A Sermon for The Sunday after Ascension: 8th May 2016
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
During this service Alastair Chisholm was baptised
When the Sunday closest to Ascension Day rolls around, it always poses a dilemma: Do you keep Ascension on the Sunday so that more people can hear this very significant part of the Easter story? Or do you keep Ascension Day on the Thursday – 40 days after Easter exactly – and risk that just the choir, the organist, the clergy and the faithful few are present to mark this dramatic moment in the story of Jesus. For the past two years we’ve opted to keep it on the Sunday. It’s important to mark this event, even if not on the exact day, not just because without it Easter and Pentecost don’t make sense, but we because we need to grapple with the Ascension story even if it is, well, a bit tricky.
Over recent years, there has been another attempt by biblical scholars to focus questions about the life and death of Jesus by using the disciplines of historians rather than theologians to see if the “real” Jesus can somehow be discovered. What prompts these outbursts of academic effort is often stories like the Ascension, stories that seem too outrageous for educated, modern, cause-and-effect people like us to take seriously. According to some of those who are intent on recovering the “historical Jesus,” the church is encrusted with outdated, pre-scientific gobbledegook. We need a little dose of historical research to be refreshed. These scholars will be quick to tell you that the Ascension never happened. It was a story, they say, that the church made up, based on even earlier stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of prophets ascending into the clouds. If you had been there with your camcorder with the disciples on that day, there would have been nothing to record, no feet of Jesus getting ever smaller as they rose away into the sky.
Well, fine. History is great. Give me a good documentary and I’m happy. But that’s fine for an evening’s informative entertainment, but it’s not so fine in the pulpit. It’s not a preacher’s job to take the Bible’s mysterious stories and to get rid of the strangeness or the wildness or the unpredictability. If a story is mysterious, then perhaps we need to practise being mystified, not jump as quickly as possible to some explanation that removes all the shadows as well as the light.
So today don’t worry about the “how” of the Ascension–whether Jesus rose into the sky like a helium balloon. And I’m not going to focus on the “why” of the Ascension either, although there is a lot of great theology and important stuff to take in about that. Today I want to look at a particular promise in the story, the promise of a gift. Today I invite you to receive that gift, to think about the story in a new way.
So instead thinking about the “How” and the “why”, try imagining what it was like for the first disciples who gathered around this story to hear what they needed: good news. Good news of a promise that they were going to receive power from on high.
There the disciples were, a fragile little community, anxious and bewildered, watching their Lord leave them, but they aren’t distraught and sad. When it’s all over, they’re worshipping with joy. They had an advantage over us. They knew they had no power of their own.
Any power they would ever know would be given to them by the Spirit, and they aren’t even told when or how. Someone in the group does ask the practical question, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus says. “Stop worrying about having things the way you want them and wait for something else, a power that is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it.”
We live in an era and in a nation which is deluded by the notion that everything is up to us. To join a church is to stand up and challenge that idea, to heckle at the assumption that it’s all down to us. This making Ascension Day perhaps the perfect day to welcome new members into a congregation. Whenever people gather around a baptismal font, they publicly proclaim that they rely on a power beyond themselves, that they believe in God whose love and strength sustains them in all things.
One of my friends tells a story about a couple who came to see him with regard to possibly joining the church. He was excited about it until he felt the conversation turn into an interview. The couple wanted to know just what the church was going to do for them and for their children. The vicar brought them to sudden silence by asking, “What are you planning to do for the church?” Soon they left, never to be seen again.
The truth that will dawn at Pentecost, when the disciples receive this gift, is that all ministry, including church membership, is a gift from Jesus Christ. Without the capital ‘G’ Gift, without the empowering Spirit that Jesus promised to the disciples at his Ascension, we can do nothing. We can make no claim. And nothing that we try to do that is all our idea and not God’s can finally prosper in the end. Certainly, our plans can certainly go a long way before they finally fade. A mission action plan, a plan to serve the community that is our doing and not the Spirit’s can look very successful and garner much support. But if something is not a work of the Spirit, it will die when our power or energy to make it happen dies. The work of the Spirit, on the other hand, never comes to an end. God will accomplish what God sets out to do and will make use of us and our witness along the way.
Ascension Day is the day to remember that it’s the Spirit at work in the church that makes all manner of impossible things possible – things a good deal more mystifying than Jesus rising into the air. Things like the woman who knew she couldn’t face it when her husband became critically and terminally ill, who woke each morning for months wanting to fall apart and disappear. But she didn’t. She survived and met what came each day. And not only that, when she looks back, she knows she didn’t do it alone because facing her husband’s death was not something she could possibly have done. By the power of the Spirit of God, a man who had been addicted to alcohol for more than half his years stopped drinking and stayed sober. And when peopled asked him how he did it, the first thing he says is he didn’t. Both of those stories are stories of people I know in this church.
Wait for the gift, be open to the Holy Spirit, remember you and we cannot do anything without the strength and power of God to bring it into being. Amen.