Leaving us for good – a sermon for Ascension Day

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Gee Cross.

Introduction

Our two readings come from the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Book of Acts. (Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53)

Luke ends his Part One and begins his Part Two with a celebration of Jesus’ Ascension.

At first glance it looks like these two volumes are addressed to a particular person called Theophilus.  But Theophilus is a strange name. Translated, it means “God lover” – which leaves us with a question. Are these two books addressed to one person called Theophilus, or to all “God lovers”, including ourselves?

And the story of the Ascension is one that causes us all sorts of difficulties. It’s a story that stretches the dimensions of our lives, where earth and heaven connect – a tall story that is difficult to fathom.

40 days and nights have passed since Easter Day (40 days and nights!). Those 40 days were packed with Jesus’s appearances and his talk of the kingdom of God. The 40 days  end with this – a blessing, a promise and a withdrawal as Jesus was carried into heaven, carried out of the sight of the disciples on a cloud.

So what?

Flight paths

It seems like only yesterday that we were landing at Heathrow after visiting our son and his girlfriend in the Philippines. It is actually 40 days and nights – we landed on Easter Day, having been on a plane for 17 hours. The flight path reads like a where’s where of the world’s trouble spots.

Bosnia, Beirut, Bangkok, Iraq, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia etc etc – flying into Manila, regarded as the second most dangerous city in the world.

How weird was it? Flying 38000 feet in the airspace above those trouble spots, with all their tensions, sufferings, betrayals, poverty and uncertainty, as if they weren’t there. We were flying over deep divides and no go areas as if they didn’t exist. We were like birds flying over reality and missing all that counts in human life. It was as if we were travelling in a totally different dimension.

(Another example would be our city’s flyovers)

For the last 40 days and nights it has been back to earth with a bang!

Which, I suspect is where we belong. We are, after all, Adam – humans made from the earth, to walk the earth, with our feet of clay. And for that, we believe that God loves us – and we may believe that is where God wants us to be – down to earth, earthy and earthed.  That seems to be the message that Luke is leaving us “God lovers” as he describes Jesus’s goodbye to his disciples, as he leaves them us to be “witnesses … to the ends of the earth”.

Grounded as birds without wings

I don’t know whether any of you have read Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. I’ll try to describe the story without giving anything away for any of you who want to read it.

The story is set in innocence at the turn of the 20th century in a town called Eskibahce in south-western modern-day Turkey, then a part of the waning Ottoman Empire. The village potter, Iskander, a Muslim, makes clay bird whistles for his son, Abdul, and his Christian friend, Nico. Their whistles make different bird song. One is a blackbird, and the other is a robin. They take on the nicknames of their birdsong – Blackbird and Robin.

They are birds who fly over the hills overlooking their town. They play at flying, but, of course they can only fly in their imagination.

Reality soon becomes quite different, as the population of the town gets caught in events. They find themselves caught in the tensions between Greek nationalism and Turkish nationalism which destroyed the fabric of the town. The boys are of course, birds without wings, and they are caught up in the violence of the conflict. There is no way that they can fly over their divisions. They are earthy and they are earthed – and they suffer the consequences of down to earth historical realities. Such realities can only be overcome by living through them.

We all have flights of fancy, don’t we? But at the end of the day there is no escaping the day to day challenges of our lives. We cannot rise above them, but have to engage with them. We can’t ignore them, because that would be irresponsible and careless.  We have to live with our circumstances, and through the events of our lives.

That is what Jesus leaves us to do. That is what Jesus leaves us for.

Left behind for good

The picture that Luke paints for us is a farewell scene, which might remind of us other partings, and snapshots of farewell greetings with the waving of hands, the dabbing of tears, the heartache and the parting words.

Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, but this goodbye scene is so different. It is not tinged in sadness, but explodes with joy, because Jesus’ parting words are full of promise. The promise is that the disciples, the God lovers, would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. That promise must have helped them to look forward with hope instead of looking backwards with sadness. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms all our partings and farewells since that good bye described by Luke and celebrated by us today on this Ascension Day. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a blessing for all those who mourn. It is the help we need to live through what seems to be the dead ends of our lives. It is the comfort to ….. It is the strength to overcome.

The disciples were indeed left behind, but left with joy “continually in the temple blessing God”. They were left behind for good.

The good they were left behind for was surely to live through their lives as witnesses, in a way that God’s blessing shone through. Their lives weren’t easy. They faced hardships, imprisonment, persecution and death. They were hard pressed on every side, but they lived through those times.

The good they were left behind for was to convey the spirit of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to prisoners, to help the blind to see and to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18f)

The good they were left behind for was to live through all of this, to keep their feet to the ground, to take the long walk through difficulties to freedom, down to earth, with feet of clay.

Like those God lovers, we have the same blessing – treasure in clay, earthenware pots. Is the challenge that Luke addressing to his dear readers just this: to be down to earth witnesses for all the earth by living through the tensions and challenges of our lives.

Have we been left behind for good? Has the church been left behind for good?

But this isn’t saddening. There is no reason to lose heart because of it.

This is the great farewell. This is the goodbye that gives all goodbyes hope and joy. This is the goodbye which spells out its meaning. “God be with you”, his spirit is with us.

Therefore, we go. We go in peace to love and serve the Lord, realising that it is now up to us.

Adapting a prayer of St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but ours.
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
ours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
ours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Ours are the hands, ours are the feet,
ours are the eyes, we are his body.
Christ has no body now but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but us,
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but us.

We are left behind for good, with his blessing and spirit.

Cerezo Barredo’s weekly gospel illustration

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