Starting Points: In every place
Morning Service for Ascensiontide, led by Revd Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Acts 1, verses 1-11; 1 Peter 4, verses 7-11
Starting Points: In Every Place
Just suppose that on Thursday you had gone out into the High Street and said to every person you saw “It’s Ascension Day today,” how do you think they might have responded?
I can think of three ways:
1) What? Ascension Day? Never heard of it!
2) That old story of Jesus drifting off up to heaven like he was Mary Poppins or something? Load of rubbish.
3) (and probably 4,5 and 6 too) so what? This week we have had a massive terror attack in Manchester, leaving children, teenagers and their parents dead. Now the whole country is on critical alert, meaning that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. We have a General Election coming up and all the parties are doing is having slanging matches with each other; the Brexit situation seems to be causing more problems than it promised to solve; there are 2.5 million refugees in the world; 1 in 2 marriages will break down; 1 in 2 people will get cancer and, given the social funding crisis my old age is looking bleak. And what does religion do? It turns people into terrorists. So what if it is Ascension Day? What has that got to do with me right here, right now?
A lot of people fear religion because they have seen how a faith can make a person incredibly cruel, arrogant and intolerant. There are men and women who come across as simply evil: they take pleasure in inflicting pain on others. We call these people “sick” and so they are. It is not normal to enjoy making others suffer. But it is even more frightening when men and women justify acts of cruelty by honestly believing that they are doing the will of God. It is their god who orders them to murder innocent children. It is their god who orders them to discriminate against people of different races, cultures and understandings; it is their god who turns them from reasonable people into inhuman beings. That is scary.
A lot of people in our country today do accept that not all religion leads to extremism. But even so, they just cannot see what it has to do with them. So what if Jesus ascended into heaven two thousand years ago? What difference can this possibly make to them? And until we can answer that, Christianity will continue to decline.
I am not getting into the question of what precisely happened on the Mount of Olives, when Jesus took his leave. But what we do know is that there was a definite time of transition. The disciples of Jesus had to let go of his physical presence with them.
Jesus had lived among them as a human being with a body that could only be in one place at one time. Either he was in Galilee or he was in Jerusalem or he was in Samaria halfway between them. He could not be in all places at once. Jesus, we believe, was the Son of God, in that he miraculously embodied the person and nature of God. He was God filing a human life. But God fills the entire universe and beyond. God can be in all places and at all times. For Jesus to return to being part of that Godhead, he had to let go of his physical existence here on earth.
It was hard for his followers to come to terms with this. They were the product of a culture in which the gods were territorial. Each small nation had its own particular gods and these gods were there to provide physical prosperity and protection for their people. It was these gods who would see to it that rain would fall and sun would shine at the right times to make the crops grow. These gods would protect their people from earthquakes, drought and volcanic eruptions. These gods would keep their people safe in their allotted piece of land and fight on their side when invaders threatened them.
For the disciples of Jesus, this was familiar stuff. Their Bible was our Old Testament and a lot of it is about the territory that God was believed to have given to the people of Israel. Their God was their God and their God alone. The culmination of their hopes and the vindication of their faith would be to see the land of Israel restored in full to faithful Jewish people.
They were still asking Jesus about it- did you hear? “Is this the right time? Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” They knew that Jesus was going and they did not want to see him leaving his work unfinished. But Jesus tried, for the umpteenth time to explain to them that his kingdom was not of this world. It was not about physical territory that could be won only by war.
As a commentary on the book of Acts said,
“Christ’s kingdom was not an earthly one, brought into being by a catastrophic intervention by God (in other words a so called holy war) but would come into being by the more peaceful process of the Apostles acting as witnesses to what they themselves had heard and seen.”
Jesus promised his followers the power of the Holy Spirit, not swords and bombs. And I think it is true to say that those disciples did finally get the message. From the book of Acts we hear of them travelling to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the known world. And they did not go with swords, to subject other people to their will. They went with words of peace and reconciliation, offering healing, wholeness and a living relationship with God. Even when people were hostile to them, they remained loving. Even in the face of death they held their faith in Jesus Christ. Their victory was not a physical one but the victory of the God’s Spirit living and working through their physical lives. And the church grew beyond their wildest hopes, embracing numerous nationalities and cultures. It was a miracle, if not quite the miracle they had expected.
So what difference does the Ascension of Jesus make to people living in twenty-first century Britain? It takes him away from one group of people in one place at one time and releases him to be in every group of people, in every place and at every time.
It means that for an increasing number of men and women living in a post-religious culture their “Starting Point” in thinking about God may well take place outside the church. Organised religion may be in decline but research shows a steady increase in the number of people aware of a spiritual need in them. And the Ascension means that Jesus can still be the answer to those spiritual needs because he is not confined to a church building or to a particular group of Christian men and women.
Do you remember, some years ago, there were powerful posters displayed in public places, with pictures of characters from Eastenders whose storylines were attracting large numbers of viewers and they were subtly placed into a Christian context: should this woman forgive the man who has cheated on her? Can this man in deep trouble ever be saved? Sorry, the posters do not seem to have been saved onto the Internet so I cannot remember the exact words but I do remember thinking “Wow.” This is where Christianity needs to be- helping people to see how the stories of ordinary life in 21st century Britain might connect with the story of God in Jesus Christ. Let’s face it, the human condition does not really change. Life is still about health and sickness; gain and loss; ambition and despair; relationships that go right and relationships that go wrong; families, neighbourhoods, cultures and what makes them crack; people making huge mistakes; people falling into dark places; people craving healing and forgiveness; people searching for hope and trust. And Jesus Christ offers the forgiveness of God; the peace of God, which is greater than anything we can manufacture for ourselves; the vision of peace with justice on earth, powered by God’s Spirit, not ours (ours can be unreliable…). Jesus Christ offers healing for lives that have become sick and twisted; light for lives that have become dark; truth for lives that have been misdirected by lies. But Jesus Christ can only be recognised as the answer to spiritual hunger if those he has called to be his witnesses are ready to witness.
In the twenty-first century, organised religion is needing to let go of physical territory- we are in charge of this area- and personal power and should be offering people space in which they can find God; words with which they can speak about God; stories in which they can find their own story and begin to make sense of their lives. People still need Jesus but Jesus still needs witnesses and, if starting points with God are now happening outside of the church, every single Christian believer needs to see themselves as a witness. It is not just about the Minister in the pulpit anymore but about the believers in the world.
My father, who came from a non-religious family, was converted to the Christian faith at one of the big Billy Graham rallies during the nineteen fifties. All his deep longings, hidden guilt, secret fears found their fulfilment when he heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He went forward to make his commitment and these rallies never leave new converts in a void. Their stewards put them in touch with a local church that can welcome and nurture them in faith. My father said that he had attended the Sunday School at the local Methodist Church when he was a child so the stewards promised to contact the Methodist Minister, who would then contact my father. Unfortunately, he did not and as my father waited to hear, he became increasingly disappointed and frustrated. It was a young man who would become his brother in law who pointed the way. Dennis was very shy and with good reason. He suffered from a severe form of dyslexia and an equally severe speech impediment. He would never have called himself an evangelist. But having listened to my father’s story, Dennis managed to say, “well, you had better come to my church.” Father did so and the rest, as they say, is history. His faith changed his life, his life had an impact on several Christian congregations and without his faith I would probably never have become a Minister nor one of my brothers a missionary.
“But no-one ever asks me about church,’ you might say. “No-one ever wants to know about my religion. How can I witness to Jesus Christ if no-one wants to hear?”
Dennis belonged to a church that took evangelism very seriously. They did not always get it right but every member was aware that they were called to be a witness for Christ Jesus in the world. This meant that their daily prayers included the request that God would lead them to those who needed Christ and that God would inspire them with the right words or the right actions to plant the seeds of faith. It meant that they spent time in prayer and Bible study putting their own stories into the context of God’s story in Jesus Christ. If we can start to make some sense of what is going on in our own lives then we stand a better chance of helping others to make sense of theirs. They did not give up. Even when someone had told them roundly to get lost and stop bothering them, they continued to pray for them, trusting God’s power more than they did their own.
If Jesus Christ really is in places and at all times then we shall never be short of opportunities to witness to our faith and to his love. All we need is to trust his promise that the Holy Spirit will give us the right words, the right expressions, the right course of action and get on with it.
I remember a young mother, whose husband was dying of cancer, dreading how she was going to explain this to her little children. Then one day her four year old son asked her, “will Daddy always be here?” And without even stopping to think, she told him that Daddy would become a bright star in the sky, always watching over them. The little boy was satisfied with this and on the night after his father had died he went out into the garden and called his mother to come and see- that star up there- that’s Daddy.
I am sure that in later years he found it far more difficult to come to terms with the loss of his father and needed a different kind of help but at that moment his mother had found the right words for him. And she could not say how she had found them. No amount of carefully worked out philosophy could have produced them. Even scientists talk of inexplicable flashes of inspiration and if scientists can be inspired and a young mother living through her worst nightmare can be inspired, then surely Christian men and women living in 21st Century Britain can be inspired too when their moment comes to witness for Jesus Christ.
In Manchester this week we saw scenes of horror, of cruelty, of religion at its most twisted.
But we also saw rescue and medical workers giving their time and expertise round the clock to save lives; we saw men and women queuing up to give their blood to heal the wounded; we saw taxi drivers giving traumatised people free rides home; we saw homeless people rushing to help and comfort the victims; we saw the huge vigil and the messages of hope, courage and defiance in the face of evil; we saw the leaders of Muslim communities speak out boldly against the terror attack, knowing full well that they might become the next target. The presence of Jesus Christ remains very much alive even in non-religious 21st century Britain and “you,” he says to each one of us, “you are my witnesses.”