Power and encouragement: a sermon for Ascension Sunday

Scripture Readings: Acts 1: 1-11

Ephesians 1:15-23

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In the dim and distant past, when I was applying to train to become a minister, I asked a clergyman I knew well to write one of the references I was going to need. He read my application, and wrote me a reference (which must have been good enough!). But he made a comment that haunted me. He had read what I said about my personal faith in the application, and said to me, ‘There’s a lot about God in there. But you didn’t say what Jesus meant to you. Who is Jesus for you, Peter?’ That’s a question I’ve tried to live with ever since: ‘Who is Jesus for me?’ Ever since, I’ve tried to measure my Christian life and my ministry against my answers to that question.

I’d like to ask all of you that question today: Who is Jesus for you? I ask it, because as you will see from the letter we handed out this morning, our Kirk Session is asking serious questions about the future of our congregation. We are going to be asked to think hard, to discuss issues we’d rather avoid, to make decisions which may be controversial or painful for us. You will be wondering what the future holds. Much that you took for granted may seem to be threatened. You may feel emotional, sad, angry even.

But among all that, I want to all to ask yourselves first of all: ‘Who is Jesus for you?’ That might not sound a very relevant question right now. But I want to suggest that it is an absolutely fundamental question for us all today.

This is the Sunday after Ascension, the day when many Christians remember the story of the Jesus’ ascending into heaven. Actually, Ascension Day in the Western Catholic church is on a Thursday, for some reason. But we Protestants can avoid it if we like, because there are other readings we can use for the Seventh Sunday of Easter instead. And that’s a great temptation, because it’s a really strange story. Jesus, who has been executed on a cross and risen from the dead, has a final conversation with his disciples. Then, Luke tells us, ‘After saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight’. This is weird stuff, and seems hardly relevant for modern people.

But as we think, today, about where we are as a congregation, and as we ponder that question, ‘Who is Jesus for you’, this story might just be very relevant. It’s an attempt, I think, to try to deal with the questions like, ‘what happened after the resurrection?’Where did Jesus go? What’s he doing now? And who is Jesus, for you, for me and the church?’

The early church had, I think, a strong sense of Christ’s presence among them. With bread and wine, they celebrated the presence of the risen Christ. They spoke about the Holy Spirit as the presence of Christ among them. In baptism, they believed that they were connected to Christ in a deep, personal way. In preaching and teaching, Jesus came alive again as they shared the stories about him and pondered the meaning of his teaching. Our reading from Ephesians says that ‘church is Christ’s body’; elsewhere, St Paul speaks of Christ as ‘the head of the Church’. And all those ways of knowing Christ’s presence and being connected to Christ which were so powerful for the earliest Christians are also true of a healthy church today.

If the Church is, indeed, the body of Christ, then Christ is everything to us. A healthy church will celebrate with joy the presence of Christ in baptism and holy communion. We will want to hear preaching, and explore the Bible in other ways, so that Jesus Christ speaks to us anew. We will see Christ in our fellow church members, and in the outcasts and strangers whom we seek to serve. This is the task of the Church- to show Jesus, still alive and at work in the world. What is the Church for? A recent hymn puts it well: ‘Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space’. That is what the Church is for- no more, and no less. To be a place where people can find the love of God that is revealed through Jesus Christ. For the Church, the answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is: everything!

But who is Jesus for you?

Some people talk about God a lot. They talk about finding God in creation, or in art, or in some kind of spirituality. But for Christians, there is only one way we can fully know God, and that is through Jesus Christ. We cannot think about God except through Jesus. Through Jesus we discover that God is love. Through Jesus we discover that God offers forgiveness. Through Jesus we discover that God can renew our lives. Through Jesus we discover that it is in loving our neighbour that we can find fulfilment. Through Jesus we discover that God’s love for us is with us for all eternity (that’s why Christians are incorrigibly hopeful. Christians never lose hope!) We really need to have Jesus, if we are to understand who God is.

For me, Jesus is the way I understand who God is.

Some people talk about the Church a lot. They get involved in meetings, go to services, maybe even lead worship or committees. They work hard. They want to the Church to do things- helping the needy or having lots of events going on. Some people think that the only good church is a busy church. In fact, the only good church is one which understands that it is no more and no less than the body of Christ in the world. The only good church is one which confesses that Jesus Christ is its Head. For we cannot be the Church without an intimate relationship to Jesus. Through Jesus, the Church discovers God’s love. Through Jesus, the Church preaches and lives in God’s forgiveness. By having the Spirit of Jesus at its heart, the Church is renewed. Whatever we do for our neighbours in need, we do so because we see Jesus in them. Through Jesus, the Church on earth exists alongside the Church in heaven. We really need to have Jesus, if we are to be the Church.

For me, Jesus is who the Church is all about.

We read today from the Book of Acts- a history of the earliest Christians. But there is a fascinating dilemma at the heart of that history- one which the story of the Ascension attempts to wrestle with. Those early Christians were undoubtedly people who believed that Christ was present with them. But not in the same way as those who heard him preach and teach in Galilee, or followed him to Jerusalem. And not quite in the same way as his followers who claimed to have met the risen Christ after Easter. Somehow, in the Book of Acts, Jesus is both present, and absent at the same time.

Reidersche_Tafel_c_400_AD

Women at the Grave of Christ and Ascension of Christ (so-called „Reidersche Tafel“); Ivory; Milan or Rome, c. 400 AD Image: Wikipedia Commons

Some Christians give the impression that Jesus is like an invisible friend. Luke, in telling the story of his Ascension, uses picture language to make it clear that Jesus is not, simply, our imaginary friend. According to the Ascension story, Jesus is now on a different level of existence from us. It is not that we simply have an old memory of him, passed on down the generations. Ascension tells us that Christ has, in a sense, returned to where he came. For ancient people, the sky was the domain of the gods- heaven was home to divine beings. So, in a way, it’s not surprising that Luke imagines Jesus flying into the sky at the end of his ministry on earth- it’s as if Luke is reminding us that Jesus is really divine, even if he is also human.

And so the Letter to the Ephesians can say that God ‘raised Christ from death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next’. That was quite a claim to make in the Roman Empire, where the Emperor was thought to be a God. Christianity is a subversive faith- we claim that the man crucified by Roman Governor Pontius Pilate is now, in fact, now more powerful than the Roman Emperor who’d appointed Pilate. This Thursday, we had elections in Scotland and in other parts of the UK- on Ascension Day. Perhaps that’s really a wee reminder to us about who’s really in charge. It’s what I think about at the Kirking of the Council every year- that no matter how powerful a politician you are, Jesus Christ outranks you.

But Christ’s power is not the power of armies, economies, or diplomacy. For the power of Christ is seen above all in his death on the cross. When Jesus chose to be subject to the power of the Roman Empire, when he chose not to resist when his enemies accused him of blasphemy, when he chose to carry his cross and allowed himself to be nailed to a Roman gallows, when he was despised and mocked so that eventually he cried to God ‘Why have you forsaken me?’- that was the most powerful event ever to happen on this planet. In his powerlessness, Jesus on the cross speaks of God’s power. In his hopelessness, Jesus on the cross brings us hope. In his silence in midst of so much hate, Jesus on the cross speaks of divine love.

Ephesians says, ‘his power [is] at work in us who believe’. For me, Jesus is the power beyond all other powers. For me, Jesus is the guarantee that greatest power in the universe is love.

So, who is Jesus for you? For me, Jesus is the way I understand God. For me, Jesus is what the Church is all about. For me, Jesus is how I know that love is the greatest power in the universe. Jesus is all these things- and more.

Who is Jesus for us? He tells us about God, the Church and the power of love. And so he is the one through whom we relate to God. And also, the one through whom we relate to each other in the Church.

John’s Gospel says that Jesus said to his disciples just before his death, ‘You are my friends’ (John 15.15). I once worshipped in a Church which had that on a banner next to the pulpit, and it was a very helpful text. It reminded that congregation who they were- people whom Jesus called his friends. For friends of Jesus are friends of God. That’s the Gospel message. In Jesus, God has said to us, ‘You are my friends’. So nothing, now, can separate us from the love God that we find through Jesus.

Who is Jesus for me? The one through whom I relate to God.

But Jesus and the New Testament writers speak about Christians being brothers and sisters in Christ. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’, said Jesus to his disciples. If I am a friend of Jesus, then any other friend of his is my brother or sister.

There is no surer sign of Christians gone wrong than Christians who forget that they are brother and sisters in Christ. If you and I are really friends of Jesus, we are more intimately related to each other than if we were members of the same family. The Church is our other family. The Church is where we learn of Christ, above all through learning from each other. If I have ever experienced the love of Christ, it has been through my Christian brothers and sisters loving me. If I have learned about Christ, it has been from my Christian brothers and sisters. If I have been encouraged in my faith, it has been through my Christian brothers and sisters.

And so, even if we have disagreements, even if difficulties live ahead, even if we fear for the future and feel under terrible pressure- ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God’, as the first letter of John puts it (1 John 4.7).

The point of the Ascension story, it seems to me, is to remind us that although Jesus is no longer with us on earth, still the work of the Kingdom goes on. Except now it’s us that does it. Where Jesus once spoke of the love of God, now it is us who are to do that. Where Jesus once brought faith and healing, now it’s up to us. Where Jesus brought God close to people, now it’s up to us. And yet Jesus is not completely absent. In a sense, he’s closer to us than ever before. ‘The Church is wherever God’s people are praising’ says the hymn- and loving, forgiving, accepting people, reaching out to people.

‘Who is Jesus Christ for you?’ He is one who calls you his friends. Through him, you are brothers and sisters. With him, you can speak of God’s love to the world. The Church doesn’t exist for any other reason.

Ascription of Praise

How very great is Christ’s power at work in us who believe.
For Christ rules in heaven above all other rulers:
to him be power and glory forever. Amen.

from Ephesians 1.19,21

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo