As we can not gather together for Ascension Day this year, Rev. Mike and his family filmed a half-hour service at the Vicarage (including the sermon from Fr Neil Kelley). In addition, the reflection is below.
It’s very good to be able to be with you virtually today as we celebrate Ascension Day, I’m very grateful to Father Mike for his invitation to preach. Of course, in normal circumstances, the congregation from St Laurence’s had been invited to share in your eucharist this evening, so at least our two communities are still sharing this feast in some way.
Today we celebrate that moment when Jesus physically departed from his apostles, and for them it was a bereavement. Of course, he’d warned them that he was to go, but like any one of us, even if we know that parting is coming, it doesn’t make it any easier when it actually takes place. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the moment when Jesus was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
The Ascension certainly seems to have reassured the apostles. Afterwards, they went out to the whole world and preached everywhere, confident that the Lord was still with them, despite his physical departure. Jesus promised the apostles, and us, that he would be with us always,and that he would send the Holy Spirit to witness to the truth. When our loved ones pass away, when they are taken to be with God in heaven, we know that through Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, we are with them always. Jesus’ human body may be in heaven, but there is a sense in which his body continues here, and that is the body of Christ. That is his church – you and me – we make up the body of Christ. We make Jesus present in our communion together, and the Holy Spirit resides, lives, dwells within us.
And so, let’s not forget today, as we are caught up in the middle of this pandemic, that even the disciples themselves were experiencing the normal human emotions that we all go through, and that many are going through particularly at this time, as loved ones are dying and as families cannot gather as they normally would do for funeral services.
We’ve had two periods of quarantine, haven’t we? Quarantine means, simply, a period of 40 days. We’ve had the 40 day journey from Lent to Easter, during which we were locked down. And we’ve just completed another 40 day journey from Easter to Ascension. Also in lockdown – the second quarantine much harder than the first.
These days we tend not to think of the 40 day journey from Easter but rather the 50 day journey from Easter, which leads us to Pentecost, and it is this period between Ascension and Pentecost that the church throughout the world is focusing on at the moment with the prayer initiative Thy Kingdom Come. During that initiative, we are invited to think of five people who we would love to see come to faith in Jesus Christ. Who might you be praying for today? Who might you pray for during this ten-day period? Consider carefully how you can use this time and so grow in your prayer life and, indeed, in bringing others to know and love the Lord Jesus.
The theme of this year’s Thy Kingdom Come is ‘Prayer and Care’, and one of the chief ways that the church is exercising mission at the moment is by our care of others. Yesterday was
‘National Thank a Teacher Day’, and I hope that many of us showed our care for our teachers by sending them kind messages. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and that perhaps reminds us to keep an extra special look out for our neighbours and our friends. Those who were struggling even before this lockdown began will be struggling even more in this time of isolation.
There has been some discussion recently about whether the words at the end of the eucharist service should be changed. Not so much “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, but “stay at home in peace to love and serve the Lord”, or, perhaps, “stay alert in peace to love and serve the Lord”. What does it look like for us at the moment to be a church looking outwards? We come to church Sunday by Sunday in order to be sent out – sent out into the world to praise the Lord and to serve his people.
So, what does the Ascension say to us, what do we take from this ‘outward looking’ festival when we are staying safely at home? It recognises that Jesus has completed his work on earth, he was going to the Father where he would sit at the Father’s right hand, reigning over the whole world as Lord and King. And we know from John’s Gospel that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for each one of us. Our hope. Our destiny. And in this time of pandemic, we need more than ever to be able to speak of the Good News of Jesus and the promise of eternal life.
It’s very painful for us not to be able to receive the eucharist at the moment, but when Bishop Philip came to St Laurence’s to pre-record some services the day before the lockdown, he said at his Maundy Thursday homily that whilst we cannot receive the eucharist at the current time, we can, nonetheless, live eucharistically. That is, we, like those apostles, can be sent out in the power of the spirit, to live and work to God’s praise and glory. As we celebrate the Ascension today, as we remember Jesus leaving this world and going to his father, let us remember that that is also our ultimate destiny, to be with God in heaven. With angels, with archangels, and with all the company of heaven, as we say at every eucharist.
And so today, as we give thanks today for the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, the completion of his work on earth, as we give thanks for the command he gave to the apostles and the command he gives to you and me today to go out to the whole world and proclaim the good news, let us rejoice in this faith. Let us rejoice that we too, one day, will be called to be with God in heaven. Amen. Alleluia.
(from Fr Neil of St Laurence's, Chorley)