‘The Ascension’ – 28th May, 7th Sunday of Easter

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


Readings for sermon and links:

Acts 1:6-14 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-8

‘In-between Times’ – 28th May, 7th Sunday of Easter

This Sunday feels like the time “in-between” – after the glory of the Ascension and before the drama of Pentecost with the coming of Holy Spirit.  Just before our reading from Acts today we are told that Jesus ordered his disciples and followers “not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the Promise of the Father.” Jesus said, “You will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So for now the disciples wait together and pray not sure what exactly to expect.

Life is full of times “in-between”. For sports teams that have done particularly well (or badly) this can be a time “in-between” as one season has ended in one league and another is yet to begin in a higher (or lower) league. School children can find the summer holidays a time “in-between” schools, or exam groups or the transition to university, apprenticeship or work. There can be a time “in-between” when moving house, or expecting a baby (especially the period between taking maternity leave and actually giving birth). Life is full of times “in-between” – some so short they are over in a trice, some lasting days or weeks or months or even years. Some are fixed in duration while others are open-ended.

The time “in-between” can feel like a waste, an annoyance, an obstacle to getting on with things – but it can be very useful.  When I was a student in Scotland I loved the long train journey between home and university as a time to adjust between home life and student life.

The time “in-between” can give us time to recollect, to savour, to resolve things that have been neglected, to prepare ourselves for new realities, to anticipate, to explore new possibilities. Sometimes we can miss the opportunity provided by the time “in-between”. We can be so caught up in the old reality that we fail to prepare for the new. A team may be so caught up in the glory of winning in one league that they fail to prepare well for the step up to a higher one – or they may be so weighed down by the despondency of relegation that they enter a lower league so downcast that they get off on the wrong foot.

Or maybe we fear the future and change and don’t want to look ahead, preferring to dwell in the past. On the other hand we may be so excited at the prospect of a change, of something new, that we fail to take stock of where we have come from, of what has brought us to this place and fail to approach the new phase with a clear appreciation of its advantages and downsides (and everything has some downsides!)  We may invest too much expectation in a change – and believe that it will make everything right in our lives, forgetting that the one constant going forward is that we will take ourselves – who we are, what we have lived through, what we have yet to come to terms with.

We hear that the disciples and followers used the “in-between” time to meet together and to pray.  They also appointed another disciple to take the place of Judas. They doubtless talked a lot about what had happened, about how they came to be in Jerusalem, about events over the last few months, and about just what exactly they were anticipating and how it might affect them and they prayed together, opening themselves to God.

Some people like to end each day with a prayerful review of what has happened – good and bad – and offer it to God, to celebrate successes, to resolve to address failings and to prepare for tomorrow.  That is a good way to treat “in-between” times – however short or long – to review the past and pray to be prepared for what may be coming.

Writing a sermon this week, I have been aware that I really cannot ignore what has happened in Manchester – the tragedy of the terrorist attack on young people at a concert. For many people this has been, and still is, a time “in-between”. For many it is a time “in-between” youthful innocence and coming to terms with shocking horror and violence. For some it is a time “in-between” of coming to terms with dreadful, life-changing injuries, and of families coming to terms with new realities of disability or disfigurement. For some it has been a terrible “in-between” time of waiting for news of loved ones only to be met with the devastating news that they have died. And now they face the “in-between” time of dealing with a funeral, bereavement, shock and horror at what has happened and all that this terrible incident means for the future of their lives and families.

It has been a hard “in-between” time for us all – as we all deal with this attack on young people at a concert and the impact of heightened security for all of us.

But it has also been a week that has seen a lot of coming together of families, of communities, of friends and strangers, to reflect, to pray, to keep reverent silence, to remember, to support. There has been a coming together to offer practical assistance – safe refuge, transport, help, comfort, to offer financial help, aid and counsel.

We have seen some of the hardest “in-between” times and some heart-warming responses.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all those caught up in this terrible atrocity – with the victims, their families and friends, with the emergency services, the medical staff, the police and security personnel, with politicians, teachers, faith leaders, communities at large and all who have been faced with challenges as a result of these events.

May God’s blessing rest on all whose have been changed by this bomb attack. May light shine in the dark places, living water well up in the dry places and new life bud in the barren places.

May we all live through these days with hope and trust in the faithfulness of God, with an appreciation of the love and support of others around us and with prayerful trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, to heal, to inspire and to transform.

May we use all our “in-between” times well – coming together, offering prayers to God and trusting in His future. May we join with all God’s church in praying in this “in-between” week for a new outpouring of his Spirit this coming Pentecost.


Reader Anne Grant


Readings for sermon and links:

Acts 1:6-14 John 17:1-11


‘When Christ calls’ – 7th May, 4th Sunday of Easter

Calling of DicsiplesIn the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi activist who was executed alongside conspirators against Hitler on 9th April, 1945, in Flossenburg concentration camp.

As with many statements we encounter in theology, it’s not quite what it seems. Bonhoeffer went on to say “It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.”  Basically, the death Bonhoeffer wrote about was the death of losing our attachment to the everyday world. We start to do this at the start of our journey with Christ, not at the end of our lives.

For Bonhoeffer there was a literality to this statement; his beliefs inexorably led him to a place where he engaged with plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and so to his own death. Despite his words, he had an attachment to the world that did not allow him to turn his back on what was happening in Germany in the 1930s.

The author of tonight’s second reading is Peter. Peter is mainly known as the chap who engaged with the political powers of the day by lopping off someone’s ear and then denied his relationship with Christ. This letter was probably written in the early 60s AD – 30 years after Christ’s death – and it shows that the hot-head of Gethsemane has matured in to a thoughtful man.

Tonight’s reading is a HARD one; it needs to be looked at in conjunction with the text that immediately precedes it, and that preceding text might bring us up sharp.

In Verse 2.13, Peter tells us:

“Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men…”

This is something quite hard for us to take on board today; there is, of course, 2000 years of history between now and when peter wrote these words; and Peter wrote in a culture still attached to the idea that kings worked with the authority of God; but it’s still hard for us.

But in Verse 2.16, Peter tells us to “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

This brings us closer to where we are – and to where Bonhoeffer probably worked from.  Submit to those authorities – living as free as you can – but do not submit in such a way as disobeys the law of God. In fact, we’re being told to live as servants of God, and, where possible – that is, where it doesn’t impact on our relationship with God – ‘play by the rules’.  Peter’s saying that the need for Christians to abstain from common cultural practices of the day will raise eye-brows; no point in making things worse for yourself by behaving badly.

In Verse 2.18, we hear:

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also those who are harsh.”

Again, we have to take this in historical context as referring to both slaves and ‘house servants’  – slavery is not actually frowned upon in the New Testament, and was incredibly common in the times that Peter lived in. And this is where we come to tonight’s reading; in verses 19 and 20 Peter is following on to the comments he made about the behaviour of slaves in verse 18. A good, well-behaved slave, he says, may suffer undeserved pain and punishment and in those situations it’s commendable that he bears the unjust punishment because he is aware of God – that as a good Christian he’ll submit to unjust suffering if it’s God’s will.  If you’re a bad slave – a concept that we might well have difficulty with today – then Peter states that you can expect to be punished, and that you deserve it.  Sounds incredibly tough.  But then he says

“But if you suffer for doing good, and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”

And he goes further – as a Christian – a servant of God and Christ – we’re CALLED to do this because:

“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Christ – the total innocent – died a humiliating and painful death after taking the insults and abuse and betrayal of other men. He made no efforts to retaliate; he entrusted himself to God, and bore our sins so that we might DIE to sin.

Like Bonhoeffer said – when Christ calls us, he calls us to die.  The death may be losing our life, but it will certainly be death to sin in our lives.

And what about us? How do Peter’s words speak to us tonight?

Before becoming Christians, Peter says that we were ‘like sheep, going astray’. Now we are under the care and guidance of our shepherd, Jesus Christ. And this means that we are expected to behave like our shepherd would. We can be good citizens and good employees, but in order to be good Christians we must strive to do nothing that puts either of these roles ahead of our love of God and our compassion for our fellow man.

We may find ourselves enslaved in some way; maybe literally, maybe to we feel enslaved or in servitude to our work, maybe we’re literally imprisoned.  Again, as Christians we need to respond to that slavery by following the example set us by Christ.

To fail to do so would, in the words of our confessional prayer, ‘mar the image of God within us’.  We know we’ll fail; after all, we’re human; but we are promised our Shepherd’s mercy and grace.

I have a number of friends – and extended family members – who’re agnostic or atheist and who have been known to ask me to sum up Christianity for them.  I give them a short answer; “Love God, love one another, and don’t be an idiot.”  (Although I have been known to use stronger words than idiot…)

Peter – who, let’s face it had a few problems loving all of his fellow men and not being violently foolish in the Garden of Gethsemane – clearly developed in faith.

Maybe, just maybe, if Peter could develop like this, so can we.

Reader Joe Pritchard


Readings for the sermon and links:

Acts 2:42-end 1 Peter 2:19-2:25