john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Acts 1 - After Ascension - transformation

    Christ Church Norris Green 8/5/2005 (Communion Service)

    Acts 1.6-14, John 17.1-11

    Last Thursday, things changed in this country. We voted in a new parliament. Through the very simple act of people putting an 'X' on a bit of paper, all the drama of election-time unfolded: surprise winners, devastated losers, the electorate sending strong messages to our leaders.

    And last Thursday, things changed in this little Christian community of ours. Because at the Good Shepherd the Bishop of Warrington confirmed five people in the faith, asking God to let his Holy Spirit rest on them: "the Spirit of wisdom and understanding; the Spirit of counsel and inward strength; the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and let their delight be in the fear of the Lord," prayed the Bishop.

    And last Thursday was Ascension Day. Because of everything else going on, that almost passed us by. But we mustn't let Ascension pass unnoticed, because when Jesus ascended in the clouds, things changed in this world of ours, forever.

    Now we don't pay anywhere near as much attention to Ascension as we do to Christmas or Easter. Perhaps that's not surprising, because compared to those great stories which fill the gospels and the later writings of the New Testament, there is very little in scripture about the Ascension.

    When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

    - Luke's account in Acts is about as descriptive as it gets. But perhaps the gospel writers are trying to suggest to us that what actually physically happened on that mountainside is not that important. They're far more interested in describing the effect that Jesus' Ascension had on those he left behind.

    For them it was truly a moment of transformation. On Ascension Day, the disciples' world was transformed, the disciples' minds were transformed, and the disciples' spirits were transformed. Things would never be the same for them again.

    On Ascension Day, the disciples' world was transformed. But not politically.

    They asked him, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?' He replied, 'It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority...'

    People are still asking that same question today. Some Christian bookshops are full of novels and theological books and magazines which all seem to be asking, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?' Because some Christians believe that the state of Israel should have the land which they were promised in the Old Testament. Despite Jesus since then bringing in a new kingdom which embraces all people, some followers are still keen to wield their earthly political power to restore the kingdom to Israel. [1]

    Jesus' Ascension message seems to suggest that his followers should put aside such political ambitions. Politics changes things. But God transforms things. And God can open our eyes to see the world in new, and liberating ways.

    On Ascension Day, the disciples' minds were transformed - like the couple on the Emmaus road, on the Ascension mountain all the disciples together had their minds opened, at last, to understand the scriptures. Now, at last, they understood who Jesus was, that he was the Christ who suffered and rose from the dead on the third day. So, in John's gospel, Jesus could say, thankfully, to the Father,

    Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

    And the disciples also understood who they now were: the people who would be his witnesses, preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. The kingdom of God would come through his followers' peaceable testimony to the waiting world:

    '...and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'

    And on Ascension Day, the disciples' spirits were transformed -

    You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you...

    - Jesus said. They had to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. But their spirits were already changed. Why else would they have gone down from the mountain back to Jerusalem and in the days which followed, 'constantly devot[ed] themselves to prayer'? Prayerfulness comes from a spirit energised by God. John Rogerson writes,

    It is not the restoration of the kingdom of Israel that will energise you, Jesus says in effect. Rather, 'you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you'. [This is] an announcement from God that is not to be overlooked: the age of the Spirit is about to dawn.

    Now we are not that excited by changes in our political system, though we hope and pray that our new parliament will go about its business with integrity and creativity and in the service of the most vulnerable people in our society.

    And we forget at times to be excited by changes in our church, when new people come to show their commitment to Jesus, and what that means for those around them.

    So we need to gratefully grasp the power of the Ascension, because as it transformed the disciples it can transform us too.

    We need the power of the Ascension in our church. Sometimes we get very small-minded: we are upset if things are not done the way we like. We are easily discouraged by failure or falling numbers. And sometimes our vision is as low as the pavement. The Ascension encourages us to have confidence not in our church but in Jesus' Church, not in our faith but in Jesus' gospel, not in our success but in Jesus' Ascension.

    We need the power of the Ascension in our world. We seem to be aware of more violence, hunger, pollution and despair than ever: wars and hunger and environmental disaster. We hear about them all the time and that numbs us. But the Ascension reveals another truth to us, because it is about the son of God who has been glorified; and an invincible Kingdom; it is about a God who will with certainty reconcile all things to himself.

    We need the power of the Ascension in our nation. Our culture is tired of politicians who promise but do not deliver, tired of entertainment all around us which does not satisfy; tired of trouble between neighbours; tired of religion that promises bread but gives a stone. The Ascension God can put into our hearts an irresistible confidence that all is not as it seems, that love, truth and integrity are never defeated, that the kingdoms of this world will indeed become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

    And finally, we need the power of the Ascension in our own hearts. Too easily our God is so small or seems to be not there at all. Like the disciples we find ourselves sometimes staring at the space where Jesus used to be in our lives.

    Too easily we don't expect Jesus to be present in our worship, to speak in our hearts, or to change anything in response to our prayers. Too easily we remember our weakness, and forget his strange and beautiful strength. [2]

    The Ascension God can take us back to the deep truth of a crucified, risen and ascended Lord, so that we may worship him with joy again and taste the wonder and certainty of his love.

    Ascension makes us lift up our eyes......

    Ever-changing God
    sometimes we plod on,
    head down,
    watching our feet
    missing the glimpses of your glory.
    Ever-changing God,
    breaking through into the mundane greyness of our lives
    to make all things new,
    lift up our eyes to see your glory
    as the disciples on the Ascension mountain lifted their eyes to see your glory:
    in the taken-for-granted intimacy of human loving,
    in the persistent courage of day-to-day struggle,
    in the renewal of green growth after winter
    in the new insight that stretches our imagination.
    Lift up our eyes
    to see the wonder and mystery of your presence
    beckoning through the everyday.


    [1] Helpful articles on Christian Zionism by Stephen Sizer, here
    [2] The last section of this sermon is an adaptation of Ascension prayers in John Prichard, Intercessions Handbook, p.64
    [3] Transfiguration by Jan Berry, adapted