a bright spark” or “she’s a real star” or “I was miles away” your left angular gyrus swings into action. Patients who have suffered damage to this part of their brains – and the equivalent on the right-hand side – are unable to grasp the double meaning in a metaphor.

The left angular gyrus is located at the junction of those parts of the brain responsible for hearing and language, movement and touch, and vision, it can connect these different types of experience, and produce the linkage between sensation, word, and concept so that we recognise ‘truth’ in the otherwise nonsensical statements.

This part of the human brain is relatively much larger in human beings than in other apes. As the leader of the study said “Any monkey can reach for a peanut, but only humans can reach for the stars, or even understand what that means.”

Imagine, though, how hard our oversized left angular gyrus is working when we hear “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”. Perhaps the only word in that which isn’t metaphorical is “and”.

And yet – we seem, in the Church to have veered away from that understanding of metaphor, as something true but not literal, and we keep finding ourselves bogged down in the world of trying to explain how these stories, these images, these myths, mysteries, analogies, and metaphors ‘make sense’ in a rational and literal way.

Our ancient forebears could hold their understanding of literal and metaphorical together, for instance – they may have held some understanding of Ascension that wasn’t only metaphorical. Many of our ancestors saw creation as three-layered – the pit of Sheol/Hades/The underworld  and the great deep below, us on the Flat Disc of the Earth here, and above us is the dome of the firmament, holding up  the waters above the firmament, and beyond them is God’s realm, the Heavens.

At least, that was a common view, with variations in other early cultures.  So when Luke wrote “When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” it was quite obvious that “up” meant towards God.

But even if there was some literalistic underpinning of the story, the heart of this, as is the heart of so much of our Scripture story, is the analogous, the metaphorical, the mythical – which is meant to engage and inform not only the mind but the heart, the soul. Which leads us to the question of what meaning behind the meaning might be speaking to us today.

The problem with over-literalizing metaphors is that we can find ourselves dissociating the deeper meaning with a mechanistic view of our stories. If we spend all our time thinking about Jesus going ‘up’ to be somewhere else, we lose the image of Jesus remaining Bodily in human form, albeit a resurrection body (and we could debate for hours about what that might mean, and indeed scholars and theologians have over the years). This Jesus story reminds us that Jesus remains embodied, not a spectral or magical or detached figure. The passage before our reading today goes even further in having Jesus say in Luke 24 verses 38 and 39 ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And the story which immediately precedes this concludes with Jesus asking for fish to eat to prove that he is standing there in front of them.

This story reminds us to keep our faith grounded – not out there/up there in the heavens somewhere. But in this reality, this creation which God loves and has given us stewardship of. This relational reality where we live in community to serve one another, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. The metaphor serves not as an end in itself but to lead us into a deeper understanding of where God is calling us, what God wants us to know.

The Church has historically been very good at selling a heaven-centric story which encourages people to focus on whether their good or bad deeds will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. Jesus didn’t have that as the focus of his everyday teaching – the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, this reign of the Divine was there to touch – this reign of justice, healing and wholeness is within our grasp. The focus of Jesus message, our calling to usher in this Divine reign, the Kingdom of God, doesn’t change because of this festival we observe today. The Ascension doesn’t remove Christ from the world but speaks of creation’s place within the Divine, and reminds us that all creation springs from the Divine. 

So often we Christians are, to quote the writer Adrian Plass, “so heavenly minded to be of no earthly use.” We abstract ourselves from the reality of this world when we are actually being called to live deeply grounded lives in this world which God loves so much. When we focus on images of heaven and an afterlife we distract from the reality of the everyday which we are called to live in and respond to. Zimbabwean poet, philosopher, and musician Joshua Maponga says – “Stop selling people things that are in the heavens because you have failed to make them relevant on earth.”

We cannot afford to ignore the earth of which we are a part, the creation which we have responsibility for stewarding, the communities in need of love, feeding, clothing, serving, and the lives which are lost because of violence, war, injustice, and human-made and natural disaster.

We come back to the words of the messengers at the beginning of our reading, almost harsh words to the disciples who gather on the mount at Bethany - ‘Why are you looking up to heaven?’ 

Why are you looking in the wrong place, diverted by stuff ‘out there’ gawping into the distance whilst missing what is right here?

By trying to draw us back to where we are, not looking up to heaven, not formulating theories or theologies or novels about when Jesus comes back with heavenly armies to beat up all the bad people like some kind of Christinator.  By drawing our attention back from up there to right here, and right now, we are being called to consider not when Christ is coming back, but where Christ IS coming.  Where Christ is found, in the created world, in the neighbour, within ourselves.

And we remember what goes hand in hand with this story of Ascension – the story of Pentecost, for which the Disciples are instructed to wait, the equipping for this rooted, grounded, gracious ministry of presence and being.

We are reminded that God’s Spirit is with us, for that is promise of Christ.  We believe the Spirit of Christ is here, equipping us for all we need to do here in our Churches and in our world.  Let us not be distracted, and let us use this celebration of Ascension as an inspiration not to spend our time looking up to heaven, but let us live lives that are focussed on our calling here and now, in wherever place God has put us, amongst and with people, in our towns and cities, in our neighbourhoods.  And let us pray for the power, inspiration and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we too seek to be those who worship God and rejoice as we share the life of Christ with the world, and as we seek Christ in all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen