Several of my friends were sharing this cartoon on Facebook in the last few days. I think it encapsulates how we might regard the Ascension in the Methodist Church – or not regard it, as the case may be. We have an ‘Ascension Deficit Disorder.’
There are all sorts of reasons for this. I think we find the Ascension to be one of the more embarrassing miracles. Not only is it strange, it seems to offend against what we know of modern cosmology, and we find it hard to see the point of it. The healing miracles may also seem to go against science as we know it, but at least they seem to have a point – and a loving, compassionate one at that.
But the Ascension? What on earth is the use of it? Maybe we see it as some kind of divine blast-off, and we can’t get our heads around it. To us, heaven isn’t ‘up there’ in a literal sense, and so we chide those ancient people for their simplistic beliefs. For us, the Ascension is not like a 1960s episode of Thunderbirds, and Jesus’ final meetings with the disciples aren’t like Thunderbird 2 on the launchpad, ready to fly to rescue some people in terrible distress somewhere. In the past, when I have preached on the Ascension, I have explained it as what I call a ‘miracle of accommodation’, namely that Jesus had to be taken up into heaven in the sight of the disciples as the only way they would understand he was returning to heaven, even though heaven wasn’t literally up in the sky.
But Tom Wright has pointed out that the ancient Jews didn’t see the distinction between earth and heaven that way. In a sermon he preached six years ago, he said:
The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation.
One way and another, then, after the Resurrection, where God vindicated his Son and began his new creation, now in the Ascension we have the confirmation that Jesus is the rightful Lord of the universe. He is the Messiah, the King. And therefore when he gathers his disciples for final instructions, he does so as the one about to take his seat on the throne of creation. We should read his words as a king’s orders to his subjects. Certainly what Jesus says here can be read as decrees and requirements.
Firstly, he calls his disciples witnesses. He interprets the Old Testament Scriptures to them all here in the manner he did to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road, by showing how they pointed to his suffering, death and resurrection. But these are not just events in recent history: they have a meaning, importance and implications for all who hear. Thus Jesus goes on to say:
and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. (Verses 47-48)
The point is this: you have seen all this, disciples. You saw me betrayed and killed. You have met me since I rose from the dead. You know what these events mean about me. I am the true King. The world has been shown to be wrong about me. There is a question now of people showing true allegiance to me, since the Father has vindicated me and is about to enthrone me. You have seen this. You are witnesses. You have a responsibility to share what you have witnessed with others.
What kind of witnesses are we to the King? This last week, Debbie has received a letter, summoning her to jury service next month at the coroner’s court. It is clear that the jury would be sitting not on a trial but on an inquest. She is therefore likely to hear two kinds of witnesses. One is the expert witness, such as a doctor who describes the cause of death from a medical point of view. Another is the ordinary witness, who may have seen something crucial that happened.
Christian witness includes both kinds of witnesses. Not all of us are expert witnesses, and we do not all have to be. However, we are all ordinary witnesses, because we are witnesses to what he has done for us through those saving events of his death and resurrection.
You could use a different metaphor from ‘witness’, especially if you want to connect this specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as King. You could use the image Paul deploys in 2 Corinthians 5 of ‘ambassadors for Christ.’ We have a privilege and responsibility to speak on behalf of the King.
And it is significant that Jesus mentions ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ as part of the message. To be a witness to the king or an ambassador for him is to be entrusted with a message that calls all creation to align themselves with Jesus. That means turning away from the kingdom to which they are currently committed – the kingdom of darkness – and turning to Christ instead. Witnesses to his death and resurrection can do no less. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about how we do this, but that it is part of the task cannot be in doubt.
Secondly, Jesus the King calls his disciples to waiting. He has just given them a tremendous briefing. They must be on a knife edge. Perhaps they cannot wait to get going, out of excitement. But although he promises to equip them for the task, he tells them to wait:
I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Verse 49)
Jesus is going to put his reign into action through the disciples at Pentecost. His personal presence will be replaced by his personal power in the Holy Spirit. They will start living as the kingdom community, doing kingdom things, just like Jesus himself had done in his ministry before his death. They must be champing at the bit.
But they have to wait for that transfer from the presence of Jesus to the power of Jesus, that change of personnel from Jesus to his Spirit. Therefore the king’s order to them is, ‘wait.’
Is that so unreasonable? Our Queen has ‘ladies in waiting’ – women who wait for whenever she issues a command. The timing of the command, as well as its content, is up to Her Majesty.
Now you may say that there is an important difference between the first disciples and us. While they might have had to have waited for the Holy Spirit, we do not, because the Spirit has now been given, and receipt of the Spirit is a sign of Christian conversion. If you say that, you would be right in that particular case. The Spirit has indeed been given, and we do not have to wait like that.
However, there are many instances where Jesus in his kingly authority calls us to wait. We are not to act without his command. We are not to presume upon him and go charging off. He calls us to wait until he gives the order.
And to wait effectively means learning to be attentive. Just as the ladies in waiting have to be attentive to the Queen, so we need to learn the spiritual disciplines of attentiveness as we wait for instructions from heaven, earth’s control room. That means listening. I am far too good in prayer in rattling through the things I want to talk about and then stopping as if that were the end of prayer. But it isn’t. Not if I am to wait upon my Lord. Silence, solitude and retreat are all disciplines we need to practise if we are to be those who wait upon the King of kings.
Thirdly and finally, disciples of earth’s true king are committed to worshipping. Worship is the natural reaction to knowing that God has enthroned Jesus. Thus the reading ends:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Verses 50-53)
Kingship and worship go together. The Greek word most commonly translated ‘worship’ in the New Testament is proskuneo, which literally means, ‘to move towards and kiss.’ But what kind of kiss? It is the kiss of homage. The image is the ancient one of kissing a monarch as a sign of allegiance. It is still practised in a symbolic way today when new Prime Ministers and new Anglican bishops are appointed.
Worship, then, is emphatically not in the first instance about ‘singing what I like’. I am not saying that worship should not be enjoyable, but I am saying that the focus of worship is not about whether it scratches my back, it is not about whether I am ‘fed’ (because Christians should learn to feed themselves, anyway), it is not about whether it was ‘my favourite preacher’, and so on. All those criteria and more are me-centred. Worship is meant to be God-centred. We are paying homage to God. It is about a sense of awe, wonder and devotion to him, not about spiritual entertainment. We are disciples, not dilettantes.
On Bank Holiday Monday, we decided to visit Windsor. After sitting outside in the sun eating our packed lunch, we joined the queue for the castle. Having got in after an hour’s wait, we went around and eventually decided to visit the State Apartments. While following the prescribed route around them, Becky and I suddenly heard Debbie let out a gasp, and she called us urgently to where she and Mark were. They had just seen a car arrive, and the Queen get out of it with one of the corgis. They then saw the Queen walk the corgi to her official door into her living quarters. Unfortunately, Becky and I didn’t get over to them in time, and we missed out. Becky was upset. However much I tried to say to her that the Queen is just a normal human being like the rest of us, she knew she had missed out on something special. Her mum and brother had a sense of awe that they had seen the Sovereign.
And that is what we need to long for in worship: an awe at having encountered the Sovereign of all creation. Awe that does not concentrate on the amazing experience that we had, but awe that expresses our wonder at this Second Person of the Trinity, who now reigns until every enemy will have been put under his feet. To this King who now reigns we owe our loyalty.
It is something we have a chance to affirm formally at the climax of our service this morning. For we come to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Whatever else communion is, when we respond and take the bread and wine, that action is symbolic of our oath of allegiance to him who has ascended to reign over all. In the Roman Empire, the ‘sacramentum’ was the oath of allegiance taken by a soldier to the emperor. This morning, let us take our sacramentum, too.
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.
And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.
But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.
Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.
Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.
Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.
The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,
Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree
And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.
Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.
And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.
That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.
When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.
The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.
But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.
There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).
And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.
Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.
“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”
It’s a line from Toy Story 3. I’m sure several of you have seen the Toy Story animated films. Young Andy has a collection of toys, such as Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. But in the third and final instalment, Andy is growing up and no longer needs his old toys. They end up in day care, where a bear threatens to put them out with the rubbish, and mocks them for believing in Andy’s love. He tells them, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.”
Waiting. We see it negatively today. Waiting for something is a bad thing. That’s why we invented credit cards – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Ask a child whether she likes waiting, and you can guarantee an answer beginning with ‘no’. That maybe a sign of what an immature society we now have, when that childish attitude is reproduced so frequently among adults.
In contrast, many of you from older generations know the benefit of waiting. You saved up, you waited for marriage and you stood firm in the face of pressure. You know that waiting can be a good thing.
Today, as we begin this new sermon series on the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples of Jesus waiting. In between the Ascension and Pentecost, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. And while there is a sense in which we do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit any more, because all followers of Christ receive the Spirit when faith comes alive, we nevertheless go through periods of waiting for the Holy Spirit to work. So this morning’s theme of ‘Waiting for the Holy Spirit’ can still be relevant to our lives of faith today.
I want to suggest that when God makes us wait for the Holy Spirit, it is to focus us on what is important. How so? I find three ways in the reading.
Firstly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on our priorities. Listen again to the opening dialogue in the story:
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.” (Verses 6-8)
The disciples still think the Messiah came to sort out the land for Israel and to repel the Roman occupying forces. Jesus tells them basically they haven’t got the right priorities. Not that he isn’t interested in politics, but if their priorities are only about what’s in it for them, something is wrong. They need to wait for God’s priority of the Holy Spirit. Because living in the power of the Spirit will do more to bring in the kingdom of God than lusting after political favour.
Jesus tests our priorities by keeping us waiting. When we have nothing, know nothing, get nowhere and don’t have the foggiest reason why, he exposes our priorities and motives. They come to the fore, and Jesus says to us, “Are you concentrating on what matters for God’s kingdom?” The longer we wait for something to happen, the more we struggle with the life of faith not being full of zest, the more we find life in the church dry and difficult, the more Jesus asks questions of us. He wants to know who or what we are trusting in.
So think of those conversations we have about the decline of the church, when we reflect on the unbalanced age profile, full of older people and shorter on younger and middle-aged people. Jesus listens to those conversations where we wonder what miracle cure we might invoke. He listens when we consider trying the latest trendy religious idea that we’ve heard about.
And what does he say in reply? I think he says, you have your priorities wrong. You are not concentrating on the right things. You should be using the spiritual silence to wait and long for the Holy Spirit. He would ask us whether our priorities are to try something humanly clever, where the glory would go to us, or whether our priority is to wait in prayer, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Today should be a day when we decide that, however unpromising church life may be, we reject our lust for human priorities and say that we will not rush to solutions, we will wait on God for the Holy Spirit, because nothing matters more.
Secondly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on power. Jesus tells them,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (verse 8).
Here is a reason to wait: we don’t have the power, the Holy Spirit does. It is one of those humbling lessons for human beings.
In fact, I would say it is a much harder lesson for our generation than it was for the first disciples. Belief in God and a general dependence upon God was pretty well universal in their time. We live in the light of a western culture which over the last three hundred years or so has relegated God to the private sphere even when we do still believe in him. We have made science and reason the dominant powers and qualities. Many in our societies think they can provide the answers to everything, and this belief also infects people of faith. We come up with policies, programmes, techniques and reasoned statements.
And it’s not that science and reason are bad. We owe so much to them. Advances in medical knowledge have benefitted us all. Inventions in technology and communication have improved our lives. We should be grateful for innovations like these. We would not want to turn back the clock.
But any idea that science and reason are the answers to everything in life should be tempered by other considerations. These same disciplines have also given us the horrors of nuclear weapons and the devastation of environmental destruction.
And that is to say nothing about other aspects of power. Political power has the ability to achieve much good, but we also know its tendency towards corruption. So surely when Jesus says, “You will receive power” we should see that as good news. Because the power of the Holy Spirit is the power seen in the life of Jesus himself. It is the power best demonstrated in humility and human weakness. It is the power that works to bless the poor and needy. It is the power that raises up the humble and dethrones the proud. Uneducated fishermen lead a revolution, and the wealthy and educated establishment can do nothing to prevent them.
Now if that is the case, why on earth are we satisfied with the limited promises of human power? Why do we run the church on the same values as the rest of the world? Why in our inpatient hurry do we default to the ways of the world?
Often we take heart from the ordinariness and the frailty of Jesus’ disciples when we fail. But maybe we could see something else in their story. As well as joy and relief that we are forgiven like them, could not also be encouraged and challenged by the fact that these ordinary, mundane people were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
If that is the case, then why do we keep rushing into the ways of human power? If we want to work for God’s kingdom, then we need God’s power for that. If we don’t have that power now, then we hold back. We wait. We wait on God.
Which leads me to the third theme that waiting on the Holy Spirit means: prayer. If we need to align our priorities with God’s, and if we need to seek God’s power rather than ours, then our waiting needs to be characterised by prayer. We don’t just wait: we wait on God.
That’s what we see the disciples doing:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 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* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Verses 12-14)
They ‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ Here is true waiting for the Holy Spirit. Prayer.
Now this needs careful handling. The moment a preacher starts to emphasise prayer in a sermon, all sorts of things can go wrong. It can turn into a guilt trip. How easy it is to say that we don’t pray enough. And of course that isn’t just the congregation: that’s true of the preachers as well. We can impose guilt without offering positive hope, because we are often not up to much in this area, either. Besides, some listeners will say, “Are you suggesting I don’t pray? Of course I pray!”
So let me say this. I recall the words of a favourite Local Preacher in the circuit where I grew up. He was regularly the most challenging preacher to fill a pulpit there. When he said something to stir us up in a sermon, he often added this comment: “I never challenge you without first challenging myself.” Hence, what I preach here I say as much to myself as to you.
What I’d like us to notice is not simply that ‘they prayed’, but that ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (my emphasis). We’re not talking about a few short, simple daily prayers here: those first disciples made a radical commitment to prayer.
Now that will take on different forms in our varying circumstances of life. Depending on work, family life and so on, we shall each have different ways of demonstrating our devotion to prayer. But as R T Kendall says, “If we don’t have some system, we never get around to it.”
What is certain is that our attitude to prayer cannot be perfunctory. We look down on children’s prayers that sometimes don’t get much beyond “Lord, bless me and my family,” but in truth too many of our adult prayers are no deeper. It can be very telling what requests are put in a church intercessions book – and what requests don’t make it to the book. We want prayers for ourselves and our loved ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it feels little different from an adult version of that child’s “Bless me, bless my family” prayer.
The challenge is to go beyond – to be ‘constantly devoting [ourselves] to prayer’ in the waiting time. Prayer for the Holy Spirit, I would suggest. Because we recognise we cannot live by our priorities, and need to align our lives with the priorities of God. Because we also recognise the bankruptcy of depending on human power, and know that the only thing which will turn around our lives and our churches is the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
So can we make a simple commitment today? A commitment to wait for God, and to wait on God in prayer. A commitment so to pray that it is less about asking God to bless us than asking God to reorder our priorities after his, and where we ask him to help us lay down our reliance on human power in favour of the Holy Spirit’s power. Can we make a commitment to wait in prayer for the power of God, the Holy Spirit?
Because nothing less than that is needed for the health of our churches and our witness to God’s saving love in Christ.
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.
When somebody leaves a job, we normally buy them presents. When I left my office to study Theology, my friends bought me a set of mugs, given the image of students sitting around drinking.
But when a ministerial colleague left the first circuit in which I served, he reversed the custom. Before Ken left to follow his calling as a prison chaplain, he gave gifts to all the staff. I still remember that he gave me a book by Henri Nouwen, the (since deceased) Dutch Roman Catholic priest.
And today’s reading is about parting gifts. It’s about parting gifts, given by the one who was going to leave. On this Sunday after Ascension, we go back to a passage where Jesus promised what he would give his disciples when he left them. What did Jesus leave his first disciples – and, by implication, us?
The first gift is one that effectively says, I’m not really going.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Verses 23-24)
Physically I’m going, says Jesus, but the Father and I will be present in your lives. It’s rather more than what we mean when we say we will be with someone in spirit: Jesus and the Father will actually be present spiritually, in a way ordinary humans cannot be.
So Jesus is saying this isn’t a complete going away. You won’t be bereaved, I’ll just be present in a different way, in some sense a better way. Not only will Jesus be present with those he shares his earthly life, he will be present with all disciples. And further, it won’t just be Jesus who is present, but the Father, too.
Hence, all the wistful, romantic views about how wonderful it would be to have walked with Jesus along the shores of Galilee are punctured. Jesus says, this way is better. It is more blessèd for him to ascend and then come spiritually with the Father to all disciples. Let those of us who have never physically seen Jesus view ourselves as second-class Christians.
This, then, is a beautiful gift for the parting Jesus to give. He and the Father will be spiritually present with all Christians. There is no distinction between superior and inferior disciples. All are valued, and this is shown by the divine presence in all followers of Jesus.
There is, however, a challenge that goes with this first parting gift. Jesus associates this gift of divine presence with obedience to his word. To repeat the quote I just gave, Jesus says that the promise of his and the Father’s presence is to ‘Those who love me [who] will keep my word’ (verse 23), and in contrast ‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (verse 24).
What do we make of this? Is Jesus making it some kind of condition that he and the Father will only come to those who are goody-goodies? If so, it’s hardly some kind of gift. In that case, rather than a gift, their presence becomes some kind of reward or payment. You could say their presence would be more like wages for doing the right thing.
But I don’t think it is that. Jesus is setting this parting gift in the context of a relationship based on love. When people love one another, they both want to be with each other and they want to do what pleases the other party. That is what is going on here: both a close presence (‘we will come to them and make our home with them’) and a desire to please (‘Those who love me will keep my word’).
Put all that together, and what have you got? You’ve got a relationship where one party is going away, with all the potential heartache of a parting. But you have something there that cannot be paralleled in ordinary human relationships, in the way that Jesus and the Father will spiritually make themselves present in the lives of disciples. Our part is in love to ‘keep’ the words of Jesus.
That word ‘keep’ is interesting. It isn’t just about obeying, although it includes that. We keep the words of those we love. Think of a couple who are going out together, and especially if they live miles from each other, they will keep one another’s words. Letters will be kept, emails will be filed away, and especially when they are apart the correspondence will come out and someone will pore over it for nuances of their beloved’s thoughts and feelings. Only in the light of that devoted reading will they then act, because they have learned what pleases the one they love.
I’m sure I don’t have to ram home a spiritual application too hard after that. Keeping Jesus’ word means reading what he has said to us in a spirit of devotion, because we love him and he loves us. As we do so, we gain a feel for what pleases him, and we then set out to please him. All this brings him (and the Father) closer.
The second gift comes in verses 25 to 26. We’ve had Jesus and the Father, now we receive the Holy Spirit:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Let’s pick up on that word ‘Advocate’. Other translations say ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’. Which one is right? All of them. And more. It’s one of those rich Greek words in the New Testament: paraklétos, and because it is so layered with meaning some people like to leave it virtually untranslated as ‘Paraclete’. If you did translate it literally, it would be something like this: ‘one called alongside’. So you can see why English versions opt for words like ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper’.
However, paraklétos had a particular application in the legal world. It referred to ‘a helper in court’. And from that you can see why some English translators choose words such as ‘Counsellor’ (think of ‘learned counsel’ in our legal parlance) or ‘Advocate’ (especially if you think of that word’s use in the Scottish legal system).
Add to this ‘helper in court’ Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (verse 26), and you get something like this. The Holy Spirit is the helper in court who reminds us what Jesus says. You could say, then, that the Holy Spirit here is Jesus’ helper. He is an advocate for Jesus to us. He helps us hear that word we are longing to pore over in our relationship of love with Jesus. On our own we cannot hear the word of Jesus. Even if we read it in the pages of Scripture, it just doesn’t jump off the page and sink into our being. But the work of the Holy Spirit makes the difference. Not that it then always becomes easy to hear the word of Jesus, but the Spirit makes it possible and real.
If you stretch the legal language a little further, then perhaps there is a particular time when the Spirit does this for us. If there is a ‘court’ context, then perhaps this is a promise that the Holy Spirit will especially help us receive the word of Jesus when we are ‘on trial’ for our faith. Not necessary literally on trial, although that is true for so many Christians around the world, but when we are under pressure, facing difficulties or opposition, the Holy Spirit comes to us and makes the message of Jesus clear to us.
This, then, is the second parting gift from Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us hear his word in order to dwell on it and please him, but especially in times of stress he will make the voice of Jesus clear to us.
The third and final (at least in this passage) gift is peace. Verse 27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It’s a verse I often read at Methodist funerals, and I hoe it provides comfort to people in the deepest sorrow. It’s a verse I’ve applied to my own life at times of great nervousness. This may seem trivial compared to bereavement, but when I first took my driving test I was a bag of nerves. My foot beat time on the clutch – so much for the three-point turn – and I was in such a state that I pulled in behind a bus, waited for it to move off, completely oblivious to the fact that it was at a terminus, having completed its route. The second time I took my driving test, I wanted to avoid being a nervous wreck again and I memorised this verse. I was duly calm, and performed well in the test.
Except I didn’t pass. I sustained a puncture a quarter of a mile from the end of the test route. Although I had completed all the statutory manoeuvres, the examiner refused to proceed to the Highway Code test (no written exam in those days) and gave me a ‘no result’!
So we tend to apply this verse about Jesus’ promise to give a parting gift of peace in rather personal, if not individual terms. Yet however valid that is, I have been struck this week by the thought that Jesus might originally have meant it in a different way.
Jesus doesn’t simply give this gift of peace to individuals here, but to a group – his disciples. Some of our conventional understanding of this verse will still make sense in terms of the Ascension – if they are troubled by the thought of Jesus’ departure, he will calm them. Likewise, if they are under pressure, if not in a ‘court’ situation, then the gift of peace alongside the Spirit’s work will be invaluable. But I suspect he means more.
If it is peace in the midst of a group, then is Jesus not saying that peace should characterise his disciples? Should we not be known as a community of peace? By that, I don’t mean that we never have arguments, nor that we sweep our differences under the carpet. I mean that our life together as Christian community is one of harmony, healing, well-being and justice. Is that what we are like?
The other night I went to hear Sam Norton, the vicar of Mersea Island, speak at Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society. During his talk, he showed us a photo of the Amish community in the United States, and we remembered the terrible murder committed in their midst by an outsider a couple of years ago and how they pulled together in forgiveness. That, surely, was a Christian community that had practised the gift of peace given to them by Jesus and then when the crisis hit it was more natural to them to practise it also when under strain.
In other words, if we receive the parting gift of peace from Jesus, we need to put it into practice. It is no good just waiting for the crisis. We need to turn things into regular habits. The regular practice of peace will make us what one writer calls ‘the peaceable kingdom’. And by that I don’t mean simply sharing ‘The Peace’ at Holy Communion as we shall do in a few minutes: I mean the habits of peace that involve forgiveness, reconciliation, believing the best of one another and so on.
In conclusion, Jesus gives us a word about joy at the thought of his forthcoming departure:
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Verses 28-29)
You wouldn’t normally mark the departure of a loved one with joy for yourselves, even if you were happy for them. But if the departure of Jesus means parting gifts like these – a loving relationship with him and the Father sustained by deep love and keeping his word, the Holy Spirit bringing the word of Jesus to us even in the most testing of situations and finally a communal peace – then do we not have every reason to be joyful that Jesus departed the earth for the right hand of the Father?
A neighbour of ours three doors down periodically changes her photo on Facebook. For a long time it was a snap of her with the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi. Then it became a picture of her with the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. Michelle looks very happy and relaxed with them. They look pretty happy with her. It does rather help the matter that Michelle is quite glamorous!
Me, I’m not so sure I’d look as cool and laid back with a famous person as she does. Not that I’m terribly interested in handsome male rock stars or actors; I just have to fend off Debbie’s regular ribbing because I once commented how pretty one of the teachers at our children’s school is!
However, as I said, I don’t think I’d be as relaxed as Michelle. I think if I met a hero, or a famous beautiful woman, I think I would be a blubbering mess. How journalists keep their cool to interview well-known people, I don’t know.
All of which makes me rather like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration. When he offers to make three dwellings – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – Luke comments that he didn’t know what he was saying (verse 33). He’s overwhelmed, and he says something stupid. He’d like to preserve the moment or turn it into something he knows and can cope with – the three dwelling places he proposes are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
But he’s missed the significance of the event as a result of his blubbering, and needs correction. That takes him into the terrifying experience in the cloud, where he hears the frightening, correcting voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Verse 35) Don’t get blubbery about Moses and Elijah: listen to Jesus!
And I want to take that as an entry point into thinking about the Transfiguration today. It’s a traditional reading for the last Sunday before Lent, and I want us to look at how it shows Jesus as being superior to Moses and Elijah.
Firstly, Jesus’ superiority to Moses. So you book your dream holiday. You pay the deposit. You renew your passports. A couple of months before going, you pay the balance. A week before the off, you return to the travel agent to pick up your tickets and your currency. A day or two beforehand, you pack your luggage. Everything is ready for your departure.
And the Transfiguration is about a departure – especially in the connection with Moses. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, we read
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Verse 31)
His departure. Why the Moses connection? Because there’s an Old Testament book called ‘Departure’. It’s just that we know it by its Greek name: Exodus. The story of Moses leading God’s people to freedom from Egypt. When Luke writes about Jesus’ departure here, it is in the Greek his exodos. Moses’ departure was a liberation, Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’ from Jerusalem will be a liberation, too. But because Jesus is superior to Moses, his liberation will be superior, too.
If it’s Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem, then clearly we’re talking about his death, resurrection and ascension. That departure brings liberation. Jesus has been pointing the way to his future suffering and has said that disciples need to take up their crosses and follow him. Now we begin to understand that what is coming is a freedom event. The Cross will bring freedom. Jesus’ departure in his death is not a tragic event, as I once heard a Methodist church steward call it in the vestry before a Good Friday service. It is sacrificial love for the blessing of the world. Yes, it is agony and injustice. But it is also true heroism.
Now if this is the case, then we have to see the Transfiguration as more than we have often interpreted it. We know that the disciples come back down from the mountain to the challenges of everyday life. Hence we say that you can’t live on ‘mountain-top experiences’ all the time, you have to get on with ordinary living again. But if the Transfiguration points to Jesus’ departure at the Cross, it isn’t about coming down from a ‘high’ to face the mundane and the routine again. Rather, it’s about Jesus being strengthened to face his coming trial.
So if Jesus is being strengthened to face the trial of the Cross here, perhaps this event is similar to one or two others in the Gospels. It might be like the powerful spiritual experience he had at his baptism with the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove and – again – a voice from heaven affirming him, immediately before the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to fast and conquer temptation. It might be like the way he was mysteriously strengthened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with his forthcoming betrayal and suffering. No wonder we read this on the last Sunday before Lent.
Isn’t it wonderful, then, that Jesus needed to be strengthened before he faced trials, including the greatest of all? And if that’s the case, then perhaps we might interpret our own ‘mountain-top experiences’ differently. They may not simply be a boost before we get back to the grind; they may be God’s way of equipping us for whatever difficulties are coming our way, particularly those where we end up in a painful place because of our faith. Perhaps God has a blessing for us in Christ that will give us the fortitude to face our trials, or perhaps we can look back at problematic times in our lives and see that before then God prepared us with a blessing. He may have given us our own mini-transfigurations. Not in the sense of exalting who we are – he only does that for Jesus – but in empowering and encouraging us.
Secondly, Jesus’ superiority to Elijah. How does Elijah connect with Jesus’ departure? The Moses connection is quite easy to see when you think of the word ‘exodus’, but it’s less easy to see why Elijah should be hanging out with Jesus now, and the particular way in which Jesus is superior to him.
However, there is a link between Jesus’ departure at Jerusalem and Elijah, and it goes like this. For Jews, Elijah was the great prophet of the end-time deliverance. He was the one who was expected to appear before God’s Messiah. You may recall there was a hoo-hah in the Gospels as to whether John the Baptist was Elijah come back from the dead to precede the Messiah. All this means that Elijah was the figure of hope. He signified to Jewish minds that God would make all things right, just and whole in his kingdom. Hence the theme of hope.
That may well have been why Peter almost thoughtlessly suggested the building of three booths, like the Feast of Tabernacles, as I said, because that festival was also known as the Feast of Ingathering, and looked forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter’s mistake was just to see Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.
But the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35), because Jesus is superior even to Elijah. So we must infer that Jesus brings a superior hope at his departure.
I suggest we find that in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus will be raised physically from the dead. His body will be restored to him in a new way. Jesus’ resurrection body is the beginning of God’s new creation. God will make all things new, and he begins with his own Son. Elijah might be a sign or symbol of hope, but Jesus is more than that: his own resurrection body embodies our hope, even guarantees our hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
So death may and will come, but it doesn’t get the last laugh. God does. We wait in heaven, in what looks from earth like the sleep of death, but one day the Great Surprise will happen when God raises us from the dead and renews his creation. Elijah can teach us much, but only the Son of God can teach us all this. The Christian who dies trusting in Christ does so in peace, because Jesus fills her with hope in ways no-one else can.
And then there’s the ascension, Jesus’ final bodily departure from Jerusalem, reminiscent of the way Elijah left this world yet – again – superior to it. He ascends to the Father’s right hand, where he will reign until everything has been put under his feet. This is the part of hope that sustains us until God makes all things new, when the new Jerusalem descends and all creation is renewed.
The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.
But the Ascension reminds us that Jesus is reigning, even while rebellion takes place against his rule. Battles may be won or lost, but in the final analysis Christ is on the throne. To say that Christ is not reigning because there is still sin in the world would be like saying there cannot be a government in power because crime is still being committed.
In conclusion, then, Jesus at the Transfiguration offers us awesome hope. The liberation of the Cross, the hope in the Resurrection of God’s new creation and the assurance of his reign through the Ascension. Moses and Elijah may have been good, but Jesus outranks them everywhere.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘Any study of Christ must begin in silence.’ No wonder we read that
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Verse 36)
Sometimes I’m all for the response to a sermon being in words and deeds after the service. Today, maybe like Peter, James and John, our best response might just be awed silence at the majesty of Christ.
‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)
That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!
There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.
You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.
Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.
But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.
One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good.
But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.
Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?
Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?
The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music.
So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.
In my last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set.
Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’
Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.
There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.
I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?
As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.
‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.
Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.
So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.
And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.
Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?
It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.
If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.
There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]
May we worship like that.