Sunday after Ascension

Sermon Date: 
5 Jun 2011
Bible Base: 
John 17: 1-11, Acts 1: 6-14

David Jeans

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Our daughter Eleanor was preaching at her College chapel on Thursday which was..... We discussed whether we could possibly make use of some immortal lines from ‘Are You Being Served’. Ground floor perfumery, wigs and what comes next? And of course we said Oh no we couldn’t possibly do that.
We don’t preach about the Ascension much. Partly because it’s always on a Thursday, and partly because we may be slightly embarrassed by the idea of heaven being up there somewhere, when actually it’s not part of our physical universe.  We are uncomfortable about the disciples seeing Jesus going up into a cloud. Actually that has never bothered me that much. The point being made by the Ascension is that Jesus is leaving and going to be with his heavenly Father, and that this time it is permanent (until he comes again). Before this he has simply disappeared at the end of his post-Resurrection appearances, so this way of leaving them shows that they are entering a new chapter. It’s a bit difficult to think of any other way of demonstrating that to first century disciples.
The important point isn’t whether he went up or sideways or just disappeared as if in a Star Trek transporter. The important message begins with that he is gone. And when he leaves he wants to make sure that what he has started is going to continue. Here we have a transfer of power! Jesus is saying ‘over to you’! 
Bishop Tom Wright likes to present the Christian message as a story in 5 acts. Act 1 is the creation; Act 2 the fall; Act 3 the story of Israel leading up to the Messiah Jesus; Act 4 the story of Jesus and Act 5 the church.
The Ascension represents the transfer from Act 4 (Jesus) to Act 5 (the Church). At the beginning of Acts 1 the author Luke (who also wrote the Gospel of Luke) says this:-
In the first book I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up.
Luke’s Gospel is the story of what Jesus BEGAN to do and to teach – the ‘to do’ bit he summarises at the end of his Gospel as that Jesus the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise again from the dead; the ‘to teach’ bit is about preparing the disciples to continue what he had started. That is why it says ‘began’. Jesus had done the first bit – and Luke tells the story in his Gospel. At the end of the Gospel comes the Ascension – but Luke also includes that story in his second book which we know as the Acts of the Apostles but is actually the continuing Acts of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
So what does Jesus transfer to the apostles? We can summarise it as 3 things
·         A message
·         A task
·         A powerful presence
The message is about what they have witnessed – that he was the Christ who suffered for the forgiveness of sins and who was raised on the third day. The message is there in vv 46-47 of Luke 24. In Acts Luke summarises it as Jesus saying that they were to be his witnesses.
The message we have to pass on is not primarily a set of doctrines (though they have their importance). It is certainly not a message about the church. The message is about Jesus and all that he began to do and teach, and particularly it is about his death and resurrection which they had witnessed. If you know what Jesus began to do and to teach you have enough knowledge to pass on the most important message in the world. It is the most important message because it helps us to know God through knowing Jesus – and our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that knowing God IS eternal life. The message then is look at all that Jesus did and said and through that you will know God and find life.
The task is to take that message everywhere and to call for response. The response is repentance – turning our lives around from being centred on ourselves to being centred on God and on others – and receiving the forgiveness of sins. The message and the call to response are to go everywhere. You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The message is to be proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24:47). I believe for us this is about proclaiming the message to one another (Jerusalem); to those who have some connection to the church (Judea and Samaria – with perhaps Samaria being for us those who have left the church); and to those who are miles away from church (the ends of the earth). What is the church for? To be witnesses to Jesus.
The powerful presence. Jesus transfers a message; Jesus transfers a task; and he transfers the power to get on with the task.
Acts 1:8 You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and then you will be my witnesses
Bosses and indeed the government are quite fond of passing things on by delegating. All too often, though, they don’t pass on any resources to do the task! But Jesus gives us the task AND the resources to do it. And that resource is the Holy Spirit – who helps us to know God for ourselves AND helps us to make God known. The blessings of the Holy Spirit are not just for us to be able to know God. They are also so that we can make God known.
In Acts 1:14 when they returned to Jerusalem they devoted themselves to prayer, waiting for God to empower them for the task ahead. That is why the ten days of prayer runs from Ascension to  Pentecost. We are waiting for God to clothe us with power from on high. Because we need that power to leave Jerusalem and to go to the ends of the earth. We need the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit for the task we have of sharing the message about Jesus.
 The transfer of power from Jesus to the apostles is shown particularly in verses 6 to 11. In verse 6 they ask Jesus ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel’. They wanted Jesus to do it all for them. (Just as sometimes we want God do it all for us by miracles and revival – great as those would be). But Jesus does not say ‘I will now rule the world’. He says ‘YOU will receive power and be my witnesses – get on with it!’ And after he has ascended and they are all wondering what now? How will we cope without him? When is he coming back? the angels cut through all their speculation and say ‘why are you looking up into heaven? He will return’ And the implication is ‘So don’t just stand there, get on with it!’
When I was at Church Army College, I used to meet every now and then with the College Counsellor to discuss how the College was. Once at the end of our meeting he leaned forwards and said (as only counsellors can do) ‘ and how are you?’. I expressed a bit of dissatisfaction about not having time to write any books (which I would have liked to and would still like to do!)  And he said ‘ but you send out 12 books every year’ – meaning the Church Army evangelists we trained.
As far as scholars know, Luke only wrote two books.
Luke’s first book is about the message we have to proclaim – about all that Jesus did and taught - and we need to keep on looking back at that to get the message right.
His second book is about the continuation of Jesus’ message to the ends of the earth through the witness of the disciples.
But really he wrote three books. So what is his third book? Well, actually that is us! Just as Jesus transferred his message, his task of mission and the power of His Spirit to his first disciples, so it is now passed on to us and we will then pass it on to successive generations.
We are now his witnesses in Rookery and Stubbin, in Stocksbridge and Sheffield, and to the ends of the earth.
So let us wait upon God and pray for power from on high – and then let’s get on with it!