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Ascension Day – 24th May 2020 - A sermon from Revd Paul Lanham

Ascension Day – 24th May 2020

Acts 1: 8. You shall be my witnesses.

 

 The Ascension. Jesus went up into heaven. There's a story of the first astronaut, that good Communist Yuri Gagarin. It's said that when he first went into orbit he radioed that he could prove there was no God because he had gone up into heaven and it wasn't there. Naive of course but it illustrates the problem that we may have about the Ascension.  We talk about Jesus going UP into heaven, as opposed to down or sideways. Of course it's the only language we can use to describe the events that day but it's only picture language. For we aren't talking about Jesus going up in the physical sense. We are thinking about Him leaving this earth in a physical sense. He died and rose again, but when His earthly ministry was over He left this earth without dying a second time. As for the up bit, we think of 'up' in terms of being spiritual, rather mysterious, full of light rather than being in the sinister darkness down, below ground. So it's not a case of heaven being 'up there' as Gagarin implied in his naivety. Jesus returned to His Father unconquered by death. All religions have thought of heaven being up rather than down, with gods on mountain tops or something similar; we use this imagery in Christanity as well.

 

 

Luke had to describe the events of that momentous day using the language and ideas available to him. To have described them in any other way would have belittled the significance of the event. But whatever form it took, it must have confused the disciples even more than they were already, if that were possible. I can imagine them in a kind of spiritual turmoil for at least the previous few months. There was the sense of impending tragedy as they began the long journey south to Jerusalem from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus brooding about His inevitable excruciating death and the fact that He could escape it whenever He liked. There was the Last Supper, with tensions almost reaching breaking point, followed by the betrayal and the crucifixion – their hopes dashed and then raised again by the Resurrection. Then those 40 days after the Resurrection that we know so little about. They wouldn't have been human if they had not been bewildered by everything that was going on – and let's face it,  they were very very human.

 

 

But overshadowing everything was the question of whether Jesus was in fact the Messiah that the Jews had dreamed of for so many generations, the great king who would conquer Israel's enemies and restore her greatness. It had sustained them as they languished in exile beside the waters of Babylon. It had sustained them when they suffered unspeakably for their faith at the hends of the Greeks 200 years before Christ came. It was keeping them going as they endured the preening army of occupation that Rome had brought when it conquered the country, made worse by its feeble and hated governor Pontius Pilate with all his loathing and contempt for them. False Messiahs had come and gone but Jesus had spoken of His Kingdom and He had acted in a messianic way. The disciples were full of this but they did not understand the idea of a spiritual kingdom and a spiritual Messiah. So at the Mount of Ascension they were totally confused. 'Are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?' they asked. Jesus must have wanted to tear His hair out at that point. Even in these final moments of His ministry it was clear that they simply hadn't a clue. You can't help being sympathetic with Him – but also with them as well.

 

 

But Jesus did not call them to understand but to serve, to continue the work that He had begun. 'You will be my witnesses, both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and in Samaria and to the furthest parts of the world' He commanded them. Interesting that His vision was that of a worldwide faith at a time when religions were almost entirely national, confined to individual countries. Perhaps He said this, perhaps the words were put into His mouth by Luke after Christianity had begun to spread throughout Gentile territory. Or perhaps Jesus was being prophetic. Either way I don't think it matters. What matters is that Jesus told His disciples to go out and spread the good news about His Kingdom and to put into practice the implications of His teaching, the nature of His Kingdom.

 

 

And this has been the Church's task ever since, that we should witness to Christ.. The Christians often did this the hard way. I don't want to bore you but the Greek word for witness is Marturum, from which we get the word martyr. All down the ages people have witnessed to their faith by being willing to suffer and die for it. Over 50 years ago as a student training for the priesthood I spent two years trying to work out why the first Christians suffered so much. I never got the resulting degree and it was very disturbing at the time, disturbing ever since. One of the things that I discovered was that far from weakening the Church, martyrdom made it stronger – as the contemporary Christian historian Tertullian put it, 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church'. The Church has survived and indeed grown because of the faithful witness of its members – history proves that.

 

 

But what do we mean by witnessing? Any fool can believe in some sort of god if he puts his mind to it. It is far more rational, far more logical to believe in God than not to do so – in spite of what the atheists will tell you. But Christianity is not just about believing, it's about putting those beliefs into practice. This lies at the very heart of Christianity, as Christ gave His followers two commands – love God and love your fellow men. The two are inextricably linked. Christianity is a way of life based on faith;  it's not about faith alone. People may think that all there is to being a Christian is coming to church, believing vaguely in God, being nice to people and enduring boring sermons. But God has given us this dual commandment, and the implication is that it's the basis for a different way of life, of looking at life, that we show our love for God in our love for other people. At the same time we focus our lives primarily on the spiritual rather than the material. So it's a radically different way of looking at the world and of living in it. We get so worried about the idea of witnessing, that it's about talking and testifying to what we believe. Now quite apart from the fact that we simply don't do that sort of thing in these genteel parts, it's completely wrong. We witness unconsciously by living the kind of lives that Christ would have us live, by showing in our lives that Christianity WORKS, that it is an alternative to the selfishness and materialism that we find around us. As the final prayer in the Eucharist puts it, 'Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory'. That is how we are Christ's witnesses, by being ordinary people living ordinary lives in the power and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That was the task that Christ gave to His disciples when he ascended into heaven. 2000 years later it is given to us in this Benefice as it has been and always will be to all Christ's followers – at all times and in all  places.     

all Christ's followers: at all times and in all places.

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Weekly Pew Sheet, 24th May 2020

.200524 Sunday Pew Sheet

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Weekly Pew Sheet, Sixth Sunday after Easter, 17th May 2020

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Weekly PewSheet - Fifth Sunday after Easter, 10th May 2020

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Revd Paul Lanham's sermon for Sunday 3rd May 2020 - Psalm 23 v. 1. The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23 v. 1. The Lord is my Shepherd

            The picture of the shepherd lay at the very heart of Israel's life. Today's psalm reflects how God's relationship with His people was seen in these terms and we find it again and again throughout the Old Testament; the people are God's and He will lead them and protect them as long as they do not stray from Him. 

Jesus took this same idea and some of His illustrations reflect it. So He speaks of Himself as The Good Shepherd in the passage that follows today's Gospel reading. Furthermore by saying that 'I AM the Good Shepherd' He was claiming by implication to be God's Son; we find this phrase 'I am'  several times in John's Gospel and they all relates to such claims. He, God's Son is the Good Shepherd, just as He is the light of the world, and so on.

            But it lies deeper than this. Israel was a rural country and sheep with their shepherds were everywhere; it was one of the most common sights in the country. So when Jesus spoke of sheep and shepherds He was using a picture from everyday life. This was typical, for many of the parables take the form of spiritual lessons taken from things that were part of the lives of the man in the street. So we read of looking for lost sheep and lost coins – the notorious road from Jerusalem to Jericho – absentee landlords and rogue servants – sowing and harvesting – and so on. Were He on earth today I sometimes wonder in my naughtier moments what illustrations He might use as a basis for parables. Driving on the M1 or M25 perhaps (a variation on the Good Samaritan parable!) - the tedium of airports – a lost passport just before going on holiday - stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment – celebrating a family event – the daily commute or the weekly shop – add your own example. Jesus started where people were. He was a man of the people and He drew on the everyday experiences of everyday people – which of course He was before He began His ministry. So He drew faith into the realm of normal human existence rather than being outside it.

            It is pure luck that this psalm and today's Gospel are appointed for this Sunday of all Sundays, lying as it does during the coronavirus crisis; lessons in the Church of England are fixed on a three year cycle (rather than chosen at random) and these have come on this day this year. Believe it or not Judy and I deliver the Hitchin Comet every week around part of the village where we live. Wherever we go these days we find the famous rainbow in windows or even chalked on the pavement, often by children. Everywhere there is this slogan 'You are not alone', again often written by children. Our village care scheme is thriving, offering help to anyone who needs it. On a personal level we (as senior citizens!) have been offered endless help by neighbours and friends. Above all we had enormous sympathy and help from the Accident & Emergency team at Bedford Hospital last Sunday after Judy had dislocated her shoulder in a freak fall - then from people who have discovered about it. If anything good comes out of this crisis it should take two forms. One is that this spirit of mutual support and care should continue when it is all over. The other is that we should never ever again take for granted the skill and compassion and utter dedication of the medical profession, especially those serving in hospitals. 

            You are not alone. We do not know what the future holds for ourselves or our country. In the short term we do not know for certain whether we or our loved ones will be touched by this virus. We do not know how the next few days or the next few weeks will turn out, how life will be and what the new normality will be. Even closer to home, we do not know when we will be allowed to worship together again in this church; I am sure I am not the only person who is missing being in church with you and with the other congregations who I am honoured to serve. Then of course we can have no idea of the long term economic and social impact of what has struck us so suddenly and tragically and what the effect on us will be. The future has seldom been more uncertain than it is at present.

            But I am absolutely certain of one thing. It is that 'You are not alone'. Everyone is going through the same kind of experience; nobody is exempt because this is a worldwide thing. Other people care about you personally as you read this. I doubt if there has been a time since the end of the 2nd World War (another related picture but for next Sunday!) when the nation has been so united and so caring about one another. 

            But even more importantly God cares about you, as a person. This is what we find in another agricultural parable as the shepherd searches for a single lost sheep from his flock. YOU personally matter to God, in all your vulnerability, with all your anxieties, in your mundane everyday lives in this worldwide crisis. The Psalmist writes that 'even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me'. Even when things are as bad as they could be, even when our fears are at their greatest, even when we feel most alone, even when we are at rock bottom, God is with us to support us and help us. You are not alone.  The slogan of this pandemic is also God's message to everyone at this time. He is with us to encourage us, to calm our fears, to help us through. He will never ever leave us, no matter what may happen to us.

Amen

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