Saturday, 19 May 2007

Sermon for Sunday after Ascension

Year C Easter 7, Sunday after Ascension, 2007

A Time of Promise

Ascension day, which was on Thursday just gone is an important time in the Church’s year. It’s one of those feasts which members of the Church often overlook., but I believe it to be a valuable time when we remember the reason behind who we are asChristians.

Now many people have problems with the very idea of the Ascension – in our sophisticated technological world we wonder about the mechanics of it. We now know that the world is not flat with heaven ‘up there’ as our early Church brothers and sisters believed. Images of our Lord rising into the clouds to be received into the bosom of the Father no longer have that ring to them as when we simply believed there was hell, earth and heaven in three tiers all stacked upon each other. The picture of the feet sticking out of the ceiling, like the sculpture in the chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, are rather comical instead of awe inspiring. But I believe that the mechanics are unimportant – what we do know is that somehow Christ was taken to be with the Father in bodily form, and that those who saw it could only describe it as Jesus rising to where they believed God lived – upwards.

What is most important, though, is that Christ in his resurrection body was bodily taken to be with his father and that now and for all eternity he lives in some way with that body, and therefore understands all of our bodily needs, desires, joys, difficulties and everything that it means to be human . I preached more fully on this on Ascension day, so I won’t preach it again – but I believe that the Ascension did happen, and that it should bring us right back to who we are as Christians.

For the Ascension is a reminder of God’s promises to us in Christ – the promise that Christ will be with us till the end of the age, the promise of his Holy Spirit to comfort and inspire, the promise that one day we will see his glory, the promise of a Kingdom to come when “all will be well and all manner of things shall be well” as Mother Julian of Norwich, a mediaeval mystic once wrote…

It’s also a time of commission, when the Church is given the task of spreading the Gospel to all the world, and a time of waiting, waiting for power from on high, a time of worship – when we catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is and of his glory. It’s a teaser, a taste of the true power and glory of Jesus given to sustain us in our task of evangelism and in our worship of the one true God, Father of all, his son our Saviour and the Holy Spirit who lives in and through every Christian.

But now we live in a time of promise – as recorded in our Gospel reading, taken from St John’s record of the last prayers of Jesus before his arrest and trial. Jesus prays

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

One day we will see Christ in all his glory – but for now we worship one whose glory we only catch glimpses of – glimpses from scripture, glimpses in the worship that binds us together in faith, glimpses in our own prayers and in the faith that guides our own lives. But Ascension reminds that we wait for the fulfilment of the promise that sometime Jesus will return in all of his glory and that the world will be changed when his kingdom comes and his will is done throughout all creation.

But for now we have a task, a charge given to us by our Lord before he ascended to heaven – we are called to be his body remaining here on earth until he comes again, we are called to be one and to draw all people to Christ. In this our passage from John’s Gospel, we are told:

Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed: ‘Holy Father,20 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

That is what we are here for – that is the rôle of the Church in today’s world – to be one, as the father and Christ are one, in order that all may be attracted to our community of faith. To be honest, if we are not a living community of faith – then there is no point in the Church’s continued existence.

Don’t get me wrong, I value the incredible work done in all of our parishes to maintain and beautify our wonderful historic buildings, I am ever grateful to the energy and commitment that so many put into the care of all that we have. In enjoy coming to cared for and much loved Churches – but to be honest, we must remember that our primary aim is to follow the command of our master and Lord, who said that we are to be his body here on earth, with him as the head.

The Church is not a social club, or a society for the preservation of ancient buildings. Our services on Sunday do not exist for our own comfort and convenience, but for the worship of almighty God. We should not come here every Sunday hoping to find something just to lull us into a sense of security and well being but something which stirs us to adore and to serve a living God, a God of power and might, a God of love and justice, a God of truth and life.

The Ascension reminds us that God is far beyond our mortal comprehension – and in many ways perhaps it is good that we cannot picture what actually happened as those first Apostles stood looking up to heaven. It is a reminder that God is bigger than our human wishes, our self interest, our human structures and traditions. We are shown the glory of God in the amazing events of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Ascension which draws him back into the life and worship of eternity. We should stand awe-struck at what God is and what God can do and has done for us in Christ Jesus. We should, as the disciples did in the account of the ascension in Luke’s Gospel and in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, bow down and worship God – willing to serve him with our whole hearts and our whole lives.

But we stray so far from this. As a Church we slip in to our own concerns about service times, the words we us, whether we sing hymns or not – rather than taking seriously our Saviour’s command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It should be a challenge we take seriously every day of our lives, it should be something that informs all that we are as Christians – are we taking the command of Christ seriously enough to allow it to inconvenience us? Are we willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel as Christ has demanded we do? In our reading from Acts we are told that Paul and his companions, in chains for the Gospel, praised God in prison. How many of us would even be able to stand up for all that we claim to believe if it meant going to prison?

I’m not sure I would – though I pray that God might give me strength if it were the case. But we are not called upon to do all of this on our own, the promise of the Ascension is the Christ does not leave us to do this alone – he will be with us, and he will clothe us with power from on high. But that’s another story, the story of Pentecost – and that’s a story for next week...


Marion said...

Super sermon, Alastair...your parish is very lucky to have you.

Just what I needed to read today, thank you so much!

Dr.John said...

I second the super sermon comment. You have a way of getting to the heart of what you preach.