Ascension Day- Stay, Pray and Go in the power of Holy Spirit
Sermon given by Revd Caroline Risdon on 13th May 2018
Earlier in the week, I led collective worship at St Alfege School. And I can tell you, as I told them, that we celebrated SAMTSIRHC day. Of course, no-one had heard of SAMTSIRHC day nor knew what we were meant to celebrate during it. Then, someone spotted it, SAMTSIRHC is Christmas spelt backwards. We remembered together that at Christmas Jesus was born on earth. And because we often imagine heaven being above us and the earth being below, we often speak of God coming down to earth when Jesus was born.
So what, I asked the children, could ‘Christmas backwards’ day be about? It is about the return of Jesus to heaven and obviously the feasts rightful name is Ascension Day.
Luke, in his Gospel account and in the book of Acts, does not shy away from making these connections for us. His gospel began with the story of blessing and joy- heaven opening and divinity coming to earth. And it ends with joy- heaven opening to receive humanity into heaven. The particular story of Incarnation and Resurrection would be incomplete without our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus. They belong together.
If there were no ascension, we would know that God raised Jesus from the dead but have no firm hope for ourselves, and no knowledge of what happened ultimately to the risen Jesus. The ascension completes the incarnation – the Second Person of the Trinity who took human flesh and was born among us has taken humanity into heaven, opening the door for us to enter heaven too.
Today’s gospel reading takes us back to the time immediately before Jesus’ arrest. The whole section we hear is only a part of a prayer Jesus utters to God the Father. He prays for the disciples as they are sent out into the world that they will be the ones who continue to make God known. Jesus asks that God his Father be a ‘father’ to the disciples; to guard and protect them, to surround them with care. And Jesus asks that the Holy Father make the disciples holy; that is, to lead a life determined by God. Not lead by whims or fancies; by the temptations of the world; but lead by, shaped by, carved out by the Holy One.
Having entrusted the care and protection of the disciples into his Father’s hands before his death, Jesus is free to accomplish his final act of love- his death and resurrection. The resurrected Christ was truly present to all those to whom he chose to appear. Yet we know he was changed because so many of them did not recognise him at first. What we learn from this is that although Jesus will no longer be among them as a specific body, he remains accessible to all as life-giving Spirit.
Today we are in a similar situation to the one the disciples faced after Ascension- what happens next? It is the Sunday after Ascension Day. Behind us is the life of Jesus, his death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension. It is the Sunday before Pentecost. In front of us is the unknown, the start of the Church, the new chapter in the work of God on earth.
I find it reassuring and helpful to go back to the final things Jesus says to his disciples immediately before his Ascension. They are to stay in the city and pray; they are to wait to be clothed from on high with the gift of the Holy Spirit and they are to go to the furtherest reaches of the known world and spread the good news of God’s love and God’s forgiveness.
The same is true for all who call themselves disciples. We are promised by Jesus that God will clothe us with power from on high. But in order for that to happen Jesus asks us to stay, to remain in the city, to dwell “here.” For it is only by being fully present in our own lives and situations and congregations that we will come to know the will of God. Only by being “here” will we be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Part of what is important about remaining here, is being part of a Church community. Here in this place, we know the presence of God the Trinity whenever we gather together to read the Scriptures, the share God’s peace and to break the bread. This spiritual meal is more than mere nourishment for our individual souls and bodies, but it is the very foundation of our shared life together.
Alongside the instruction to stay is the instruction to pray. Again, we come to know the will of God if we enter into as regular discipline of prayer. Prayer allows us to talk to God, to share our deepest thoughts and feelings, to petition God about our concerns. But it is only half a conversation if we never pause to listen. There is that beautiful verse in the Old Testament- “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” How often is it that our prayers are more along the lines of, “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking?!” yet, it is vital to be still and calm in the presence of the Almighty. And praying together as a Church is, once more, a fundamental act of community.
Finally, after the instructions to stay and to pray, Jesus charges us to share the good news outwards. We are called, not to a closed community, but to an ever expanding one. How we take care of one another and our congregation, how we welcome member and visitor and stranger alike, these are the ways in which people will know us to be a Church rooted in worship and prayer. Or not.
Ascension is therefore not about great absence but about great presence, not about loss but about promise, not about leaving but about staying. It is also, fundamentally, about a new beginning for all who follow him. Jesus invites us to be deeply rooted ‘here’, to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit and to share God’s love freely, with all, as led by that same Holy Spirit.