Readings: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Paul’s Prayer Luke 24: 44-53 The Ascension of Jesus
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
We have heard in the reading today from Luke an account of the last great commissioning by Jesus – you are the ones who will continue to witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, you are the ones who will continue the story begun before time, made known through the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms and revealed in the personhood of Jesus, whom we call the Christ and passed on to his church, his body. And the people went on their way – blessed, anticipating, worshipping……waiting for the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In Ephesians we hear how a church that has lived to that commissioning is functioning – not perfectly but with a sense of purpose and clarity that is effective and focussed on whose they are.
This reading expresses with great passion and almost without stopping for breath the joy to be found in a unified and loving church and the immeasurable greatness of that church’s work in the world through Christ. For the Church, says the writer of this letter, completes Jesus, completes the work that Jesus was born to. ‘And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.’
For we too are commissioned – we use those words each Sunday – ‘we go in the name of Christ’ – we are the completion of the mission of Jesus. This is the never ending story really and we are part of that penultimate chapter, – a journey of faith begun we might say, with the exodus, continuing through the ups and downs of Hebrew scripture and then made know in Jesus and entrusted to his church to continue. A never ending story – perhaps at times it seems like it - never ending until it is finished.
So how has it been, this journey? I think we could safely say patchy! It didn’t take the church long at all to fall into some of the same traps that the Hebrew people did in their journey. We became institutionalised, self important, impatient, divided, hierarchical, rulebound, arrogant and self satisfied. I find myself wanting to qualify that – of course not all were like this but on the whole the entity known as the Christian church struggled and still struggles to be an active and effective continuation of the ministry of Jesus. So much gets in the way. So much deflects us from the being the witnesses Jesus asks us to be.
Why is that? Why do we get so distracted, so much off track sometimes?
One thought is that we are too often onlookers. On the outside looking on. As individuals, perhaps as Sunday Christians, as a church community we can be observers of the world rather than participants in it. And any time we limit our involvement to the familiar and comfortable, only looking inwards, we have detoured around a huge part of who we are to be as the body of Christ – a witness to the world. Sometimes it is fear that keeps us separate, or a sense of entitlement perhaps or ‘what me? – I’m not the person for that’. Larry Brouchard suggests that changing our perspective on how we view the Ascension might help us here. When we think of the images that have been around for centuries, most of them take the scripture literally and are something like these – the followers watch Jesus being taken up to heaven – they are onlookers to this moment of the Son returning to the Father. What happens, says Brouchard, if, instead of being observers, we look out from within the ascension, participants in the moment of reunion, part of the body. He speculates that then we would not be concerned with the way in which Jesus leaves us but would be looking out into the world through the eyes of the risen and ascended Christ, loving the world as God loves us.
Another thought is that we get tied up with things we don’t need to be doing – there is an interesting book I am reading at the moment called ‘When the Church was young’ and it considers the immense differences today, well even within a couple of hundred years of the establishment of the church, Christ’s body and witness to the word. The author, Ernest Loosely, proposes a list of the things that the early church did not have and still managed to act in an effective and faithful manner – it did not have buildings – when chucked out of the temple it was to people’s homes or occasionally a hired space that they went to meet and eat and worship. They did not have denominations – differences, yes but bound in the one unity of Christ. Neither was there much in the way of organisation or rules – a stark contrast to today. There was no New Testament canon to debate – it was all by word of mouth and there was neither theological terminology that had to be explained nor rule of dogma to adhere to.
What they did have said Loosely, was experience of walking with Jesus, in the light of Jesus, they had the teachings of Jesus, firsthand, public and private and they had the dynamic of the gospel message, the great joy of knowing that following Jesus was a transforming experience for all whom it touched.
Obviously there is more to it than this but it give us thought on how many of the ways we do church now distract our energy and focus from being who we really want to be as Christ followers.
And, finally, we can become rigid: in belief, in judgment, in expectation. I have a friend that I am often conversing with about faith – they came out of a highly dogmatic, rule bound church that was quite specific about what you had to believe to be accepted as Christian. They have left there, no longer able to accept the tenets but are struggling to believe that there is anything else they can do but reject Christianity completely – we have conversations about other ways of believing and witnessing.
And how does it look when we are not onlookers, not distracted, not rigid.
It looks like the pastoral carers meeting I was at yesterday – stories of compassion and care and understanding in the church and in the work place and the neighbourhood, sometimes going into uncomfortable places but still going, accepting of, and actually really delighting in the diversity that is this community of faith.
It looks like a church where questions are welcome and ‘I don’t know’ is heard, where faith differences are respected and all are welcome.
It looks like a people who engage with the community, who know their neighbours, who talk about their faith, learn and listen and encourage, who are open to new thoughts and sure.
It looks like a community of faith that has taken to heart the command to witness to the world the great joy of being part of the body of Christ, continuing the journey of faith that those first followers began with such courage and hope.
Hear these words
To the people of Opoho: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
May we too be courageous and hopeful in this place. Amen.