Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2023

Ascension Day declares the primary task of the Church universal, its true vocation.

The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar

Thursday, 18th May 2023 at 5.00 PM

Ascension Day declares the primary task of the Church universal, its true vocation. In our worship and in our common life, we are to acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ in all things, at all times and in all places, and to spell out the implications of that truth. We are to invite all who will hear to turn and discover the new way of life that foreshadows life in the kingdom of God. An immodest kind of agenda, some may think, and I’d agree. But then it’s an immodest kind of claim - that first Easter claim that began to change the world. For it claims that in Christ, the King of love, God was doing nothing less than re-creating humanity, remoulding human nature, redefining what he has shaped humanity to be, showing how life may be transformed in the light of what God has done for us in Christ.

The first disciples, people like Peter and John, who had known Jesus in the flesh, were in the end persuaded that God was in him in a unique sense. They came to understand that the deepest questions of all, questions about the nature of God and the meaning of our life, our suffering, and our death, need to be seen against the background of the life, suffering, dying and rising of Jesus Christ. And in a kind of shorthand summary, they began to use three words: ‘Jesus is Lord.’ They formed the first Christian creed.

For other people, like the evangelist St Luke and the apostle St Paul, who hadn’t known Jesus in the flesh, the evidence was different. When Paul said, ‘Jesus is Lord’, he spoke of someone he knew as a life-giving Spirit, experienced in the worshipping life of small communities of Christians. And he invented another phrase to describe his experience: to believe and to be baptized was to be ‘in Christ’, opening your life to him, so that gradually Christ might re-fashion you in his own likeness.

For both Peter and Paul the phrase, ‘Jesus is Lord’, had huge implications. It meant that his claim on their lives, and on the lives of all the baptized, was total. From that moment (and ever since then) the standards and values by which the Church has sought to live, in its public as well as its private life, were Jesus’ values of truth and compassion, unselfishness and forgiveness, and generosity of spirit. It still does mean that.

To build our lives today on the values of Jesus is costly and desperately hard – but we are not judged on whether we succeed. We are judged on whether we desire to do so and are not deterred by repeated failure.

To build Christ-centred communities is hard, but most of us have been lucky enough to be part of such communities at a local or parish level and so glimpse the possibilities. But to have a vision of what it means for public life, the life of a nation, to be based on the sovereignty of God and the authority of Christ, that requires a stubborn and persistent refusal to conform to worldly values because we have glimpsed something different: that redefined and re-created humanity that Christians call the kingdom of God.

In a world in which persecution, displacement, conflict and strife are daily realities for far too many, it would seem that there is a foolishness about the gospel, which says that the world is not just what it seems; that there is another dimension (another lens) in which God is at work in his people; that, daily, injustice and evil is being challenged and redeemed by countless small acts of love, courage, goodness and self-sacrifice. So that the human spirit stubbornly refuses to be suppressed and there is the vital leaven of a powerful and courageous Christian witness by a minority who ‘set their minds on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else’ (Matthew 6.33).

So Ascension Day sets before the Church an immodest kind of agenda, one that would have been stillborn were it not for one thing: the readiness of those first Christians in their first glimmering awareness of what God had done in Christ, to wait in the city until the Spirit was given at Pentecost, and they knew they had not been deserted. For they found Christ again, within and among them as a life-giving Spirit.

In the breaking of the bread, Luke tells us their eyes were opened to Christ. Not just to Jesus of Nazareth, who was once met and listened to and followed at a certain point in history, but to Christ, here and now. We can’t today experience Jesus Christ as a man as the disciples did, but we can encounter him as a life-giving Spirit. Once the ascension has taken place, once there is no person to see and hear, then his followers have to look for him with new eyes.

Christians have had to find Christ not by gazing into space but by turning to look into one another’s eyes, turning to listen to one another’s words, by receiving forgiveness from one another’s lips and the broken bread from one another’s hands. It is here now that the Christ is chiefly to be recognized and found. We find him incarnate in our neighbour. Not least, as Jesus said, in the suffering bodies of the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, and the imprisoned.

That is why this evening here at this eucharist we, like the first disciples, live with the hope that the powers of destructive violence need not have the final word and, with people out of every nation under heaven, dare to place our trust in the lordship of Christ who promises to be with us to the end of time.