Presence in absence: sermon for Ascension Sunday 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 1 June 2014: Year A, Ascension Sunday

SERMON
Texts: Acts 1: 1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23

Presence in absence

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

Saint Paul has the reputation for being a grumpy sort of guy. That’s because his letters were often written in reply to questions and controversies, and his replies are often passionate and critical. ‘You foolish Galatians! Who put a spell on you?’ he exclaims in exasperation to the Christians of Galatia (Galatians 3.1). But the tone of the letter to the Ephesians is rather different- so different that many scholars have suggested that it was not Saint Paul who actually wrote the letter. Maybe it was just that the occasion was different- Paul writes, for once, to praise a group of Christians. Just before the passage we heard read to us Paul has written of how the Ephesians came to faith when they believed in Jesus. And so he writes: ‘For this reason, ever since I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks to God for you. I remember you in my prayers’. These are great words of encouragement.

There is a ministry of encouragement, as Paul told the Romans: if our gift is ‘to encourage others, we should do so’ (Romans 12.8) he said. I am convinced that that is a vital ministry for the Church today. The other week, I attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It’s always an exhausting affair, as there is so much going on. And it could be depressing, because we deal with so many difficult issues. But I found it exhilarating- not just because so much of the worship we experienced was so uplifting, but because it’s always great to meet others in the church, to catch up with old friends, to hear their stories, to share ideas. It’s an encouraging experience, even when times are hard. And this coming Saturday, our Kirk Session will meet for a day conference. We, too, will have to deal with difficult questions. But I’m sure it will also be a time to encourage one another. St Paul once wrote to the Thessalonians- ‘encourage one another and help one another’ (1 Thessalonians 5.11). How often, when I have felt that my work was a burden instead of a joy, when I was feeling a bit down and a bit tired, thinking I wasn’t doing very well, has an encouraging word helped me immensely. That happened again to me this week- I had a word of appreciation from someone, and what a difference it made!

One of the encouraging things about the church is to know that in every Christian congregation across the land there are people who have faith in Jesus and who love God’s people in practical ways. Often it is quiet and unobtrusive. But wherever people are being faithful and loving, then the work of the Church is carrying on. We should thank God for all that. But because the Church is in a difficult place in Europe at the moment, quite often something else happens. Instead of thanking God for the good things, we start to criticise each other over our many failings. If only the others in our Church were more Christian, if only they believed more, if only they would work harder, perhaps we could be a more successful Church. But what’s more important to God? That we should be successful (however you measure that), or that we should be faithful?

Jesus himself said, ‘Do not judge others, and God will not judge you; do not condemn others, and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you’ (Luke 6.37). ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’, as the Authorised Version has it, is a truth which unfortunately we often forget about. Paul gives us an alternative: he has heard of the Ephesians’ faith and their love for one another, and he says to them: I give thanks for your faith, and for your love, and I pray for you! These are encouraging words, the sort of words we should hear more often in the Church. We shouldn’t be in the business of making people feel guilty. After all, our guilt was dealt with by Jesus on the cross. Instead of making each other feel guilty, let us rather thank God for the faith we see in others, and pray for them as they try to love God’s people as best they can!

Yet Paul in his prayers asks even more of God: he tells the Ephesians that when he prays for them, ‘[I] ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, to give you the Spirit, who will make you wise and reveal God to you, so that you will know him’. Paul is praying that the faith of the Ephesians might be deepened. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians that in the past when he was trying to teach them, he had had to ‘feed you milk, not solid food, because you were not ready for it’ (1 Corinthians 3.2). They were, as it were, babies in the faith. They needed weaning before they could move on to more solid food. I think that that is an interesting description of the Christian life. It suggests to us that faith is not a static thing. It is something which starts small, and grows. As we participate in the life of the Church, we will learn more about Christianity from preachers and teachers. But we don’t just learn new facts or new doctrines. We will also learn about our faith as we go through life.

As many of you know, a few years ago I was off sick for months, and did not know when I might be able to get back to my work. It was a hard, frustrating time. But during that time I learned things about the nature of faith which I had never quite understood before. It’s hard for me to put into words. It wasn’t exactly intellectual- I didn’t learn any new doctrines or something. I just seemed to understand God better. I think that our lives can do that for us. Our faith can mature, improve even. And so we learn, not just more about the Christian faith, but also about what it really means.

One of the buzzwords in education nowadays is ‘lifelong learning’. In the past the Church has not been good at offering opportunities for lifelong learning. We sometimes think we know it all when we have finished the new members’ class. But we all have questions, we all need space to talk to other and learn from one another. We all have the capacity to be wiser, to learn more about God, about our faith, about how to live as a Christian in the world. The Christian faith is something which we never stop learning about- or learning from. We are all on a path from baby milk to solid food!

I have a video I use with those preparing for baptism for themselves or their children, and in it the presenter remarks, ‘When I passed my driving test, I remember my instructor saying to me, “You know son, now that you’ve passed your test, you can start to learn to drive”‘. Paul call this process having ‘your minds.. opened to see [God’s] light’. Yes, we know we are saved, we have heard the Gospel and we know that God has made us his people. But there is more to learn, more riches and deeper experiences to come. Paul says that as we engage ever deeper with God, we will learn more about the implications for us of the Gospel. Letting our minds be open to the light of God, he says, ‘so that you will know what is the hope to which he has called you, how rich are the wonderful blessings he promises his people, and how very great is his power at work in us who believe’. Sometimes we are reluctant to go deeper in our faith. But what a lot is being promised here: a deeper knowledge of the hope to which we are called, and an understanding of just how blessed we are. Why wouldn’t we want to know about these marvellous things?

Paul also says in today’s Epistle that we will learn about ‘how very great is [God’s] power at work in us who believe’. Some Christians like to talk a lot about God’s power. But power is really a somewhat equivocal word for Christians. We ought to be suspicious of power, because Christianity is always on the side of the powerless. God makes time for the small people, the folk who don’t have power on their side- God always takes the side of the weak against the powerful. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the cross of Christ is God’s power (1 Corinthians 1.17-18); he comments, ‘it was in weakness that [Christ] was put to death on the cross, [and] it is by God’s power that he lives’ (2 Corinthians 13.4). You can hardly be weaker if you were nailed to a cross; but paradoxically, the cross is where we see God’s power most at work.

This is the power which is at work among us, at work in the Church. It is God’s power, so it often manifests itself in ways which the world wouldn’t recognise as power. God’s power is seen when we care for the weak and the powerless. And yet that power- if you like, the power of love- is the greatest power in the world.

Paul tells the Ephesians: ‘This power working in us is the same as the mighty strength which he used when he 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. God put all things under Christ’s feet and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things’. This was a pretty radical claim to make. This letter is being written just a few years after Jesus had been executed like a common criminal. It is being written to a small group of people, some of them Jews, some of them Gentiles, living in multicultural city which was part of the Roman Empire. They were a tiny minority, distrusted by many people because they did not conform. The would be surrounded by symbols of the power of Rome- the temple where the Emperor would be worshipped as a god, the soldiers who were the best warriors of their time, the ships trading across a sea which Rome’s power kept safe from piracy. And on the roads leading out of the city, crosses, on which would hang captured rebels, slaves who’d tried to get free- a reminder that Rome’s power was built on violence, war and fear.

Paul reminds the Ephesians of Jesus of Nazareth, whose only power was his words and actions which spoke so eloquently of God’s love. Now he says that Christ has become greater than ‘all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords’; even the Roman Emperor is subservient to Christ, if he did but know it.

John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) , ‘Ascension’ 1775 Wikipedia Commons

This is what Saint Luke was trying to describe in our reading from the Book of Acts. He uses word-pictures, trying to describe the indescribable, but basically saying that once the risen Christ had made his final farewells to his disciples, he then took his place at the right hand of God. On this Ascension Sunday, we celebrate that Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords; the same Christ who healed the sick and spoke words of comfort to the lost, the same Christ who died on the cross, now rules about all the other powers of the universe. His power is what prevailed, and will always prevail. And it is his power which is at work in the Church.

Paul says that ‘The church is Christ’s body’ and elsewhere he calls Christ the ‘head’ of the Church (Ephesians 1.10, 4.15; Colossians 1.18, 2.19). This is really important- it reminds us that the Church is quite unlike any other human institution. Yes, the Church is a human institution. Sometimes, like a political party, or a big business, or a pressure group, or a charity, she might be able to use power for good- or ill. But we should always remember that the Church’s only source of power is Jesus Christ himself. And so if the Church does exercise power, it can only be done in love.

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and Prince Edward, at the opening of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2014

The place of the Church is changing in our society. For many people, it seems to be declining in power. Yet we believe the one whom we follow, Jesus Christ, the crucified carpenter of Nazareth, is the most powerful force in the universe. The ascended Christ is head of the church, and king of the universe. That means that love is the most powerful force in the universe. That is what the Christians of Ephesus were being reminded of when Paul wrote to them about how God had put everything under Christ’s feet. That was why he could encourage them- for they had access to that amazing power. Today we live in a time when once again Christians need encouragement. We need to know that there is power among us- power which might seem very different from what the world understands as power, but power it nevertheless is, for is the power of God’s love.

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584 Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo