Thursday 21 May 2020: Ascension Day
Acts 1:1-11; (Luke 24:44- 53)
Context: an Anglican evening Eucharist attended by church council members from all churches of a multi-church benefice, before an annual joint council meeting to discuss church life
Aim: a short three-point sermon to show how the Ascension points to basic foundations for the Church
Ascension Day marks an ending. The ending of the physical presence of Jesus on earth. But it also marks a beginning. The beginning of the disciples taking the ministry of Jesus on, the beginning if you like of the Church. And as we consider the life of our churches - the joys, opportunities and, yes, challenges that face us - it’s helpful to hear again from this event something of what we are to be about. Ascension Day gives us the beginnings, the basic foundations that should undergird all our discussions together about Church.
Begins with Jesus
Firstly, Ascension Day emphasises that the Church begins with Jesus. Acts is the second of the two-part work that begins with Luke’s gospel, both written to the otherwise unknown Theophilus. Theophilus is told that the former book, the gospel, is about ‘all that Jesus began to do and to teach’. Note, began – with the implication that the story of Jesus continues in Acts through the story of the Church, a story that doesn’t end in Acts but continues through to us today. This is the Jesus who, we’re told, ‘gave many convincing proofs that he was alive’ after his resurrection. This is the Jesus ascending into the cloud – a cloud often symbolises the glory of God, so this is a powerful image of Jesus received into glory. And the Church begins, with an iron conviction from the disciples that Jesus is raised from the dead, that Jesus is alive, and that in the cloud of the Ascension he is exalted to the glory of God.
The Church begins with Jesus – which might sound an obvious thing to say! But I wonder if we are sometimes tempted to do Church without Jesus. To follow our own agendas rather than his? To talk about Church, rather than about him. To be more of a club, rather than being salt and light in our society? The earliest statement of faith in the Church was: ‘Jesus is Lord’. And this is where Church starts – with Jesus.
Begins with waiting
Secondly, Ascension Day shows us that the Church begins with waiting for the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to the disciples: ‘wait for gift the Father promised’, wait for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has already been at work, certainly, through the story of the Old Testament, through the life of Jesus. But now there is to be a step change: ‘you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit’. The word baptise is a very wet word. If a ship sinks, it is baptised. If you throw a bucket of water over me, I’m baptised. Jesus doesn’t just leave us to get on with being Church, but he says we will be baptised, drenched, soaked with the strength and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We don’t do this alone.
We are to ‘Wait’. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Something we are perhaps not always good at, including in our Church life. We want to rush and do. But wait, says Jesus. Waiting reminds us we are not in control. Wait for God’s timing. Wait for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom. Wait before we act. This is where Church starts – in the waiting.
Begins with a commission
And Ascension Day gives the Church a commission. ‘You will be my witnesses’ says Jesus. The Church begins by being commissioned to point to Jesus, to speak and act for him in a way that shows his mercy, justice and love. The Church is to point to Jesus in our locality, in Jerusalem for the disciples. That isn’t always easy, among the people we know. The Church is to point to Jesus more widely, in all Judea and Samaria for the disciples, at a national level for us. And the Church is to point to Jesus to the ends of earth, as a worldwide Church with a worldwide commission to be witnesses to him in our words and actions. This is where Church starts – with a commission to be witnesses.
The Church also begins with a nudge: ‘Why do you stand looking up at the sky?’ the two men in white ask the disciples. I think that means don’t just stand there - put this into action, start being Church until Jesus returns. Be a Church that begins with Jesus, a Church that begins with waiting for the Holy Spirit, and a Church that begins with the commission to be witnesses.
Ascension Day marks an ending. But it also marks a beginning. And as such, it gives us the basic foundations that should undergird all our discussions together about Church.
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