‘When will we get back to normal?’ – 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.

1 Peter 4.12-14 and 5.6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

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 Canon Dr Matthew Rhodes, Vicar of St John's Ranmoor

I’m sure a lot of us can identify with the disciples in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. When the disciples ask ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ What’s the timetable? We ask ourselves, when will we get back to normal? When can things be like they used to be? And they’re good questions. But they get a similar answer. ‘It is not for you to know.’ For the moment we have to live with uncertainty and take every day as it comes.

Our second reading from the First Letter of Peter speaks to that anxiety. He is writing to a community that is experiencing suffering. And not surprisingly, some in that community seem to be asking why. If they are God’s people, why are they experiencing suffering? Again, it’s a good question and one that people will be asking now in the midst of the pandemic. It’s probably the biggest theological question that we have. But there are no easy answers and even if we had them they would not stop the suffering. Peter reminds his readers that Jesus shares in our suffering but by rising again, he showed us that suffering never has the last word. There is always life and hope beyond it. And it’s this that we need to hold on to as Christians. We should cast our anxiety on God. We should be disciplined and keep alert. A familiar phrase at the moment.

Each night, some of us at St John’s have been gathering for Compline on Zoom at 8pm. It’s a very simple service with just a small choice of short readings. One of them comes from today’s passage ‘Be disciplined or be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, seeking for someone to devour. Resist him, strong in the faith.’ For us, that roaring lion is corona virus, Covid 19, and we must do what we can to resist it. And also pray for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. Again, the Letter promises that this too will pass. After we have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory will restore, support, strengthen, and establish us. This is our Easter hope. This is what we must hold on to.

Jesus has been appearing and disappearing ever since the resurrection. But in our reading from Acts he is lifted up and hidden by a cloud. It echoes the transfiguration, the cloud that filled the Temple and the pillar of cloud that guided God’s people to the promised land. It marks a decisive change in the disciples relationship with Jesus. Now it is over to them. And to reinforce that point two men in white robes appear to ask the disciples why they are standing around staring at the sky. Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return one day. And the implication is that he will want to know what they and we have been doing. Or to put it more simply, Jesus is coming. Get busy. Stop asking questions and get on with being Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We may have lots of questions but we also have lots to do. There are huge needs in our world at the moment and we can all do something to respond to them. And some of that is at the local level. As neighbours, volunteers and as people of prayer. The disciples and some of the women who followed Jesus devoted themselves to prayer as they waited for the promised Holy Spirit.

The coming of the Spirit which we celebrate next weekend at Pentecost, or Whitsun, completes the Holy Trinity which we will think more about in a fortnight’s time. But this week’s Gospel gives us a wonderful glimpse of its common life. Of the mutual indwelling of this community of perfect love. Each person of the Trinity glorifies the other. But it is much more than a mutual appreciation society. It draws us into its life to share in that glory, that love. And we are called to reflect that life to the world. Obviously we have a long way to go but I’ve been having glimpses of it recently. Even though we are physically distant more of us seem to have time and space to glorify others. To like each other’s cooking or dodgy haircuts or pictures on social media. To clap for the NHS and key workers. To celebrate each other’s little triumphs. In our own small way we seem to be loving each other more and for that I am profoundly grateful. For me it is a sign of God at work. And hopefully, when all this is over, whenever that may be, will retain something of that love and mutual care. Amen.