Sermon 2nd June 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

ASCENSIONTIDE, SUN 02 JUN 2019

Listen Here: https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-3rd-june-2019 

 

Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods

that the Father has set by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;

and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,

and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up,

and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:7-9

Beyond the old city walls of Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives,

is the place where pilgrims still honour the site of Christ’s Ascension –

the faithful might include both Christian and Muslim –

for Muslims too honour the Ascension.

There, you might be shown a rock with marks in it.

There, your guide may declare: “The last footprints of Christ.”

Nearer home; go to the Shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk,

and at the far end of the church there is the little Chapel of the Ascension

with a pair of plaster feet sticking through the ceiling

and disappearing into a painted cloud.

 

At Ascension, do we delight in the vision of such imagery

or are we left embarrassed by their un-science.

If we have to swallow that,

is the whole faith venture some fantastical children’s story?

 

Michael Mayne, the former Dean of Westminster once reflected:

The trouble with such primitive pictures of a literally sky-borne Jesus

is that they can diminish a most marvellous truth.

The truth the New Testament writers are urging on us

in their poetic, symbolic language

is about the sovereignty and authority of Jesus.

Jesus – whom they have known in the flesh

but now acknowledge as their Lord. –

no longer limited by time and space; no longer visible among them;

yet undeniably a life-giving Spirit in their midst. (M Mayne, Alleluia is our Song, p.60)

 

Yesterday, a family visit to the Tower of London,

primarily to see, Horrible Histories, Terrible Tudors

but also taking in a visit to the Crown Jewels.

Leaving the sunlight behind, the line of tourists weaves its way into semi-darkness.

The first sign declares: The Crown Jewels – Ancient symbols of royal authority.

When finally, we pass the jewels – (with the help of an airport type moving walkway) –

amid the dazzling glitter of objects –

the piece that grabbed my attention – the orb.

The symbolic globe/world – surmounted by the cross.

A startling representation of Christ’s dominion over the world;

manifesting the words from Ephesians, of the power of God at work in Christ:

 

 

“… raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,

and above every name that is named,

not only in this age but also in the age to come. Ephesians 1:20-21

Th danger of those words is that far above can seem to mean far away.

But that is surely not what the early disciples wished to convey – on the contrary.

Ascension for them, is the almost final piece of the jigsaw,

bringing together, making sense, of all the preceding fragments.

Ascension, does not cancel out the earthly life –

it demands that we take it seriously.

 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once reminded an Ascension Day congregation

that worship, however a beautiful an echo of heaven,

is not there to lead us away from earth.

Think of Christian Aid – the charity this congregation supported so generously

in recent weeks – their maxim: “We believe in life, before death.”

With Jesus, fresh-departed, the disciples are immediately asked:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

 

Rather than looking up, waiting for something to happen,

or harking back to how it used to be,

the Disciples are called to walk the way of Jesus now.

The search for Christ, the service of Christ lies here, among us and ahead of us.

 

In a week which anticipates State visits – the protocols of power (royal or presidential) – perhaps something to redress the balance.

A message from a friend this week, affirms this down-to-earthness of daily faith,

of faith in action: describing some of the unconventional work

that his church is undertaking

in a very deprived section of a major city, he concluded:

None of the above might seem very ambitious,

but I like to think that in it all

is the God who takes time to enjoy the small things and the unsung folks;

a God of food, fellowship and mad-cap fun.

 

Small things and unsung folks –

I finish today revisiting a character I spoke about some years ago at Ascensiontide.

Recalling Christ’s departure, I spoke about a leaving do I had attended that week.

It was for a former colleague of mine, an Army chaplain.

It would be fair I think, to place him in the category of nicely eccentric

certainly, by military standards.

 

A man who will be remembered, among many other worthier things,

for his uncanny knack of falling asleep in meetings – military or ecclesiastical.

In the sometimes over-heated, testosterone-fuelled environment of the former,

the sight of Stephan gently slumbering through proceedings

was a strangely therapeutic gift,

silently bringing perspective to clashes of ambition or personality.

 

On the day of his retirement from Army life,

after generous words had been offered on his behalf, the outgoing Padre spoke.

He said how much he had enjoyed his service –

he was, he declared, as enthusiastic about it, as the day he joined –

no mean achievement, in a sometimes, cynical environment.

With a touching modesty he declared,

“Wherever I have served, I don’t think I have been a big picture type of guy –

I haven’t been a mover and shaker, making dramatic changes or innovations.

Rather I have tried to concentrate on the small things, the private encounters;

tried to bring the grace and love of God to such moments.

 

Then in characteristic style, so unusual for that environment,

he quoted to us words of the poet, William Wordsworth:

“The best portion of a good man’s life:

his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.”  (Lyrical Ballads)

 

Feet disappearing into a cloud?

“Men of Galilee…men and women of St Columba’s,

why stand looking up toward heaven?

Christ, taken up to heaven, comes again:

Be my witnesses, in London and to the ends of the earth –

my foot prints and fingerprints made known;

not the last footsteps of Christ, just the latest ones.