Ascension Day

This is the text of a sermon for Ascension Day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures referenced are Luke 24:44-53 and Ephesians 1:15-23.

So often, when we think about Christ’s ascension, we think of it from the earthly side.  We imagine something like the picture on the front of tonight’s pew sheet; Jesus ascending into clouds, the apostles and their companions standing around gazing upwards, all of that.  But if that was problematic or even a crisis point for the people standing on earth, I read one author who suggested it was just as much of a shock to the angels in heaven; Christ returned, fully human, and sat on the throne at the right hand of the father, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.

You see, the point about Christ’s ascension is not so much about his going away, or the physics of where or how he has gone, as it is about locating him now.  About having the wisdom to recognise that he is at the right hand of the Father, in the heavenly places, with all things under his feet, and is head over all things.  The imagery is spatial but it is one way of articulating relationships of comparative power and status, which have implications for the church, the physical created world and even for heaven.

Christ is now in the presence of the Father, in the place where events of even cosmic significance are decided; and seated in the position to which every other power and authority must defer.

In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians which we heard tonight, Paul writes about Christ’s superiority to “all rule and authority and power and dominion,” and in the language of the time, this was understood to refer to demonic power, which Jewish thought saw at work behind idolatry, and all the practices, dispositions and structures which alienate people from God and from one another.  For the Ephesians, Christian converts in an environment where pagan worship and the practice of magic were both common, this reminder of Christ’s superiority to all such things was, no doubt, timely.

But even to us, who may be more hesitant in identifying demonic forces behind our own experiences of alienation and dehumanisation, it is helpful and timely to remember that the reign of Christ surpasses – and will in time bring to an end – all rule and authority which would see God ignored and human beings reduced to less than the image and glory of God.

The mention in the text of “this age but also…the age to come” points to the reality that although Christ’s rule over all things is already determined and established, it is yet to be brought to its fullness.

Paul prays that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you;” hope that has been begun in and which draws its life from Christ, raised from the dead and seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places.  That hope is not yet brought to fulfillment; God’s will is still unfolding, and we – the body of which Christ is uniquely and personally the head – find ourselves caught up in the drama, somewhere between the overture and the final curtain.

But because we have been given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, we know something of the final scenes, have caught a glimpse of that hope, the final reign of God in which all that is wrong will be put right, and God will be all in all.  As the church, the body of Christ, even, the text says, “the fullness of him who fills all in all,” we are called to participate in bringing that about.  Hope is not primarily an emotion, but an expectation expressed in the orientation of our priorities and our lives.

And I should say that this is not only an outward-oriented reality; as if Ascension Day might have much to do with social justice but not so much about anything else.  Make no mistake; this is just as much an internal reality as well.  The reign of Christ must be as much in each of our hearts, and has as much to do with individual holiness and obedience – unfashionable terms though those are – as it does with social justice.

In that regard, I’m reminded of the words of a worship song which I’ve sung a great deal elsewhere.  I won’t sing it for you, but just read you a couple of verses:

Lord, take up your holy throne,
deep within my heart.
Take the place that is yours alone,
deep within my heart.

Lord, take up your holy throne,
throughout all the earth.
Take the place that is yours alone,
throughout all the earth.

And of the increase of your government,
there shall be no end,
there shall be no end,
there shall be no end;
you are worthy, Lord, to reign.

I can think of no more fitting prayer to finish with on Ascension Day.

 As a bonus, here in the blog I can add a link to a youtube version of the song I quoted, so you can listen as well as read.

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A bit about baptism

This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed. The service also included a baptism.  The Scriptures referenced are 1 Peter 2:1-10, and John 10:1-10.  

In a few minutes, Billy’s parents and godparents will bring him to be baptized.  And so I’m going to take those minutes to unpack – just a little – what it is that we’re about to do, in the light of today’s New Testament reading.

Baptism is the beginning, the new birth into the Christian life.  And so the baptism service tells us some very basic things about who we are as Christians; it spells out something of the DNA of Christian faith and life, which we ought, then, to expect to see expressed and lived out.

The very first question that is going to be asked in the baptism part of the service is whether Billy’s parents and godparents accept the responsibilities placed upon them in bringing Billy for baptism.  He is just beginning in life; at this age, proud owner of four teeth though he is, he has a long way to go yet before he’s walking and talking and interacting with the world with a degree of his own agency.

And spiritually it’s much the same; he’s just beginning.  The love and nurture of his parents thus far have spoken with a depth beyond words, of the love and nurture of God, but Billy is a long way off having more than an instinctive understanding of that God, or of being able to foster his own relationship with God.  Just as newborn infants need pure milk, his spiritual needs are just as foundational; as he grows he will need to be taught to pray, taught the big truths of Christianity, taught how to relate to those around him, taught what the Christian way of life is, and guided in taking it on for himself.  That’s a lot to teach, and it’s no less important than communication and social skills and practical skills; all the things which his parents are going to be fretting over for some years yet.

So here are some of the foundational things of the Christian life.  To turn to Christ: to taste and see that the Lord is good.  To be willing to come to God, with a degree of openness to the possibility that God might actually be interested in each of us personally.  To see whether we can hear a voice which we recognize as someone with whom we belong.

To repent of your sins and to reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust; to rid yourselves, as the reading put it, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  Because repenting doesn’t mean feeling vaguely guilty but going on in our habitual patterns of relationship; it means turning away from those patterns which are dysfunctional and making active and real changes in our way of life.  No guile, no insincerity, no slander, but honesty, integrity and respectful relationships; that’s the example that Billy needs to see in front of him day by day as he learns what it means to put sin aside and focus on what is right.

And – I should remind the whole congregation – this isn’t just down to Billy’s family and godparents.  All of us will promise to support them in this calling.  We are fortunate in that because Billy comes to church here we will be able to know and watch out and care for him as he grows, but we need to remember that he will know and watch and learn from us; the example we set may well become his standard for the Christian life.  So our repentance, our renunciation of evil matters profoundly, not just for each of us individually, and not even just for Billy, but for all the children who look up to us as models and exemplars.

Beyond that, though, there will be some very profound prayers said for Billy before he is baptized; that he may “proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ,” and thanking God for “the ministry we have in your world and to each other in the household of faith.”  These prayers remind us that Billy won’t stay a young, vulnerable, impressionable child forever.  The day will come when he is ready to take his place in the church and the world as a contributing adult.  On that day, like every other baptised Christian, he will have responsibilities.  The reading this morning spoke of the church as “a holy priesthood,” “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

As Billy grows, he will develop and find his own particular gifts, his personality, his passions, and he will find there is a contribution in the church that is uniquely his to make.  The reading this morning spoke of us as living stones being built into a spiritual house, a temple, a place of prayer and spiritual sacrifice.

The image of a temple in which each of us is a stone speaks powerfully of the corporate reality of the church; together we can be more than we could be each as isolated individuals.   And the fact that we are living stones is important too; indwelt by our living God, this church is not a dead, static, cold reality but a lively, dynamic one, and we are constantly changing and growing.

But if some of the stones are missing, fail to find their place in the building, not only do the stones miss out on being part of a spiritual reality which is bigger than themselves, but the church as a whole is poorer – and I’ve seen one theologian go so far as to say deformed – without them.  Every single one of us is needed to make the church the fullness of what God intends it to be.

Which is really to say, be encouraged.  Every one of us has something unique and precious to offer.  Every one of us – from the most out there to the most shy and retiring – is someone we cannot do without, without being the poorer for it.

But also bear that in mind in looking to the needs of the next generation, we need to make sure that this church is a place which welcomes, nurtures, supports, educates and equips our children to take their place joyfully and with confidence as part of this royal priesthood which includes every one of us, by virtue of baptism.  It’s not all about the clergy; this is work in which we all participate together.

We come to the waters of baptism to receive mercy, to look for new beginnings and seek relationship with God.  Held in trust for us in the church is the dignity of being God’s own people, with a special relationship to Him, to one another and to the world.  Billy will – God willing – spend a lifetime discovering the depths of what is begun today.  All of us who are today reminded of our own baptism also have the opportunity to discover a little more of those depths.  So I commend to you this time to remember and be inspired afresh.