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 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