Saturday, 15 May 2010

Into the clouds

Sermon for 7th Sunday of Easter - Ascension

Readings: Acts 1 v 1-11

Just recently, I conducted the wedding service of friends at Glasgow University chapel.

When I studied at Glasgow, we had prayers in the chapel every morning and a faculty service there every Wednesday lunchtime. So I kind of got used to the place.

But, going back, after such a long time away, I appreciated again how awesome and how beautiful that chapel is.

It was great to have the privilege of doing that.

When I arrived, I was shown to the chaplain’s office.

What a revelation that was – the height of luxury.

I remember that very room as a place where we had Greek lectures.

Now here it was all modernised and equipped with the latest furnishings and technology.

Changed days indeed.

In fact, I can remember sitting patiently – or more like impatiently in that room, waiting to see if our lecturer would show up – Greek was always a 9am class.

We would give the guy 10 minutes – and if he hadn’t shown by then, we were off to the hub for coffee.

I remember hearing of one lecturer who arrived at college early one morning and decided he had time for a quick coffee before classes started.

So, leaving his hat on the desk, he went off to the staff room, brewed some coffee and read his paper.

Suddenly, he realised it was 10 past nine.

By the time he got back to class, the students had all left.

Next day, he berated them – If my hat’s here, I’m here.

The following morning he arrived to find 28 hats on his desk – and no students.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Christ.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he appeared to his followers many times over a period of forty days.

During this time he taught them and he reassured them. The disciples had lots of questions for Jesus but Jesus told them not to worry about things, to leave them to God. Jesus told the disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they received a very special gift--the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Receiving the Holy Spirit meant receiving power.

The apostles would now be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

In Christ’s final appearance to them, they stood watching as Jesus was taken up into Heaven in a cloud.

That is the event we celebrate today.

The Ascension of Jesus.

Jesus was taken up in a cloud.

Clouds feature symbolically throughout scripture.

There was the cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness, there was the cloud that covered Mount Sinai when Moses went up to receive the 10 commandments and there was a cloud that appeared when Jesus was transfigured .

Clouds like this in scripture seem to signify God’s presence.

Jesus, at his ascension, was taken up in a cloud into the very presence of God and took his place at God’s right hand.

There’s no point in struggling with the terminology.

We know that Jesus’ appearance was changed when he rose from the dead – it took his disciples a while to recognise him, he could pass through doors, but the marks on his hands and feet and the wound in his side were visible. And we can speculate for all we’re worth and not be any nearer the truth of what Jesus was like and how the ascension was achieved.

The ascension was a spiritual phenomenon, not physical.

What really matters to us today, however, are the two things Jesus does before he ascends into heaven.

The first thing is, Jesus commands the disciples to witness for him in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Seems quite straightforward.

Being a witness is about telling of what you have experienced.

Then why is that so difficult for us?

We would rather be in the secret service than actually go out and speak of our faith – it’s simply too embarrassing.

Yet how else is our world to know about the love of God, if we are not telling?

The Christian faith hasn’t survived for 2000 years by people keeping quiet.

Is it just too difficult to do that nowadays?

Well, maybe the second thing Jesus did before he ascended is what we need to grasp this morning – Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit.

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” Then a few verses later he adds, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you . . .”

Jesus knew that it would be difficult for his disciples to provide a living witness to their Master’s death and resurrection.

After all, they were to take their testimony to the ends of the earth.

To everybody?

Arabs? Jews? Africans? Asians?

The barbarians living in the British Isles? Everybody? Everybody, said Jesus.

It was a tall order.

It seemed like an impossible assignment.

That is why he promised them that they would not go about the task alone. His Holy Spirit would be with them.

The Holy Spirit was coming to empower them to continue the work Christ had begun, the work Christ calls us to today.

Christ would not simply be leaving his hat on the desk as a symbol of his presence.

He would be with them, closer than the very air they breathed.

I’ve conducted quite a number of funerals these past few weeks.

And no matter what age a person was, no matter whether we feel we’re celebrating a long and fruitful life, or a life cut cruelly short, the one thing I like to focus on, the thing that I feel gives most hope, is the eternity of love.

Love lasts forever.

So the loved we’ve shared with our nearest and dearest doesn’t die with them – it goes on making a difference for us.

It’s love that speaks to us in the wee small hours, bringing to mind something we miss.

It’s love that speaks to us as we go about our every day business, doing something in a particular way because that’s the way our loved one liked things done.

It’s love that prompts us to think differently and see differently because we’re looking through the eyes of the one we miss.

Our loved ones still guide our every day in love.

Love is how you stay alive after you’re gone.

So would it be with Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus, whom they loved, would still be with them in spirit to guide their every day.

And so is God’s gift to us today.

We too have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So, whatever we have to face, we are not alone.

For us too, Christ has ascended to the Father.

And he has sent us his Holy Spirit to comfort us and to empower us.

Nothing is impossible if God is with us.

So what about this heaven into which Jesus ascended?

Heaven isn’t often the subject of sermons.

More likely the subject of jokes.

There’s the story of a nine-year-old who addressed a letter to God at the Pearly Gates, Heaven.

It was returned.

Someone at the post office had written across the envelope: “Nobody at the post office is headed that way. Sorry!”

What do you picture heaven as?

Let me assure you, there isn’t a wrong answer to that.

Its not something we can define from scripture, like so much in Scripture, we’re not provided with neatly packaged ideas – so there are not many clues there – just lots of symbolism.

And the truth is that because we’re trying to describe something so outwith our grasp, its going to be impossible anyway.

But, for what its worth let me share with you my picture of heaven as it currently stands.

And I offer this as an illustration of how it’s the concept of heaven and not the physical description that we just might be able to grapple with.

A couple of years ago, I took some study leave and did some work and study in America.

I studied in North Carolina and then went up to Indiana to work for a while.

I worked for 3 weeks in a huge Presbyterian church before Idris and the kids came out to join me.

On the day they were due to arrive, there was a mix up with flights, meaning instead of picking them up at lunchtime, it was going to be into the evening before I could go and meet them.

I hadn’t been able to eat all day at the thought of seeing them again.

And that extra 4 or 5 hours was almost unbearable.

But finally, there I was standing at the arrivals gate in Indianapolis airport, light headed from lack of food and out walked my family.

That was heaven.

And once we’d all hugged each other, I was aware that all around me were folk doing the same thing – catching up with loved ones.

Now I know that three weeks is nothing.

For some meeting loved ones that day, it may have been a shorter separation, it may have been much, much longer.

But that area in front of arrivals, that few metres of airport concourse was hallowed ground.

Hallowed by loved ones meeting up.

For me, heaven will be like that.

A place to meet loved ones, however long our separation has been.

I don’t know if we’ll be instantly recognisable to each other once we become spiritual beings.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to embrace.

There are a million things about heaven I do not know.

But I feel sure that it will be a place or a space where love is recognised and shared.

Today we celebrate the ascension of Jesus into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the father.

We cannot get our heads around the nature of the ascension or of heaven.

But does that mean we shouldn’t believe in them?

Our faith is a mystery – that’s why it’s called faith.

So today, this ascension Sunday, instead of getting all tied up in knots about things that are beyond our understanding, lets hear again those last words of Jesus to his disciples:

Go and be witnesses for me to the ends of the earth.

And Jesus’ promise to them:

I will send the Holy Spirit to be your helper.

You and I are called to be witnesses.

You and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s not act as though we were in the secret service.

Let’s spread the word in love.

Let’s harness the power of the spirit.

For the glory of God.


1 comment:

Diane said...

I like it! I've got mine done, but am still tweaking it a little. this hellped!