St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Is this the time? Ascension 2018

Is this the time?

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Ascen­sion, 13th. May 2018

Read­ings: Acts 1. 1–11

I won’t ask you to put your hand up if you remembered on Thursday that it was Ascen­sion Day. When a major feast day falls dur­ing the week it is easy to for­get it, that is why we have chosen to cel­eb­rate it today. If we lived in Europe it would be a bit easi­er because some coun­tries still have a pub­lic hol­i­day for Ascen­sion. Most Aus­trali­ans I sus­pect have little idea what Ascen­sion Day is about. Even Chris­ti­ans are often a bit puzzled by the mean­ing of this event. We have a lovely stained glass win­dows in the chapel cel­eb­rat­ing the Ascen­sion, and through the cen­tur­ies artists have tried to ima­gine what this might have looked like. Pic­tures of Jesus ascend­ing into the clouds can eas­ily rein­force an unhelp­ful and out­moded view of God, as the bearded man resid­ing some­where up in the sky. I want us to reflect this morn­ing on the mean­ing of the ascen­sion but I want to do so by first address­ing the ques­tion the dis­ciples asked at the begin­ning of our Acts read­ing today.

The Acts of the Apostles begins where Luke’s Gos­pel ends with great expect­a­tions. Luke tells us that after Jesus’ death and resur­rec­tion, he presen­ted him­self alive to his fol­low­ers with many con­vin­cing proofs and spoke to them about the King­dom of God. He then told them to wait in Jer­u­s­alem for God’s prom­ise of the com­ing of the Holy Spir­it to be ful­filled. At what was to be their final meet­ing with Jesus they ask the ques­tion: “Lord is this the time when you will restore the King­dom to Israel?” It was a ser­i­ous ques­tion and a very under­stand­able one. They had spent three years trav­el­ling around the coun­tryside with Jesus listen­ing to him teach­ing about the King­dom of God. Their under­stand­ing of this was that Jesus was God’s appoin­ted King of Israel and that he would restore Israel to a place of lead­er­ship in the world, their enemies would be over­thrown and there would be a new era of peace and prosper­ity estab­lished through­out the world. Jesus’ unex­pec­ted death had shattered all those illu­sions; in the words of the two dis­ciples on the road to Emmaus, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But then came the resur­rec­tion and sud­denly there was hope again, so they ask the ques­tion:  “Is this the time?” In oth­er words, ‘will we now see all those things we have hoped for come to pass?’

Once again Jesus gives a rather enig­mat­ic answer, he tells them that it is not for them to know times or peri­ods that are the province of God alone but then he goes on to tell them that they will receive power when the Holy Spir­it comes upon them and that they will then go as his wit­nesses into all the world. In Luke’s account before the hap­less dis­ciples can frame anoth­er ques­tion Jesus is taken up out of their sight. The dis­ciples are left gaz­ing up into heav­en think­ing what do we do now? Promp­ted by two heav­enly mes­sen­gers, who tell them that Jesus will return but in the mean- time get on with life, they return to Jer­u­s­alem and gath­er togeth­er for pray­er with the oth­er fol­low­ers of Jesus. Without the phys­ic­al pres­ence of Jesus they wait for the ful­fil­ment of his prom­ise to send his Holy Spir­it upon them, although none of them are really sure what this means.

So what does this story of the ascen­sion teach us? Read­ing Luke’s account one could get the impres­sion that heav­en is the place some­where up there where God lives and that Jesus hav­ing fin­ished his time on earth rever­ted to being God again and like a heli­um bal­loon floated back to his real home. There are sev­er­al things wrong with such think­ing. First of all when the Bible talks about heav­en it is not talk­ing about a geo­graph­ic­al loc­a­tion. That was the fal­lacy expressed by the first Rus­si­an cos­mo­naut who looked out of his space­craft and declared that he could see no sign of God. To say that heav­en isn’t ‘up there some­where’, does not mean heav­en doesn’t exist. In the Scrip­tures, heav­en and earth are the two halves of God’s world- they are two real­it­ies exist­ing side by side. We live in the phys­ic­al, tan­gible world of touch and sen­sa­tion but there is anoth­er dimen­sion that can­not be meas­ured or con­tained.

In the Bible, heav­en is God’s space and earth is our space but God’s desire and inten­tion is to unite the two, to bring about a new heav­en and a new earth. Fur­ther­more, the New Test­a­ment writers firmly believed that the resur­rec­tion of Jesus marked the begin­ning of that aston­ish­ing renew­al. That renew­al is brought to a grand cli­max in the Book of Rev­el­a­tion with the descrip­tion of Heav­en com­ing down to earth and the two being brought into har­mony. The resur­rec­tion and ascen­sion of Jesus also brought a change in the rela­tion­ship between heav­en and earth. The Ascen­sion brought human­ity into heav­en for all time. The ris­en and cru­ci­fied Jesus was no less human after his resur­rec­tion and ascen­sion than before it. The puzzled dis­ciples were to dis­cov­er that when the Holy Spir­it came upon them on the Day of Pente­cost, God was even more fully with them than he had been before. When Jesus was with them phys­ic­ally, he was lim­ited by time and space-he could only be in one place at one time. When his Spir­it came upon them they could all exper­i­ence his pres­ence any­where and every­where.

But if Jesus’ resur­rec­tion and ascen­sion marked the begin­ning of the King­dom that Jesus had spoken about, why has so little changed in our world? We live in a world still marred by oppres­sion, suf­fer­ing, sick­ness, injustice, exploit­a­tion of the weak and vul­ner­able, and destruc­tion of our envir­on­ment; and with the dis­ciples we ask, “Is this the time?” When will we see evid­ence of the prom­ised king­dom? The response of some Chris­ti­ans has been to say that there will nev­er be renew­al on earth until Jesus returns and takes us to heav­en. In this view the King­dom prom­ises of Jesus are all future- they are for anoth­er time and place. There is little point in work­ing for a bet­ter world if you believe this world and everything in it is doomed to destruc­tion. To adopt that approach is to fail to under­stand the doc­trine of cre­ation and it is also to fail to under­stand the breadth of vis­ion that Jesus pro­claimed. Jesus’ vis­ion of God’s reign was not an invit­a­tion to with­draw from the world into a ghetto reli­gious com­munity. His instruc­tion to his fol­low­ers was to be his wit­nesses in all the world. To seek the King­dom of God meant to seek God’s prom­ised rule in the whole of real­ity in space and time. Everything and every­one is included.

The mes­sage Jesus pro­claimed was not just a heav­enly hope for some future time and place but for here and now. The first fol­low­ers of Jesus called people to repent­ance and faith in order to receive for­give­ness of sins and the gift of God’s spir­it. They addressed their spir­itu­al needs but they also cared for their phys­ic­al needs. They fed the hungry, they vis­ited the sick, they looked after the wid­ows and orphans- the two most vul­ner­able groups at that time; they shared their mater­i­al resources so that all were provided for and in doing these things they changed their world. It is right that we feel the pain of our world in all its need and suf­fer­ing but that pain should not drive us to des­pair but drive us to pray­er and teach us to rely more and more on the Holy Spir­it. The sur­pris­ing thing is that Jesus actu­ally calls us to be part of his King­dom min­istry and he encour­ages us by say­ing that even a cup of cold water giv­en in his name will have its reward. The little, appar­ently incon­sequen­tial things we can do to fur­ther his king­dom of love do not go unnoticed by him: a word of com­fort or encour­age­ment spoken, a meal made, a per­son vis­ited, a dona­tion giv­en. The Church is called to bear wit­ness to God’s King­dom- some­times we have been poor rep­res­ent­at­ives; we are all con­scious of the Church’s fail­ures but our task is to bear wit­ness to God’s vis­ion and to seek to live by it.

Every time we approach the Lord’s Table at Holy Com­mu­nion, the world’s broken­ness is set before us and we are reminded of God’s vis­ion for a restored, redeemed world. When we, with the dis­ciples ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the King­dom to Israel?” we hear Jesus’ answer: “ It is not for you to know the  times or the sea­sons God has set on his own author­ity. But you shall receive power after the Holy Spir­it has come upon you and you shall be my wit­nesses in Jer­u­s­alem and Judea and in Enmore and to the fur­ther­most ends of the earth.”

Philip Brad­ford