Eucharist Sermon - 13 May 2021

Ascension Day
Acts 1:1–11, Ephesians 1:15–end, Luke 24:44–end
Mark Humphriss, Diocesan Secretary

When I was working in the 1990s in London on the creation of the present national structures of the Church of England, Ascension Day became a subject of real controversy amongst the staff. Many staff were very attached to having it as a day off work, as Church House Oxford still does; many others pressed for a Friday in honour of the Queen’s Birthday. It was a real dilemma, which mattered more and what was this saying about the nature of the organisation? And did it matter – was it more important to let staff have a long weekend? We know the Resurrection is completely foundational to our faith, but what is the importance of the ascension? Only one of the gospel-writers gives an account of it. And even Luke’s two accounts of it, that we have just heard read, have significant differences.

We see that the Ascension of our Lord made a deep impact on the apostles and, whilst it may not be described elsewhere, it is regularly referred to in the New Testament. It caused men who just a short while earlier were frightened and puzzled to become full of joy. Their doubts and fears are gone. It is a clear demonstration of the Lordship of Christ that propels them into the missionary work to which they - and we - have been called. It is the moment at which Jesus’ ministry is no longer limited to the Earth – he has accomplished all that He was meant to do on earth: what began in a manger in Bethlehem has now been completed. He will now operate from what our Ephesians passage describes as his right hand in the heavenly places, a position of honour and authority.

We have reached the end of his resurrection appearances and it is about to be the apostles’ turn. The very fact that Luke chooses to end his Gospel with this event and starts Acts with it surely emphasises its importance. Jesus had been appearing and disappearing, as on the road to Emmaus. But this time it is much more obvious, a clear marking of his leaving earth, of him no longer being confined by time and space. The apostles have a very clear sign it is time to move on and get on with the work of the Kingdom. He now becomes available to all, regardless of time and space. Human experience is now part of God’s own experience forever – Christ ascends so that God can share his humanity with us all, through the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.

The apostles have just asked Jesus if he was going to restore to Israel her national independence, but Jesus lifts them from an earthly political mindset to the spiritual. He extends their horizons massively – quite literally to the ends of the earth. What a commission! There is a clear message not to get distracted with arguments about times or dates, but to be his witnesses. The vision they were to cultivate was not upwards in nostalgia to the heaven that had received Jesus, but outwards in compassion to a lost world which needed him. The whole period between Pentecost and the second coming is to be filled with the worldwide mission of the church in the power of the Spirit. It is both missional and eschatological.

Today is the start of Thy Kingdom Come for this year, which picks up on our passage from Acts ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…’. We are invited to join with people across many denominations and about 100 countries to unite in praying over these 10 days to Pentecost for five people we know to become Christians.

In this Christian Aid week, when so many people and churches will be joining together to make a difference, how are we reaching out to proclaim the ascended Lord? Covid has challenged us with our humanity - it has struck unevenly at all levels of society and across the world. It has forced people to think about what really matters. Numerous people have missed out on the weddings they had dreamed of. We are also in UK National Marriage Week which is focusing this year on naked marriage and naked weddings, which I am assured is nothing at all indecent but a wedding stripped of most of its trappings, focusing on what really matters.

Covid has also been challenging many to think about faith again or for the first time. Yes, it is reported that many will not return physically to church, which I certainly find disappointing. But there are so many who have started engaging or re-engaging with the Church over this time. Churches have been seeking to reach out to them in a whole variety of ways, including through our diocesan Come and See initiative. The Ascension of our Lord marked the start of the time when his disciples were and are called to be his witnesses in bringing others to faith, to live with Christ in the present age and in the world to come.

Paul in this wonderful passage from Ephesians launches into this great intercessory prayer for his readers. I have always liked the image of the eyes of our hearts being enlightened. There will be others here who understand the theology of this more than I do, but I believe the heart was considered to be the whole inward self of mind and emotion and so Paul is talking about our inner eyes being open to grasp the truth of God. The truth of that sure hope that calls us to Christ, that is the glory of God’s inheritance to which we can look forward and the greatness of God’s power that is our energy to do his mission. That power that is the Holy Spirit that the apostles were given clear instructions to wait for in Jerusalem is likened to the strength that was behind both the ascension and resurrection of our Lord – that feels like enough power to blow any of our minds.

Our reading from Acts ends with the two men or angels, just as at Jesus’ birth and resurrection. The apostles are gently rebuked – they are busy looking up to the sky, when they have only just been told by Jesus to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. It is right that we worship the Lord with awe, but we are also called to be missionary disciples; we mustn’t neglect either the glory of heaven to which we can look forward or the earth where we live and have our being. Our Savour has experienced both, as we will too if we are followers of Christ. But we have work to do in the meantime. So I leave us with the challenge - are we stargazers or witnesses?