Ascension Day - May 21st

A Reflection for Ascension Day 

from Rev Peter Binns

 

Acts 1, 1-11, Reference to Psalm 93, Luke 24, 44-53

(*passages attached below the sermon)

During the lockdown, many people have been separated from family and friends. One of the hardest things has been not being able to see elderly relatives in their own homes or in care homes, being limited to seeing them through the window. Technology helps, of course, to ease the pain of separation, either by telephone or by video link. I have just discovered that I can receive Zoom on my computer! But, useful as it is, it isn't a substitute for actually being physically with people.

The Ascension is about separation, Jesus leaving his disciples, as he had previously explained to them, and going to be with his Father in heaven. For the disciples, the period after the crucifixion was painful. They had gone about with Jesus for some time, had seen what he did and taught, and when he explained to them that he would leave them, they were sad. How would they manage now?

In the Gospel, the writer stresses that the death and resurrection of Jesus are according to God's plan. Christ is not only the fulfilment of the Old Testament, but also its interpreter; the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins must be announced to the whole world. The disciples, however, will need help. Witnessing will not occur at once; they must stay in the city until they receive power from on high. This will take place at Pentecost. The Spirit will dwell in them, making it possible for them to grow and develop, to learn much more and so to be able to carry out the work, which Jesus has asked them to do. Now it is clear why the events of Jesus' death and resurrection take place near Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the traditional centre of the Messiah, here the prophets are executed, here Christ is raised, and here he establishes his mission to the world, and here the church will begin. So, as John's Gospel puts it, it is to the disciples' advantage that he go away. The Spirit will dwell in them, making it possible for them to do greater things.

When we leave school or when we are promoted to a new job, we grow and develop. We flourish with new responsibility and learn even more. When pupils reach age 18, as a teacher you may think that you have taught them all you can. You haven't, of course, but they need to move on, to find a new environment, learn in a different way. A change of context helps us to develop. So, in his farewell discourse in John's Gospel, Jesus says to the disciples: 'I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.' This may explain why the disciples are portrayed as being full of joy. Now they have been given responsibility, a new world is open to them, and they can now look forward with confidence.

The reading from Acts also describes the Ascension of Christ.  But there is a problem. The Acts narrative presents the Ascension as occurring forty days after the Resurrection, whereas the Gospel writer has it on the eve of Easter Day. The writer is making different points. Of course, the Ascension cannot take place until the resurrection appearances have occurred. The Gospel account stresses the completion of Jesus' ministry on earth, and Luke's Gospel ends as it began, in the temple. The Acts account stresses the importance of the risen Christ for the founding of the church. So Christ is the end of the Gospel and the beginning of the mission. Interestingly, in the account in Acts, Jesus is suddenly lifted up in a cloud, much as Moses became invisible at his departure from the earth. Then Joshua had to take over, with the command, 'Be strong, be resolute.' The heavenly messengers insist that the disciples must not keep looking up into heaven. The Lord will return, but in the distant future after an extensive mission has been accomplished. That is what the disciples are now to begin. It is now all about looking forward.

The disciples' joy shows that, far from being distant, Christ continues to care for us; he is actively still present with us. He is no longer constrained by the limitations of his physical body, but now he lives within us and is there to support and strengthen us.  So the disciples, after an uncertain start, are transformed and turned into leaders. That transforming spirit comes to us, too. People are motivated, some become leaders; there is a fresh start and renewed hope. Are we seeing this during the corona virus crisis, as was seen during the Second World War, people joining together to make a difference and to encourage others? Out of a difficult situation has come new strength, working together, supporting one another, perhaps a different view of what really matters in life.

So we can share the disciples' joy at the Ascension. Jesus is with us for ever, and nothing can separate us from his presence. In this way he fulfils Psalm 93:

'The Lord is king and has put on glorious apparel; the Lord has put on his glory and girded himself with strength. He has made the whole world so sure that it cannot be moved. Your throne has been established from of old; you are from everlasting.'

In our present crisis, that is the greatest hope.

Prayer

Christ is the King to whom all authority has been given in heaven and on earth. We own him as our Lord. We yield him our obedience. We dedicate our lives to his service. Come, Lord Christ, and reign in us, and make us the agents of your kingdom in the world, to the honour of your name. Amen.

(Prayer by Frank Colquhoun)

*Passages referred to in the reflection

The Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 1 vv1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying* with the apostles, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with* the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke Chapter 24, vv.44-53

Jesus said to the disciples, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand  the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.