Sermon John 17.1-11
Greetings from Big Barns on this the seventh Sunday of Easter 2020.
I hope you are continuing to keep well in body, mind and spirit. The season of Easter is almost over and next Sunday we arrive at Pentecost. What a very strange Easter season it has been. Many of us have found that occupying our time during lockdown can be challenging, and yet it has also been a time when we have been able to catch up with a few jobs that have needed doing for a while, or perhaps we have found time to do a bit more of the things we love.
My model railway, which has been packed away since our move up here over two years ago has finally been unpacked and I have started reconstruction. Bill and Ben (our two dalmatians) have never had so many walks each day and I am racing through another re-read of my all-time favourite series of books – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ – set in a fantasy world that has many parallels with our own and certainly makes you think about our institutions and patterns of behaviour in many new ways.
It was the American satirist and commentator, PJ O’Rourke that said “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it”. I’m not sure that comic tales of fantasy would make me look particularly good if I suddenly shuffled off this mortal plain, so I might mention I am also reading In the Eye of the Storm by Bishop Gene Robinson (though I’m not certain that will make me look any better)!
Tomorrow (25th May) is the day that the church remembers the Venerable Bede and if anyone died reading something that made them look good, it was him. He was dictating a commentary on John’s Gospel! It’s a tradition in some places to read the passage Bede was dictating and finish at the exact point that he died!
However, I’m not sure that it is just a case of looking good when we die, but actually, it’s more important that how we live looks (and is) good. How we face death comes from how we live life and we know that Bede’s death was the ending of a life well-lived.
How we live and how we die are connected.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day and some of us joined in our interesting first attempt at a Service of the Word using the Zoom platform. We had hymns, prayers and a reflection all associated with the Ascension of Jesus. Nowadays, when there aren’t many of us who assume heaven to be up in the clouds, the use of the word ascension or ascend can distract us, but in the cosmology of two thousand years ago heaven was definitely ‘up’ and earth was ‘down’ and so we need to accept that world view.
But more important than the direction of travel of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is the source and destination of each journey: Jesus’ ascension links earth and heaven. Jesus, who came from God’s presence to dwell on earth and share our human nature, now returns to God’s presence taking his human nature with him. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, comes from God’s presence to empower the holy people of God on earth, as happened at the creation when he moved over the face of the earth.
Ascension was a time of departure as well as arrival and departures involve last words. In today’s scripture readings we are held, liturgically, between the departure of Jesus to his Father and the arrival of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday.
In Acts, Jesus had gathered his apostles for one last conversation and their last words to him were a question. I wonder, if they had known this was the final moment, would they have ended things this way or said something else. But they asked Jesus if this was when he would restore the kingdom to Israel?
Just as the disciples try to narrow the saving work of God to one nation, Jesus blows it all open by responding with words that in effect say, “Never mind that. Get on with being my witnesses all over the world. Not only where you are relatively comfortable – Jerusalem (although that was not a safe place, they were so afraid of the religious leaders that they locked themselves in) and Judea (familiar territory), but also Samaria (despised territory avoided by faithful Jews) and to the ends of the earth (way beyond anywhere any of them had previously gone)”. Jesus did not send them back home to preach the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles suggests they never did go home, at least permanently. The ascension is disruptive of comfortable life.
Since Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday it is too easily overlooked. So, on this Sunday after the Ascension, here is an important question: What would the Christian gospel look like without the ascension of Jesus?
In my opinion, without the ascension of Christ we would be without our hope of heaven. Why? Isn’t the resurrection enough? It is vital of course, but on its own, it is not enough. There are fifty days of Easter and the fortieth is Ascension Day. Easter isn’t over with the resurrection. The resurrection was evidence that death is conquered, that God has destroyed its power to have the last word. But to what end? That we should hang around on earth for ever?
Without the ascension, the resurrection is the conquering of death, but leaves us here on earth. The ascension of Jesus Christ, fully divine, to his place with God the Father, is also the ascension of one who was fully human, who took his humanity – our humanity – into heaven and opened the door for all humanity to follow. The world-changing significance of the ascension of Jesus Christ is that there is a human in heaven, previously inhabited only by the heavenly hosts. In the words of the Te Deum, the ancient song of the church, ‘He has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers’. As the creed affirms, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The ascension, an integral part of the fifty days of Easter, assures us that, in Christ, there is a place in heaven for us. In the ascension, Jesus Christ opened heaven to all believers.
So, are we ready for heaven? Ready to leave the earth? That takes us back to where we started in this sermon. It is not just that we should look good because of what we are reading when we die, but that our lives should be good, all the time, so that whenever death comes we are found to be living well in the joyful knowledge that by his ascension Jesus Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
St Benedict told his monks to keep their death before their eyes. Are there any things you and I need to put right quickly so that we are ready to die whenever that time comes? I ask that question in the glorious assurance that the Ascension has opened the gate of heaven to us and that, as the gospel reminded us, eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, and that begins on earth.
This Ascension-tide we are challenged to consider whether our lives are in such order that, were we to die today, we would leave with partings well made, with a book that we would feel good about being seen to have been reading, and with people able to say the world is a better place for our having lived in it. You and I are called to live as we would wish to be found at death.
For the disciples, their parting conversation with Jesus was a question that propelled them into mission. In the light of the ascension they were sent to be his witnesses. That is, in fact, a parting well made. After all, it is the parting we make each week – ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’
Blessing to you and all those you love.