Seventh Sunday of Easter
Sunday after Ascension | Christian Aid Week
May 13 2018
Acts 1.1-11; John 17.6-17 (Good News Bible)
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Páraic left Jerusalem on Easter Monday but is currently on deputation in Scotland. He preached this sermon in Hopeman and Duffus churches, in the Presbytery of Moray.
Luke is the only one of our four gospel-writers to tell the story of the ascension.
Mark doesn’t mention the ascension. Matthew assumes it but doesn’t tell the story.
John collapses the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus into a single moment: In John 12, Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” “Lifted up” here means crucified, but it also means lifted up in victory to sit by his Father’s side.
Luke tells the ascension story twice: once at the end of his Gospel, and here, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
Let me make three points about the text.
In 2014, I started a blog called Witness in Jerusalem. You can find 40 posts on the website of St Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, including half a dozen from 2015 written by John McCulloch, who has now succeeded me.
Witnessing to Jesus Christ in the city where he died and rose again has its challenges.
Jerusalem is a city of three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and Christians, even local Christians, are very much the minority: How do we witness to our neighbours about the God, revealed to us in Jesus, who loves us all?
Jerusalem is at the centre of the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs that will be very much in their minds this week. Tomorrow, the state of Israel will celebrate its 70th anniversary; the following day, Palestinians throughout the Holy Land and beyond will remember the Nakba, the catastrophe that founding the state of Israel meant for their people, forcing three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs into an exile that has now lasted as long as the state. The letter to the Ephesians has a famous phrase about “speaking the truth in a spirit of love”. How do we speak the truth about this conflict, now 120 years old, in such a way that our neighbours – Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian – can recognize that we love them?
But Jesus talks about witnessing not just in Jerusalem, and not just in Judea and Samaria – today’s West Bank – but to the ends of the earth. Acts tells us how that happened. Peter and Paul and many others witness to Jesus, and somehow the gospel gets to Rome, then the centre of human power and authority, to tell the world, right under the nose of Caesar, that Jesus is Lord and God is king.
Along the way, they witness to many people in many and various ways: You can’t speak to Greeks in Athens, or Romans at the heart of the empire, in the same way you speak to Jews in Jerusalem. You have to speak in terms that make sense to them in their context.
And that is our task too. Luke doesn’t mention Moray in Acts. His knowledge of geography didn’t stretch this far. But just as it has been my task to witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, so today it is your task to witness to Christ in the context of Hopeman and Spynie and Duffus.
We don’t have to read far in the Acts of the Apostles to discover that witnessing to Jesus Christ isn’t just a matter of what we say, but just as much and more a matter of who we are and what we do. There’s a story, and it may even be true, that when Francis of Assissi was instructing his followers, he said: “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
We see what that meant for the first followers of Jesus in the successive chapters of Acts, but the real challenge is to figure out what it means for us today – in a context where, for example, Moray Council is again wrestling with what cuts to make in a budget that once again can’t cover all services or all needs.
Second point: The apostles ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time give the kingdom back to Israel?” It’s easy to misunderstand the question and the exchange that follows.
Christian Zionists believe that the Jewish people has returned to the Land and the state of Israel has been established in accordance with biblical prophecy. Some of them believe that the Jews must gather in Israel and be converted to Christianity before Jesus can return again.
This is a powerful strand of thought among Protestants, particularly in the United States. It reflects a tendency to read books such as Revelation as speaking, not about there and then, but about here and now: as coded texts about our own times, seen in this interpretation as the end-times.
The first thing to say about this is said by Jesus: It is not for us to know the times or periods that the Father has set. No one knows the day and hour, but only the Father.
The second thing was said in 2013 in The Inheritance of Abraham? – a report presented to our General Assembly: It is a misuse of the Bible “to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflicts over land.” Christians should not support any claims by any people “to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory.” When we use the Bible to justify injustice, we use it badly.
It is, however, the greatest possible misunderstanding to think that Jesus is rejecting the whole idea of a kingdom. From beginning to end, from the Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, God’s rule over the world God has created. He teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray that this kingdom will come on earth, as it is in heaven.
The whole New Testament tells us that this vision is not a fantasy. The book of Revelation looks to a day when the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, when the power to rule belongs to God and his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.
“Jesus proclaimed the kingdom and it is the church that came.” This is the sentence for which the French Catholic Alfred Loisy, writing in 1902, is best known. He is often taken to have said it with a note of regret: Jesus preached the kingdom, but we wound up with the church. Too bad for us.
It’s true that Loisy was highly critical of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, with its authoritarian structures and its dislike of independent thought. But Loisy was quite clear that Jesus meant to form a church, a society or community of followers. Through this community, the work of the kingdom would be carried forward.
This is the answer to the charge often levelled by our Jewish neighbours. They say, “Jesus announced the kingdom, but the world is still as mired in wickedness as ever it was. Nothing has changed.”
Obviously, they are half right. Look around us – look in particular at the many countries of the Middle East currently devastated by war – and it’s clear that the world is still as wicked as ever. But something has changed.
Jesus came among us. And the church came, as an inclusive community, a community of Jews and gentiles – people like us – that seeks to follow him and witness to him. These great new facts allow us to say that the world today is not as it always was. Then our challenge is to show, through the lives we live in the power of the Spirit, that this is true.
We don’t, of course, have an exclusive claim on the Spirit. The wind blows where it chooses, says John’s Gospel, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
But we do need to let the Spirit make an exclusive claim on us and on our hearts.
This brings me to my last point.
Jesus leaves his followers on the Mount of Olives. He goes away from the there and then into the everywhere and always. Ascension frees him from the ordinary limitations of time and space, so that he can be present with all of us – in Duffus and Damascus, in Spynie and Surabaya, in Hopeman and Haiti.
Two men in white suddenly stand beside them and ask, “Why are you staring at the sky?” They redirect their startled gaze towards Jerusalem – towards the context in which they live and where they must follow.
We too are not to gaze into heaven, blind to the needs of our neighbours, but to share with them and to be for them the good news of God’s love.
We need the risen and ascended Jesus to meet us where we are. We need him to tell us that the kingdom of God has begun – that it began in Bethlehem and the Galilee and Jerusalem and on the Mount of Olives. We need him to tell us that the world we live in – so broken in so many ways – will one day become the kingdom of God and his Messiah. We need to hear, once again, his invitation to become part of that kingdom, to be his witnesses and his servants. And then we need to turn our attention to the urgent needs of those around us, near and far – the hungry and homeless, the prisoners and the sick – all in the here and now.
Let us build a house where love can dwell (CH4 198)
When I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there? (CH4 544)
Gather us in, thou Love that fillest all (CH4 714)
Brother, sister, let me serve you (CH4 694)
Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (New York: HarperOne, 2007)
Robert O Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford & New York: OUP, 2013)
NT Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” in Jesus, Paul, and the People of God, edited by Richard B Hays, Nicholas Perrin (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011)
Working Preacher: Ascension of our Lord