Ascension Day Sermon May 2016
Ascension Day Sermon (full text)
Ascension Day 2016
Acts 1: 1-11
Luke 24: 44-53
Before the ascension itself, Luke reports some words of Jesus. In the Gospel, Jesus looks back and in a sentence links together the whole Old Testament with his own mission on the earth. His earthly ministry was no afterthought; it was part of God’s plan from the beginning.
But Jesus looks forward too,… promising that the disciples will shortly be “clothed with power from on high.” And in Acts he says,” you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
So Jesus’ departure from the earth will make way for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Where God’s work in Jesus had been bound to one place at a time, God’s ministry through the Spirit would be spread throughout the world. And to affect that spread is precisely Jesus’ final commission to his disciples, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” A command, or perhaps a prediction, that was thoroughly fulfilled by his first followers.
Turning to the ascension itself, as Jesus is taken up, according to Acts, “a cloud took him out of their sight.” Clouds in the Bible are often tell-tale signs. Moses received the law on Mount Sinai from God who was veiled in a cloud to protect Moses from the brilliance of God’s glory. At Jesus’ transfiguration, when he revealed his divine glory, a cloud enveloped him. (which happened to us pilgrims when we were up the mount of the transfiguration, we also were enveloped in a cloud)
Likewise, at his ascension the cloud that veils him tells us that Jesus, who came from heaven, from the heart of God, is returning to the full glory of God to sit, according to the creed, “at the right hand of the Father,” that is the place of all divine authority.
The disciples’ reaction to the departure of Jesus is interesting. In the trauma of Good Friday Jesus had been cruelly taken from them and they were despondent. Now, after a period of seeing him again they are faced once more with his absence and we might expect them to be confused, questioning and even angry. But according to Luke they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
So what is this story saying to us today?
It calls us to look with confidence to the risen Jesus, the man who is God and who lives today in the glory and authority of God the Father. It also calls us to emulate the first disciples and seek baptism in the Holy Spirit and, like them, stand as witnesses of the glory of Jesus in our own age. But what does it mean to be witnesses 2000 years after the event?
In a sense we are second hand witnesses passing on the witness of the Bible and the Church to who Jesus is and what he has done. We are also, however, very much first hand witnesses when it comes to recounting our own experiences of Jesus and his work in the Church and beyond, in our own day.
But this passage also raises the less triumphant issue of the absence, rather than the presence, of the risen, ascended Jesus. In different ways Christians can become obsessed by the presence of Christ, which can in turn lead to a sense of abandonment and guilt when his presence is no longer felt with the same intensity as before. Rather, we might see this absence in a similar way to the cloud which enveloped Jesus; God does not seek to overwhelm us with his presence. “For Jesus the risen Lord, is an absence that is never abandonment and a presence that is not possession” (David Runcorn, Rumours of Life, DLT, 1996, p,27)