Acts 1.6-14; 1Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11
Jesus said: ‘This is eternal life, that all people may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’
This has been an Easter season like no other. There is no need to rehearse the reasons for that – we are still living in the midst of that strangeness. But this Easter season, we have been proclaiming the resurrection of Christ in the midst of much uncertainty, fear, turmoil, and change. That has been a challenge certainly – not least having to do all that in online worship, but it has brought to the proclamation of life in the midst of death, a vitality and a fresh urgency.
And now, as we collectively, I sense, grow increasingly bored and frustrated at lockdown, and long for its easing, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ.
And that too is not inappropriate, for the Ascension is a moment of transition: for the first disciples it marks the transition from the intimacy, the life-changing richness of the first resurrection appearances, through the sudden absence of that bodily presence of the Risen Christ, as Christ is taken up into heaven; through to the proclamation, in the power of the Spirit given at Pentecost, that Christ is everywhere, abiding with us, and us in him, until the end of time. Ascension is a hinge point, a turning point for the disciples, and therefore for us; it’s the moment when the gift of the resurrection, given to us at Easter to turn us each around, now becomes our responsbility, our story, the way we walk in. In Luke’s telling of the Christ event, the Ascension marks both the end of his Gospel – it is the climax of the resurrection appearances, and it marks the start of his telling of the Acts of the Apostles, the living out of resurrection life by the early church.
George MacLeod, one of the founders of the Iona Community used to retell an old legend about the return of Jesus to heaven after his ascension. It is said that the angel Gabriel met him at the gates of the city. ‘Lord, this is a great salvation that thou hast wrought,’ said the angel. But the Lord Jesus only said, ‘Yes’. ‘What plans hast thou made for carrying on the work? How are all to know what thou hast done?’ asked Gabriel. ‘I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends, their friends to tell their friends, till all the world should know.’ ‘But Lord Jesus,’ said Gabriel, ‘suppose Peter is too busy with the nets, or Martha with the housework, or the friends they tell are too occupied, and forget to tell their friends – what then?’ The Lord Jesus did not answer at once; then he said in his quiet wonderful voice: ‘I have not made any other plans. I am counting on them.’
The Ascension is both our celebration of the culmination of Christ’s redeeming work, his carrying into heaven the fullness of our wounded, redeemed humanity; and the moment when that work becomes our work, in all our fragility and frailness. For Christ’s kingship that we proclaim, is not the kingship of a potentate lording it over his subjects, but the kingship of inspiration, of loving service, of handing over to Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary, you, me, the work of reconciling all creation in the power of the resurrection.
We are at something of a hinge point in our response to the coronavirus too. We are looking toward slowly coming out of lockdown. That lockdown has been a time of unexpected gifts, of discovery and even in some things delight. But it has been a time of enormous suffering too. I’m not sure that our reading from 1Peter this morning was a direct inspiration to the UK Government’s new, slightly muddled, public messaging, but it too counsels, keep alert! The famous image that follows certainly didn’t figure in Government advice – like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 1Peter is written in a very different context, but it makes clear that suffering is not something that the resurrection removes, protects Christ’s disciples from. Rather, resurrection faith provides the courage, the strength to persist and resist, and beyond that, the desire to wrestle meaning and possibility from the suffering. ‘Resist him, steadfast in your faith,’ writes Peter, ‘for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.’
The power of death is all too real – the grief and agony we have witnessed and known is testament to that. All of us I’m sure, have seen or heard or imagined something of that grief, experienced the ripples of it, even as waves of grief and pain hit others. We know something of its force, and we cannot deny it. But we can refuse to give it dominion. For the heart of our gospel is that beyond, encompassing, redeeming crucifixion is resurrection – the power of life. And this is eternal life, says Jesus in today’s Gospel – this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
It is that life, that desire to connect and create, to cherish and serve, that we have also seen in evidence throughout this pandemic. That response, to meet grief with love, and to celebrate such love, is testament to the power of life: this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus Christ, whose rising from the dead is the gift, the sign, the enactment of that power of life over death.
The early disciples responded to the sudden absence of the risen Christ, to his ascension, in prayer and a waiting on the Spirit. They had no idea where their faith would take them. And neither do we as lockdown eases and we enter a new landscape. But we wait in faith, renewed by the glory of the resurrection. For to participate in that glory is to participate in the power of being fully alive, and not in thrall to death. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, says Jesus; and I have been glorified in them. Amen.
Some questions for pondering:
How do we make sense of the absence that is at the heart of the Ascension story? Does it help us talk about, and pray with, a sense of the way that Jesus is both with us now, and not with us?
What might the words, addressed to disciples who are staring up into heaven after the departing Jesus, mean: ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’?
How do you react to Peter’s thoughts on suffering? Is he talking about suffering in general, or particular kinds of suffering? How does his advice on responding to that suffering (‘rejoice, be humble, cast your anxiety on God, discipline yourself, keep alert, resist’) connect with your own experience?