How important is Ascension Day? My secondary school in Coventry felt that it was important enough to hold an evening service in one of the city’s bigger churches, which all staff and students (plus parents) were supposed to attend. I hadn’t a clue why, and I resented going (although one year I had to read a prayer and so got the afternoon off school for a rehearsal). I didn’t understand the significance of the occasion. And they can’t have done a very good job of explaining it either, because at that stage I couldn’t even have told you which Bible story it related to. So much for going to a church school!
I’m guessing that most, if not all of us here today can probably link the occasion with the Bible story. But perhaps we still don’t really understand its significance. Because actually the Ascension was a central and pivotal point in the Christian story.
Did you know that the Acts of the Apostles is actually a sequel? And that at the beginning of Acts, we’re only half way through the story? Acts was written by the author of Luke’s gospel, the second volume of a 2-part work.
Because our gospels all finish with the crucifixion and resurrection, there’s a tendency to think that the story finishes there. What we don’t realise is that we’re only half way through! Luke is the only evangelist to tell us what happened next.
In his first volume, Luke tells the story of Jesus beginning with his birth, then his ministry, and climaxing with his crucifixion and resurrection. The first chapter of Acts is a prologue to the sequel – the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church. The prologue gives a brief summary of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection appearances, then today’s account of the Ascension.
Today’s story is the culmination of the first part of the drama and points the way to the second. It’s a pivotal point in the whole story. It’s one of those strange biblical episodes, which in today’s world, we can struggle to explain, particularly if we take it literally. What exactly happened?
What exactly happened is probably less important than why it happened. Jesus and the remaining 11 disciples have gone up Mount Olivet, not far from Jerusalem. The disciples know that this is a significant event. Mountain top experiences always are. They’re when one gets a glimpse of God’s majesty, however fleeting. We think of Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinaii, or Jesus’ transfiguration. But the disciples think that now is the time when Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel. You can understand their logic. After all, Jesus has been going on about the coming of the kingdom ever since they started following him!
Jesus tells them that the how and when of the kingdom are for God alone to know. But then he tells them that they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. And they will become his witnesses first in Jerusalem, then in Judaea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
Then he’s taken from them. The discples are caught up in the experience and continue to look heavenwards. But, a bit like with the women at the tomb on Easter morning, they are brought back to earth by two men in white. Why are you looking heavenwards? Jesus will come in the same way as you saw him go.
So it’s time to come down from the mountain. The eleven return to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they’d been staying. They rejoin their wider group, which Luke notes, includes women and members of Jesus’ family.
The disciples have reached a turning point. Their time with Jesus physically present with them is over. They’ve had 40 extra, wonderful days of him, something they couldn’t have imagined on Good Friday. And now he must leave them in body and they must continue without his physical presence. He has brought them to the cusp of adulthood. It is time to leave the nest. Something new is about to happen. They’re not quite sure what. It’s a time of anticipation. A time of preparation.
The disciples did not know exactly what was coming next, or when. It’s a bit difficult to prepare for something when you’re not exactly sure what it is. But they did know to stick together, to support each other. And they knew how to pray. Jesus had taught them that. And what better preparation for whatever was to come than to spend time in prayer together. So that’s what they did.
So how important is Ascensiontide? Bishop Steven thought it was very important. He recognised that this was a pivotal point in the Church’s year. And so he encouraged our diocese to hold 10 days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. A time when we move away from focusing deeply on the story of Jesus himself and move towards focusing on what Jesus wanted us to do as a church. And what Jesus wanted the church to be doing was to get out there into the world, sharing the gospel far and wide.
But sharing our faith with others can be a daunting prospect. We can be nervous about doing so. We can feel inadequate. We can feel ill-prepared. And that’s why it’s important to pray. We can pray alone, but it’s important to pray together too, for in doing so we support each other. And by praying together, we can discern together what God wants us to do.
So in these 10 days of prayer, let us pray for each other and for the world. Let us pray for Manchester and for the Middle East. For people of our faith, of other faiths and of no particular faith. Let us pray that God’s spirit will guide us in all we do and say when we are out and about in our daily lives. And let us pray that we too will be effective witnesses, just as the first disciples were.
Reader Catherine Burchell
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