‘Coming down the mountain’ – 24th May 2020 – Sunday after Ascension Day

The Readings

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He 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. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

John 17.1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The Sermon
By Catherine, a Lay Reader at St Mary's.

Have you noticed that television news programmes seem to be full of graphs these days? Graphs showing the numbers of Covid-19 cases over time. Graphs showing the rise and fall in deaths from the virus. Graphs comparing our country’s profile with those of other countries. And then graphs showing how the economy is falling, or how unemployment is rising. Graphs which show things as they are, and graphs projecting how things might be should our country act this way, or that way.

What all these graphs have in common is either an ever increasing rise, followed by a slower fall, or a dramatic fall, followed by what is (or is projected to be) a slower rise.

It struck me that these graphs look very much like a mountain. The upward slope of the mountain is steep, the downward slope much more gradual. And anyone who climbs mountains, or navigates Sheffield’s hills with dodgy knees knows that it’s actually the downward slope that’s the more difficult bit. You may have conquered the summit of Everest, but you’ve still got to get back down to base camp again. You may have managed to climb Fir Street up to the Bole Hills, but your knees are decidedly wobbly coming back to Walkley.

In the Bible stories, mountains are places of Divine encounter. Think of Moses on Mount Sinai or Elijah on Mount Horeb. Think of Jesus’ transfiguration. Think of today’s story from Acts. Jesus and his disciples are on the Mount of Olives, not far from Jerusalem.

Luke’s story of Jesus and the early church comes in two volumes – Luke and Acts. So the mountain-top account of the Ascension actually comes in the centre of Luke’s story. Luke’s story is a bit like the mountain itself – his gospel tells of the life of Jesus and his disciples, culminating in the peak experiences of his death, resurrection and ascension. Acts then picks up where the gospel leaves off – at the peak of the mountain and the ascension.

It is here that they have their final conversation together about the coming of God’s kingdom. It is here that Jesus reminds the disciples that they won’t know exactly when the kingdom will be fully restored. It is here that he commissions them to be his witnesses throughout Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world. It is here that he promises them they will receive the Holy Spirit who will equip them for mission. And it is here that they see him in bodily form for the final time before he is taken up by the clouds. And now they must come down the mountain. This is the difficult bit.

Jesus is no longer with them physically to lead them. Their job now is to continue his work in a new and more difficult way – taking up his mantle of leadership themselves. There will be many challenges to be faced – conflict with the religious authorities, disagreements between each other, and conflicts between the different ethnic and cultural groups within the church that emerges. The rest of Acts describes the different challenges the disciples encounter. And since then, the church has continued to be challenged to find its way down the mountain and onwards into whatever lies ahead.

The rates of infection and deaths are thankfully now reducing. And as our country takes its first steps towards easing the restrictions, we have a very cautious climb down our metaphorical mountain. There are many questions to be considered, and no easy answers. When is it safe enough to open our schools, and how should we go about this? How do we educate the children that do return in a way which keeps them safe, but promotes social and emotional development? How do we balance the need to keep our most vulnerable people safe, without starving them of much needed social interaction? When will a vaccine or effective treatment be available? What is the best way to monitor the whereabouts of the virus? How do we find new work for so many whose old jobs may no longer exist?

And there has been a positive peak as a result of the world’s lock-down measures – the environment has become cleaner and healthier. Animals and birds have been thriving. People have been uplifted by the cleaner air, the clearer birdsong, the heady fragrance of blossom, the unexpected sight of wild animals. How do we prevent the decrease in the abundance of nature whilst gradually increasing our usual activities? Many have argued that now is the time for a complete rethink of how we organise our roads, our modes of transport, the way we work. Coming down the coronavirus mountain is going to be a long and rocky road.

So what is the role of God’s people in all this? Well whatever we do, let’s remember that new life is just that – new life. It is necessarily different from the old life. So there will be changes. We need to live our new lives in such a way that God’s kingdom of peace and justice can be brought about on earth, just as it is in heaven.

And let’s remember that like the disciples, we are not alone. For God’s Spirit continues to be with us, guiding us as we make our way down the mountain and into the new life ahead.

The Prayers
By Irving

O God, the creator and preserver of all, we pray for people of every race and in every kind of need: make your ways known on earth, your saving power among all nations.

Almighty God, as we look back to Ascension Day, may our prayers ascend to you just as Jesus Christ, your Son, was taken up to heaven. As we celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus let it inspire in us feelings of joy and hope as we look forward to Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus, and for all people according to their needs.

We pray for the peace, stability and unity of the world as we respond to Covid-19. In words from Christian Aid, we pray for all health workers tending the ill, for all scientists working on a vaccination, for researchers analysing data and identifying trends, for media outlets working to communicate objectively, for supermarket and shop workers, hygiene and sanitation providers. We pray for teachers, delivery drivers, postmen, milkmen and refuse collectors and all others upon whose services we rely. We pray too for proper recognition of the value of all those key workers that have helped to keep our country running under such difficult circumstances.

We pray for all who are planning our country’s path out of lock down, that they may they respond to the challenges of this pandemic with fairness, prudence and sound judgement. May their planning alleviate economic burdens, compensate fairly for losses, protect employment and ensure ample food and protection for the poor and isolated.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray for your Church throughout the world: guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led in the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

We pray for all Primates, Bishops, Clergy and Laity of the Anglican Communion around the world. We pray for the Anglican Consultative Council and for the Anglican Communion Office in London. We pray for all in Sheffield Diocese and particularly the Area Deanery of Snaith and Hatfield. We pray for and give thanks to all at St Mary’s who have kept our church alive by their newsletters, electronic ‘virtual’ worship and meetings and in so many other ways.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We commend to your fatherly goodness all that are anxious or distressed in mind or body; comfort and relieve them in their need; give them patience in their sufferings, and bring good out of their troubles.

Especially we pray for all affected by the Corona virus, both physically and emotionally. We pray for all who feel isolated and lonely. Keep us all, good Lord under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful and lift up all who are brought low, that we may rejoice in your comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And in a few moments of reflection, we bring before God our own prayers and concerns.

Merciful Father
Accept these prayers,
for the sake of your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.