Welcome, my friends, to the Church of the Ascension, on this our festival day. The feast of the Ascension is not one of the most visible of the church’s feasts, but it is a truly important day in the Christian calendar. Today we see Jesus translated from the human plane, limited by a corporeal existence, to the divine plane, unlimited by time, space and physics.
Which is one reason we don’t make too much fuss about it, generally. It’s a bit of an oddity. If you look at Christian art around the ascension, it tends to look like medieval versions of Superman. Jesus is either depicted on top of a cloud, slowly drifting away, or we see a pair of feet going in to a cloud. It’s not easy to engage with the Ascension when we know for a fact that heaven is not up there and hell is not down there and the three-storey world is not an adequate way to describe the wonders of our universe. I remember earnestly preaching to my congregation a couple of years ago, saying, don’t think of Jesus as a sort of first century Iron Man zooming up on jet packs. A little while later, in came Sunday School and I said, so what have you been up to and they said, “
We were doing the Ascension and look what we made!”
[shows visual aid of blue-painted coffee cup with cotton wool clouds and figure ascending into the the cup]
Seriously, the Ascension is meaningful: the way the narrative is written tells us something about the nature of Jesus, and about our relationship with Jesus, the human Jesus and the divine Jesus. Jesus is lifted up – to Lordship, to power, to reign at God’s right hand. It’s also a clear echo of the Daniel passage we heard: Jesus is among the clouds of heaven, exalted and eternal. It’s a celebration of Jesus, but it’s also a challenge: the Ascended Jesus is Lord above all Lords, all Caesars, all Kings, all priests, all prophets, all Kings and Queens and Caesars and Trumps and he will reign.
But, for the disciples, he is gone. It says that they were joyful as they returned to Jerusalem, but he is still gone from their sight. I think that must have been a little hard, and it is testament to the power of their belief that they stay focused and joyful. It’s a bit like Mary meeting the Risen Christ and being told not to hold on to him, though that’s all she wants – at some point we have to be willing to open our arms and our hearts and share this good news.
Because this is the pivotal moment when we switch from gospel to Acts, from life with Jesus the man to life for Jesus the eternal Saviour. The disciples are waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, for the Spirit to come, though they do not know how this will happen. In the Ascension Jesus leaves behind all limits, breaks all bounds, and opens up the possibility of the renewal of the world. The Ascension is not an end, but a turning point.
So what happens now? We wait. The disciples waited and prayed, until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. It’s a lesson we could emulate: it’s so easy to rush into things, and so hard to wait, especially when things seem a little empty, but there is a time for every purpose, and sometimes our purpose is to watch, and pray, and discern. That’s what Thy Kingdom Come is all about: a time of prayer across all our churches, prayer for wisdom and hope and renewal, at a time when the church needs this as much as at any time in our history.
Here at the Ascension we’re deep in a time of watchfulness and prayer, though we’re anxious to move forward into growth. I’ve been here six months now, and it’s been a busy six months, going through the major festivals of Christmas, Passiontide and Easter. Now we as a church are in a period of deep discernment, with a newly elected PCC and a new vision, and we would welcome your prayers as we develop our mission plans for the next year and the next five years.
So the disciples watch, and pray, in faith and hope and trust, waiting for the Spirit to descend. They must have missed the living presence of Jesus among them, but they watch and pray. Seeing Jesus live, and die, and return to them in the joy of the resurrection, has been a whirlwind, and now comes this time of peace and quiet waiting for the next thing to happen. Spiritual life and development always follows organic patterns rather than mechanistic ones.
In spring the beautiful blossom appears on the trees, but it doesn’t last: all too soon it falls into dust. The flower has to go to make way for the leaves to grow and the fruit to develop. Just as the disciples had to let the human Jesus go so they could begin to know the risen Christ, so our early joy in Jesus, our simple childlike faith, has to mature and develop, and some of that process will be marked by loss: a simple faith is replaced by a deeper and a deeper faith. It is in the times of loss, of wondering just where God is, when God seems to have withdrawn from you, that you can move closer to God as you watch and pray, and wait for renewal. You may even think you’ve stopped believing in God, but as Karl Rahner once said, you cannot lose God, you can only lose your image of God. The idol must fall to allow the reality to break through.
So as we leave Passiontide and Easter behind and look forward to Pentecost, our work begins. The Ascension passes the baton to us. As servants of the Risen, Ascended, Glorified Christ, we are tasked with loving our neighbour and spreading the good news, just like those first disciples. Jesus is not ours to keep, rather the Risen Christ is ours to share.
But we are not left alone as we wait, and watch, and pray, and prepare for renewal. Jesus left us the means to remember him and to encounter him again. When we eat and drink the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we open our hearts to the living Christ and rededicate our lives to him.
In taking communion we share in the memory and the promise, the promise that love and life will triumph over hate and sin and death, the promise of a renewed church and a renewed world, the promise that Jesus gave to us all, that we can have life, and have life in abundance, and for all eternity.
Why are we here?
We did some work last week at the Annual Meeting, when we looked at why we are here. Why has God called us to this church, rather than to any other? There is an abundance of churches in this area, including now some liberal churches, and so we have to be able to say that the Ascension is a church with a distinctive mission and purpose. There is no point reordering, there is no point planning for our future, if we don’t know why we are here. So we spent a little time on this – a very little time – but I think it was a worthwhile exercise. For anyone who wasn’t here, we ended up with a pile of post-it notes about our mission and purpose, which I took home and analysed.
I apologise to a few of you who have heard some of this earlier in the week, but it is worth exploring it together as a congregation. Sometimes when you do these exercises you end up with all sorts of answers and nothing clear emerges, but the Church of the Ascension is very clear what it is about.
Firstly, we are about being a spiritual home. We are important to each other. This is a church where you are not questioned, where you are accepted for who you are, and this is a church with a long history of being liberal, radical and progressive, and we like that. That is all good, that is what drew me here, and it is our history and our mission to keep that cutting edge.
But, and here is a but from me, there are two problems here which I think may be impeding our growth.
Number one: if you see the church as your home, and that specific word did come up, then what does that say to people who come here for the first time? Are they outsiders? Visitors? Non-members? How will that make them feel? The idea of home sometimes means that we get stuck. This is how we do things. We like it like this. We think we are open to change and growth, but actually, we like what we do now. We don’t want to be more traditional – no, we are a radical, inclusive church. We don’t want to introduce new things either – we like what we traditionally do. That’s just something to watch. When new people come into church, they will bring newness with them, and you may not always be comfortable with it.
Number two: we are, I think, resting on our laurels a little bit. We think we are THE inclusive, progressive church, and so we don’t need to do anything more. Actually you’ve got several modern, welcoming, inclusive churches within a couple of miles of us, so if they also have other factors which draw people in, they will go there instead. That’s not really a problem – if people prefer another church, it doesn’t matter, they’re still worshipping. But it does show that we need to change and modernise and up our game to get new people to come in to us.
The second theme was inclusion, unsurprisingly. We call ourselves the Inclusive Church of the Ascension. But, as one person pointed out, we are not there yet, and maybe we need to revisit our inclusion consciously. Strike the Maybe. We need to make sure we are including everyone. Let’s bring the children more into our worship. Let’s consider what we do for people with dementia. Let’s see if we can improve our offering for people with disabilities, even before the reordering. Let’s see if we can replace this sound system so people with hearing difficulties can actually participate properly in our worship.
Someone asked why we use this word inclusive – can’t we just say ‘everybody welcome’? I would say no, because it’s about more than treating people equally, it’s about more, even, than meeting people’s needs. It’s about seeing Christ in each other. It’s about making sure that the distinctive gifts of each person are honoured. I would really like to see more participation in our worship, but not more of the same people doing different things. Just one example: I am working towards having the children leading worship more – it says in Isaiah that ‘a little child will lead them’, and it’s life changing when they do.
Somebody wrote a definition of a church which was more than welcoming – I hope, by this definition, we are actively affirming. We think we are, but we are not sure. It’s specifically about the issue of being gay, but it can be widened in many ways.
Lastly, we are about service to our community. We do amazing things in our community – shoutout to Simon and the Wash House project, Bridget and ESOL, Trish and LewCAS, Ted for the Majority World work, and many others. That’s what we really need to develop, both as a church and as the Ravensbourne Team.The parish boundaries are useless here. We need to recognise that Holy Trinity can work in our parish, just as we work in theirs. St John’s and the Ascension freely work at Holy Trinity – now let them bring their gifts to us. And when we reorder, let’s have a team-wide vision, which lets us do the right things in the right places.
I’ll finish with the thing that wasn’t on many slides. I didn’t ask why we go to church, I asked why this church, so the answers we gave are fair and good. There is, however, a deeper why, and I know that we know this. Still we should always remind ourselves that there is a deeper why. We are here for one reason alone, and that is to meet with God. In being an inclusive, liberal, welcoming, active church, we must never lose sight of that. f we are not conscious that we are followers of Jesus, we cease to be a spiritual home and we become a club. If we are not always seeking a divine encounter, we become a doer of good works, just plugging the gaps in the welfare state. And if we are not filled with love, one for another, we will never really be inclusive.
And that is the key to church growth. If your hearts are filled with love, your pews will fill with people. If Christ is at the heart of all we do, we will be effective, loving, serving people who carry the gospel with us. It starts in here, with our heartfelt confession and deep commitment, and it ends out there, as we seek to transform this community and to bring the transformation only God can bring to the world.
Reverend Anne Bennett
Anne is Team Vicar at the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath.
There are no birth narratives in Mark, John, the Acts of the Apostles or the Epistles. The nativity stories are in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and they are so often conflated in hymns, prayers, Sunday School plays, even musical theatre, that it’s easy to think of them as an integrated whole.
But the resurrection stories are quite different. Each of the five stands in its own right, has its own perspective on events, involves different individuals and different settings. It’s easy for non-believers to dismiss them as inconsistent and totally implausible.
The earliest written account is in Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes as a recorder of a tradition: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day, appeared to Peter, and afterwards to the twelve. hen he appeared to five hundred of [our] brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James and afterwards to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to [me]. It was like a sudden, abnormal birth. Later in this section of the letter, Paul asserts with typical firmness: the truth is, Christ was raised to life, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead. Since a man brought death into the world, a man also brought resurrection of the dead.
Paul has no problem with the idea of bodily resurrection. If he had been a Greek he would have accepted the classical view that a physical resurrection meant imprisonment in a physical body, in other words a fettering of the spirit, not a release into a new kind of life. But Paul was a Jew. The book of Daniel contains a clear statement of the Jewish belief about life after death – Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of everlasting abhorrence. Elijah raised a widow’s son in Nain. Jesus perfomed the same miracle in the same place 9 centuries later. He raised Jairus’s daughter, the centurion’s servant, Lazarus. Resurrection wasn’t commonplace, but it wasn’t unknown.
Paul’s account differs in many respects from the gospel stories. There’s no reference to the rolling away of the stone over the sepulchre. There are no women. No angels or men in white robes. The order in which Jesus appears on Easter day is not the same. Paul is keen to elevate the narrative so that the intellectual challenge of the resurrection is presented as theology. Elements of the story such as grave clothes, ointment, earthquakes are peripheral to Paul’s purpose.
But details are significant. In Mark’s gospel, the three women who were the first people to visit the tomb were named – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. They were key witnesses to the scene – the stone rolled away, the empty tomb and the messenger. The women were very frightened. In Matthew’s gospel, there were two women and they reacted to the angelic message with joy. This account is the only one to mention that there had been soldiers guarding the tomb, on the orders of Pontius Pilate who was responding to a warning by the Pharisees that Jesus’s followers would steal the body. In fact the chief priests bribed the guards to say that this was what had happened.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the resurrection narrative occurs in Luke. Two friends of Jesus, walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem were joined by a stranger. When they reached Emmaus, after walking 10.4 miles, they shared a meal with him. As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they realised that their companion was the risen Christ.
John’s gospel is balanced in favour of the part played by a woman. Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and had a personal encounter with a man whom she thought to be a gardener. He called her by name and she responded by calling him Rabbi, teacher. A week later he appeared again in the same room and allowed Thomas to touch him, Thomas, who had doubted the truth of all the stories he had heard.
There are several convergences in these disparate reports. All mention a stone which had been rolled away, revealing an empty tomb. The role of women, though their reactions are different, was to be key witness to the resurrection. The risen Christ carried on teaching his disciples, he carried on being their Rabbi. Jesus was not a ghost. He could eat and drink. Sometimes Jesus invited his disciples to touch him, but famously when he greeted Mary he said: touch me not.
Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Roman left us one of the few historical texts of the period. “John the Baptist and Jesus were two holy men. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned Jesus to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold.” This is as near as we get to a detached almost contemporary account.
Between the NT stories and this little scrap of writing by a minor historian, there isn’t a great deal of authenticated information to build a religion on.
But a common thread running through it all is perspective. As we read these stories we accept that they represent points of view.
The resurrection is the great miracle of our religion. If you believe in the supernatural, you can accept that in his role of creator of the universe it is well within God’s power to break his own laws. Bringing a dead body back to life is another manifestation of his power over all he made.
The Catholic catechism acknowledges the enigmatic quality of the resurrection. Although [it] was an historical event, verified by the sign of the empty tomb and the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith, something that transcends and surpasses history. Certainty and ambiguity combined in one sentence.
What does the resurrection mean for us?
I can’t believe that the meaning of the resurrection is to prove the almighty power of God. If it were so then we must ask why this God doesn’t use this power to deal with all the horrors that are and have been in the world, affecting individuals and whole nations.
It can’t mean irrefutable fact as we understand it. When we watched an eye witness on TV describing the fall of the Berlin Wall, we saw the men climbing up with hammers and pick axes. There were clouds of dust. People clawed at the structure and ran over no-man’s- land into the West, stopping to look at the collapse of the barrier that had dominated their lives. Everyone there would have their version of what happened to pass on to family, friends, neighbours. But the basic threads of the story could be verified by anyone who looked at archive film or old newspapers.
His effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met
From my perspective as a 21st century Christian humanist, I see the resurrection as a series of metaphors, recorded by a disparate group of men and women who wanted to make sense of the most extraordinary experience any group of people has ever experienced. They had spent three years with Jesus who embodied all the qualities of God. They had met the word made flesh. And he had died. But his effect on them was so powerful that they began to see him in everyone they met. Mary met a gardener. He responded to her intense grief with compassion, with sensitivity, with love. She recognised Jesus in him. Two friends, also immersed in grief, encountered a stranger as they were walking. He responded to their bewilderment by making them aware of the inevitability of suffering that must be the result of human limitations. They realised that they had encountered Jesus. When they broke bread together, they understood the meaning of Jesus’s promise that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst. When they honoured the dignity of even what society regards as its dregs, they were honouring Jesus. When they visited the sick, fed the hungry, they were doing it as if to Jesus.
My favourite representation of Jesus’s resurrection in art is a drawing by Michelangelo in the British Museum. He’s naked. The tomb is an elaborate alabaster box. Jesus is balanced on one foot on the edge. He has the musculature of a very athletic, energetic man in the prime of life. He’s thrusting with both arms towards the sky, throwing his head back and gazing upwards. The message is clear. The jaws of death could not contain this man. We must look for him and recognise him whenever we meet him.
Margaret is a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) at the Church of the Ascension Blackheath.
The Christian festival of Candlemas celebrates the purification, when Mary and Joseph went with the little Jesus to the temple. This was a requirement in Jewish holy law, laid down in Leviticus chapter 12:
“Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days: she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed…..When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest..a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering….If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take with her two turtle doves or two pigeons. The priest will make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean from her flow of blood.”
So after the birth of Jesus, Mary had to allow eight days before Jesus was circumcised, which was his naming ceremony. She then had to allow thirty-three days for her “blood purification”. At the end of these thirty-three days Mary and Joseph took their sacrifice of two pigeons to the temple to ask for her forgiveness and healing from the flow of blood.
Now how we see the purification ritual very much depends on where we are standing. In our society today we don’t see women as “unclean” after childbirth and at first sight this all looks rather primitive. But if you think back to the first century, childbirth was a terrifying, dangerous and very bloody business, with no pain relief, a high risk of infection and a high maternal mortality rate. It was seen as part of the curse of mankind, the curse following the fall in Genesis:
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
To be honest, childbirth is pretty scary today, even in Western society with all our midwifery and medical capabilities. For the young Mary it would have been terrifying, and she would have been relieved to survive as a healthy woman after giving birth.
My heart exults in Yahweh;
I rejoice in the power of his salvation.
He has satisfied the hunger of the poor.
The famished cease from their labour.
He raises the poor from the dust.
He gives the needy a place among the princes.
He assigns them a seat of honour.
These verses from the first book of Samuel are extracts from the proclamation of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, after she received the news that she was to bear a son. And these are from the canticle which we call the Magnificat, delivered by Mary the mother of Jesus in an identical situation:
My soul tells of the greatness of the lord.
My spirit rejoices in the salvation of my God.
The Almighty has done great things for me.
He has pulled down the princes from their throne and exalted the poor and needy.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
I have selected some of the verses that have the clearest verbal echo. Hannah’s emphasis is more on the military power of Yahweh. Mary’s on God’s thirst for justice. But what these two women have in common is their recognition that the births of their two babies were so important that they must be seen in a cosmic, a religious and a political setting. It was the political aspect of Mary’s role that Anne emphasised in her sermon in Advent.
I want to concentrate on Mary’s pivotal role as organiser, interpreter, manager of her son.
Shops display their Christmas decorations in October and many non-religious people begin their preparations for our winter excessorama before Guy Fawkes Day is over. Advent candles are interpreted as the countdown to 24th December. If you want to give yourself a truly bibulous series of sign posts to Christmas you can buy an Advent calendar which presents you with a little bottle of rare whisky every day for a mere £10,000.
But although Advent tends to be subsumed into the commercial Christmas, today is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, Advent Sunday. Happy New Year.
A few weeks ago a visiting preacher talked to us very enthusiastically about her recent visit to Wittenberg. This is the city where Martin Luther pinned his 95 declarations on the church door at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31st October 1517. The preacher recounted how she was relieved of a weight of guilt when she recognised the force of the verse in the epistle to the Romans which led to Martin Luther’s rejection of catholicism. He emerged from a life of self-loathing and a sense of unworthiness, a conviction that he could never be forgiven. The verse (ch 1 v 17) ……reads: [the gospel] is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…….because in it the righteousness of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith.
The stand out story from the A level results has to be the story of Malala Yousafzai – a young woman who puts the achievement of all A level students into perspective. I’m sure many of us will be familiar with her story. At the age of 14 she was on the bus on her way to school with her friends, a school set up by her Father specifically for girls in the Swat region of Pakistan, who under the Taliban regime were not entitled to an education and had no access to schools. Armed gunmen stormed the school bus and shot Malala in the head and injured two of her school friends. She was lucky to survive and had to undergo multiple surgeries on her brain. It was a long recovery but, she settled into life in Birmingham, returned to school and achieved the grades needed to study PPE at Oxford this year.
This story about Jesus going up to a high mountain and meeting Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36) was of course written about 40 years after Jesus had died. Luke, using material in Mark and Matthew’s gospel, had a larger literary vision than his two predecessors. He explains in the introduction to Acts that he wanted to record the facts of Jesus’s life and death, but he clearly wanted to put them into context, create a historical setting. Luke’s gospels are formed documents, shaped and influenced by events he lived through after the resurrection and filtered through the experiences, the challenges that confronted the early Christians.
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here