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Ascension Day

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Near the group of four churches in Oxfordshire which I served as parish priest for eight years, after I was curate here and before I returned to Dorking a couple of years ago, is the fine mediaeval church in the village of Childrey. There you will see some very fine and interesting fourteenth century stained glass which includes the Ascension of Christ. The Apostles, with the Virgin Mary introduced into the scene, on the left, kneel around the mountain top. Jesus Christ is in the process of ascending to heaven, and all you can see is the cloud in which he is taken up, and his feet. And if you look closely you can see Jesus’ footprint on the mountain top – an engaging detail to which I shall later return.

The Ascension features in both our readings today, in Luke chapter 24 and Acts chapter 1; but that’s not surprising since Luke is the author of both books, and the Book of Acts is sometimes called part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel ends with the Ascension and Acts begins with the Ascension – it was indeed a pivotal event. Luke’s Gospel is the story of the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and the Book of Acts is the outworking of the Gospel story in the life and witness of the young Christian Church.

In Luke chapter 24, Jesus appears to his disciples on several occasions after his resurrection; and then he commissions his disciples. He reminds them of the Scriptures; of how his resurrection is foretold and how the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. He describes them as witnesses; and tells them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit clothes them with power from on high. Then he leads them out as far as Bethany; and in the act of blessing them, he withdraws from them and is carried up into heaven. One could draw the inference from Luke’s slightly condensed gospel account that the ascension took place on the same day as the resurrection; but the account in Acts is clearer when it says that there was an interval of forty days.

The account in Acts chapter 1 indeed gives more detail than Luke’s gospel, and recounts the conversation between Jesus and his disciples immediately before the Ascension, in which they misguidedly ask (and not for the first time) if this is the time when Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel. So Jesus puts them right for the last time – it is not for them to know the times that the Father has appointed. But they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Then a cloud takes Jesus out of their sight; and as he departs from their view, two men in white robes stand by them, and remind the disciples that Jesus will return, in the fullness of time.

So what are we to make of the Ascension, which is one of the most important festivals in the Church’s year, but perhaps the most elusive and mysterious ? Let’s look at the fuller account in Acts, chapter 1, verses 1 to 12, which serves as an introduction to the whole of the Book of Acts.

Firstly, the passage refers the reader to what follows – which is an account of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the Christian church. It indicates the continuity between Luke and Acts, and shows that the church stands in continuity with the whole narrative of God’s saving plan.

Secondly, the passage focuses on the Holy Spirit as an essential and dynamic presence; and it speaks of the baptism in the Spirit which will come upon the disciples at Pentecost in a few days’ time; and it speaks of the power of the Spirit which will empower their ministry. Indeed some have suggested that the Book of Acts, customarily known as the Acts of the Apostles, should be named more appropriately The Acts of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, the passage underlines the role of the apostles as witnesses; and this is a theme which recurs frequently throughout the Book of Acts. And the opening verses of Acts also point out that the church and its work of witness are to extend throughout the world. Jesus’ charge and his instructions to the apostles made them the chief heralds of the good news. The central instruction is the command to be witnesses. The command to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit is so that the disciples may be prepared for the task. The reference to the places where they are to go indicates that they are not to stay in one place, but to tell people everywhere. And the specific reference to Samaria (where there was only a very small Jewish population) shows clearly that witness to the Gentiles is part of God’s plan.

Fourthly, the passage from Acts points towards the second coming of Christ, at the end of time – it’s what what theologians call eschatology (the last things). But details of the future, though determined by God, are not to be made known to humans – even apostles – who seek foreknowledge.

These verses from Acts set out the framework within which the Christian story is to unfold. Jesus has been exalted to heaven amongst clouds; and he will return in the same way. Luke’s imagery reflects the belief that Jesus, as Messiah, would come again with the clouds of heaven, thus fulfilling the vision of the prophet Daniel (“I saw one like a human being [or a Son of Man] coming with the clouds of heaven.”) And we also recall the over-shadowing cloud at the Transfiguration of Christ, which in a sense pre-figures the Ascension – because the Ascension is also a manifestation of the divine glory.

The disciples had seen Jesus go in power and glory; and in power and glory he will come back in the fullness of time. It is between the Ascension and the Second Coming that the church seeks to live out the gospel in the power of Christ; and the apostles are the first representatives who Jesus Christ commissions to do his work in his name.

The account of the Ascension only appears in Luke/Acts. It expresses the theological conviction that Jesus after his earthly life and death is now the Lord who reigns at God’s right hand; and it also addresses the physical problem of the disappearance of the physical body of the risen Jesus.

Of all the Gospel writers Luke perhaps has the clearest sense of the disciples living out the reality of Jesus’ resurrection life. Over the period of forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus appeared at intervals to his apostles and other followers in a manner which left no doubt that he was really alive again, risen from the dead. He took food with them and those occasions must have evoked memories of the Last Supper. But all these appearances were transitory, and after each of them, Jesus withdrew from the apostles’ sight. So in a sense Jesus being removed from the apostles’ sight at the ascension was the culmination of a sequence of post-resurrection experiences. In Luke/Acts, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension form one continuous movement, and both speak of his exaltation, of his being lifted up and raised to glory.

The implications of Luke’s words at the beginning of Acts is that the Book of Acts is intended as an account of what Jesus continued to do and to teach after his Ascension – except that he is no longer visibly present on earth but, by the Holy Spirit, he is present in his followers. So perhaps that footprint left on the mountain top in the 14th century stained glass window at Childrey church is theologically significant after all – because we are called to follow in the footsteps of the Master, and to be his hands and feet in the world.

Acts 1.1-12
Luke 24.44-53

Sixth Sunday of Easter

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The readings for the eight Sundays of the Easter season each include a passage from the Acts of the Apostles – as our thoughts are focused on the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the young Christian church, in the early days following the resurrection of Our Lord. The Easter season encompasses Ascension Day, which is next Thursday, and it concludes with Pentecost, in two weeks’ time; before we move on to the Trinity season, and think of those long, warm summer days – hopefully.

I am occasionally asked what is my favourite book of the Bible. It’s a difficult question, but I suppose as a historian I have always been drawn especially to the Book of Acts with its vivid outworking of the Christian faith in the lived experience of the early Christian church, rooted in place and time.

I’m going to focus on our passage from Acts this morning. But let’s first remind ourselves of the context for this particular narrative, and see how it fits in with the main story-line of Acts. Acts, which was written by Luke, is sometimes called part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. It takes up the Gospel narrative straight after the resurrection, and begins with the disciples of Jesus witnessing Jesus’ Ascension. It describes how, under the leadership of Peter, the disciples become a community filled with the Holy Spirit, witnessing to the Christian faith, and suffering persecution. The Book of Acts moves on to describe how this movement spread outside Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching multi-cultural Antioch. It features the story of the conversion of Saul, and of the role of Saul (now re-named Paul) in the spread of the gospel.

The whole of the Book of Acts is carefully constructed, and Luke skilfully reinforces his central theme of the expansion of the church into the whole world, across every barrier – whilst at the same time dealing with the numerous practical difficulties faced by the young church as it grew and developed.

Though there is a clear historical framework to the Book of Acts, historical details for Luke, whilst important, are secondary to the theological message of what constitutes the mission of the church. But the work of Christian mission is not simply one of founding new churches. Young congregations must be nurtured in the faith. So Paul, and his travelling companions Silas and Timothy, set out to nurture the congregations which have been founded. After a while, Paul receives a commission to travel westwards, to plant the Christian faith in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea and Corinth, before he moves on to Ephesus, in the eastern Aegean.

At this point in the narrative, there is a startling shift in Luke’s style of narrative, as he starts to use the first person plural. Now, there are various theories about this, the most popular of which are that Luke himself accompanied Paul on parts of his journeys; or that Luke incorporated narrative material from Silas or Timothy. Whatever the explanation, the use of the “we” form gives these sections of Acts a sense of drama and immediacy; and it makes the narrative particularly compelling.

Our reading this morning tells of the call to Paul, in a vision, to take the good news of the Gospel to Macedonia – which had once been the dominant power in the Greek world and Western Asia under Alexander the Great, but which was now a Roman province. And so Paul travels via the port of Neapolis, to Philippi, some ten miles inland.

So let’s now picture the scene at Philippi, on the sabbath day, with Paul and his companions down by the river The little community at Philippi didn’t appear to have a synagogue, for which a minimum of ten men were required, but it did have a place of prayer outside the gate, by the river Gangites, and so a group of women were gathered there for their sabbath devotions. There Paul finds amongst his listeners, Lydia, a worshipper of God, who responds to Paul’s message and is soon baptised – along with her household – and she invites Paul and his companions into her home. So Paul’s words were addressed to a group of women, and Lydia became one of the first women to embrace the Christian faith.

So Lydia immediately responds to the gift of faith by offering Paul and his travelling companions hospitality in her home. The very fact that Paul consented to stay in her house, as recipient of her hospitality, shows the extent to which the barriers that divided male and female, or Jew from gentile, did not hold sway in the church. Admittedly Paul’s teaching elsewhere (in the Epistles) on the role of women may strike a jarring note, but it perhaps reflects the way that the early church struggled to square the cultural assumptions about women with the experience of the significant role of women in early Christian communities.

The story of Lydia is interesting in a number of different respects. First, the narrator makes clear that her conversion is due to the work of God, and not to Paul’s undoubted missionary skill. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).

Second, Lydia is a woman. Perhaps we need not be startled that Paul and his companions are talking to women in public. Luke has already described in his Gospel how the women were present at the crucifixion, and at the tomb; and they were the first to witness the risen Christ – Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women who were with them (Luke 24.9). So Luke has already presented women, who were low on the social scale, as the first evangelists who ran to tell the male disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Third, Lydia was a rich woman. She was from the city of Thyatira and was a dealer in purple cloth. There is contemporary evidence that Philippi was a centre of trade in cloth which was dyed from the juice of the madder root; and so Lydia was a merchant. Indeed, women in Macedonia were noted for their independent character. Luke is often at pains to demonstrate how wealth should be used beneficially as for the good of others.

Fourth, this was the first example of preaching and conversion in what is now Europe. This point should not be over-stated, because the distinction between Europe and Asia would not have been seen in the same way under the Roman Empire as it is today. But it marks a significant westwards thrust in the spread of the gospel. And so Lydia is sometimes celebrated as the first known European Christian.

Philippi was soon to become the home of one of the fledgling Christian communities. And in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, (4.15-16) he recalls
his debt to the young church in Philippi.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples what will inspire the outreach of the Gospel. He will reveal himself to those who love him, he will make his home with them, and he will give them his peace – a Christ-given serenity which overcomes fear. And the Holy Spirit will equip and teach those who love and follow him. The church is thus called to be a community which witnesses to Christ’s peace, bringing people into a right relationship with God, and preaching the good news of salvation, healing and reconciliation. It is in the fledgling Christian communities such as Philippi that we find these words of Jesus finding practical expression.

In particular, the example of Lydia’s faith and hospitality gives us a model of self-giving and loving discipleship, which became a hallmark of the Christian community in Philippi. May her faithful and loving example continue to speak to us today, and may we speak to others of Christ’s love and his peace.

Acts 16.9-15
John 14.23-29

Remembrance Sunday

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Jesus’ discourse with his disciples in our Gospel reading about the end-time perhaps resonate more in times of acute global conflict and wars that transcend national boundaries. But even today we do not live in settled times and we read of the advances of forces hostile to Christianity (and indeed other religions) in different parts of the world. We learn of the massive dislocation and uprooting of people from so many countries, especially in the Middle East and north Africa. We hear of the cynical ferocity of fresh terrorist attacks. And we have Jesus’ words “Beware that no one leads you astray” speaking to us today, as acts of barbarity and evil are committed in the name of distorted branches of world religions which captivate the hearts and minds of their adherents.

Nor are Jesus’ words modified by what he goes on to say later in chapter 13, when he speaks of the personal cost of being a disciple, when some are disowned by their family, punished by civic authorities, and hated for speaking in his name. It may be difficult for us to reconcile the picture offered by Mark of our relationship with God cast in terms of violent punishment of sin in a series of cosmic disasters, with the over-arching vision in the Gospel of the promise of salvation in Christ.

Such a vision may not make things easier for victims of war, persecution, famine, drought and earthquakes. But it does make it possible to be purposeful about living in the time that is given to us, in the light of the knowledge that Christ has already won the victory for us, and that God’s kingdom will, in due time, be fully realised on earth.

So let’s look more closely at our Gospel reading, at the context in which it was written, and at what it may be saying to us today.

The passage consists of the opening verses from Mark chapter 13, which is known as the Little Apocalypse, where Jesus gives his teaching about the last things, and his Second Coming. The thirteenth chapter of Mark has a number of characteristics of what is known as apocalyptic literature: the prediction of times of tribulation, the anticipation of the end of the world in an imminent crisis, visions of cosmic upheaval, and the promise of God’s ultimate intervention. It draws on similar passages in the Old and New Testaments; and it reflects a movement of thought in the early church that the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time was potentially close at hand.

The whole of the discourse about the end–time points prophetically to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. With powerful symbolism, and in order to deliver this discourse, Jesus moves away from the Temple down to the city gate and up to the Mount of Olives opposite. He is accompanied to the Mount of Olives by Peter, James, John and Andrew; these were the first four disciples who Jesus called, and here they are near the culmination of his earthly ministry.

The disciples initially marvel at the magnificence of the Temple constructed by King Herod the Great, across the valley – what large stones, what large buildings, they say – and indeed these stones were huge. One stone excavated stone from the Temple was found to be more then 15 metres in length and 2.5 metres in height. But Jesus says that these stones will be thrown down. And so they were, when the Romans under Titus, having brutally put down the Jewish rebellion in AD 70, set fire to the Temple and then systematically dismantled it and razed it to the ground. But the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple was not a sign of the end of the world, even though it was a major turning point in Jewish history.

Indeed, Jesus straight away gives a series of warnings against deceptive signs of the end-time: for example, the appearance of deceivers who purport to speak in God’s name but seek to lead members of the Christian community astray, and the occurrence of wars and upheavals of nature. And the underlying message of Jesus is that “the end is not yet.” And so the appropriate stance for the disciples is therefore to watch and to wait patiently, and to discern God’s Spirit. This is very much the theme of the Advent Season, which we will be reaching in just two weeks’ time – watching and waiting.

This doesn’t mean that we are to be reduced to a fearful inactivity, but to be watchful and expectant in working for the coming of God’s kingdom.
This short season between All Saints and Advent is known as the Kingdom season (with its red hanging and vestments), when we think of the coming of God”s kingdom and the ultimate kingship of Christ. This prospect ought to give our Christian witness and discipleship a sense of momentum, even urgency.

And our reading from Hebrews gives us good advice on how best to use this time of active waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom. Those who have received the hope and assurance of sins forgiven are to stimulate one another “to love and good deeds … not neglecting to meet together … but encouraging one another.”

And Mark chapter 13 assures us that we look to a sure and certain hope, founded on the promise of Jesus. And this will sustain us in times of difficulty and suffering. This is described in our Gospel reading as the beginning of the birth pangs, which signal the coming birth of new life, and the dawn of God’s new day.
Our historical situation is different from that of the early Church. The Temple may have been destroyed, but the Son of Man did not return in glory at the Second Coming during the lifetime of the disciples, or in the 2,000 years since then. And so, many people have quietly dismissed the vision of the Second Coming, and how we should live in readiness for it.

But Mark chapter 13 reminds us of God’s intervention in history. It strengthens our call to discipleship in the present. It warns us against the wiles of those who deceive. It sustains us in times of suffering, or even persecution. It quickens the common round of daily life by making us ready to see and welcome the presence of Jesus, our redeemer.

Today on Remembrance Sunday we honour especially those who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of justice and peace; and it gives us a special opportunity each year to remember especially those from this church community who died on active service in both World Wars of the last century. Today we confront issues of war and peace, of loss and self-offering, of thanksgiving, or sacrifice and redemption.

So why do people still need to sacrifice their lives, both in upholding the Gospel of Jesus, or in armed conflict to secure a safe and better world if the ultimate sacrifice has been made by Christ? In the fullness of time , God’s kingdom will come, and peace and justice will be known throughout the world. But although death’s hold on us has been broken, we must continue to work for a world which in due time will become free from sin and oppression, when Christ comes again and all the world has been won for him.

Hebrews 10.11-25
Mark 13.1-8

Second Sunday after Trinity

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One of my great pleasures as parish priest of four rural churches in Oxfordshire was to visit the Bowood Pre-School in the village of Coleshill each month to do some Bible story-telling with the three to four year old boys and girls. One of the perennial favourites amongst the children was the parable of the sower. So one day three years ago I took in my bowl of seeds, and my three flower pots: one with stony soil, one with weeds growing in it, and one with healthy growing wheat from one of the local farms. I asked the children what they were growing in their gardens, and they said with enthusiasm: tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. It was lovely to see how delighted they were to see these plants growing, that would become their family’s food. But I was was slightly taken back when one little girl said with evident enthusiasm that she liked to see weeds grow – to which I replied with a watery smile that weeds were just flowers growing in the wrong place.

There are three parables of growth in Mark chapter 4: the parable of the sower and Jesus’ explanation of it, in verses 3 to 20; and this is followed, after the short related parable of the lamp under the bushel basket, by the parable of the growing seed in verses 26 to 29; and finally there is the parable of the mustard seed in verses 30 to 32. Our Gospel reading today focuses on the latter two of these parables of growth. Each of the three parables reflects on sowing, on growth and the harvest – as illustrations of the Kingdom of God.

Many of Jesus’ parables were drawn from everyday life in Palestine, and this gives these teaching stories a reality of context and detail. In the parable of the sower, we are told about stony ground and ground choked with weeds; and so we see the parable portraying sources of opposition to good and healthy growth. We read about the harvest, and think about the many seeds that have been planted; and so we learn of God’s Kingdom manifesting fruitfulness.

The parable of the sower emphasises that the growth of the Kingdom is a work of God, not a human achievement; and the two following parables that feature in today’s Gospel reading continue this theme: that it is God who gives the increase, and that it is in earthly humility that God chooses to manifest his glory. But whereas in the parable of the sower significant attention is also given to the resistance and obstruction encountered by the seed, the parable of the growing seed emphasises the power released through the scattering and sowing of the seed.

The sowing and the harvesting are seen as having a common identity, with God-given growth uniting the two. The reference to the harvest recalls the words of the prophet Joel 3.13, which speak of the judgement of the world in the fullness of time. So the emphasis in the parable in placed upon the sowing of the seed as the work of the Messiah that releases energy and power which lead to the sovereign purposes of God being achieved.

So what happens in the period between the sowing of the seed and the harvest ? The seed germinates and sprouts. It springs up and matures in a mysterious way that almost goes unnoticed. In Mark’s words the one who sows the need “does not know how”. This does not mean that the sower abandons his work, nor that he is uninterested in what is taking place. But it means that the seed must be allowed its appointed course, as the process of growth and ripening advances towards the harvest. Significant elements in the parable are the certainty of the harvest and the germinal power of the seed as the pledge and promise of its coming to maturity. So the parable emphasises not only the harvest but also the seed, and its action within the soil, and its growth. In a similar way, the proclamation of the gospel both promises God’s Kingdom and helps to make it manifest.

Turning to the parable of the mustard seed, we find a contrast between the smallest of the seeds and the tallest of the shrubs, into which the seed grows. So there is not much reflection in this parable on the actual growth of the seed, but instead on the beginning and the end result. Though insignificant in its beginning, the mature result provides strength and protection for those who come within its shade, especially the birds who make their nests there.

The mustard seed which is described in this parable is thought to be the black mustard, which was extensively cultivated, and from Biblical times was the source of mustard-seed oil which has medicinal use. It is conspicuous around the Sea of Galilee, with its profusion of yellow flowers and seed-bearing fruits. Interestingly, it is an annual plant whose perpetuation depends on renewed sowing. It grows to eight to ten feet in height; and indeed birds are attracted both by its shade and its seeds.

The language of the parable, with its references to the birds nesting in the branches of trees, reflects Old Testament passages (cf. Psalm 104.12; 31.6; Daniel 4.12 – Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) which speak of trees of God’s planting as symbols of God’s mighty kingdom.

In Jewish folklore the mustard seed stood for for the smallest seed. But this apparently insignificant seed grows into a mighty plant. The mustard seed symbolises the word of God proclaimed by Christ; and this word possesses the power which will make all things new. And this connects with our Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians in which Paul says, in one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament: “ if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” The whole created order is therefore seen through the redemptive power and love of Christ.

Through the use of parables Jesus proclaimed the word of God in terms which related to the lived experience of those to whom he spoke, and he adapted these parables to the degree of understanding that he found in his listeners – hence Mark’s statement that Jesus “spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” Moreover, Jesus’ presentation and use of parables allowed time for reflection on the part of those who came to hear him, as they pondered the symbolic and thought-provoking stories that Jesus told them.

The use of parables shows the value of presenting the faith by way of stories. Often where things make the greatest impact on us is when we hear a story which resonates with our own life’s story. And so as we share our Christian faith and experience with others, may our own stories reflect the light of Christ and may they connect with the stories of the people who we encounter. And may the seed of God’s word within us, grow into plants that provide protection, hospitality and nourishment to others.

2 Corinthians 5.6-17
Mark 4.26-34

Ascension Day

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The Feast of the Ascension is one of the major festivals in the Church’s calendar, but it can feel somewhat overlooked – overshadowed by Easter and rather close to Pentecost. What are we to make of this fascinating but elusive feast day?

The Ascension isn’t that easy to interpret or to understand. Sometimes it’s presented as a celebration of Christ’s exaltation and his universal sovereignty, rather like the Feast of Christ the King which comes in November. Sometimes it’s presented simply as a prelude to Pentecost – a foretaste of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, if you’ll forgive a slight irreverence, it’s seen as little more than a convenient device for despatching Christ’s resurrection body. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance or power of the Ascension, or its role in the mission, ministry, worship and life of the church.

The account of the Ascension appears in our readings from both Luke and the Book of Acts, which was, after all, written by Luke. And it is the connecting link between the two books. Reference to the Ascension is also found in Mark 16.19, but that verse is part of what is known as the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel which is generally considered to be much later than Mark’s original text. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, his first letter to Timothy and the letter to the Hebews each allude in different ways to the Ascension but doesn’t refer to it specifically; and it’s not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. So we very much look to Luke as our source and guide.

In Luke’s narrative, Jesus’ ascension marks the end of the post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, and the beginning of the story of the church being empowered to carry forward Christ’s mission – thereby marking a critical point of transition from Easter to Pentecost. The first five verses of our reading from Acts chapter 1 give a short summary of the events of the forty days following Easter, and they record Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, promising them that God’s Spirit will soon be made evident in fresh ways – and he presents the promised coming of the Holy Spirit as a new, Spirit-filled baptismal gift. The following six verses recount the actual miracle of the Ascension – when Jesus is lifted up in a cloud and taken beyond the limits of the disciples’ physical senses; and two men in white robes encourage the disciples to cease looking heavenwards. And so the disciples go back to prepare for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. But the Ascension isn’t followed straight away by Pentecost in the book of Acts. The disciples set about finding a replacement for Judas Iscariot, and Mattheus is chosen to join the apostles – so the disciples are actively preparing themselves for their ministry which lies ahead.

But even at the scene of the Ascension, the disciples who so often showed a lack of proper understanding of Jesus’ mission continue to get it wrong, when they ask him: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And so the disciples continue to hope that God’s Messiah will restore the political fortunes of the royal line of King David. Jesus deflects their question and refocuses their attention on the demonstration of God’s power and the outpouring of God’s love that they are about to experience. Jesus effectively says to them: ‘It isn’t the restoration of the kingdom of Israel that will energise you. The Spirit will empower you to be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but also in all Judea and Samaria, and throughout the world’

The Ascension is a manifestation of God’s glory, and we see Jesus who was raised on the cross, and risen from the tomb, now raised to the Father in power and majesty, as we recall the over-shadowing cloud at the Transfiguration of Jesus which pre-figures the cloud-filled glory of the Ascension. But the Ascension is not only about what is happening to Jesus, but about what is happening to the disciples. In the New Testament perspective, the Ascension is a time of expectant transition between promise and fulfilment – in some ways, rather like Advent. And we need to look to the Book of Acts to see the outworking of the Ascension for it is nothing less than an amazing account of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the early Christian church.

I’d now like to draw out four significant points from our Gospel passage from Luke, relating to Scripture, witness, worship and the Second Coming. Firstly, scripture. We are reminded that the Jewish scriptures provide an understanding of the Messiah and his destiny. Earlier in Luke chapter 24 (25-27, 32) Jesus interprets the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus before he is revealed to them when he takes bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them. Now, at the Ascension, Jesus again speaks to the disciples about the scriptures – that everything written about him in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. And so in the light of the resurrection, and before he disappears from their view, we read that Jesus opens the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures (v.45). They are shown that the resurrection of the Messiah, and the proclamation by the disciples of the message of salvation, fulfil the divine plan – which is for justice, reconciliation and peace to be established on earth.

Secondly, witness. Jesus declares: “You are witnesses of these things” (v.48). But who is Jesus addressing? At one level, the answer is the disciples. The role of the apostles as witnesses is a theme which recurs frequently throughout the Books of Acts. Indeed, they are not to stay in one place but to share the Good News with people everywhere, Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus’ commission to the apostles makes them the chief heralds of the good news. But at another level the “you” is directed to a broader company of readers and listeners, past and present, who are drawn to participate in the story, wherever we are. We are witnesses, and we are all called to receive the power that God promises and to proclaim the good news of the risen Jesus.

Thirdly, worship. The narrative ends in a remarkable outburst of worship. Rather than being depressed that Jesus had withdrawn and left them with a burdensome responsibility, the disciples worship Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, where in the temple, they bless God continually. Worship and witness belong together. The singing of hymns, offering prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, reading and opening the scriptures, and breaking bread should energise and inspire all that we do to bring in God’s kingdom and to make Jesus known.

Fourth and finally, the account of the Ascension points towards the second coming of Jesus, at the end of time. It’s what theologians call eschatology (the last things). Jesus is raised heavenwards amongst clouds; and it is said that he will return in the same way. Luke’s imagery reflects the belief that Jesus the Messiah would come again with the clouds of heaven, thus fulfilling the vision of the prophet Daniel. It is indeed between the Ascension and the Second Coming that the church seeks to live out the gospel in the power of Christ.

One final reflection. Did you notice that the first verse of the Book of Acts is addressed to Theophilus? We don’t know who Theophilus was. He may have been an actual enquirer, a Christian seeking information about the origins of the Christian faith, or perhaps a Roman official who just wanted to know more. However I suggest that Theophilus (theo-philus, roughly translated, lover of God) could well be not a single person but a representative reader – you and me – because the story of the the Acts of the Apostles continues, today and into the future, through all of us who follow our risen and ascended Lord.

ACTS 1: 1-11
LUKE 24: 44-53

Rogation Sunday

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What makes today special? Well, it’s the sixth Sunday of Easter, so we’re coming towards the end of the Easter season and heading towards Pentecost in just two weeks’ time. It’s also the Sunday before Ascension Day, which is next Thursday, when we remember Jesus ascending to heaven after his resurrection. But the sixth Sunday of Easter is also an agricultural festival that has long been honoured by the church: Rogation Sunday. And in recent times, the Church has rediscovered the significance of this festival – and not just for rural, farming communities. Rogation can be celebrated either today or on any of the three Rogation days which follow – this coming Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

But what is Rogation? Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare, to ask, and it’s essentially an opportunity in the Church’s year to ask for God’s blessing not only on our farms and on the harvest which lies ahead, but also on all those who produce and distribute food and nourishment in order to sustain us – and, thinking of our Food bank, we pray for God’s blessing on this particular work of outreach and all those we thereby seek to serve.

The Christian observance of Rogation was taken over from the Roman religion, where on the festival of Robigalia, an annual procession would seek divine favour to protect crops against mildew. The tradition grew up of using special intercessions which were said during processions around the particular parishes, with prayers for the blessing of the land. In my four churches in Oxfordshire, we revived the tradition of an annual Rogation procession (rotating around the four churches from year to year), and we said special Rogation prayers around keys points in the particular parish before concluding our Rogation Service in church.

The great seventeenth century poet George Herbert saw the Rogation procession as a means of asking for God’s blessing on the fruits of the field; of encouraging good community relations and of encouraging charitable giving to those in need. The scope of Rogation Sunday in some churches has been widened in recent years. It still contains at its heart a blessing on the work of our farms, but the scope of Rogation has also come to include the world of work; good stewardship of all the earth’s resources; the inter-relationship of the created order; and prayers for urban and rural communities alike.

Rogation takes place in the springtime, when there is a renewing of the earth. And it takes place during the season of Easter, the season of the Resurrection. After all, renewal and resurrection are underlying themes of the countryside and farming, and George Herbert reminds us, the Christian virtues associated with Rogation are hope and justice and charity – they speak of our human responsibility for what God has entrusted to us. We are indeed called to renew the face of the earth.

And that is where Rogation ties in well with our Gospel reading from John. It is the second part of a discourse by Jesus about love and fruitfulness which we find in John chapter 15, and the first part of it (which was last week’s Gospel reading) focused on the picture of Christ as the true vine. John uses the symbol of the vine in a similar fashion to the way that St. Paul uses the picture of the body of Christ – we are all parts of the same body and are connected to Christ and to one another in our very being. But whereas Paul’s picture emphasises the importance of our being inter-connected, the picture of the vine stresses the importance of expressing fruitfulness in the Christian life.

And this is carried forward into our Gospel reading for today, when Jesus says: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” And so Jesus shows us the way of serving others – of bearing fruit so that others may taste of the fruit – and of not keeping the juicy goodness to ourselves. If we do this, we will find that our prayer life – our Rogation – will reflect the intercession of Jesus Christ, and the desire of God the Father. Jesus says: “The Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name”. This is not always in the time-scale or in the way that we have in mind, but if we truly pray in the name of Jesus, God will hear our prayer. But what is the fruit ? The fruit is every demonstration of a living faith, which is rooted in self-giving love. And sacrificial love is rooted in Jesus Christ, who gave his life and his love for us all. Love is the key.

But Jesus also says in our Gospel reading: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In these words Jesus unites the call to love God which is found in Deuteronomy with the call to love one’s neighbour which is found in Leviticus. These two vocations are brought together uniquely in the person of Jesus, but they are then offered by him to us all.

So we cannot generate fruitfulness ourselves. We must abide in Jesus Christ, who is the source of fruitfulness, and we will then express a Christ-like fruitfulness which will nourish others. The words of Scripture feed us, and so we are called to feed others. The bread of life and the fruit of the vine nourish us in Holy Communion, and so nourished, we are sent forth from this service to minister to a hungry and thirsty world.

So on this Rogation Sunday, when we seek God’s blessing on the fruits of his creation, and on our stewardship of his world, we must do so not as detached observers, but as fruitful participants in God’s economy . And we must do so in love, because without love, nature withers.

And the outcome of this love, as expressed in verse 11 of our Gospel reading is that “your joy may be complete.” This means that Jesus looks to rejoice in us, and to delight in the fruit that we bear. This is an abundant and creative love which generates a joy that grows and increases. The initiative lies with Jesus – he chooses us – but his love invites our response. And verse 12 distils the commandments of the Old Testament into one supreme commandment: that we should love one another as Jesus loves us.

I conclude with a prayer which is traditionally offered at the beginning of a parish Rogation procession:

God the Father, Lord of creation;
God the Son, through whom all things were made;
God the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth;
Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, creating and saving God;
have mercy upon us.

Remember, Lord, your mercy and loving-kindness towards us.
Bless this good earth, and make it fruitful.
Bless our labour; and give us all things needful for our daily lives.
Bless our common life and our care for our neighbour.
Hear us, good Lord.

Acts 10 44-48
John 15 9-17