Sermon for Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

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