Ascension Day Sermon
Revd Rosemary Shaw gave the sermon on Ascension Day, 26 May, this year. With her permission, we are pleased to reprint it for the benefit of all those who could not attend
Some words from the Creed:
“He ascended into heaven.
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory.
To judge both the living and the dead.”
We say these words often, they trip off our tongues but what do they mean? What actually are we celebrating on this Ascension Day? Let’s look at this for a few moments.
The chapel at Kings
Hospitals are hectic places, full of human drama and high technology. Kings is no exception to that and was near breaking point at the height of the pandemic and now faces huge backlogs of appointments and procedures.
At the centre of Kings is St Luke's chapel and Father Alistair spoke about this chapel last Sunday. As we have both worked as chaplains at KCH it is an important place for us both. The chapel is dedicated to St Luke, author of the third gospel, a doctor, and also author of the Acts of Apostles from which our first reading was taken.
As you enter the large chapel you are struck by a beautiful reredos behind the altar. It was dedicated to Katherine Monk, the first sister matron at KCH. From what I have read about her you would not have messed with her – she was the stereotypical old-style matron!
The reredos is very colourful and depicts Christ in glory, ruling over the world from his place at the right hand of the Father – you don’t get more high profile than that! He is surrounded by the angelic host. Lower down are words of Jesus “whatever you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me”. So we have depicted the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus but also the Christ of compassion and healing who calls his followers – you and me – to seek to reach out to the most needy and vulnerable in society.
By faith and not by sight
Today is Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter Sunday. In our first reading from Acts we read how whilst the Risen Jesus was speaking with his disciples, he was lifted from their sight. It is written from the first century view of the world – a flat earth, with heaven above and Hades beneath.
Before Jesus's death, and during his resurrection appearances, he had been preparing his followers for the time when they would no longer see him, when like us they would have to walk by faith and not by sight – not easy for any of us especially in these stressful days. However, the ascension does not lead to grief but in Luke's gospel we read the disciples were filled with joy as they returned to Jerusalem to await the giving of the Spirit to empower them to carry on the work of Jesus.
I like too that, as well as joy, we read how the disciples were wondering and disbelieving, for are we not also a mixture of emotions, of faith and doubt and questioning. This feast of Ascension however tends to be a neglected one squashed between Easter Day and Pentecost which we celebrate on Sunday week and which is often called the birthday of the Christian church. However to some of the early Church Fathers, it was the crown of all the great Christian festivals – the climax of all that had gone before and all that would follow in the Christian story.
How not Why
The important fact about Ascension is not HOW it happened but WHY and so briefly let me mention two points:
1. It can sound when we look at the words I quoted from the creed that Jesus went back to the Father leaving his followers in every generation to get on with his work and one day he will return to judge us as to how we have got on! Many of you will have seen the t-shirt with the words “Look busy – Jesus is coming back soon” But no, the Ascension is about His constant presence with us. In the account in Acts a cloud takes Jesus from sight but in the Bible clouds are not about the weather but are signs of His presence, so for example when the Israelites were fleeing slavery in Egypt they were guided day by day by a pillar of cloud. So although the disciples could no longer see Jesus they were assured he was in their midst. So we too have the wonderful promise of Jesus at the end of Matthew's gospel “Lo, I am with you every day even to the end of time.” How much currently do we need that promise and the assurance that in whatever we are facing or feeling, he is Emmanuel – God with us, who has not left us as orphans.
2. Secondly we are called to look not upwards but outwards. When Jesus went from their sight the disciples were asked why they were looking up into the sky – they needed to get on with the mission of the gospel - the good news.
We all know the expression, “He (or she) is so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use" but the fact is we need to be of earthly use for we are the body of Christ in the world now.
In the Eucharist we often say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. We are warned by Jesus not to speculate on his coming again but He does come to us day by day in our lives if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We are called to be lights in the darkness of the world remembering however daunting that is, that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But we are not alone, for the ascended Lord has not withdrawn from the world but reigns over it, and, as the poet Tennyson wrote, “He is closer to us than breathing and nearer than hands or feet”.
So rather than gazing upwards, let us seek to look outward to the needs around us in our families, amongst our friends, in our neighbourhood as well as the wider world, to bring about the vision that the apostle Paul envisaged when he wrote from prison and probably chains, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
At all times and in all places
To help us do our part in bringing this about, Jesus prays for us and promises to be with us at all times and in all places. Yes we feel inadequate and unworthy, but let us remember that when Jesus lifted his hands to bless disciples they would have seen his wounds from the nails on the cross. The risen, ascended, glorified Lord ascended to God with his wounds, they are part of who he is. So too the wounds and scars we each carry are part of who we are.
May each of us on this Ascension Day know him within us, accepting and loving us but too challenging us to spread the good news of the Kingdom in the power of the Spirit as we are strengthened by his presence “Lo, I am with you every day…”
So let us pray:
"Lord take pity on us
your timid and fearful disciples.
Give us courage to witness to you in the world
so the gospel will be proclaimed
and men and women, girls and boys
will find their way into the Kingdom
and that we will come to know
that within the glorious Trinity
our wounds and scars are
accepted and welcomed”
The picture shows The Ascension by Giotto