You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!
The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.
So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.
So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.
The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)
He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.
And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’
It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.
But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.
In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.
So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.
The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:
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. (Verse 8 )
Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.
In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.
No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?
Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.
So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.
If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.
At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.
The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 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.” (Verses 10-11)
This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.
Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.
Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.
Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.
What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.
Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.
Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?
Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.