Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension

The Ascension – men in white by Tissot

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Do you remember the Russian cosmonaut who after he returned from his mission in space said that he hadn’t found God ‘up there’ and so religion, all religion must be false (because he’s been where God is supposed to live and he wasn’t there). The trouble with such an assertion is that it’s based on a set of assumptions that at best aren’t directed towards the right question and at worst are just plain daft. 

I don’t know how many of you have heard or read the pronouncements of Richard Dawkins on how God is basically a very capricious, vengeful angry old so and so. Well it might come as a surprise to Richard that the God he doesn’t believe in is one that I don’t believe in and the rest of you probably don’t either. So we can at least all be agreed on one thing. If we insist on operating within a framework which concentrates on the wrong things, then of course we won’t be able to see what from a different perspective might be glaringly obvious. 

I think that the Ascension only starts to make sense when we shift our attention from a Jesus floating away on the clouds to what today’s texts say about the relationship between Jesus and God. On Ascension Day when Anna and I were last in New Zealand, we went to a church full of the latest technology. The service was in many ways a sort of slide show. I counted no fewer that 37 slides of clouds (the fact that I can tell you how many there were must tell you something about the service.

As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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’

Acts 1:9-11

Doesn’t this imply a new understanding of heaven. Heaven not so much a “place” but rather a very human way of struggling to articulate where God is to be found. In other words, the meaning of the Ascension is wrapped up in the significance of Jesus now being with God. So what exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus “sits at the right hand of God”?

To think of Jesus’ Ascension as the start of Jesus’ absence: because he ascended, He’s gone, is to focus on the wrong thing. That’s to focus on His physical body only, it implies: since Jesus has “ascended into heaven” we have been “left behind” on earth. Oh dear. But this idea isn’t isn’t what we read in our texts from Luke and Acts. In Acts 1:1 Luke describes his “first book” (that is the Gospel of Luke) as containing an account of “all the things that Jesus began to do and to teach”. The implication is that Jesus hasn’t finished. 

Acts also portrays a Jesus still engaged with the world by healing, associating with His followers, and acting through those who act in his name. The post-ascension Jesus “acts” in a much less hands-on fashion, but throughout the book of Acts the underlying story isn’t one of: “once Jesus was here, now he’s not.

It would be a mistake to think that Jesus, God and Heaven are all ‘up there’ while we are stuck ‘down here’. The focus is on the will of the Father, through Jesus’ example we too can live ascended lives. Jesus’ Ascension is not about his absence but about his presence. It’s not about his leaving but about “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It’s not about a location but about a relationship. Presence, fullness, and relationship must surely be what lie behind the question of the men in white, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” It’s as if they are saying to us, “Don’t misunderstand and distort this moment. Don’t deny yourselves the gift that is being given you.

Archbishop William Temple said,

The ascension of Christ is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.

William Temple

Christ now fills and sanctifies all time and space.  So the Ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts isn’t about Where Jesus is but with Who Jesus is. Jesus’ Ascension confirms Him out as the Lord and Messiah, promoted to God’s right hand if you like, and in ways that aren’t primarily physical.

The taking up of Jesus into heaven is about our picture of God. God can no longer be understood as remote from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, describes a God who’s vulnerable and approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we’re not calling out to a deity who’s aloof and can’t relate to what we’re going through. God is right in there, He’s been there, done it, He’s got the tee-shirt as they say. That being the case He can’t only comfort us by identifying with our pain but also assure us that affliction won’t have the final word. All because the risen and ascended Christ is with us and so nothing can separate us from his love. 

Forgiveness is implicit and explicit in today’s readings. The fact that the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples at all is very significant. This bunch who when the going got tough, fled and denied Jesus aren’t having their noses rubbed in their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to them are, “Peace be with you”. Just think about it, He must have forgiven them to even bother to come to see them at all. He comes to them and in fact to all who open their hearts to Him, in mercy. The Ascension simply underlines this mission of mercy. 

For all of us the Ascension should be more about letting go than reaching out and grasping. The question for you and me is not, “How do we ascend?” That’s already been accomplished. The question is: “What’s pulling us down?

What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, or resentment can weigh us down. The need to be right or in control is a heavy burden to carry. Self-righteousness, jealously, or pride are very effective anchors. Being caught up in perfectionism and the need to prove we’re good enough can become all-consuming. It may be indifference or apathy. Many lives are tethered by addiction. What is it that holds you down and denies you Jesus’ Ascension?

The gravity that keeps us down isn’t creation, the world, the circumstances of our lives or other people. That gravity isn’t around us but within us. So we should all look at our lives and identify the places of gravity, but don’t despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to ascension. Our joining in with Jesus’ Ascension begins not by looking up but by looking within. 

Amen.

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter 2021

Acts 10:44-48  • Psalm 98  • 1 John 5:1-6  • John 15:9-17

For a variety of different reasons, this week has been one of those weeks when my family has constantly been on my mind.

Worries about things that are happening right now to family members on the other side of the world, exciting future hopes for my family as it continues to grow and comforting memories about family members from years gone by.

Last Thursday I was thinking about one of my grandmother’s – my mum’s mum – Nanny Ball we called her. She was the great matriarch of the family and I had lived with her for the first few years of my life so I was particularly close to her.

Nanny Ball always had a treat for her favourite grandson, and every time I visited she would bring out a glass jar that the treat had been put into. It wasn’t a special jar – very plain – I think it was an old sweet shop jar that she had found from somewhere – it had lost it’s label and was a very ordinary, everyday kind of thing. But on every visit, out it would come and some special sweetie or small gift would be wrapped up inside.

Some weeks after my Nan had died (I think when I was about 9 years old) my mum was sorting through Nan’s belongings – some treasured possessions were kept and other things were put in boxes for the charity shop. The glass jar was put in one of these boxes. I asked my mum if I could have it and she said I could. Of all the things from my Nan’s house, this very plain, unimpressive glass jar was all that I wanted. This object was the one that I associated with my dear Nan – I had to keep it. I believed that somehow it carried her presence. It reminded me of all the treats that she gave to me, one of the last things I remember her holding, and felt like my connection to her.

At a deeper level, holding on to that glass jar revealed my desire to be connected, to be remembered, to have and to know my place in life.

And don’t we all want that? Regardless of how old we are or the circumstances of our lives we want to know: Who am I? What are the connections that will sustain my life? Where is my place in this world?

Those are the questions Jesus is addressing as he speaks to his disciples in today’s gospel. It is the evening of the last supper. Jesus is speaking his final words, one last sermon, to his disciples. He is preparing them for life without his physical presence, foreshadowing what resurrected life, Easter life, is to be like. He offers some direct answers to those questions:

You are my friends.

Abiding love –  laying down life kind of love – is the connection that will sustain you.

I am your place in this world.

Most of us spend a lifetime searching for those answers and trying to make them our own. They must, however, become more than intellectual answers. They must become lived answers. We learn to trust and live those answers in our relationships with one another. Life is a school for learning to love.

Our search for those answers is ultimately our search for Christ. That searching is always there, but it becomes more acute in times of change: the death of a loved one, children growing up and moving out, a new job, retirement, a debilitating illness, a move to a new town, a marriage or a breakdown in a relationship. In those moments we want something to hold on to, something to comfort, encourage, and reassure us; a glass jar that will guide us through life.

When I was about 18 and packing up my possessions to take to  university, I was talking to my mum, telling her about how important the now cracked jar with no lid was to me and wondering if I should take it with me. As I was talking to her I realised in a new way that the glass jar was not the important gift, the thing that carried my nan’s presence. I was. I was the last thing I remember her touching when she hugged and kissed me. I was the one who received her cuddles and gentle whispers “I love you.” My life, my actions, my very being somehow carried her presence and our shared love. The connection was and always had been within me – not in a glass jar.

Sadness, fear, and desperation often causes us to grasp for glass jars in one form or another. We put them away in the back of the cupboards,  hoping and trying to create a connection that actually already exists, maintain a presence that is already eternal, and hang on to a love that is already immortal.

We do this not only with one another but also with Christ. With each glass jar we collect we can forget that our lives embody the shared and mutual love of Christ and one another. In that love is the fullness of presence; a presence, the disciples will learn, that transcends time, distance and even death.

Treasured possessions can be important and remind us of those who have gone before us, but at some point we must throw away the glass jars we hold on to so that we can hear, experience, and live the deeper truth. Our lives, our actions, our love carry and reveal the presence of divine love. Jesus does not give us something, he says we are something. We are the gift. We are the connection. Think about what he tells the disciples:

  • I love you with the same love that the Father loves me – You have what I have.
  • I give to you the joy that my Father and I share – You are a part of us.
  • You are my joy, my life, and my purpose.
  • I want your joy to be full, complete, whole, and perfect.
  • You are my friends, my peers, my equals.
  • I have told you everything. Nothing is held back or kept secret.
  • I chose you. I picked you. I wanted you.
  • I appointed, ordained, commissioned, and sent you to bear fruit, to love another. I trust and believe you can do this.

It’s all about us – in the best sense of those words. We are the love of Christ. Our belief in Jesus’ words changes how we see ourselves, one another, the world, and the circumstances of our lives. That belief is what allows us to keep his commandment to love one another. When we know these things about ourselves our only response is love. We can do nothing else. We are free to live and more fully become the love of Christ.

The challenge of our search is not to find the answers, but to believe and live them.

Who are we? The love of Christ.

What are the connections that will sustain our lives? The love of Christ.

Where is my place in this world? The love of Christ.

As St Julian of Norwich puts it – In, by, with, and through the love of Christ “all shall be well, all shall be well, every manner of thing shall be well.

Amen

May God bless you and those you hold dear in this coming week.

Fr Simon

Sermon for Easter 5B – 2nd May 2021


Acts 8:26-40, Ps 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

In our garden in Ayrshire there was an old apple tree. It had clearly been there for years and (in a good year) produced lots of apples with a lovely flavour. The only problem is that they were small and most of them rather scabby. No matter, Anna peeled, cored and pulped them. Then put the appley pulp in the freezer and used it to make pies, and other delicacies, perhaps with a supermarket apple for decoration.

Now wouldn’t it be lovely is we could have apples that taste like those, but that grew bigger and more healthily. Well there is a way and some of you will know what that is. What we did was buy some vigorous root stock plants from a nursery. Then we took some bud cuttings from the old apple tree and tried grafting them onto the root stock.

The root stock plants would then be responsible for extracting nutrients and water from the soil and passing all this good stuff on to stems and leaves that grow out of the grafted buds. Well that’s the theory, but we haven’t yet had much success in making it work, but we live in hope.

I am the vine, you are the branches.

The theme of God’s vine is common in the Old Testament, it’s in Hosea, Ezekiel, the Psalms and in Jeremiah and not always in the most complimentary of terms:

Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?

What Jesus is saying in the parable of the True Vine is that Israel has turned degenerate and become a wild vine with branches that are doing their own thing and not producing God’s fruit. One might say that they’re producing small and scabby fruit, way short of their potential. Jesus declares that He’s God’s true vine and his disciples are the branches, the grafts that will produce the fruit of God’s Kingdom. But to do so, they need to become established as grafts and receive water and nutrients through Jesus, the vigorous rootstock which feeds them spiritually for the work of producing God’s fruit.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

This seems to be a staggering promise. But don’t forget about the ‘IF’ clause. To truly abide in Him, we need to let His teaching guide our whole lives. To abide in Christ is to have a deep relationship with God and through and in that to find the secret of effective prayer.

The overwhelming theme of our passage is fruitfulness. The words ‘bear fruit’ appear six times in just eight verses. Fruit-bearing isn’t something that the branches do by themselves, the fruit appears because the vine is true and the gardener is good. But the branches of this passage do choose to abide. ‘Abide’ like ‘bear fruit’ appears repeatedly – eight times in four verses. What John means by abiding is where the love of God means mutual indwelling.

In one of John’s most famous verses:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places

means in the Father’s house are many abiding places. So the disciples of Jesus each have their own places prepared for them in God, so also the Son and Father will have their abiding places in the disciples. And the Holy Spirit will also abide in them. So the vine image is another way of talking about abiding places (places where one feels deeply at home), and both the vine and the abiding places are ways of talking about love.

This parable is sometimes explained as a description of the intimate entwining of the lives of all of us. So we must all work to be faithful and produce fruit or God will cut us out in the sort of pruning that one might do in the garden.

The fruitful ones will be saved and the rest will end up in eternal damnation (wailing, gnashing of teeth and plenty of flames). But it’s a very short hop from this explanation to ‘those who are good, or more religious, or more successful, etc. are the true followers of Jesus and the rest are failures.

That isn’t at all what Jesus is saying in the parable. What Jesus is saying is that the true ‘Christian’ life is lived through Him, by drawing on his teaching, by living a life in imitation of him and by developing a relationship with the Father like the one he cultivated. He and Christians abide in each other because they share a common life. The branches (that’s us) whilst living on the sap of the vine (that’s him) need to be tended. The tending is the work of the Father who tends the vine, but the branches can only produce fruit if they remain firmly attached to the vine, so that they’re properly fed.

Of course the branches of a vine are inter-twined, but it’s the fact that they are all connected to the root that’s key, not that they are all entangled and mixed-up. To abide in Christ is to abide in love. God isn’t simply the loving-one, isn’t simply the perfect fulfilment of love, God is love itself. So to abide in God is to abide in love and to have God abide in you is to have love abide in you.

We as individuals are part of a community of faith based on the experience that we have of God’s forgiveness and God’s love. There are things that we can do for ourselves, but for the rest we have to rely on God in Christ. He’s the sap from which we draw: our strength, our courage and an understanding of who God intends each of us to be.
All of this is underlined in the first letter of John in which he tells us that Christ is the foundation, the only foundation on which a community of love can be formed.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Being Christians doesn’t make us immune from sin, but sin confessed and forgiven can free us to develop relationships of unconditional love, abiding not only in Christ, but with each other. To be fruitful in this vine, we simply need to abide. It’s not for any of us to judge branches that seem to be fruitless. We’re after all just branches ourselves. We can’t possibly know what’s really happening with the rest of the vine. For all we know, what looks like removal or fruitlessness is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness. But whatever’s going on with the other branches is the responsibility of the vine grower.

In all this viticulture metaphor, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that the fruit the branches produce isn’t for the branches themselves. The fruit is they produce is for someone else, but who isn’t our concern. Let’s hope that our attempts at apple grafting finally see the connection and abide.

Amen.