Easter VII (The Sunday after Ascension) Acts 1:12-14, 1Peter 4:13-14, John 17:1-11

So that they may be one, as we are one

The ten days between Ascension and Pentecost is something of a strange time, a time of waiting, of anticipation, which speaks very powerfully to our present predicament. It is a time to wait and pray, which feels particularly apposite at this moment in time. Likewise the advice of the First Letter of Peter speaks powerfully when it says, ‘But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, … because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you’ (1Peter 4:13-14 ESV) We receive the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. He lives in us, and we can unite our sufferings with those of Christ, and be drawn ever closer to Him.

The Gospel this morning has taken us back to the Garden of Gethsemane, where in the seventeenth Chapter of John’s Gospel , after celebrating the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus goes out to spend time in prayer. It can seem strange to suddenly look back to Maundy Thursday seven weeks after we have celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, but there is a very good reason to do such a thing. The prayer we have just heard is a conversation between God the Son and God the Father. It is a moment of intimacy, a private moment which shows us their relationship, something extraordinary, something wonderful, we don’t often think of prayer in these terms, but currently there is a world-wide initiative, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which calls upon Christians everywhere to do something wonderful together. Between the Ascension and Pentecost we are asked to be like the Apostles in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like they did, and for us all to do this together, to pray for unity and the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Prayer is a funny old thing, and most people probably think of it as asking God for things: please watch over my parents as they travel, please help me pass this examination, hopefully in our language of prayer we can also find time to say thank you for all the good things of this life, and to say sorry for when we’ve not been good enough, and also time to say, ‘I love you’ the prayer of adoration that we may be drawn closer to God. It’s a powerful thing, and a wonderful thing. It is ordinary, yet able to do amazing things:

It can be all to easy in life to think that what God wants is something big and difficult, when actually the opposite is what is required. The key to it all is humility: knowing our need of God. Those who are poor in Spirit, those who are humble can be filled with God’s Spirit, because they rely upon Him, they know their need of him. They know that God can do what we cannot, and they trust Him.

There it is plain and simple: prayer, it can change the world, and for the last two thousand years it has been changing the church and the world, one soul at a time, the wonderful revolution of God’s love at work in the world. In His prayer before his Passion, Jesus prays that we may be one, as He and the Father are one. He prays for unity, it is Jesus’ will for the church, and it is clear that the first apostles did what Jesus wanted them to do, as we can see form the Acts of the Apostles. They listened to Jesus, and did what He told them to do. We have to do the same.

‘And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.’ (Acts 1:13-14 ESV)

Here is unity, unity of will and purpose, and we hope to share that here and now. They are devoted to prayer, and we can be too. While the church is not as united as we would like it to be, or as God would like it to be, we can at least say that we are trying to do God’s will. It is something that we can all try and do together. So let us do it. Let us pray for unity, and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, to fill the Church with love, with grace, with forgiveness, with reconciliation, that we can heal the wounds of the past, and be drawn into unity and love, by the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing our need of God, and our reliance upon Him. If we ask, God will both hear our request, and grant it (if it is His will). 

So as we stay put, and wait and pray with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, that He will fill us with his love, and transform our lives, building us up, and giving us strength to live His life and to proclaim His truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. Let us pray that we are strengthened so that we can proclaim in word and deed what wonderful things God has done through his Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ. That all that we are and do may confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father, and that the world may be filled with his love so that all may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

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Homily for the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11 Eph 1:17-23 Mt 28:16-20)

Today can often feel a somewhat strange day, a day of slightly mixed emotions, and this year more than most, when we are not able to be together to pray, to worship Almighty God, and be nourished with Holy Communion. We are not celebrating Jesus’ departure from the earth, but His return to God the Father, Christ’s abiding presence with us, and what He asks of us, and promises to us. It is a day of celebration and expectation, looking forward to the future in love and hope. 

The disciples have had six weeks to used to the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, having carried the burden of our sins and experienced the pain and estrangement which separates God and humanity. That wound has been healed by His glorious wounds. Before Jesus returns to the Father, He makes the apostles a promise: they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4), receive power, and be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Christ is looking forward to Pentecost, to the church’s future, in which we live now.

In Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus leaves the apostles, He gives them a commission, they are sent out to do something together. Jesus begins (Mt 28:18) by stating that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him. He is God, God is sovereign, and rules over everything, and it reminds us of the moment during Christ’s temptation by the devil, before the start of His public ministry, which we read on the First Sunday of Lent. The devil offers the world to Jesus, but it is not his to give, it belongs to God, who created it. Our worship is rooted in the fact that we have a relationship with a God who made us, redeemed us, and loves us. 

Jesus tells the apostles (28:19) to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church exists to be sent out to make disciples. Baptism is what makes us Christians. In it we share in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, and through it God gives us the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Through our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, filled with the hope of heaven, our supernatural end, to enjoy the vision of God, who is love. Loving God and our neighbour, this is the very heart of the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, along with the call of Jesus and John the Baptist that we should ‘Repent and believe the Gospel, and be baptised’. For two thousand years our message has been the same. 

Jesus tells the apostles to teach us all that He has commanded them (28:20). The Church is called to hand on what has been delivered to it, this is tradition, and it stops us from making mistakes, by deviating from what Christ teaches us through the Church. Our religion makes demands of us, and calls us to be faithful to the apostles’ teaching, and to live it out in our lives, putting theory into practice and becoming living witnesses of the Kingdom. This is difficult, and it is where Christians fall down most often. But the Good News is that in Christ we have forgiveness of sin. We can repent, and turn away from our mistakes, and turn back to a God who loves us. We are not abandoned or cast aside, but embraced in love. 

Finally Jesus says to the apostles, ‘Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (28:20) Christ is with us. How? In four ways: first in Scripture, the Word of God, which speaks of Christ, and finds its fulfilment in Him. It is true, and the source of truth. He is with us in the Sacraments, outward visible signs of the inward spiritual grace God pours out upon us, to fill us with His love. He is with us in the Holy Spirit which he pours out upon us, to strengthen us, and fill us with love. And finally He is with us in the Church, which is His Body, where we are united with Christ, in a relationship with Him, and each other. 

Jesus makes promises which are true. We can trust Him, and like the apostles we can prepare for the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in prayer, and joyful expectation, knowing that we will never be abandoned, but that we are always united to, and loved by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

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Easter IV (The Good Shepherd)

We mark time: day and night, weeks, months, years, and seasons. The Church’s Liturgical Year is a very good thing indeed. It divides up time and it focusses our attention on certain things: allowing us the time to contemplate the mysteries of the Christian Faith. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an event which requires serious contemplation. We need time to let it sink in, and to explore what it means for us and our faith. It is the defining moment of our faith, one which gives Christians the hope that our death is not the end, that this life is not all that there is, and that because of who Christ is, namely God, and what He has done: died for us to take away our sin, and rise again to give us the hope of eternal life in Him.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ It discloses something important about Who and What He is — Jesus is one who tends, who looks after His sheep. The Jews in the Temple for the celebration of Hanukkah in the Gospel don’t seem to have been listening. Jesus has told them clearly and they do not believe that He is the Messiah. What Christ does in the Gospels testifies to Who and What He is: the Word made flesh, God with us.

Those of us who are in the Church, through our Baptism belong to Christ, we are His. So we are to listen to what Jesus tells us, in the words of Scripture and through prayer. Jesus knows us and we know him — in word and sacrament, through the outpouring of His grace, and so we follow Christ, we do what He tells us to do: to love, to forgive each other. We are humble, we don’t think of ourselves as better than we are, we know our need of, and our dependance upon God. We put our faith into practice in our lives, so that it becomes a reality in the world.

Christ offers us eternal life, as we share in His death, so we too share in His Resurrection, and are assured of eternal life with Him, something wonderful and freely given, and a reason why we, as the Church, celebrate Easter in an extravagant and exuberant way, because it is a sign that God loves us, and saves us. We are sharing in that Eternal Life here and now, as we are nourished by Him, in Word and Sacrament, strengthened by Him, to live His risen life, here and now. 

In Revelation, as St John experiences heavenly worship he states, ‘For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 7:17 ESV). The Lamb will be our shepherd: Christ will care for us, and keep us safe. A Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep as Christ has done through His Death and Resurrection. To drink living water is to experience the fulness of life in God, filled with the Holy Spirit. Christ guides us to that in our baptism, when we are filled with the Spirit and made part of the Church. 

So we listen to Christ’s voice, in the Bible. We hear Him speak to us, and through this we listen to Him, and obey Him. That is how we know Christ and follow Him. It affects who we are and how we live, as people of love, loved by God. We are prepared here on earth for the life of heaven, for worship, and closeness to God. We have a foretaste of that closeness in Holy Communion where Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, so that we may be transformed by it, more and more into His likeness. It changes us, so that we, by the grace of God, in the power of His Holy Spirit, may become what we are: made in the image of God. That image is restored in us by Christ’s death and resurrection. Through it we come to share in the intimacy of the divine life. As Christ says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:30 ESV)  As Michael Ramsay said, ‘God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ [God, Christ & the World: A Study in Contemporary Theology, London 1969, 98] When we see Jesus, we see God, when we hear Him speak, we hear the voice of God. We can know who God is, the creator and redeemer of the universe, through His Son, Jesus Christ. God is no longer distant, or an angry man on a cloud, but a loving Father, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and a Son who loves us so much that He suffers and dies for us, to give us life in Him. This is God who goes after lost sheep, who longs to love and heal and reconcile, who can heal our wounds if we let Him.

God loves us; we can say this with the utmost confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it all proclaims the same truth: God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, but so that we might become what God is. It is what we celebrate at Easter, it lies at the heart, the very core of our faith as Christians. It’s why we are what we are, and why we do what we do, to proclaim this simple truth to the world.

We can have peace through our relationship with the Trinity, the source of our peace, and joy, and love. Grounded in this relationship we need not be afraid or troubled – we are free to live lives which proclaim God’s love and victory so that the world may believe. Through God loving us, we can truly love him and each other. We experience this most clearly at the Eucharist when Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, which He as both priest and victim offers on the Altar of the Cross. That self same sacrifice which heals the world through the outpouring of God’s love feeds us here and now. We are fed so that we may be nourished and share in the divine life and the joy of heaven. We receive the free gift of God’s grace so that it may perfect our human nature, so that we may go where Our Lord is going, and share in the joy, and love, and peace of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

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