24 May 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Easter 7 A 20 (Ascensiontide)

This morning we are going to examine the last stage of Jesus life and ministry.

It is easy for us to miss the ascension, we think of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus as being the most important events in Jesus’ life and ministry. Then we think of Pentecost as being the beginning of the church.

However, the ascension is very important. Funnily enough, to John it is vital and yet he doesn’t record it- there is no end to the story, in the way there is in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew it is the great commission- sending out the disciples for their work of baptising and teaching the whole world. There is no account of the actual ascension however, and for that we turn to Luke. There is a brief account at the end of the Gospel, and then Luke gives us this much fuller account at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which we read this morning. And that tells us why the idea of the ascension is so important. Jesus, and his corporal body, both before and after resurrection, has to make way for the body of Christ, that is the church. The church can’t properly get started while Jesus is there physically, because the Christ needs to be everywhere, present in us, God’s people the church. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit, which we will talk about more next week as we come to the festival of Pentecost.

This tension between the visible, tangible world and the Kingdom of God is apparent in the disciples question at the beginning of the Acts account. 

‘Lord,’ they say, ‘is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ The disciples, even after everything they have experienced are still thinking in geopolitical terms. And you can’t blame them, there are centuries of teaching about Israel as the salvation of the world. They have been waiting for a Messiah and one has arrived, died, and their hopes failed, risen again and their hopes are revived. But suddenly, at this moment of the ascension, it becomes abundantly clear that the kingdom of God is not a geopolitical one. Jesus of Nazareth is about to leave forever, he isn’t going to set up a physical kingdom. This isn’t about Israel the nation, but rather about a people called out by God to bless the world, and they are going to do that in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than being a people characterised by their nationality they are to be a people characterised by their relationship with God.

Jesus makes this abundantly clear, at least it is clear to us who have the benefit of hindsight, in that long Farewell Discourse that we have been reading bits of for weeks. In the section that we read this morning from chapter 17, Jesus prays first of all for himself and then for the disciples, or indeed apostles, the ones he shortly will be sending out. And it is all about God’s glory. In this Johanine system,  to glorify is to make visible the presence of God. That is what Jesus has been doing in his signs, what the other gospels call miracles. Each time the sign is there to show God’s glory. And now the last sign of God’s glory will be the crucifixon, Jesus will be glorified on the cross. Jesus is going to reveal God to us in his death, and resurrection and then, of course, in his ascension. And in that ascension he is finishing the work that God gave him to do.

The most fascinating bit of this prayer for me is when Jesus says that this is eternal life, that we might know God. This is about the kind of knowing that we have in close relationship. And it is in that relationship that power is to be found. Jesus’ power comes from God and so does our power come from the Holy Spirit. That is what it means to be Kingdom people, we are people who are in relationship with God and reveal God to others.

The angels ask the disciples, why they are standing looking up to heaven. The life of Jesus is no longer about place. They aren’t going to find the Christ in the sky. They are going to find the Christ in each other. So for us the question, in this Covid19  pandemic is, why do we stand looking towards the church building? Is that where we are going to find the kingdom of God, is that where we are going to find the body of Christ? The church is not a place. We have been the church just as much while dispersed in our community as when we sit together within these four walls. You all recognise that I am your priest even when I am not in the building, and so we need to see the church when we look at each other outside the building, in our homes, in our community, where ever we are, and wherever we are in a virtual sense. All of a sudden we have a community that stretches all around the world. We don’t need to be present to each other physically to exist as an entity, an entity which is about relationship, both with God and with each other. And that is exactly the mystery of the ascension. Jesus goes physically so that he can be present virtually! We have never had a better moment for understanding who and what we are as a church as in this moment when the building has ceased to be the focal point. Now, please don’t hear me saying that gathering in the building is not important. If you are like me you are longing for the physical presence of the people that we love to be here, together in this space. As I have talked to people it is increasingly clear that we miss seeing each other, we miss learning together and most of all we miss the sacrament which can only be properly received in communion with each other, that physical feeding that becomes a spiritual gift to us when we are together, gathered. It will be wonderful when we are allowed to be together, we are all missing it. But nonetheless, we still exist, we continue to witness to God’s glory even dispersed and physically alone.

Jesus entrusts his followers to God, and then he entrusts the community to his followers, and it is in that pattern of relationships that the church continues to be, regardless of where and when it can physically gather.

The disciples were looking up into heaven but their function was to be visible in their community. After the ascension they went back to their temporary accommodation, and devoted themselves to prayer and waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit which would equip them for their lives of witness. We will, of course, talk about that more next week. Their main function in whatever they were doing was to enable others to see God. They are to be witnesses to the God with whom others can have relationship.

And that is what we are called to in this pandemic just as much as at other times. The kind of witness to which we are called is one that requires vulnerability. We have to be able to show others the change in our life being wrought by the Holy Spirit, the growth that we have, attached to the vine that is Christ. Indeed we have to reveal Christ, in us, to the world around us. This is scary stuff, I think. The difficulty is that we are witnesses no matter how we behave, what we do, what we say. We are God’s witnesses all the time. And that makes us very vulnerable. Personally, that example of the disciples who devoted themselves to prayer seems to me a very good idea because it is through prayer that we are changed.

Our patterns have changed, and very probably irrevocably, but the relationship between God and God’s people, between, God and the body of Christ, between the members of the body of Christ has not changed in its essential nature. My prayer is that our reliance on God has grown and that our relationship with each other has deepened. My prayer is that we will be witnesses to God’s glory.

Vicar Roberta Hamilton