« A publisher in sight? | Main | A great Review »

May 04, 2008

Sunday after Ascension

Recently I have been reading several books on ministry - and a few on theological topics as well. One that has been both a challenge and an enlightening experience is N T Wright's book "The challenge of Jesus".

Now I will confess that having to preach on Low Sunday has never been my favourite opportunity, but thanks largely to the insights in Bishop Wright's book and the recent experiences in the Near and Middle East, I have developed a new insight into something I have rather taken for granted. The Ascension is an unfolding in many different ways and at many different levels - and perhaps St Luke's accounts of the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension need to be examined a lot more carefully by many of us.

In the extended post is my sermon for Evensong.

Sunday after Ascension 2008

Give us grace, O Lord, not only to hear your word with our ears, but to receive it in our hearts and to show it in our lives; for the glory of your name.

“I pray also that the eyes of your hearts may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”

The period immediately following the Ascension may be seen as a low point in the lives of the disciples/apostles to be. The space between our Lord’s final departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit. But is this gap in the ministry a true reflection of the way God was working? Probably not, but it is a reflection of how humanity works when trying to get to grips with things outside our experience or outside our understanding of the universe. Consider the rollercoaster ride the disciples had been on for the weeks between entering Jerusalem triumphantly before being plunged into the depths of despair at the crucifixion, and just as you think it is all over, you have to confront and try to make sense of the resurrection.

Then, just as you are settling into a comfortable acceptance of having Jesus back from the dead and walking among you again – he’s snatched away. Make sense of that!

The Ascension was, as Fr Paul reminded us on Thursday, a part of the “revealing” of Christ which begins at Epiphany and follows through Easter and the Resurrection – in essence, the Ascension brings every Christian to a cross roads. Which way from here? This is very much the choice faced by the disciples as they watched Him depart into the clouds. They stood at a new cross-road; from here they must make their own choices, decide their own pathways to bring the message entrusted to them to the world. The only thing they had at that time – according to Luke – was the promise that the Holy Spirit would be there to guide them.

Reading Tom Wright’s excellent book, The Challenge of Jesus I was struck by the parallel with this situation that we must all confront. Just as the disciples were now faced with a world teetering on the brink of destruction – let us not forget that Jerusalem would be razed to the ground a mere forty years after these events – they had a choice between remaining as they were or moving forward. Between exploring the new dispensation they had been given – or clinging to the old. Our world teeters on the brink of major cultural change - a precipice one might say.

We know from Paul and other’s writings, that there was a very strong faction which insisted on holding to at least some of the old religion, but, as the Church grew, it became ever more difficult to reconcile that stance with the experience of those who accepted the spiritual challenge to grow in the spirit. The Temple, which had for so long been the very centre, the single most powerful symbol of Jewish faith, has, as Luke tells us in his re-interpretation of Psalms 42 and 43 in his gospel, now been made redundant. Replaced by Christ himself.

That, for most people, is like saying we are going to walk out of here tonight and never come back. The building will be closed and pulled down – the land used for a new supermarket, because it is no longer required. Shocking thought? Of course it is – but that is exactly what Luke implies in his telling of the story of the road to Emmaus – Jesus is the “new” temple and the breaking of bread and the blessing of the cup replaces all the long list of sacrifices made daily in the Temple itself.
“Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”

Jesus’ own words quoted in John Chapter 2 and referred to by the Sanhedrin witnesses at his trial. But, as Luke and the others are at pains to tell us – Jesus is speaking of his own resurrection – the ‘new’ temple raised from the dead to bring life to an ailing world.

Luke’s gospel account of the final days draws heavily on the imagery of Psalm 43 – the words from the cross echo the verses –

“For thou art the God of my strength, why hast thou put me from thee; and why go I so heavily while the enemy oppresseth me?”

Then, in sharp contrast comes the resurrection and the reunion in Emmaus, Jerusalem and Galilee. Then, suddenly, He is taken from them again. Luke tells us that they retired to Jerusalem and spent the time in prayer, praying no doubt for some indication of where they should go now. How should they move forward? Or maybe they should simply cling to the past?

Jesus Ascension leaves the way open for growth. It opens the door to the inspiration that is needed if the gospel is to reach the world. Luke tells us in Acts that this was not the understanding of the disciples at all in the first days. Even Peter clings to his Jewish understandings, clean and unclean, ritual washing, rituals for praying, rituals before meals. Cross roads always present you with a dilemma when there is no obvious signpost and no reliable map. That is what the disciples faced as they waited in prayer after the Ascension.

They have two things to hold onto – the promise that he will return and the hope that they will shortly join him again. And to understand the impact that the revelation of the Ascension will have had we must also look at the contemporary Jewish understanding of heaven. The Pharisees believed that only those who were strict in their observance of ritual and purity of worship could hope to win God’s approval and enter Sheol – a sort of underworld for the souls of those who had died. The Sadducees on the other hand believed that there was no life to come. Now the disciples had seen a vision of the life hereafter – had seen Christ himself enter it; surely a faith changing moment for them all. That, in itself, was a serious challenge to the beliefs held by the Sadducees who, if anything, were even more conservative than the Pharisees!

Just as the disciples faced a hostile response from their leaders and their world, so too, do we. Our “modern” world has created a morass of materialism, confused humanism and even more confused morality. I am not advocating a return to the strict moralistic religion of the 17th or 18th centuries – that would be a denial of what the Ascension and the encounters between the disciples and Christ in Emmaus, Galilee and Jerusalem was all about. This is not the time to reach back into the comfortable past, to take refuge in ritual and formularies. This is a time to rise to the challenges that lie ahead. To find new ways to reach out to a people desperate for a spiritual signpost, something which says what they need to hear, an indicator of where they need to go.

One of the challenges we must face in this “post-modern” world as Tom Wright describes it, is the critical and sceptical revisionism that denies all “truth” unless it can be substantiated and “proved” by something material. There is a way we can meet that challenge and it is in embracing what we are all called to be – to live as Christ has invited us to live, in love and in hope. In this way we can and will show the world that it is not about how many gameboys my children have, or whether I have the latest TV set, a grand house or even a brand new car. It isn’t about how “green” I am, but about how I live the gospel imperatives in my everyday dealings with those around me. If I am truly living them, then it will show – not in how often or how publicly I pray, read scripture or observe certain rituals in worship – but in how I impact upon others.

We may all encounter the hidden stranger, as Tom Wright calls Jesus, somewhere in our own Emmaus experience. How we respond to that encounter and after His departure is the important part. One thing should be clear – we cannot go back from there even if that means giving up on our cherished ambitions for a carefully planned and comfortable future.

The resurrection, Emmaus, the Ascension – all of these lead us toward a mission, a call to change, to move forward, to grow mentally, spiritually and perhaps even physically. We have to grow out of our comfort zone and reach out to those who need our encouragement, our support and above all, to a world that, in this age, seems to have become confused, uncertain and lost.

The world is changing around us and, just as the Ascension marked a major change for the disciples, we must face the challenge that change brings us. Western culture is dying – it has been led down a dead end, probably with the best of intentions, but it is still a dead end. As we look around us we see a situation very similar to that faced by the disciples – yet it is not as hopeless as it seems. Everywhere there are people seeking to discover the path to spirituality and God – that is where the mission of every Christian lies, to bring that gospel of God, made manifest as the babe in Bethlehem, as the King visited by the Magi, as the crucified sacrifice upon the Cross and as the risen, and now, ascended Son of God.

We have received the Holy Ghost, the Comforter – let us now grow in Christ as the disciples did, let us exercise that calling to live in ways which manifest the love of God in the world, so that the world may see Him at work in us – and come to share in the joy of His grace and fellowship – and, at the last, reception into the life of the world to come.

Like the disciples, we stand now at the cross roads. We must make the choice for ourselves. Do we move forward in faith and hope, exploring new ways and new ideas as we seek to serve our God – or do we hold back, clinging to the old, the familiar and the safe? The choice is ours – venture out and let Christ be our guide, our guardian and our map – or hide His light from the world and retreat into obscurity.

Like St Paul I pray that the eyes of all our hearts may be enlightened in order that we may know the hope to which he has called us.


Posted by The Gray Monk at May 4, 2008 02:21 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a comment

Remember Me?