That where He is, we too may ascend (Ascension 1 sermon)
1 Peter 4:7-10 John 15:26-16:4
God is gone up with a merry noise, the Lord with the sound of the trump!
O sing praises, sing praises unto our God;
… sing ye praises with understanding!
This morning in the Church we remember that in-between time – the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost. The Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, is the moment 40 days after Easter, Jesus went up bodily into heaven before the eyes of the Apostles. Jesus was no longer present in body with his Apostles, and he was not yet present with them by His Spirit.
Being the Church of the Ascension, these are our special feast days – from last Thursday until Pentecost.
Why is the Ascension an important feast, and what does it mean for us?
The ascension of Jesus is the completion of all his works on earth – his birth, his life of teaching and miracles, his passion and death, and his resurrection. The Ascension of Christ is the crowning of all of that – He is lifted up to be seated at the right hand of the Father. That he is seated is a picture of his work completed, and the beginning of His kingly rule on the throne of God from heaven. It is his present state.
Christ’s rule from heaven comes about on earth as he lifts our hearts and minds there to where he is.
How does that happen? Through a living faith and our Baptism, our souls and bodies are united to Jesus Christ who is in heaven.
When two people love each other, they begin to think about what the other is thinking. Because of our union with Christ, His grace is lifting our thoughts to eternal things, His grace is moving our hearts to care about eternal things – Truth, Wisdom, righteousness, holiness, love. Because we are joined to Jesus Christ, our ascension is the most natural thing possible – we actually have to stop it for it not to happen.
Dante speaks about this at the start of the third book of the Divine Comedy – the Paradiso. He is finally with Beatrice, a woman whose love has inspired his love for God, and he is now speaking with her. He is surprised that he has suddenly been lifted to such spiritual heights. Beatrice chides him, like a child, saying, What is strange is not that we would ascend, but that when we’ve been given the flame of love in our hearts, we would somehow stay earthbound. [Dante's Paradiso, Canto 1]
The love from God in us makes us ascend – makes us go upwards. It is for us simply to allow ourselves to be captured by that love – like an eagle carried upwards in an updraft.
At the Church of the Ascension we want to be witnesses to this reality – our hearts drawn upwards, our spirits ascending, by the love of God, by Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.
Strangely, the truth is, we often are actively fighting against love’s impulses to move us to this highest end.
What does it look like to be captured by love and how does it happen?
St. Peter, in our Epistle reading, makes some suggestions. He says, The end of all things is at hand...
St Peter is not talking about the end of time. But rather, the final end towards which all things are moving – Heaven, God, who is our end – is at hand – is very close to us. This is true especially because of our faith and baptism into Jesus Christ. St Paul says in Romans 5 and 6, referring to our baptism into Christ, that, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. [Rom 5:5; 6:3,4]. That’s how close now God is to us – He is in our very hearts… when we ascend towards God, inwardly, as we become aware of his Presence, we are lifted to the heights of heaven.
Be therefore serious, says St Peter, and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.
With the holy God so close, we are to be serious – think of the great care the priests of the Old Testament took before approaching the holy of holies! The setting up of the outer court and tent, the proper sacrifices, the washings, then entering into the tent with bells on the garment to show one is not being presumptuous, then only the high priest would go into the holy of holies...
We live our lives, in a disciplined way, so that our prayer life – our inner communication with God – is guarded and protected and nurtured. Because it is in prayer that we begin to recognize that presence of God in our hearts, and so to ascend to God. If we are undisciplined: if we over-eat or under-eat, if we don’t get enough sleep, if we are distracted by many activities, we are not able to pray, we fail to recognize the presence of the holy God in our hearts, we will not ascend.
Sin also affects our ability to pray – if we are ashamed of something we have done, we may try to hide ourselves from God and stop praying, or again, we simply become distracted. In the Divine Comedy, Dante doesn’t begin to really ascend the heights of heaven until the third book of the Comedy. But he does have to ascend a mountain on earth, in the second book, when he goes up Mount Purgatory, where his sin is purged, he is made pure by grace. But it is only after that work on his soul, that Love can really lift him into the heights, because only then is the grace given to him no longer misspent.
At Church of the Ascension, we will teach the moral life – but we will emphasize that the moral life is not as an end in itself, but it is the spiritual preparation to know the holy God, and to know God is to be lifted into the heights, and to be lifted into the heights is to be more fully inspired by His love to love.
Be therefore serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers, says St Peter. Being serious about our prayer life doesn’t mean we lack joy, but is in fact finally living in the true joy of God. If we have no joy, that is a sign there is something amiss, we are not finding God. Seek some guidance if this is your situation.
Peter goes on to say, Have a deep love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins. It is other peoples’ sins that we are to "cover" with love – by letting them go – it is the difficult call to forgive others – again, it is allowing God’s love, in the form of mercy to flow from Him to us, and through us to others.
Peter tells us, Use hospitality one to another without grudging ...
We can preach the gospel by simple acts of offering food, coffee or tea, opening our homes - giving others pleasure through our loving care for them.
Finally, the Apostle says, Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
Think again of that image of the eagle, soaring and being lifted on the air currents that are rising. It is getting its lift naturally, it doesn’t have to create the wind. But it does have to cooperate and direct it wings, now this way, now that, so that it benefits from the wind. An eagle is very conscious of how to work with the wind to go up.
Likewise we, when we are filled with the Love of God, with his Holy Spirit, we don’t create the love – it comes from above, but we participate, we cooperate with that grace, that love, by directing it aright – that is what it is to be a good steward of the grace given. Love is poured out on us, and we direct it aright, now this way, now that, and we ascend in heart and mind to the heights of heaven – and others will be drawn with us in our soaring.
We become instruments of God’s love, and witnesses to Christ, in uncomplicated ways using our gifts as we are inspired by Him.
Jesus told the disciples to wait in prayer in Jerusalem for the Comforter – and it is only then that they would be witnesses to Him. In today’s Gospel, he says, “When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth... He shall bear witness to Me: and you also shall bear witness ..."
In moments when we feel powerless, easily annoyed, bitter, uninspired, lacking imagination, our hearts cool, not knowing how we might be ministers of Jesus – in other words, when we have fallen out of Love – let us remember always this example of the disciples. They took time apart in prayer and waited – ten days they waited!
This morning we have taken time out – a day of rest, to gather with other Christians, in His Name, to be encouraged and to recall what Jesus has done and to desire his Spirit. We are singing songs of praise and thanksgiving for what Jesus has done. But maybe we feel like we are spent, with no more love to give.
Jesus is always ready to replenish us, he is ready even now. He is inviting us to receive his anointing from above, and even of His Body and Blood, to assure us that we are forgiven, to strengthen us, to renew our faith, to restore our hope, and most of all, to kindle the flames of holy love in our hearts, so that we might ascend even now to dwell with Him in the heavenly places.
Let us pray today’s Collect together…
O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto your kingdom in heaven: We beseech you leave us not comfortless; but send to us your Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place where our Saviour Christ has gone before, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Worship Address: Adventist Church, Boomberglaan 6, Hilversum
Mailing Address: Overmeerseweg 120, 1394 BJ Nederhorst den Berg
Contact: (+31) 06 124 104 31 email@example.com
Donations: NL75 INGB 0709 7677 49 (t.n.v. All Saints Anglican Church Amersfoort.)
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2