Ascension Sermon

Preached by Rev Kate Massey. Readings Acts 1:4-11 and Luke 24:44-end. At the start of the service a large wrapped present was placed under the altar. It has a large tag saying “Do not open until Pentecost!”

Is anyone curious what is inside our present?  Is anyone wanting to open it to see what is inside? You’ll have to wait to find out! In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to the Bible readings…

So tonight we have had two readings telling the same story – one from Luke and one from Acts.  There are some minor differences in the telling, but the main features remain the same.

The first is obviously that Jesus ascends to the glory of heaven.  He leaves.  Why does he leave?  Why doesn’t he just stay?  It would have been so much easier.  But God wants us to grow in faith and love, and we can never do this unless we have to do it on our own.  Just as my daughters would never have become proficient cyclists, if I had refused to let go of the saddle of the bike, we would not grow the depth and strength of faith it is possible for us to have if Jesus was standing over us constantly telling us what to do.  Paula Gooder says: ‘At ascension we celebrate the great divine absence, which is a vital ingredient in our call to mission. I don’t mean by this that God has abandoned us but that, if Jesus were still on earth in his risen existence, we would probably leave him to it. We might stand on the edge making admiring noises but it would be hard to join in. Who could feel confident to make disciples, to baptize or to teach Jesus’ commandments if Jesus were likely to appear at any moment?’  Jesus had to leave so the next part of God’s plan could unfold.

The second is that he is leaving, but the task of the Kingdom continues.  He is giving his friends a job to do. The disciples are to take the good news of Jesus to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (in Acts) or to all the nations beginning in Jerusalem (in Luke).  One thing I like about this instruction is that it is staged.  Christians have an awful habit of going for the hardest possible option.  “I am going to try to get my hardnosed atheist argumentative brother-in-law to come to church.”  Well, miracles definitely happen, but why not begin with your friend Tom who sometimes asks you about church stuff up at the allotment.  Or like one previous church, who when we were discussing mission, wanted to start a youth group.  The village had hardly any youth.  We had no equipment, experience or – to be completely honest in my own case – aptitude to deliver a project like that.  It would have been an exhausting, morale-destroying disaster.  I encouraged them to identify something a bit more realistic and they exceeded their own expectations.  I am not suggesting that God cannot do things beyond our expectations and competence – in fact, thanks be to God that God frequently does – but sometimes it is wise to work with what God has given you.  Start in Jerusalem.  Start where you are, and then move outwards.  So where are you?  Where are your opportunities to share the love of God with the people around you?

Another thing I love about this instruction is that in both versions Jesus calls his friends to be witnesses.  In the church, some traditions talk about people “giving their testimony” – testifying to what God has done in their lives, a bit like an eyewitness gives a statement of what they have seen to the police or a court.  This is the point.  You are not required to have the theology of God, the Universe and Everything sorted.  You are not required to have every answer and argument covered.  You are only required to tell your story.  Say what you have seen and known.

This is what God means to me…
This is why I pray…
This is why Church matters…
This is the difference forgiveness has made in my life…
This is what I believe about following Jesus…. 
Nothing fancy, in your own words, wrapped up in your own honest doubts and questions if needs be.  Just your own story.  Witness to what you have seen and experienced of the grace and goodness of God.

So armed only with their story the disciples were to head to Jerusalem and get cracking – yes? Well, no.  The third thing they had to do was wait.  Wait for the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, who would come to them as a Helper, Advocate, Teacher and Guide.  Wait and pray.  And so this is what they did, and at the end of their waiting and praying came the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit equipped them, at the right time, in the right place, to tell their story, to witness to what they knew about Jesus and to start that story spreading through Jerusalem and beyond.

And so beginning today, that is what we are going to do.  We are going to wait and pray as those first disciples did.  We are going to pray as individuals with the help of our Novena booklets, and on Sunday, we are going to devote a large part of our service to praying as a Church family.  We will pray trusting that, as Jesus says, God delights to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  We will pray that the Holy Spirit will help us, in the right time and in the right way, to do our part, in words and in action, to witness to the power and love of God.  We will pray “Thy Kingdom Come”

Back to the present – well, you still have to wait a little bit longer.  But as you wait, pray for a gift, the gift above all gifts, the gift of God, the Holy Spirit…

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