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Sermon: The Church Of The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

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.

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Healing In Essex

Well, what a great day I’ve had. I serve on the committee of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, and today was our AGM. You wouldn’t think an AGM made for a great day, would you? Well, we did the business – accounts, elections and so on – in thirty minutes over lunch. The rest of the day was a wonderful conference, led by John and Gillian Ryeland from the Christian Healing Mission in London.

Now I ought to declare a connection before going any further: Gillian is a friend of mine from teenage days. (Note, Gillian, if you read this – I didn’t say old friend!) We went to the same secondary school, and before she married an Anglican vicar she was a member of the same Methodist circuit where I grew up. We were in a circuit youth preaching team together, where I gained my first experience of leading worship and preaching. I have met her and John on and off over the years – usually at the Christian Resources Exhibition!

Today, John gave us a series of talks called ‘Meeting Jesus – Finding Healing’. You can find MP3s of these talks when John gave them on an earlier occasion here. Essentially, John’s teaching could be broken down into a rough structure, something like this. The first stage was to remind us thoroughly that God the Father, Abba, dearly loves us. He took various word images from Ephesians 1 to reinforce this.

The story I most liked was an illustration he gave of forgiveness. He said that many people pictured the way God takes away our sins as if they are a document he takes out of our hands and places in a filing cabinet. They are not on view, but when we sin again and are forgiven, another document goes into that cabinet. The file gets bigger, and God can bring out the whole file to accuse us. This, however, is contradictory to the scriptural notion that God ‘remembers our sins no more’. Rather than put our sins in a filing cabinet, he said, the office equipment God uses is a shredder. I love that: our sins are shredded.

Having begun with the Father’s love, John’s second stage was to raise our expectation that we may meet with Jesus and hear him speak to us. Quoting John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice’, he encouraged us to be more optimistic that we can hear the voice of Jesus. Without wishing us to lack discernment, he said that many Christians are more afraid of deception than they are expectant that Jesus will speak to them.

That led to a third stage of interaction with Jesus. If he has spoken, what is our response? It puts the focus away from the problem and onto Christ. It takes us away from agonising over the will of God, because everything is a response to God. Christ sets the agenda.

All this he built into a prayer model that we can use for ourselves or to accompany someone who comes with a prayer request. Firstly using volunteers and later encouraging us to try this with each other in pairs, the prayer minister encourages the person with the need to dwell quietly on the love of God the Father for them. This was like brief, guided prayer. Then the prayer minister asks the person to sense where Jesus is. Some could describe that geographically (“He is right here”, indicating with a hand). Others did so by describing something they sensed or saw in their mind’s eye. Then the prayer minister encourages the person to hear what Jesus is saying to them. This is followed by considering how to respond to that.

I have described the method briefly. This is a summary of three talks, so about two hours’ worth of material. There are some obvious caveats to apply, but I found it a helpful, simple and liberating approach. I had two experiences where I had a clear encounter with Jesus, and he said significant things to me about a major crisis I have been facing over a period of months. I’m afraid I can’t give you any specifics here, because the nature of the issue is that it’s one I can’t discuss publicly. What I can say is, be encouraged. I hope this commends the Christian Healing Mission to you.

Christian Resources Exhibition

As trailled yesterday, I drove to the Christian Resources Exhibition today. Why do a round trip of around 150 miles once a year? Isn’t it just today’s equivalent to the moneychangers in the Temple?

It could be, but I don’t use it like that. I asked a treasurer at one church and stewards at another what they might like me to look out for, so I took a list. That helped me focus on where to spend my time and where just to smile and walk on quickly. I did end up talking to other people, not least some companies I hadn’t previously seen on the church website scene, but I could largely concentrate and easily not lose time on some stalls.

What was I seeking? Two of my churches face problems now in having a musician available for every service. I obtained some details about electronic reproduction of hymns and worship songs. Hymn Technology were plugging their HT-300 Hymnal Plus, and that might well be a good solution for one of the churches. DM Music (whom I’ve used for various things in both previous circuits) are still selling affordable MIDI file players from Roland. We bought one for a church in my last circuit. They have become more sophisticated now and will also handle MP3s, but are good for churches on a tight budget. The guy was also honest, in that once I said we owned a Yamaha Clavinova keyboard, he said we didn’t need the MIDI player if it were a modern Clav; we just needed to buy the MIDI files of the particular hymns and put them on a USB memory stick, because today’s Clavs have USB ports and we could play the files that way.

My other search target was unsuccessful, though: one church wanted information about communion kneelers and pulpit falls. I could have obtained all sorts of information about vestments and the like, but not about these. I’m sure we’ll track down what we want through other means, though.

There were a few personal interests I wanted to look up. I always like the bookstalls, but resisted this year. Partly that was because I have several books piled up from the sabbatical, partly it was because brutally in an Internet age the deals weren’t that good. I know that will sound awful to some Christian booksellers who will rightly point out that Amazon is not a ministry, but a minister whose wife is not in paid employment only has so many pennies and cost becomes a real factor for us. (And I do support the local Christian bookshops whenever possible: the Diocesan Resources Centre is a mine of information; the other bookshop is the local agent for IVP’s Leadership Book Club, so they get some orders from me, too, when the good books aren’t too Calvinist!)

I also wanted to see the stall for the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on whose committee I serve. They were at the show for the first time, and getting encouraging responses. It was also pleasing to see them in a section with other healing ministries, with whom there was an evident good rapport rather than competition. 

I took my rucksack as a disincentive to those exhibitors who want to thrust large plastic bags into your hand. There is a certain environmental unfriendliness to the exhibition in that respect.

But one aspect of the CRE always makes it a pleasure. I always bump into old friends, I just don’t know who it’s going to be from year to year. Today, I saw three old friend, all of whom had connections with my last appointment. Adam used to be the curate at one of my ecumenical churches; he’s been an incumbent for several years now. Bernard was my technical whizz at another church, always able to come up with some amazing Heath Robinson contraption to solve an electrical problem. And Peter, a pastor, missionary and international evangelist. He travels to Uganda, India and other places, eschewing the big conurbations to take the Gospel to obscure rural areas.

Yet this year, there was one other meeting with a friend. Someone I’ve known through blogging for a few years, but never met before. Dave Warnock. It’s funny how you have an image of a person before you meet them, and find you’re wrong. In Dave’s case, I did have an image: there’s a photo of him on his blog. Somehow, though, I’d wrongly projected that into an idea of him as taller and thinner than he is. (No, Dave, I’m not saying you’re fat, just that I was wrong.) And somehow from his writing, I didn’t expect such an extravert!

It reminded me there are all sorts of ways in which we wrongly extrapolate in church life and outside. How tempting to fill in the missing details, only to be hopelessly wrong!

How Determining Is Disappointment?

Today, I have undertaken my last ministerial duties before I start that sabbatical I keep talking about. I attended a meeting this morning of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on which I sit as the official Methodist representative. 

Before our mercifully brief AGM, we had an hour and a half trailing a major conference to be held on 4th April at Chelmsford Cathedral, where there will be various workshops on the healing ministry in various forms. A couple of our guest speakers were present to give us a flavour of their input on the day. One was my friend Anthony Rose, author of ‘Stranger On The Shore‘, an account of his struggle with emotional healing. The other was Paul Harcourt, vicar of All Saints Woodford Wells.

Paul is bringing a team to the conference to talk about their extensive practice of offering the healing ministry with the laying on of hands. His brief talk this morning was thoughtful. He talked about how many of us set off into something like the healing ministry with great enthusiasm and passion, but then disappointments set in. We have to be realistic about brokenness and the incompleteness of God’s kingdom, he said, referring not least to his own autistic son. But, he said, how many of us let the disappointments shape everything? They provide necessary colour and shade, and they qualify unremitting triumphalism. But should they be the determining factor in our understanding or interpretation?

And I just had a brief thought that the experience of disappointment doesn’t just affect an area like the healing ministry. Disappointments in all sorts of areas need handling carefully. We need them to inform a proper realism, but when they quench faith and we rewrite faith on a basis that we should expect little or nothing at all, then something has gone seriously wrong.

Does this resonate with you? Are there aspects of life and faith where disappointment has distorted faith instead of informing it? What do you think?