Sunday 21 May 2023

Making sense of Ascension

 Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 21st May 2023, the 7th of Easter

The Ascension, John Singleton Copley  (1738–1815) 

Today we are in an in-between time in the Church’s calendar.

Behind us, last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when the apostles finally understood that Jesus their teacher was no longer with them in the flesh, as they saw him ascend to his Father in heaven. Before us, next Sunday will be the Feast of Pentecost, when the apostles receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame, which inspires them to continue Jesus’s ministry.

It is appropriate, then, that today we both look back on the Ascension and look forward to Pentecost, and what this means for the apostles, and for us, his disciples.

Today’s 3rd reading (John 17:1-11) is part of Jesus’s prayer on the night before he died.

Although Jesus prays it before the Ascension, it is a post-Ascension prayer in its content, because Jesus’s concern is for his disciples once he has left them. The apostles had been on the road with him for three years. They had sat at his feet as disciples listening to his teaching, observing his example, and imbibing his spirit. At his Ascension, he leaves them, and they must continue his ministry without his physical presence. He knows that will be challenging and therefore he prays for them to be supported and strengthened in the challenges they will face.

Jesus prays, ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one’.

Jesus prays for his disciples to be protected. Our need for protection is very physical and immediate, in a world we increasingly see to be dangerous, isn’t it? Love and goodness is at the very heart of God. We must embrace it so that it fills our hearts too, our emotions, our words, our actions, so that we may live in love with each other, and with others who are not disciples, at least not yet. That love will transform us, and it will protect us from evil.

And Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one, with the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the unity he prays for is rooted in the Trinity, in which there is a constant exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Jesus prays that as disciples we may be united in an echo of that love. Unity does not depend on articles of faith. It does not require us all to think or believe the same things. It is to be found, instead, in our relationships, in a constant, continuing exchange of love with others, even if we disagree with them.

In the 1st reading (Acts 1:6-14), we heard Luke’s account of the Ascension.

Jesus tells the apostles that they cannot know what the future will bring – it is in God’s hands. But he renews his promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon them, and will empower them to witness to him ‘to the ends of the earth’. Then we are told ‘he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’.

Should we imagine Jesus rising into the sky like a rocket until the clouds hide him? Surely not! We have seen rockets climb to launch space craft into orbit and beyond, and we have seen images from telescopes revealing the immensity of the universe. But we have found no sign of God in a heaven above. We can only make sense of the Ascension as a metaphor, a shorthand for a deep spiritual truth.

It was the conventional wisdom in Luke’s day that the earth they walked on was suspended between hell beneath their feet, and heaven in the skies beyond the clouds, so the Apostles, Luke and his readers may have believed in a literal Ascension. Though I suspect they too thought about it as a mystical shorthand for their lived experience.

Before his death, Jesus told the apostles that he would leave them to go to his Father. In John’s words, ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer… I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.

After his resurrection, the apostles and other disciples continued to experience the presence of the resurrected body of Jesus in a mysterious way. But they came to realise that they could not hold on to the body of Jesus. That would confine the good news to their place and time. They realised they must await the gift of the Spirit of truth that Jesus had promised them, the Spirit who would lead them to know that Jesus remains with them in spirit, even though they cannot see him with their eyes, or touch him with their hands.

The deep spiritual truth of the Ascension is that Jesus in the flesh must leave, so that they - and us - may receive the Spirit. And looking forward to Pentecost, the Spirit does come, to empower them to continue Jesus’s ministry in his name, as the Spirit continues to come to his disciples up to this day.

For me, perhaps the most important element in the Ascension story is the two angels, who point us forward to Pentecost.

As the apostles gaze up to heaven, hoping for a last glimpse of Jesus, two men in white robes tell them, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

What I learn from this is that if we look to the heavens to find Jesus, we are looking in the wrong direction. We must look around us. Then we shall see, through the gift of the Spirit, that Jesus is present in us, in our neighbours, and in creation, continuing his work for the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Jesus is quite clear that he must go away in obedience to his Father’s will, so that his disciples can do the work he is sending them to do. Why should this be? Perhaps Jesus needs more hands, more arms, more feet, to establish God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth. Perhaps Jesus’s human body must be transformed into the body of Christ, the Church, to heal the sick, to free the captives, to feed the hungry.

This brings Jesus’s final words into sharp focus, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. As his disciples, let us resolve to tell the world, and show it in action, that God’s love and care extend to every human being, in every place, and to all creation.

I shall finish with the Collect of the Word set for today:

O God,

whose Son, Jesus, prayed for his disciples,

and sent them into the world

to proclaim the coming of your kingdom:

by your Holy Spirit,

hold the Church in unity,

and keep it faithful to your word,

so that, breaking bread together,

we may be one with Christ

in faith and love and service,

now and for ever. Amen

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Preparing a fertile seed-bed


The Sower,Vincent Van Gogh, Arles 1888

Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 9th May 2023

A brief reflection on the Gospel reading set for today in the lectionary (Luke 8:1-15), which is Luke’s account of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. It is recorded in almost identical words by Matthew and Mark as well. 

The scene is vivid, isn’t it? The sower, walking up and down broadcasting his seed by hand, would have been a familiar sight to the crowd, just as it would have been here in Ireland a couple of hundred years ago, before the introduction of the seed drill. All would understand that only seed which falls on good, fertile soil can produce a rich harvest of grain. Seed which falls on hard-trampled paths, or on poor thin soil, or among rampant weeds, can yield nothing worthwhile.

Many in the crowd must have been puzzled by why Jesus told them this story. Even his close disciples asked him what it meant. So Jesus explains that the quality of the seed-bed is a metaphor for the different way people respond to God’s word:

The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not listened to. The word is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, which Jesus offers everyone. But for some the good news is snatched away, before it ever has the chance to sprout in people’s hearts.

The seed sown on rocky ground is the good news received with joy, but by people with shallow roots - without character. Their initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution, and they fall away. 

The seed sown among thorns is the good news heard by people who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

But the seed sown on good soil is the good news heard by those who understand it, and do act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

Jesus is nothing if not brutally honest with his disciples. Not everyone who hears the good news he preaches will grow to maturity and yield a harvest of good, he tells them. Some, perhaps even many, will be lost - though I have no doubt that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will never stop searching for the lost. We need to hear Jesus’s honest words today. Ageing and dwindling congregations, in churches of all traditions, are not a reason to give up on our faith and our Christian hope.

The message, I suggest, is this. To become the good people God wants us to be, each of us must cultivate our own character, and help others to do so too, so that we become like good soil. In that good soil, the good news Jesus offers to all will flourish, and will yield a rich harvest of good. Each one of us needs God’s help to develop in ourselves the qualities of attention, of persistence, and of concentration. 

Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes to us. 

Persistence, so that we can withstand opposition and the mocking of others when we answer God’s call. 

Concentration, so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

Then, by God’s grace, we will grow into maturity as Christians, bear good fruit, and at last enter into God’s kingdom.