Category Archives: Basics – Creed

Sermon – 16 July 17 – Philip

How will we respond to Jesus?

Readings: Romans 8: 1 – 11 and Matthew 13: 1 – 9 & 18 – 23

Try and imagine the scene if you can – a large crowd is gathering to hear Jesus speak.  In fact, he’s been on a preaching tour around Galilee and everyone is talking about him.  The word soon gets round: – you really must come and hear this man.  We’ve never heard anyone like this before.  The rich, the poor, the educated, the peasants, the fishermen, the farmers, the women, the children they are all coming to get a glimpse of Jesus and to hear what he has to say.
And the backdrop to all this is the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) where the crowd on the beach (shoreline) has grown so large that Jesus decides to get into a boat and push off from the shore a little so that he is able to address such a large number of people.
And as he surveys the crowd from where he is, he knows what’s going on in their hearts.  He knows they are not all there for the same reason and that they are not all going to respond in the same way to the things he’s teaching.  And although they may be fascinated by him and his miracles he knows many come, like today, with their own prejudices and biases and with their hearts already hardened against him.  He knows that many will come just to listen to what he has to say and then go away.  But he also knows there will be those who come with open hearts ready to fully embrace his word and the newness of life he offers.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed” he begins to say.  And maybe in the fields behind a farmer is doing just that.  No doubt the crowd are mesmerised by his words but not really sure what to make of them.  It’s not really what they are expecting to hear.  It’s rather a strange story.  Why should a farmer waste so much precious seed?  Throwing some on the path where the birds come along and eat it, throwing some on to rock and some on to where all the thorns are.  Jesus isn’t giving any easy answers but he is giving his listeners something to think about.  And, of course, he’s also giving us something to think about as well.
Well the story, on one level, can be interpreted as a retelling of Israel’s history.  A sorry tale of not listening, hardening of hearts and so on.  But what might the story mean to those of us who hear it today? – And for me one of the things it does do is to prompt us to ask ourselves a series of questions as the story unfolds.  Questions on how we personally might respond to the Good News of Jesus and his Kingdom.  The Good News of how through him we can find forgiveness of sin; newness of life and how we can enter into a living and meaningful relationship with the Father; Son and Holy Spirit.
And so for example, when we hear God’s word to us does it just bounce off us like seed falling on the hard path that runs along the side of a field?   And in ancient Israel they didn’t have large fields like we have today, just strips of land with well-worn paths – pressed down mud in between each of the strips.  And what Jesus is saying is we can be like the soil on those paths – trampled down hard and compacted.  We hear the word but it has very little impact.  We soon forget about it and consequently it has very little effect on our every day lives.  It’s a bit like seed falling on concrete.  And that means it can’t germinate and grow and the birds come quickly to gobble it up.
And it’s in speaking of the seed falling on the path – that Jesus opens up another dimension in the story as he talks of ‘the evil one’ who comes to snatch away what is sown in the heart.  And this evil entity is represented in the parable by the birds who come and eat the seed.  And the point being made is that there is an enemy at work who is constantly seeking to undermine the work of God in our lives.  And this evil entity tries to steal and destroy everything that God wants to grow in us.  And in John’s gospel account Jesus presses home this point saying: ‘The thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy” but Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ Or more abundantly as it says in the old King James Version.
And the spiritual life – can be a battle at times; and it’s something the Apostle Paul, in his New Testament letter to the Ephesians, advises us to take seriously in encouraging us to put on the full armour of God so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes.  And then, in chapter 6 of the letter, he goes on to explain in practical terms how we can do that.
And so let’s move on now to the next condition of heart which Jesus highlights and it’s represented by the seed that falls on to the rocky places.  And in many parts of Israel the soil can be very thin.  You only have to dig down a few inches before you hit a bed of limestone into which many roots can’t penetrate.  And yes, any seed that falls there can germinate very quickly but in the scorching sun the plant growing from it soon begins to wither and shrivel because it has so little root to sustain it. And this prompts us to consider just how deeply rooted in God is our own faith.  Do our own spiritual roots go down deep enough for the long haul and is our faith strong enough to sustain us when the going gets tough and bad things happen and everything seems to be going wrong?
And it’s something that does occasionally happen with those who come to faith in Christ.  They embrace the good news of Jesus and initially they are full of joy and bubbling over with their new found faith.  And yet when trouble comes they haven’t really gone deep enough with God to weather the storms.  The initial response has been largely emotional and the shallowness of the soil has meant that the root hasn’t been able to go down deep enough to sustain the growing seed.
And it’s something I’ve seen happen on occasions over the years.  Someone comes to faith in Christ and they are so excited about Jesus.  And they get involved in everything and then something happens – sometimes you know what it is and sometimes you don’t- but they begin to fall away. And while the seed may germinate it only grows for a while and then it withers away as there is an insufficient depth of soil for it to find the nutrients it needs.  Well let’s move on now to the next type of soil.
And as we know our lives are led by many kinds of desires and hopes and aspirations and the way that Jesus describes it here is as seed falling on to soil occupied by thorns.  And the problem with this is that thorns, like brambles grow fast and are not easy to get rid of.  And not only do they take out all the nutrients from the soil but they also block the light as well.  And the point that Jesus is making here is that there are certain things in our lives that can be like that as they compete with our faith and the same heart-space and, if we are not careful, they finish up choking it.
And if these other things start taking the central place in our hearts that God should occupy then we are in danger of drifting into the realms of what the Bible calls idolatry.  It does not necessarily mean that these other things are wrong in themselves but they do need to be brought under the Lordship of Christ in our lives.
And so to recap a little – we have the seed falling on to the hard ground and bouncing off and the birds coming along and eating it.   And then we have it falling on to the rocky places where it grows it quickly for a while and then begins to wither and shrivel.   And then we have it falling on to thorn infested ground where, when it grows it is likely get choked by the other stuff it’s competing with.  And in none of these situations is it producing anything like the sort of fruit that God is looking for.
But there is yet another condition of soil for us to consider and that is where the seed falls on to rich and fertile soil in which the seed of God’s Word can become deeply rooted and begin to flourish.  And the seed growing in this soil is not affected by the wind or the scorching sun at all because the roots have gone deep down and become firmly established.  And this is a picture of the follower of Jesus who fully embraces what God wants to do in their life.  One who remains faithful to Christ through both the good times and the difficult times and whose trust in him is unwavering.  And this is the sort of soil in which produces a rich abundance of fruit that’s pleasing to God.
But then again do we say I’m not really sure I can identify with any of these situations?  I know I love Jesus and his Word has taken root in my life but I can’t see that I’m producing much in the way of fruit – well, not at least, in the biblical sense.
Perhaps I can then change the metaphor a little and ask you to picture a garden growing all sorts of things.  It’s OK but it still needs plenty of work doing on it if it’s going to produce a good crop and yield its full potential.  Things are growing but some of the soil looks as though it needs weeding a bit and digging over and the plants are drooping a little and look as though they could do with watering.  What it really needs is the attention of the gardener to give it some sorting out.  And then I think of that beautiful verse in chapter 15 of John’s gospel in which Jesus says:
 “…My Father is the gardener.”
And maybe that’s what we are like.  We know we have the potential to be more fruitful but we cannot do it alone.  It’s as though we have progressed so far but become stuck and we need to become unstuck.  We need the gardener to help us prepare the soil so that what he has planted can grow freely and produce a bumper crop.  But it’s only as we invite the gardener to come in and take control of our lives that things can begin to change.
And as the gardener gets to work it maybe that some pruning is required and that, at times, can be painful.  And that is why the Father is the gardener as it’s his desire that we are fruitful and grow into the people he has created us to be.
The Apostle Paul when writing to the Galatians talks about the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t he? – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and so on. But it’s only as we allow him to change those things that need changing in our lives that the fruit can develop as it should.
And perhaps that can be a prayer for us this morning.  ‘Lord Jesus I want you to be at the centre of my life, please help me to open my ears to hear and to be obedient to your Word and allow my life to be shaped by it so that I can be fruitful for you.’  Amen.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of ‘Morning Worship’ on Sunday 16th July 2017.

Sermon – 14 June – Margaret Arnall

CREED – Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Barbara Mosse, a retired Anglican priest tells the story of a church she once attended where an elderly lady refused to receive the chalice from another younger woman, a lay assistant in the parish. The reasons for the older woman’s taking offence were almost lost in the mists of time, but apparently had something to do with a misunderstanding over the baking of cakes for a church function. The younger woman was unaware of what exactly she was supposed to have done wrong, but had made repeated attempts to heal the breach. She was rebuffed every time.
The rift was causing upset in the wider congregation and the minister was urged to sit down with the two women and try to help them towards reconciliation. He refused to do so, afraid that the older woman would stop coming to services if confronted, so her hostility and her visibly broken relationship with the younger woman continued to undermine the sacrament and spread like a cancer through the fellowship.

I shall return to this later.

We believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church we sing the hymn ‘the church’s one foundation’ but we are not talking about the buildings we are talking about the body of Christ, you and me.

At the heart of the oneness we profess is, of course, God himself. The source of the Church’s unity is the unity found in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Church teaches us that there are visible bonds or signs of communion which makes the Church, the body of Christ, one.

The profession of faith as received from the Apostles
The common celebration of the sacraments
The Apostolic succession of Holy Orders’ Bishops’ Priests, Deacons.

It is all too easy however for the church today, fragmented into a multitude of different denominations, to lose sight of its essential unity in Jesus Christ.

The church, the Body of Jesus Christ, can very easily ‘take its eye off the ball’ as it were and become bogged down in the politics and minutiae of its institutional life.

Paul’s inspirational description of the church as a perfectly working body may cause us to smile at times when we recall some of the aspects of institutional life.

Importantly Paul offers a timely reminder that we are not Christians in isolation. Anything that happens to one member of the body inevitably affects all others, whether for good or ill.

Just like it did in the body of Christ in that story I mentioned earlier and, as we heard, it began to destroy not just the two people involved but the whole community.

So we are members of one body, we partake of one Holy Food, whether it is known as the Holy Communion, the Mass, the Agape, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, the community’s sharing of the bread and wine is a commemoration of or a participation in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and has become the expression of our membership of Christ’s body, the Church. The Priest at the Eucharist breaks the wafer with the words, ‘we break this bread to share in the body of Christ and we respond Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share one bread.

Not just one bread shared in St Laurence’s, St Mark’s or another building in the world, but as part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I was heartened to read that the new Bishop appointed to look after those who in conscience cannot accept the ministry of women bishops, has made it clear that he is there not to create two churches but to do all he can to facilitate working together as one body.

The church’s oneness derives from the unity of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is called to stand in history as a sign and agent of this unity-in-love.
The Church is holy.  (Set apart for something special)
The Church is not holy by itself; the church is made Holy by Jesus Christ. The visible embodiment of the church’s holiness is its sacramental life so whether we are Roman Catholics, Anglicans, or Orthodox we go on believing the church is holy and it is this Holiness that the Church is called to share with all people.

Catholic derives from the Greek adjective katholikos, meaning all inclusive

The church, the body of Christ, is catholic because it is one church and it has been sent out by Jesus with a universal mission to all humanity.
To this end the church must be an open rather than a closed society.
One commentator has said that to proclaim belief in the church’s catholicity we must hold the authentic, universal faith, a faith embodied in the catholic creeds.

A faith Peter expressed when Jesus asked the question of the disciples, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God’.

That is what holds us all together. It is a question we all have to face, not just those disciples.

If we say we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church what do we say to the question Jesus asks.

We also believe the church is Apostolic.
Apostolic: built on the foundation of the Apostles, those witnesses chosen by Jesus to continue his work, the work of the Father. (John 20-21) ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’

In its apostolic character, the Church participates in the outgoing scope of God’s love in Christ. To be an apostle is to be sent out as the bearer of good tidings, of this love that God has for all people.
From the beginning the apostolic church continued the teaching and practice of the Apostles and faithfulness to the Apostles’ instructions appears to be the mark of the NT church as we read in Acts 2:42, they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.

In confessing the apostolic movement of the church, the creed celebrates our continuity with the founding witnesses of the past. Because they witnessed in their lives, and often in their deaths, to the truth of Jesus Christ, we, you and me, rejoice in the gospel today and face our apostolic responsibilities in the present.

If we own this one holy catholic and apostolic faith, we celebrate the universality of Jesus Christ’s mission; and we share in the patience of God who has time for all until the prayer ‘That they may be one’, is answered’.

Where does that leave you and me?
We cannot say:
We believe, without first asking ourselves what it is we believe in.

Without answering the question Jesus asked of the disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’

Although we may be members of St Mark’s, St Laurence’s, St Luke’s and the village churches as part of the NSGM we are members of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church and as Paul urges the Corinthians in his first letter, ‘we should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

What is that purpose?

To work for unity not to be divisive.

To be apostles sent out by Jesus to spread the good news.

To be people who will speak out against injustice, and persecution.

To be people who will care for God’s body, the Church but not in a way that it becomes an exclusive club but a Church a body that works together for the good of all.

To share God’s love with all people whatever their race, colour or Churchmanship.

What kind of Church can we claim to be as we continue to make the same profession of faith, Sunday by Sunday?

J John, “The snowflake is one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together”.

Individual Churches may feel fragile on their own but we need to recognise the impact we can have when we work together as one.

Sermon – 14 June – Alastair

14.6.15 – 10am St Peter’s, Hackness
‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’
Eph.4:1-6; Matt.16:13-23

We’re drawing near the end of a series of sermons on the Creed – that declaration of Christian faith we say week by week in churches.  Today we’re looking at a phrase near the end of the Creed that often raises an eyebrow – ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.’  ‘What, are we in a catholic church?!’ people sometimes look at each other and whisper.  ‘We thought it was Church of England?’  Yes it is Church of England – I’ll explain later, because it’s probably worth going through those words one by one – so perhaps a 5 point sermon – one… holy… catholic… apostolic… Church.

But first a reminder about what we mean when we say, ‘I believe’ at all.  It’s not supposed to be about our considered opinions – rather it’s about what we live our lives by – what we trust in – the beliefs that shape what we do and how we live.  In the way we might say ‘I believe in a bridge’ – meaning I’m willing to walk across it and let it hold my weight – in this way we say, ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’.

In our society we very much tend to think of the church as the building – or the people who meet in a particular building, and we think of there being a lot of churches (plural).  We think of St Peter’s as ‘a’ church and part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry which consists of 8 churches (meaning the buildings) – or perhaps 6 churches (meaning the regular Sunday congregations).  And we think that Scarborough has a lot of churches in it – it used to have more, but some have closed.  There are Anglican churches like ours, Methodist churches, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Salvation Army, Christian Fellowship, Kingdom Faith – the list could go on and on.

There’s also perhaps some level of confusion as well because there are groups like the Unitarians who also use the word ‘church’ – who I would consider fellow travellers on the spiritual journey, but whose faith is only loosely what we might describe as ‘Christian’.  Then there are groups like spiritualist churches or that fellow in the local paper this week who thinks he’s possessed by St Paul, who really aren’t Christian at all in any sense I could easily recognize, but still use the name of ‘church’.  It’s all a bit confusing for us – what must it look like to those outside our churches?

But the Creed refers to the Church as ‘one’.  There may be historical divisions but, in the eyes of God, there is only one Church.  That emphatically does not mean that only one Christian group is in the right – the true Church of God – and the rest are in error and outside the ‘true’ Church – as the Roman Catholic church seems to say.  I don’t know whether they would actually say that, but that is the implication of saying non-Roman Catholics can’t receive communion in a Roman Catholic church.  The Creed is not – not – not – saying there is one denomination here on earth who are in the right, while the rest are wrong.  It is referring to what has sometimes been called ‘the Church invisible’ – that is the sum total of all who trust in Jesus.  It may be that some who have been churchgoers all their lives have never really trusted in Jesus.  They may be part of the visible church but not part of the invisible Church.  And there may be countless people who we wouldn’t really regard as Christians who are, surprisingly to us, in the eyes of God, part of the Church invisible.

Being one Church can be a bit of a challenge to us as we deal with the diversity of expressions and divisions within this one Church – even on as small a scale as the Northern Group we struggle to get the sense we are one.  We struggle to get people to attend joint events.  People may say, or perhaps think, ‘I only go to ‘my’ church’ – referring (usually) to a building or (perhaps) to a local church community, as long as they meet in that building.

So what does it mean to be one Church.  It’s a challenge because we do disagree with each other over different issues – I’ve had a bit of a disagreement with the Roman Catholic church in this sermon already.  But we are called, by God, to be one.

In our first Bible reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “there is one body” – his image for the Church was the body of Christ – even though all the bits of the body are different they care for one another and work together.  If you stub your toe, the rest of the body reacts and tries to comfort the wounded part.  If Christians in Iraq are suffering we ought to feel it, and be concerned and react to comfort them.  There is one body, Paul says, we share in one spirit, we have one hope, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith.  Even though there are differences of belief, and there were many in Paul’s day as well, there is still one faith.  There is one baptism – in fact it is true, even in our state of division, that the different Christian churches recognize one baptism.  If you want to get married in a Roman Catholic church they, I think, ask to see proof of baptism for at least one of you, and if they see you were baptised at St Peter’s, Hackness or in the Baptist church or wherever, they will accept that.  You are not baptised Church of England or Catholic or whatever – you are baptised a Christian.

All this because there is only one God and father of all who is over all and through all and in all.  So, Paul writes, make every effort to keep unity – to be one with your fellow believers.  See past the differences, love them, meet with them, care for them.  There are many things the different denominations disagree about, but most now see that keeping unity is more important than those differences.  It is more important to me that I love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and that together we bear witness to the love of God in Christ, than that we agree on everything.  I think they are wrong about a number of things, and they think I am wrong.  But the unity of the church is more important than that.  That’s one of the big difficulties in the wider Anglican communion at the moment.  Many disagree, for example with the ministry of women priests and bishops, many differ violently about attitudes to issues of sexuality.  Why don’t we just say, ‘This is the agreed view of the Church of England – like it or leave!’?  Because even though we may disagree they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Unity, despite the pains and tensions it causes, is more important.

The Church is one – not just Christians together locally, but millions of people across the world in China and South America, across Europe, in the Middle East and all over – we are one with them. And also across history – we are one with all the countless Christians who have gone before us and are now in the presence of God. Particularly as we share in communion, in a mystical way, we gather together with them – receiving the body of Christ, together we are the body of Christ – one body.

One Church – and one ‘holy’ Church.  To say we are ‘Holy’ is not a claim to be better than anyone else – holier than thou!  You don’t have to be what we might call a ‘holy’ person, to be part of the Church.  Somebody once said that if you find the perfect church don’t join it cos you’ll spoil it!  Rather than being a group of the specially good or spiritual or respectable, we gather together as a group of recovering sinners!  A bit like alcoholics anonymous – to be a Christian is to admit you have a problem – that you need God’s help.  Holy, as the word is used in the Bible, doesn’t usually mean especially good or pure, but its main meaning is ‘set apart’ – set apart for and from what?  We are set apart from the world as dedicated to God.  We have a purpose for which we are set apart – to make Christ known in the world – to witness to the love of God.  The Church exists not for its own benefit but to bless the whole world.  There’s lots more that can be said about that that we don’t have time to go into today.

But what about that word ‘catholic’?  We are one holy catholic Church.  We believe in a Church that is catholic (with a small ‘c’ – and that’s significant).  The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all embracing’ – it’s what we have already thought about in the Church being one.  The Church embraces all Christians.  When the word is used with a capital ‘C’ is when it refers to the Roman Catholic Church.  This is not what is being referred to in the Creed.  The creed is older than the split between the Roman Catholic church of the west of Europe and the orthodox churches of the east.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16 we find one of Jesus few mentions of the word ‘Church’ when he refers to giving Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, and he says that on Peter he would build the Church.  It would start with this ordinary fallible man, and by his actions he would be able to let people into the Kingdom, and perhaps by his mistakes he would shut people out.   The idea that this is some sort of handing over of authority to the Pope as the successor of Peter is, again, I think, a misunderstanding.

But it is an important pointer to that other word we use – ‘Apostolic.’  The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ so calling the Church apostolic means it is sent to the world, but it also refers to tracing the Church’s origins to the apostles – Peter and the other witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection – those who met him alive after Easter.  Saying the church is apostolic is saying it is founded on the witness of the apostles and linked through them directly to Jesus.  Peter and the others passed on the leadership of the church to others and commissioned other leaders, and they in turn commissioned others so there is an unbroken line back to Jesus.  Different churches find that idea more or less important.  My personal opinion is that through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit each and every one of us has a direct connection to Jesus ourselves and we don’t need the mediation of the church – apostolic or not.  But having said that the idea of a Christian living and believing outside the community of the Church would have been nonsense to Paul and the early Christians – a bit like the idea of a disembodied hand or other body part running around on its own.  We are part of the one body of Christ and can’t say we don’t need the rest of the body.

This brings us back to where we began – we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  The final word is one we’ve been talking about all along – ‘Church’ – this time importantly with a capital ‘C’.  Church with a small ‘c’ may refer to the building to any individual congregation, or even to a denomination – but with a capital ‘C’ the word refers to the one ‘Church’ of God.  Jesus said he would build his Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.  The word he used, and the word always used in the Bible for ‘church’ is the Greek ‘Ekklesia’.  It literally means ‘the called out’.  In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering of people called out from their homes to assemble in some public place for some reason or another – to have an election or hear a public pronouncement.

As a church with a small ‘c’ we are those called out by God to gather together locally in Jesus name, and as the Church with a capital ‘C’ we are those called out from all the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ for all the world.  We can only do that effectively if we are united with our brothers and sisters.  Insofar as we are divided as individuals, as churches, as denominations – the witness to Jesus Christ is damaged.

We believe in this Church, the Creed states, like we might believe a bridge can hold our weight.  Are we willing to trust the Church – despite all its human failings – as the vehicle of the good news of salvation – let it hold our weight and work with and in it for the glory of God?

Sermon – 17th May 10 a.m. Philip

‘He Ascended into Heaven’
Readings: Acts 1: 1 – 11 and Luke: 24: 44 – 53.
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

Well it was Ascension Day last Thursday and a number of you will have been at the Ascension Day meal on Thursday evening when we released a load of balloons into the open air.  And as we stood there watching those balloons ascend into the sky until they disappeared from view it was such wonderful sight. And it all fits very neatly with our current sermon series in which we are exploring various themes in the Nicene Creed.

And so, as it happens we’ve now arrived at the bit in the Creed where we proclaim, speaking of Jesus that ‘we believe he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’  Very familiar words for most of us I’m sure – as we will have repeated them so many times as we’ve joined together in saying the Creed on a Sunday morning.

And so what’s that all about?  What actually happened at the ascension and does it have anything to say to us today? And there does seem to be something of a problem with the Feast of the Ascension in that it tends to be overshadowed on the one hand by the events of Easter and then on the other by Pentecost and so we tend to lose sight of its importance and significance.  But it is important and certainly Luke regards it as important as he describes it twice, first of all in the closing chapter of his first book, the Gospel according to Luke and then in more detail later on in the opening chapter of his second volume, which is the book of Acts.
And so what are we to make of this mysterious event we call the Ascension. Well let’s take a closer look.  And it’s been 40 days since the events of that first Easter Day and Jesus has shown himself to be alive to his followers on numerous occasions.  In fact, his followers have almost got used to the possibility of Jesus, in his resurrected body, showing up at unexpected times and in unexpected places.  But on this particular occasion Jesus meets with them for one last time and it’s near the village of Bethany on the Mount of Olives.  And one moment he’s sharing fellowship with them and then he’s gone.  And it’s as he’s blessing them that he’s taken up into heaven and a cloud hides him from their sight.  In a moment, Jesus has moved from this earthly reality with which we are familiar to a much greater and more solid heavenly reality.

And perhaps Jesus hasn’t gone as far as we are sometimes inclined to think. And this is something that Tom Wright is keen to emphasise in his book, ‘Surprised by Hope.’ And he makes the point that we shouldn’t think of heaven and earth as being such a long way apart. ‘They are meant to overlap and interlock’ he says.  And so for Jesus ‘going to heaven,’ isn’t necessarily a matter of him disappearing into some distant galaxy but probably more like moving from one dimension to another.  And doesn’t the Apostle Paul say something like that to the people of Athens when he says that: ‘God’s not far from each one of us.’

But in saying this we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there was obviously something very visible and physical in the way that Jesus did go, as that’s emphasised in the text, and maybe the reason for that was to make it clear that this would be the last of this series of post resurrection appearances by Jesus.

And so as Jesus disappears from sight his disciples just stand there staring up into the sky completely dumbfounded and bewildered and bemused not knowing where to go or what to do next.  And as they are standing there staring into space they haven’t realised that two men dressed in white have slipped in quietly alongside them, and they say: “You men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?  Well most commentators seem to assume the two men are angels although the text does not actually say that they are but I don’t suppose they could really have been anything else.

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  And the implication is that it is something of a rebuke.  “Why are you looking into the sky – you’re looking in the wrong place.”  And there are times when we can be like that.  We can find ourselves in situations day by day where circumstances begin to overwhelm us and we ask ourselves: “Where is Jesus in all this?”  Well he may have disappeared from physical sight but the ascension is not about his absence it’s about his presence.  This is what Rowan Williams says:

“Whatever we may be feeling from moment to moment, we’ve been given a relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him in the way his friends could during his earthly life and immediately after his resurrection.  And this relationship means that we are able to turn in complete trust to God as father in the way Jesus did.”

‘A relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him.’ And that’s the wonderful thing about the ascension.  Jesus may no longer be with us in the way he was during his earthly ministry but that does not mean we cannot relate to him now in a personal and intimate way. And that’s because the Holy Spirit has come in his place to be with us and in us if we invite him to do so. And it’s that indwelling presence of the Spirit that makes Jesus real to us just as much as it did for those early disciples.

And as Jesus returns to the Father and the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost it means that the presence of Jesus is no longer confined to his physical presence in one place but to all those, in every place and in every generation, including us, who call upon him.

And, of course, there is a heavenly purpose in all this in that as followers of Jesus we are commissioned to carry on his work in this world.  And I like the way the Apostle of Paul puts it; he says this: that we are his ambassadors.  Think about it -we are ambassadors for Jesus and his kingdom – and what a privilege.  And each one of us is called to play our part in building for his kingdom.

And there’s an old story which makes this very point.  And the story tells of the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth.  And even there in the heaven he still bears the marks of all his suffering on the cross.  And the story goes that the angel Gabriel approached him and said: “Master, you suffered terribly while you were there.  Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?”  And Jesus replied, “Oh, no! Not yet.  Right now only a handful of people around Judea and Galilee know.”

But Gabriel was perplexed and asked: “Then how will people learn of what you have done and your love for them?” And Jesus said: “Well I’ve asked Peter, James, John and Mary, and few more friends to tell others about me.  And then they will tell others and eventually my story will be spread to farthest part of the globe.”

And Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical as he knew the poor stuff humans were made of.  And so he said: “Yes, but what if Peter and the others grow weary?  What if those who come after them forget?  What if they just fail to tell?  What is your alternative plan?”
And Jesus answered: “There is no other plan.”

Well it’s only a story but we get the point don’t we?  It’s up to us to make Jesus known and why he came.  Yes – it’s up to us and if we don’t it doesn’t happen.

Well we can’t leave it there can we as what we say in the creed is not only that we believe Jesus ascended into heaven but that he is also: ‘seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’  And so what’s that all about?  Well first of all it’s a phrase that we see running all the way through the New Testament.  And so for example Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost speaks of Jesus as ‘being exalted at the right hand of God.’ And then the author of Hebrews has this in mind when he says: ‘for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’  And then Peter in the first of his New Testament letters speaks of ‘Jesus who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God.’  And we could go on.

And to sit at someone’s right hand in the ancient world was a place of honour and prestige.  It was a place of supreme honour and glory.  And William Barclay in his book on the Apostle’s Creed says this: ‘almost always Jesus is pictured as sitting, – which stresses the royalty – the honour – and the glory.

And so if that first Easter Sunday was the most exciting day of the disciples’ lives, for Jesus it was probably this event, the Ascension as having completed what he had been sent into the world to do, he was now heading home to the Father for a coronation as God’s anointed king.  He was exchanging the crown of thorns for a crown of glory.  And one commentator puts it like this, he says: ‘the picture of the Son taking his seat on the right hand of the Father is the picture of Christ entering upon his regal office as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’

Well the story doesn’t end there.  It’s not the end by any means, but the beginning of something new that’s yet to be fully accomplished.  And so let’s return to where we started:  “Men of Galilee why do you stand there looking into the sky?”  But there was something else these men dressed in white said to the disciples as well wasn’t there? And it was this:  “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Yes, Jesus is coming back but this time when he comes he comes to reign as Lord and King.  And this is what Tom Wright says in his book ‘Simply Jesus’: ‘Jesus’s first followers were unequivocal: He will reappear in power and glory, triumphing over all the forces of death, decay, and destruction, including those structures that have used those horrible forces to enslave and devastate human lives.’

And the confession of those early followers of Jesus was this: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and the question we need to ask ourselves is: have we acknowledged Jesus as our own personal Lord and King?  Have we knelt before him and given him our wholehearted allegiance?  And have we said: “Lord Jesus come and reign in me?

And so let me finish with some well-known words written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi which speaks of the honour given to Jesus following his victory over the powers of sin and death on the cross:

‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave  him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Holy Communion at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 17th May 2015