A Sermon for Ascension Day - The Revd Alison Mares

A sermon preached by The Reverend Alison Mares

at the joint service in Woodstock Methodist Church
marking Ascension Day
and Thy Kingdom Come, the global week of prayer

This service took place in the wake of the terror attack in Manchester.

At times the Christian calendar lines up nicely with what is going on in our lives and in the world, and at others the two things can feel completely at odds.  I think it feels like a struggle to celebrate a festival today.  With names and photos still being released of children who lost their lives on their first grown up outing or parents who were killed simply waiting to pick them up.  With so much uncertainty and fear and shock and hate and hurt.  How against this backdrop can we proclaim that Jesus, risen and ascended, reigns?  It feels almost cruel.

How do we read the story of ascension and how do we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” with those whose lives have been so brutally changed forever?  

I will stand here and fail to answer these questions.  But stand here and say something I must.  And mark Ascension day we must too.  Defiantly perhaps, as we refuse to stop doing the everyday things of life but also because we gather together as those who believe that this, and every, story of our faith, must have something to say to these days, and everyday.

Reading the passages and the commentary I began to wonder whether some of my difficulty came not from those accounts but from all that has been pinned onto them throughout Christian history.  So that “this Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” has gained baggage of angels and clouds and gold and all the regalia of triumph, not because of what happened but because of the way people have hoped that “coming in the same way might look”

I can’t bear triumphalism today.  Christ gliding up to heaven on a cloud, ready to take his throne all powerful and mighty.  I can’t; it feels too much like he’s checking out, and leaving us in all this mess. 

Perhaps it felt like that for the first disciples too, even without the golden harps of religious art.  

they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

This is what they had expected of the Messiah.  What they had always hoped for.  It looked like they were wrong about him when he died but he came back in accordance with the prophecy and so now, before he goes might they just get the power and might they expected, throwing out earthly authorities and liberating people from oppression.  Might they be able to put all the other stuff behind them, the eating with sinners, the conflict with the authorities, the disbelief of others, the suffering, the curse of crucifixion.  Well no; and being alive reminds us over and over again that we can’t either. 

Luke seems to think that this is important.

and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

The Messiah is one who suffers, and that’s how I can face this feast today.  Because none of Jesus’ experience can be diminished or changed, the one who ascends and calls believers to share his life is the one who suffered and with and in God’s children suffers still.

A friend shared a blog post yesterday which said this:

“There was a blast and then a flash of fire. And then everyone just started running, screaming and crying.

And then Jesus came.

“We are visiting for a health conference from morecambe bay trust tomorrow 3 Theatre ODPs available if needed,” tweeted Kirsty Withers, an NHS theatre clinical manager.

“If anyone needs shelter we are right on the outskirts of central Manchester in Salford, anything I can do to help DM me!!” tweeted a science student

“Anyone in Manchester who needs to wait for their parents or needs somewhere stay or to make phone calls, etc, just DM me. We have tea!” offered the BBC’s Simon Clancy.

“Anyone needing somewhere to stay can come to our Manchester headquarters in the city centre,” tweeted Stephen Bartlett.

 “Taxi drivers in #Manchester offering free journeys to those stranded after the events in #ManchesterArena,” tweeted Bethan Bonsall.

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these (my brethren), ye have done it unto me,‘ said Jesus.”

Jesus, the suffering and ascended one, is found in our midst in every tiny act of love.  These are tiny flashes of the kind of kingdom in which Jesus reigns.  Flashes of something bigger than our imaginations, than clouds, or paintings, than the human spirit, than evil, death or terror.  They are flashes of the Good News which Jesus entrusts to us to share.

All of which has implications as we pray together in the coming days “Thy Kingdom come”.  Because I think we risk a misunderstanding not dissimilar to that of those first disciples.  Might we at times be tempted to make our question is “Lord is this the time…”  The time that people will come and join our church, fill some of the empty seats, plug the holes in the rotas.  The time that Christendom will be revived just like it was before?

If those are our prayers we will be disappointed, like those first disciples.

He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

God is bigger and more creative than us, our institutions and our ideas.  Ascension calls us to be witnesses.  Witnesses to Christ who came to Manchester in the injured and the medics, the stranded and the shelterers, the terrorised and the comforters.  When this is what we see our expectations need to be so much greater and wider?

To truly pray “Thy Kingdom Come” is risky.  It invites the movement of the same Spirit that sends the apostles in to all sorts of dangers and trials.  The same Spirit that was in Jesus who fell out with religious authorities and hung out with those on the margins.  It invites that Spirit to work in us and commits us to listening and changing.  We should prepare to be surprised.

As many of you will know yesterday was Aldersgate day, the day the church remembers both John and Charles Wesley; people to whom that surprising Spirit came.  After John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed on that May evening, after he realised that he really did know God’s love for him, he found himself doing things he could never have imagined.  Found himself in conflict with the church, forced to preach outside, even standing on his Father’s grave.  He didn’t like it.  It was the Spirit of that suffering Messiah that spurred him on.  A bit like those first apostles.  

But before that came something else.  Something that came to them too.  For whilst they must not stand staring at the sky they must also not set out straight away but wait.  John Wesley waited too, didn’t rush into action but spent time in other places, with other people, preparing and praying.  Just like those who saw Jesus’ ascend into heaven.

 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 

In these days let us join them in waiting.  In our world of suffering.  Let us wait with those who are in trouble until they are ready to hear our hope.  Let us wait with one another in worship and prayer.    Let us wait to be surprised by God’s Spirit as we pray “Thy Kingdom Come”.

- The Reverend Alison Mares

Blog extract taken from http://archbishopcranmer.com/blast-flash-fire-jesus-came-manchester/