Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 John 17:6-19
Let us pray: Loving, living God, open our hearts and minds to hear your words, your prayer for us, your people. Amen.
Today is the last Sunday of the Easter season within the Church year, the week before Pentecost, the week where we remember the Ascension of Christ. The question comes early on in the sermon today – how tempting is it to use Ascension as a time of longing for some future place of thrones and heavenly hosts to the detriment of Christ’s prayer for us, his disciples, his church to bring eternal life to this place, here and now? In other words is the picture of a Christ being drawn up into the clouds the predominant image of this act of ascension or can we discover that there is more to this story. It’s no wonder that for much of my faith life, there was no more than this image. The words ascension in itself immediately conjures upwards, a physical act of time and place which had completely captured my attention and left no room for any perspective that Christ might bring to that moment of parting. Moreover, we have in our art and our history, concentrated on the physical details of our interpretations of this event –what might it have looked like, where did it take place etc. You know a long time ago I visited Jerusalem and have said for some time that the most sacred place I visited was a little wooden church on a hill somewhere that was known at the Church of the Ascension – it was a simple, unadorned, rectangular place with no people in it and no one asking for money outside. Ah I thought, I have finally found the sacred in the midst of this frenetic mayhem of religious tourism. Well imagine my surprise yesterday when I went online for a photo of the church and discovered a completely different ancient octagonal church building that was firmly established as the place where Christ was said to have ascended to the heavens. I have no idea where I was and probably never will. But that seemed to me a good lead in to suggest that the ascension needs to been seen not so much through our eyes of physical location, farewell, separation and hoped for images of future glory but through Jesus eyes of hope and prayer and preparation for those who are to be his people here in this world. The Ascension reminds us of our responsibility! Jesus is no longer in the world – but we are, we who are the Body of Christ, we are in the world and we have a job to do!
Why else do we remember Pentecost next week – and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit –if not to continue to do the work that Jesus began to the purpose of God? There is a posting on Facebook this week from Mark Johnston, Auckland staff member of Knox Centre, where he ponders what the world might look like if we had a stronger theology of place, that is that where we are, where we live, what is in front of us here matters to God. He goes on to suggest that the Churches mission only takes this seriously when there is a disaster – like an earthquake - and what would it involve if church actually took place and the ordinary and everyday of it all as a matter of spiritual significance all the time.
Maybe this is what Jesus is looking for us to understand as we listen to his prayer for his disciples that we heard read from John’s Gospel. Perhaps we are being encouraged to take our eyes off what we are assured is to be – as Bill Loader said: to believe that death does not separate us from God and to trust God with the detail – and to focus on what Christ commissioned us to be as his disciples here in this place.
And so Christ prays for us. We, who choose to be in relationship with God through Christ Jesus, and to pick up the task that the Father gave to the Son and the Son gives to us are held in close prayer for a future that is not easy.
There seem to be three main threads for concern that Jesus has for his disciples in this prayer.
The first is that living in the love of God made known in Christ brings us into conflict with other values in the world and brings dangers. And I don’t believe he is talking so much dangers that other impose on us but rather where our responses take us into ineffective spaces or, alternatively, places of collaboration with those values. One response to danger is to withdraw, is it not, into the safety and comfort of known companions and familiar contexts? From here we can sometimes venture out into the hostile environment that we call the Mission Field – but it’s often a foray only, from which we return gladly to our sanctuary. There is also a danger of the opposite response to conflicting world values – and that is that we conform to them, telling ourselves that, on the whole, societal rule, the status quo gets it mostly right – from this place we can end up sponsoring, colluding in all kinds of oppressive and unjust acts on a people and a world that we hold in our care in the name of Christ. The consequences of withdrawal or collusion are a church with its eyes averted from the task that Jesus passed to us.
The second thread for concern is the loss of holiness – the losing touch with the Son and the Father, trying to do this thing on our own. Jesus prayer suggests that it is only in the power of the relationship with God that we are kept from betraying that which we have committed to as Christians. That is not to say, though, that as long as we are in relationship with the divine, all is well, no more is needed. We need to underpin this concept of holiness being found in relationship with God with the other great commandment – to love your neighbour as you love God. Holiness is living in God, and that means living in love. Where we do not live in love we are betraying Christ and putting love to death, again.
And thirdly Jesus was concerned about unity – ‘that they may be one as you and I are one’, addressed also in the verses following this morning’s reading. Well in this we could say that the church has abjectly failed. Divisions came in the blink of an eye – remember back to the reading last week of the differing opinions on how Gentiles could be brought into the Christian family. The church throughout its entire history speaks loudly of division and when there did appear to be unity, it was pretty much achieved with an iron fist.
But maybe we have confused unity with lack of division, with unity for the sake of unity or for the sake of peace. And I don’t think any of those are what Jesus was praying for us. To be all one in agreement and practice is denying our very humanity – and I do not believe Christ was that foolish! We would end up going underground with our beliefs or leave the church completely - in that scenario of unity. Rather perhaps he was praying that, if we are one in him and in the Father through the Spirit, then our diversity and conflicts can be worked through and, if need be, lived with, in a loving, non-destructive way. This would speak volumes into this destructive divided world of how to live in loving community in our diversity. Jesus hope for us is that we model the resolution of conflict to the wider society in a manner which will persuade people that there is something transformational about the Christian message. How are we doing at that? I would suggest we don’t have a lot of kudos points in the bank for that one at this time. But for all that, it remains Christ’s prayer for us, that we are one in the Father and in the Son, and in the Spirit, so that our unity, our holiness, our very being is in the God who so loved the world, not heaven but the world – and who tasks us with that same purpose through the risen Christ. Thanks be to God.