Easter 7 (Ascension Sunday) Acts 1 1-6
Today, in the Church calendar we come to the first Sunday after Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. In their wisdom the compilers of the lectionary has also chosen John 17 which is Jesus’ last prayer before his death so it makes a sermon a tad complicated but here goes.
Ascension Day, is a day which is all too often bypassed in the life of the church. This year was something of an exception, as many of us gathered in the Minster to launch ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which is a prayer initiative for the 10 days between Ascension and Pentecost. I can understand why it is usually missed, for 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 to get their heads around what was happening.
Just six weeks previously they had watched with horror as they saw their Lord, their Master and their friend taken away from them by the soldiers, and then witnessed his silence when the lies and accusations were made against him. They knew of his cruel beating and his brutal death on that shameful cross, and we cannot begin to imagine what devastation they must have 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. Suddenly their devastation and sorrow turned into a bright hope for the future. But it was not to be, and 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 by magicians 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 that he chose this way to leave the earth?
I know that my imaginary 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 and a bit scary! It is clearly beyond us to comprehend exactly what the disciples witnessed other than to appreciate that Jesus was not subject to the physical restraints that we experience. It is interesting to note that John was the only one of the four gospel writers to have been there to witness this event and he doesn’t give it a mention – perhaps he just couldn’t put pen to paper about something so amazing. They shouldn’t have been too surprised as Jesus had appeared to them in the upper room when the doors and windows had been barred three days after he had been buried.
After witnessing so many amazing miracles, their teacher, their friend, and their Lord leaves them when there is so much to do, and the work has only just begun. They must have wondered, how will it get done if Jesus is no longer around? How is God’s will going to be done on earth if he is in heaven?
These are the very disciples who had failed Jesus in Gethsemane, they had fallen asleep when he asked them to watch and pray, they had fled when the soldiers took Jesus away – yet these are the ones Jesus has chosen, they are told that their job now is to take the good news about Jesus to Jerusalem where they failed him. Then the commission gets even wider. After Jerusalem, they are to go to Judea, then on to Samaria, a place they hated, and where they were hated, 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 their 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.
I wonder how we would react if Jesus were to say to you today that you were going to be his witnesses to everyone in Clippesby, Norfolk, the British Isles and on to the very ends of the earth?
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 so scared by the whole task and 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 has 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 on Pentecost Sunday!
Have you noticed there are several men in white in the bible? They have messages for Jesus' followers –they were at the tomb on Easter Sunday and here they are again, asking the disciples why they were gazing into heaven. 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 and not just up and away.
That is why the disciples continued to meet, eleven ordinary men constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
That is why we continue to meet as one. We gather to hear Jesus speaking to us through his living Word which comes to us in many ways, through the words of the liturgy, forgiving us, guiding us, and giving us his 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, and those we silently pray for our own needs and the needs of those around us.
As we heard in the gospel reading, Jesus’ prayer for us is that despite troubles, threats of division and differences that may try to divide us, we 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 and put up invisible fences that keep us from being united with our neighbours and God; from being one, as Jesus prayed that we would.
This morning we remember that Jesus opened his arms wide on the cross for us, he opened his heart and prayed for us, and he sent his Holy 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 remember to start where you are – keep united, keep praying ‘thy kingdom come’ and keep looking for the day when Jesus will come back again.