7th Sunday of Easter 7 (Sunday after Ascension)
Acts 1: 6 – 14 John 17 1-11
Today, in the Church calendar we come to the first Sunday after Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. 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 previously 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. We can’t begin to imagine what devastation they felt. Yet three days later they were astonished and amazed to see him alive again. For 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 it wasn’t to be. 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?
I know that my pictures of the Ascension of Jesus are inevitably 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. If that wasn’t scary enough the calling gets wider - firstly to surrounding Judea, on to hated Samaria and then to the very ends of the earth wherever that was!
What 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 the promise of the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit when he comes will give them the 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 the village, town or city where you live, then to the rest of the British Isles and on to the very ends of the earth?
You might say, ‘How can I do this? Even if I join up with people from church there are too few of us. Perhaps you would be scared by the whole task 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 see the web site next week.
We might be wondering how we are going to go anywhere at present with so many in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel is restricted but of course prayer isn’t. That is why we continue to meet as one. Not physically at present, but one in faith and prayer. God hears our prayers, both those that are spoken, and those we silently utter for our own needs and the needs of those around us.
Jesus’ prayer for us is that despite what troubles and threats of division and differences may come, we may remain united as one body.
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.
Some fences are actually good and keep us safe. But other are harmful. 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. As we remember that Jesus opened his arms wide on the cross for us, 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 and share the good news Jesus Christ has died, Jesus Christ has risen, Jesus Christ ascended and will come again.