Mission that ends ends: preaching from Ascension to Pentecost

This is a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leamington for Easter 7(A), the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. (I am hoping it will be the first in a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts.)

The text is Acts 1:6-14.

When we were finding our way round, when we moved to Leamington nearly two years ago, people kept telling us, “you don’t want to go to Coventry”. 

Apologies to those of you who live in Coventry. Never mind. People will be flocking to Coventry if they beat Luton in the play off final next Saturday, possibly taking the place of my team in the Premier League.

It was a punishment to be “sent to Coventry*. Being sent to Coventry meant people turned their back on you, refused to talk to you, shunned you. 

The origin of the sentence probably dates back to the 1640’s to the English Civil War. Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry which was a parliamentarian stronghold. They were not received warmly by the locals. That’s what happened when they were sent to Coventry.

Samaria from this morning’s reading is the Coventry of its day. “You don’t want to go to Samaria” would have been the equivalent for the Jewish people who found a way round Samaria rather than going through it. Part of the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the hero is a Samaritan and that there was a Samaritan that could be called good.

But Jesus puts Samaria on the mission map, along with everywhere else that was considered off limits.

According to Luke, these are the last words of Jesus before his ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Yes – to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!

Before this, the disciples ask Jesus this question: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus refuses to give a direct answer. It was an old question, reflecting the old troubles of nationalism brought on by too narrow a view of God’s love. 

Instead of a direct answer to their question, Jesus gives them his last word: a promise of power as witnesses, not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but even in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

These last words of Jesus are the first words in the beginning of the church’s missionary journey, a journey which takes us further that we could ever imagine, and a journey which undermines any boundaries which prevent God’s love reaching where God desires, to the ends of the earth.

To the ends of the earth – that is beyond the boundaries, the borders and margins of our current imaginations, undermining any attachment to nationalism, undermining the certainties and conservatism of our belief systems. Guy Garvey of Elbow sings (in Come On, Blue), love transcends anything that ever ends. Love transcends anything that ever ends, including the ends, limits, boundaries set by our imaginations and culture. 

Jesus’s words, to the ends of the earth, would be far too one-dimensional if we were only to think geographically about the extent of God’s mission, as if the first disciples had a map of the world at their disposal.

To the ends of the earth is about love’s reach. Think sociologically, think psychologically, not just geographically, think musically, think any way you can – to the ends of the earth, as far as your eye can see, and further – that is where the love of God goes, that is where the love of God comes again and again.

Think psychologically about the ends of the earth, those who are on the very edge, those in the darkest places, those in self harm’s way, those bombarded with cruel internal voices – this is where God’s love goes.

Think as peacemakers – or, better, live as peacemakers. Who have we made enemies? This is where God’s love takes us.

Think socio-economically about the ends of the earth. Who are in the margins? Who’s all at sea unable to make safety on land? To the ends of the earth – encompassing all ages, including children and young people (and it was good to hear about our partnership with Thrive from Ryan last Sunday), including those in their dying days. To the ends of the earth – encompassing enemies, strangers and those we’ve thought beyond the pale. Think the extent from cradle to grave, from prison cell to hospice bed, from palace to hovel, this is where God’s love goes.

To the ends of the earth is the scope of God’s love and the measure of God’s desire. Love isn’t just for Israel but for everyone in God’s creation. Love reaches far beyond our borders and boundaries, undermining those borders and boundaries, challenging wherever we draw the line between who’s ruled in and who’s ruled out, who’s right and who’s wrong.

The Book of Acts is often described as a book of beginnings. Our reading comes from the beginning of this book of beginnings. They are Jesus’ last words which become the first words of mission. To the ends of the earth – anything less doesn’t do justice to the desire and power of God. These are Jesus’ last words which last till the end of time, to the ends of the earth.

Acts reports the early days of mission, on the troubles Jesus’ followers got into on this journey. In the beginnings of this mission Luke shows us all the old certainties being cast to the wind, to the violent wind of Pentecost. He excitedly shows us people of all sorts being joined by the Holy Spirit, their differences and disputes being resolved by the wisdom and love which constitute God’s mission. 

He shows us what these first words of mission means as he spotlights the boundaries undermined by God’s mission and those affected by them. These include boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and religion.

Love still struggles against the same borders and boundaries we see beginning to be undermined in Acts, which is why I suggest these days of our lives are still the first days of mission. 

This is the beginning where we have to cast our old certainties to the wind, one of the old certainties being that we aren’t fit for such a tall order of mission. Who am I for such a thing? We are bound by the voices which say we’re not good enough, we’re not clever enough and we know we’re not confident enough.

BUT. Luke tells the story of two men in white who ask the disciples, “why do you stand here looking at the sky”. The disciples had seen Jesus ascend, they’d seen him go. But they kept on looking where he’d gone, where he was no more. The two men in white redirect the gaze of the church. They’re saying, don’t look where he’s disappeared, look for where he comes again.

It’s seeing where he comes again which encourages us and heartens us. 

It is when we see him coming again as we break bread together, as we listen for his word in preaching, teaching and prayer, as we see the wonderful work of reconciliation that we become inspired for the joy of mission, and joined by

the Spirit who makes herself known as the strengthener, the encourager and the comforter, empowering us to reach beyond our comfort zone.

We never know how we are going to be turned out. There isn’t one way of joining mission. There’s no stereotype. 

Paraphrasing Paul, there’s a whole variety of gifts, there’s a whole variety of services, there’s a whole range of activities in the mission of God so some of us will turn out to be wise counsellors, others will become healers, others will have gifts for administration, some will become great encouragers, some will become teachers, or nurses, or the sort of heartening person we are always delighted to meet on our streets, or the shy person who thinks deeply and critically about the way things are. 

When praying in God’s mission none of us ever knows who we are going to turn out to be.

Going back to Coventry. The night of November 14th/15th 1940 must have seemed like the end of the world as 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Coventry, destroying 43,000 homes, 71 factories, the city centre, 2 hospitals, 2 churches, killing 560 people and injuring over 1000 more. 

The Provost of the ruined cathedral, Richard Howard, witnessed Jesus’ words as he chalked his words Father, forgive them on the Cathedral’s sanctuary walls. 

He can’t have known how that would turn out to open up a whole ministry of reconciliation with what happened in Coventry as its capital. Nor could he have known that his words, (Jesus’ words) would be the first words of a missionary journey that has taken the Coventry Cross of Nails to the ends of the earth, to so many situations of conflict.

In those days, the days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, the men and women gathered together, didn’t know how they were going to be turned out, and how their mission would turn out. Neither did Provost Howard. Neither do we as we wait and pray, with our eyes trained not on where Jesus has disappeared, but on where he comes again in the triumphs of love as well as our falls from grace.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Note: Acts 1:1-11 is read in churches on Ascension Day and Acts 1:6-14 is read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year A)