Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2018

This is a day of triumph. ‘God is gone up with a triumphant shout: The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies.’

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 10th May 2018 at 5.00 PM

We heard it just now and, later in the service, during the distribution of Holy Communion, we shall hear from the choir, ‘Sing praise, sing praise, sing praise, sing praises out, Unto our King sing praise seraphic-wise! Lift up your heads, ye lasting doors, they sing, And let the King of Glory enter in.’ The whole host of heaven rejoices: the angels and archangels, the seraphim and cherubim, sing a song of glory as they welcome home the King, the Lord of Glory.

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, Son of God and God the Son, the Word of God, the same who was in the beginning with God, returns this day to his Father, to his heavenly home, and will soon send the Holy Spirit to comfort, encourage, inspire and enable the Church that is his Body to grow and to spread throughout the world, as it has done.

This is a day of triumph. ‘God is gone up with a triumphant shout: The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies.’

We heard earlier St Luke’s account of the ascension of the Lord, his last resurrection appearance, both in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Gospel itself.

St Matthew also gives us an account. Here Jesus gives the great commission to the apostles, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

‘I am with you always’. No longer is Jesus with his disciples in human flesh, as during his earthly ministry. Now the mode of his presence has changed. And we begin to see the lineaments of that new mode of his presence in Jesus’ fleeting and evanescent appearances following his resurrection. Each moment is precious; and each has a clear meaning and purpose.

On the very day of his resurrection, as we are taught by St John, our risen Lord and Saviour appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden and that evening to his closest disciples in the Upper Room where they are hiding for fear of arrest and trial and death. A week later, the Lord appears to the disciples again, and, this time, Thomas is with them, doubting Thomas, who comes to believe and to recognise in his risen Saviour his Lord and his God.

St Matthew presents us with two particular moments when Jesus appears. First, on the very morning of his resurrection, he appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who have come to the tomb to anoint the body. He gives them an instruction for the disciples. And later, the disciples all meet the risen Lord again to receive the great commission which I have already mentioned.

St Luke records three appearances of our Lord after the resurrection. Here the women who came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty are mystified and tell the disciples what they have seen. But two of the disciples have already left Jerusalem and are walking away, whether for fear or in despair, we do not know. And they find Jesus walking with them, but fail to recognise him. He speaks to them of why he had to suffer and to die and then agrees to stay with them at an inn in Emmaus. There, in one of the most powerful and beautiful accounts, brilliantly depicted by artists through the centuries, Jesus breaks bread with them and they recognise him in the breaking of the bread. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us’, the two disciples, Cleopas and his companion, say to one another as they return to Jerusalem. There, they are told that Jesus has appeared to Simon, and soon the risen Lord appears again to them all, and convinces them he is no ghost by eating with them a little broiled fish.

Can we find clues in all this to help us understand what our Lord means when he says, ‘I am with you always’? Can we identify what we should expect of the mode of his presence with us? I think we can.

I am intensely moved by the description St John gives us of our Lord’s encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden. You remember what happens. Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb to anoint the body, since the onset of the eve of the Sabbath had prevented anyone doing so after the Lord’s death and hasty burial. She has found the tomb empty and the grave clothes lying and run to tell the apostles. Simon Peter and John run to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple himself venturing into the tomb, and then Peter joining him. We are told that they see and believe, but then they return to the Upper Room. Seeing is not open to us, who are told that blessed are we who have not seen and yet believe.

In the meantime, Mary Magdalene herself sees a person but does not recognise him. She supposes him to be the gardener. She only recognises Jesus when he speaks to her. ‘Mary’, he says. There must be something familiar in the inflexion, the tone of voice, the very voice itself. She responds, Rabbouni, my Teacher. She hears his voice. She knows his voice. We are reminded of the sheep who know the voice of the good Shepherd, Jesus. So, the voice of the risen Jesus speaks to us clearly, just as the risen Jesus has explained to his disciples why it was necessary for him to die.

As St Luke tells us, Jesus said to the two disciples, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. For us too, it is possible to hear the very voice of Jesus as recorded by the writers of the Gospels. We hear his words to us and for us. The Word of God speaks to us clearly. In this way, Jesus is present to us always. I am with you always.

And then we hear of the disciples in that Emmaus inn, recognising Jesus in the breaking of the bread. This account also moves us deeply. We can be quite sure that this is no casual reference to eating together being a lovely thing. There is more to this than that. St Luke tells us about the life of the early Church. The disciples have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and are beginning to prepare themselves for the spreading of the truth of the resurrection and ascension. They plan to speak of the power and the beauty of God’s love for his people as shown in Jesus Christ. They are constantly in the temple praising God and they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These are for us the four marks of the life of the Church: teaching, fellowship, Eucharist and prayer.

Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Saviour, is with us always, in the Holy Eucharist. That is his undoubted promise to us, shown through the resurrection appearances of our Lord.

We hear his voice through the Word recorded and the living Word of God. We receive his life in ours through the Holy Eucharist, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, the bread and wine, which are blessed and consecrated to become for us the very Body and Blood of Christ himself: ‘that we may evermore dwell in Him and He in us.’

The Word and the Sacrament provide the mode of our Lord’s presence with us always, for ever, driven and enabled by the Holy Spirit of God. If we are to be faithful to Jesus Christ, we must read, study and love his Word, and we must frequently and faithfully receive the Holy Sacrament of the altar, whereby the Lord himself feeds us with his very life.

These two, Word and Sacrament, offer us the assurance that one day, in God’s good time, we shall come to see face to face him whom here we worship and adore, our risen Saviour, the Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, to whom alone be the glory.