Acts 1 1-11
Ascension day, a day which is all too often bypassed in the life of the church today. For in a way, the Ascension is something we find hard to imagine. I confess that I find it difficult to think of the Ascension without picturing in my mind the Apollo spacecraft ‘lift offs’
It must have been hard for the disciples.
Just six weeks ago they had watched with horror as they saw their Lord and teacher taken away from them by the soldiers, and witnessed his silence against all the lies and accusations made against him. They knew of his cruel beating and his brutal death on that shameful cross. One can only imagine what devastation they felt.
Yet three days later they were astonished and amazed to see him alive again! Jesus had triumphed over death itself!
Surely, with such a show of strength and power that even death can be conquered now was the time to restore the true kingdom of Israel! Surely now was the time when the Romans could be overthrown and Israel would be first among the nations.
But no, once again they saw their Lord and Saviour taken away from them. Now I’ve never seen anyone floating up into the clouds without a jet pack, hidden ropes, or by the magical sleight of hand on television, so again I can only imagine what was going through their minds. Such a sight would be hard to comprehend as it defies all logic and the laws of nature, but then again, Jesus had already shown he was master over the wind, the waves, sickness, demons and even death, why then are we surprised?
So I know that my pictures of the Ascension of Jesus are inevitably flawed. If any of you have been in the chapel at Walsingham you will see a pair of feet sticking out of the ceiling – that too is obviously flawed. It is clearly beyond us to comprehend exactly what the disciples witnessed other than to appreciate that Jesus is not subject to the physical restraints that we experience. It is interesting to note that John was the only gospel writer to have been there to witness this and he does not give it a mention – perhaps he just couldn’t put pen to paper about something so amazing.
After witnessing so many amazing miracles, their teacher, their friend, and their Lord leaves them. Yet there’s still so much to do!! The work has only just begun! How will it get done if Jesus is no longer around? How is God’s will to be done on earth if he is in heaven? Are humans to do God’s will on earth?
Before he left them Jesus tells them that now they are to be called to think and act big. The very people who had failed Jesus in Gethsemane, are told that their future is to be standing up for and propagating the good news about Jesus in Jerusalem where they have failed him. And then the calling gets wider - firstly to surrounding Judea, on to hated Samaria and then on to the very ends of the earth wherever that was!
An unbelievable calling! A calling well beyond the capacity of this parochial bunch, who, so far have quite a record for not stepping up to the mark. But this is not some sadistic challenge in which they are destined to fail. On the contrary the calling is linked to a promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is that the Holy Spirit will give them power for the tasks that lie ahead, the Holy Spirit will enable them to do things beyond their expectations and imaginations.
How would you react if Jesus were to say to you today that you were going to be his witnesses to everyone in Martham, Norfolk, the British Isles and on to the very ends of the earth - what would you think?
You might say, ‘How can we do this? There’s too few of us! We have little or no resources as it is! And even if we did do anything, it would probably fall on the shoulders of the usual few while the others do nothing!’ Perhaps you would be scared by the whole task and want to retreat to your own homes, hoping that Jesus would choose someone else for the job. Then again, God has often chosen “unlikely” people like Moses, Gideon, Jonah, and even the disciples for his work. They too tried to make up excuses or showed reluctance or ineptitude in their tasks, but that didn’t stop God working through them anyway.
We might expect that now Jesus is gone, the disciples would retreat back into their normal lives. After all, doesn’t it usually hold true that if a leader is taken away, the followers will scatter? We might expect the disciples to become divided, or if they did stick together, that they would argue about what to do next.
But what was their reaction?
They gathered as one in mind and purpose. They devoted themselves to prayer until the promised Holy Spirit descended on them at the first Pentecost. For more on that story you had better come back next week,
I don’t know about you but I have always liked the men in white in the bible, with their message to the followers of Jesus that they need not look into the sky. You see there is far too much speculation about what is up there, speculation is utterly useless and wasteful, as Jesus has already intimated, there is no point idly looking above when there is a world to engage with and much work to be done down here.
And so it is that Ascension is about the story of Jesus going on not just up.
That is why the disciples continued to meet as one.
That is why we continue to meet as one. We gather to hear Jesus speak to us through his living Word which comes to us in many ways, through the words of the liturgy, forgiving us, guiding us, giving us peace, comfort and blessing. He speaks through the bible readings, through the words of the sermon, and through the hymns we sing. He hears our prayers, both those that are spoken, but also those we silently mutter for our own needs and the needs of those around us.
As we heard in John’s gospel, Jesus’ prayer for us is that despite what troubles and threats of division and differences may come, we may remain united as one body.
Jesus knows what threatens our unity.
And as we look around us we realize how urgently we need this prayer: as it is so easy to be divided. It starts when we find ourselves putting up dividers or fences.
Fences differ in function and purpose. Some fences are actually good. The ones we put up in our gardens to keep children safe and animals out, and the ones that deter burglars from breaking into our homes. Fences to keep out, fences to keep in, we are surrounded by fences and walls
And the worst kind of fences - and the most difficult to detect - are the invisible ones, based on physical appearances, separating people of different race or ethnicity or gender. There are fences between different generations, between interpretation of the bible, denominations and political persuasions. These invisible fences keep us from being united with our neighbours and God, from being one, as Jesus prayed that we would.
I would like to close with a little anecdote from the Tales of the Hasidim:
An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. "Could it be," asked one student, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it's a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. Another asked, "Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it's a fig tree or a peach tree?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Then when is it?" the pupils demanded. "It is when you can look on the face of any person and see that it is your sister and brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night."
Jesus opened his arms wide on the cross for us, he opened his heart and prayed for us, and he sent his spirit to be with us. What more do we need? Jesus has ascended and his message is the same. ‘Go into all the world, but hey, start where you are – keep united, watch out for the fences and keep looking for the day.