A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist on Ascension Day, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Thursday May 25th 2017 by the Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar
I suspect that many of you enjoy a good novel. Some of you may enjoy the style of Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer. They have the ability of making you turn the next page; to continue reading long after you should have turned out the light. Just one more page… I really need to know what happens next.
The gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person and both are dedicated to the same man, Theophilus. I wonder what he felt when he got to the end of the last page of the gospel. Did he turn over expectantly only to find a blank page. The gospel ends with the disciples returning to Jerusalem full of joy, waiting for power from on high; waiting to begin a new chapter, a new act in the drama. I wonder how long Theophilus had to wait until volume two appeared and he was able to read the fuller account of the Ascension from the beginning of Acts that we heard tonight. Of course he may have known the story by word of mouth and already knew how the church went on to grow and spread, but I am sure when he did read the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles it must have made him shout out and declare the wonder of God. And of course to read on to hear about the coming of the Holy Spirit, for which we will have to wait another 10 days.
For me the Ascension and its celebration has long been a special day. As a young trainee teacher it was a day off from studies and our first dip in the sea for that year. It was the patronal festival in the church that most formed me as a young woman. It has remained a significant event and I am saddened that more people do not recognise the day. At least we haven’t followed the RC’s who have moved Thursday to the following Sunday if you know what I mean.
So how are we, to make sense of Jesus’ disappearance? For some, I appreciate, it is difficult. How are we to understand that Jesus walked into a cloud and disappeared – this is the 21st century we know scientifically this just wouldn’t happen? Surely the disciples must have missed him in the mist as they walked back down the mountain. But of course we also know he was never seen again. Without doubt in the period of 40 days from Easter to the Ascension Jesus had not been the same man. He did not let Mary touch him in the garden despite previously letting her anoint his feet with her hair. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus, men who knew him well, had no idea who they were walking and talking with until Jesus broke bread with them. Jesus appeared in a locked room, certainly something we have no record of him doing before his resurrection. So I think it is fair to say his body was in some way intrinsically different. So did this mean he could disappear on a mountain? Well yes it does but the bigger question to ask is why? Why did Jesus choose to leave the world in this way?
I believe it is to show us something about God and us but that it is also so that the earthly life of Jesus ends with a note of triumph not a damp squib. The real proof of the Ascension doesn’t lie in the view we have, or do not have, of Jesus being taken up to heaven, but the way the Church spreads from Jerusalem to the ends of the world after the Ascension and to today. To every beginning there needs to be an end. Often in our lives these endings are sad occasions. It might be bidding farewell to family members as they decide to make their lives on the other side of the world, it might be leaving a job which has been the mainstay of our lives and of course it might be the death of a much loved friend or life partner. Jesus’ farewell in contrast is positively joyful. Gone were the fears and doubts that had dogged the disciples for the last forty days, now the disciples ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God’.
It is also true to say that often out of an ending we get a new beginning. The retiree who finds a whole new life in retirement and wonders how she had time to work; the family who move half way around the world and find so many new opportunities and of course for the dead they are raised to new life in Christ. The Ascension may be an ending but it also is a new beginning; from the centre of the church in Jerusalem the word of God is spread throughout the world
What does the Ascension tell us about God? Too often we can place God ‘up there’, immutable and eternal, seemingly unaffected by the world he has made. But that is not God, but rather an image of God which keeps us from allowing Him to be a real presence in our lives. But the God of the Ascension is the God who is involved in the world. He is free to receive Jesus in triumph, ‘to seat him at his right hand’, and he is free to send the power that so animated Jesus, upon his whole church and upon us; his Holy Spirit.
The real God is intimately involved with us, and his power consists of being able to respond to his creation rather than being above and beyond the chaos and confusion of this world. This is why God weeps with those who weep in Manchester; why his heart goes out to those who suffer still in hospital and why he gives thanks for all the acts of kindness which have taken place since Monday evening. God is a Trinity, a dance of love, ready to embrace our world whenever we call upon him. Whenever we meet God, we receive freedom – flame and wind come upon us. And all this comes out of a disappearance
We can choose to remain looking up or we can get on with the work of being the church; reaching out to those in need, those without faith, being the hands and feet of Christ, as we show his love to the world. Luke in his gospel began the ministry of Jesus with him reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth. A ministry to preach the good news to the poor; the release of those who are imprisoned; the recovery of sight for the blind, to set free those who are oppressed. This was the work of Jesus, and the Ascension challenges us to continue that work and to be witnesses of the gospel wherever we are. I hope Theophilus was as excited as I am by this challenge when he eventually got to turn the page. All this from a disappearance on a mountainside: God triumphant.