Easter 7: Ups and Downs


Acts 1:6-14
John 17:1-11

Life and the world can often feel up and down. Prices are up, spirits are down. Interest rates are up to try to keep inflation down. We can be happy one minute and weeping the next. In our Gospels since Easter there have been many ups and downs. Jesus was lifted up onto the donkey and hailed as a hero. Next he was beaten down and lifted up onto the cross. To be brought down and put into the tomb. We are told he descended to the dead and rose again on the third day. According to the end of some of the Gospels and the opening verses of Acts, Jesus has been travelling around in human form meeting and eating with people. Seemingly appearing and disappearing at will.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension was the final act of Jesus’ ministry on earth, his return to heaven. Jesus ascending into heaven has been depicted in many pieces of art – often with his dangling feet at the centre while a crowd of baffled onlookers look up. Many poets have tried to capture the meaning and feeling of this rather odd event.

Jesus made it as clear as he could that he was going up to be with God in heaven and would send down the Holy Spirit; the Counsellor to be with us always.

One cannot help but to think about his disciples. Poor men! They had been through so much in the last few weeks! The Bible is not clear exactly how long it was between the resurrection and ascension. The Church year says a few weeks. However long it was, the disciples are imagining that life might go back to the way it was, only better. They ask Jesus, in verse 6 of Acts: ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’

They seem to have gone back to old assumptions that Jesus was going to kick out the Romans and set up a new Jewish kingdom and they would be part of the ruling party. Yes! However, in the next moment, they realise that is not what is happening. Jesus is not staying with them as he was ‘lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.’

Maybe to the disciples the dream really was over. Jesus refused to tell them what was going on. Instead he left them with a job to do; to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It is worth giving some thought to what the walk to Jerusalem would have been like for them. Acts does not give away any emotion or descriptions. They watched Jesus go up and now they are left feeling down.

The disciples were left, however, with two valuable lessons after all they have been through. The need to stick together and the need to pray.

When they returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they were staying, they prayed together. No one wandered off to do his own thing. They still needed to be unified. We need to remember and remain rooted in Jesus and to each other. We can desire to go our own way when uncertainty comes, when the ups and down of life get too much. As churches it can be tempting to flop back into our tribes and carry on as we scrabble for something that looks like the normal we once knew. I know there is a desire to ‘go back to the way things were’ – but friends we are not. Nothing in the world is. This is not all bad!

The second lesson was about prayer. Jesus prayed. Jesus prays.

In John 17, after washing the disciples feet and before his arrest, Jesus prayed. He spent the last few precious hours of his life praying. For the disciples and for us. He continues to pray for us. In the Acts and Gospel readings this morning we see examples of how the Apostles prayed in the early church and how Jesus prayed just before his death.

I am making some assumptions here that I assume are right: first is that you do in fact pray. Secondly that you do think about prayer and praying. I think that this is an important question to ask ourselves this morning.

What do you think you are doing when you pray?

Are we telling God what to do?

Giving him information about a situation, a person or ourselves – information that he already knows and then offering suggestions on what the Almighty might like to do about it?

Are we presenting a laundry list of ills and complaints?

Are we praising and thanking?

Are we pleading and begging?

What do you think you are doing?

I suspect it is a combination of all the above things! God knows everyone’s heart. Every thought, the deepest secrets and hurts, the highest highs and joys, He knows every crack and break. God knows before we even utter a word from our mouths what the condition of our hearts are. There is no fooling him!

Do you expect an answer? I do not think I could pray with no expectation that God is going to do something. I have to be willing to wait and trust. Wait to see what the answer is and not rush off in fear that I won’t get what I want or worse, no answer at all. I also have to trust that even if I don’t see a clear answer (ie: voice from heaven, message written in the clouds) that God has heard my prayer and will do as He sees fit. Even if – even if – I don’t get the answer that I want.

Jesus is also praying for some very specific things for the disciples with the underlying message of unity in God and Jesus. We are all bound together in love.

Helpfully, if we find ourselves stuck on what to pray for, Jesus also gives us some ideas. In John, verse 12 he talks about protection. Jesus asks God to protect the disciples with the same power that God has already given to Jesus. This is what ‘in your name’ means. He guarded them while he was with them. Jesus has been utterly faithful to the task assigned to him: to keep and protect those God has given to him.

This is an important thing to do for those given to our care; pray for God’s protection on them. Not only from physical dangers, illness and all the other bad things that can happen. But they will stay under the spiritual protection of God that comes from staying close to Jesus.

The next thing that Jesus prays for is joy; this means rejoicing, celebrating, enjoyment, bliss. So often our joy in a worldly sense is never quite complete. It is only in Jesus that our joy will ever be complete. It is only the love of God that brings us joy, brings us salvation.

Thirdly, Jesus prayed that the disciples would know the truth and be sanctified by it. Sanctify here means to be set apart for God and God’s purposes alone. It does not mean that someone is better than anyone else, but they are different. Jesus is praying that the disciples will be set apart to do only what God wants them to do. Jesus was sanctified, set apart by God to fulfil his purposes.
For us, we can pray that our people will know the truth of God and go into the world to live and share it.

Of course there are many more ways and things to pray about for those we are called to pray for. I think that protection, joy and truth are very good places to start. Remember that He knows the condition of our hearts. We also need time and preparation for the answer even if it seems hard. God is faithful!

Jesus sets an example of how and what to pray as He prayed for his disciples right before his death. He prayed for protection, joy and truth.
Leave some space for you to think about the people who know and love who could use protection, joy and truth today.

Rogation Sunday: Blessing, #blessed

Pusey House Sermon
5th Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2023

Joel 2:21-26
James 1:22-27
John 16:23b-33

It is both delightful and daunting to be preaching here this morning. A dear Pusey friend, after looking at the term card, sent the text: ‘big shoes to fill. Kiss.’ The provision of supportive and honest friends is one of the many great blessings of Pusey House.

It would be far more comfortable to stand here and tell of the many blessings that Pusey House has brought to my life and ministry over the last nine years. From the very first Sunday Mass, amidst the smoke, the liturgy and magnificent music (all very different to where I had come from) I felt at home. This, too, is a great blessing of Pusey House.

Therefore, it is wildly appropriate, on this Rogation Sunday, not only to remember the blessings we have been blessed with in the past; but to ask for more blessings in the future. Rogation Sunday ties in ancient traditions of invoking divine favour to protect crops from mildew by processing around the parish boundaries, using processional litanies ending with a mass, for the blessing of the land. This is where the tradition of ‘beating of the bounds comes from.

This is still the practice in some rural parishes, including my own in the Hambleden Valley. My first proper Rogation Sunday was last year. It was not previously on my religious radar. A dutiful Church Warden provided a brief of what was expected. As usual, I took that a few steps further.

At the end of the service using the Rogationtide liturgy, I had the entire congregation process out behind the church, overlooking fields of cereal crops and sheep. This was met with nods of approval. I then asked the congregants to raise their hands towards the fields and sheep. And repeat the blessing after me. Which they mostly did. Next, I asked them to extend their hands towards the people around them. Eeeek. And repeat the blessing after me. Which they mostly did; quietly.

It gets worse. I then asked them to put their hands on their heads. And repeat the blessing after me. Evidently this was done in the quiet of their own hearts and minds. We held that moment and it was powerful. The final blessing was offered and we drifted back for Rogationtide baked goods and coffee.

On this Rogation Sunday we can take some time to consider our own understanding of what it is to be blessed and how we go about seeking blessing.
Is being blessed or asking for a blessing complicated for you? Priests bless people rather frequently: in wedding ceremonies, at death beds, in baptisms and at the end of services. People who may not receive the elements are invited to be blessed at the rail in a Eucharist. These blessings are simply given. The congregation is not asked if they would like to be blessed as though it is a democratic process.

Priests are also stopped on the street, in pubs, on trains, in shops, anywhere they are visible and asked for blessings. Often without hesitation or embarrassment from the asker. Blessings are seemingly accessible and available all around us.

It is not unusual to see #blessed on social media posts. 147 million on Instagram! A quick perusal and it would appear that to be #blessed is arbitrary, socially constructed and heavily dependent on outward appearance. These blessings seem to have more to do with positive circumstances and obtaining favourable or desired outcomes: cute babies, attractive partners, fit bodies, amazing hair, etc. ‘#blessed is a far cry from the blessings God offers us.

Are we able to recognise God’s blessings when they come and how are we asking God to bless us?

Some blessings have been given away or fought over right from Genesis by the descendants of Abraham. Esau gave up his birthright over a bowl of stew. The deathbed deception carried out by Jacob and Rebekah to steal the blessing of Isaac on Esau. Later in Jacob’s life, he wrestled all night with the angel for a blessing and came away with a limp. Some blessings appear to come with a perpetual reminder of them.

Other blessings have come as a reversal of fortune. The prophet Joel begins with lament and a call to repentance. The dating of Joel’s prophecy is woolly but likely before the exile. There is no mention of the northern kingdom and the Israelites are still worshipping in the temple. The locusts, probably both actual and metaphorical, have been ravaging Judah. People are suffering and will only suffer more: the farmers will lose everything, the drinkers will have nothing to drink, the priests nothing for temple-service.

Joel appeals for repentance as Israel has sinned. They need to return to God who promises salvation. Prophecy turns to promise: the enemy will not overcome and the famine caused by the locust will be turned to plenty. All aspects of creation will be restored and blessed from the soil to the animals to the fig tree and vine. Early rain and full threshing floors, overflowing vats. This is true levelling up. All will have plenty and be satisfied. Forget the cost of living crisis.
The days eaten by the locust will be repaid. What a blessing that would be!

There is a greater blessing though. Joel announces twice that ‘my people shall never be ashamed.’ Acknowledgement of shame is a major issue for many people and has become a source of much interest and research in the last few years. Freedom from shame would be a priceless blessing to many people.

In the Old Testament, some blessings are given away or fought over; and some blessings come as a reversal of fortune. In the New Testament, we see in the Beatitudes the head and heart of Jesus’ teaching of what true blessing is.

The Beatitudes show us the very best of what it is to be human; how to live the most fruitful life we can. The way to live well is the way of humility before God, compassion, mercy and peacemaking. We see these profound qualities in other people: the great saints of the past and present.

The word ‘blessed’ also means happy, which makes these statements quite confusing. Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn? This does not make sense! But these people are not happy now, they are happy because of the promise that immediately follows: blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. The Beatitudes move on from a state of mind to a state of being.

As part of the farewell discourse in John 16, Jesus is telling his disciples that blessings need to be asked for. This can be dangerous when the ‘in my name’ bit is overlooked. Too many people read ‘ask anything of God and he will give it to you.’ The harmful narrative of the ‘prosperity gospel’ preached in many parts of the northern and southern hemispheres works on this premise. Asking means working; just work harder, pray harder, be better, give more, believe more.

No he will not give us anything we ask. We need to read these verses through the lens of the Beatitudes. Frustratingly, God’s priorities and ours do not always line up. God cannot give us anything that is beyond his will or outside his providence. It is not always clear who is more frustrated by this; God or us?

Not to complicate matters any further, in the Epistle of James, his pronouncement to ‘be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves’ can add to the confusion. This James, not to be confused with James from the House of Zebedee, brother of John, was concerned for the early believers to demonstrate the reality of faith in obedient lives.

This James is presumed to have been a close relative of Jesus, potentially a half-brother or cousin. They would have grown up together in close quarters. For three decades James heard the words, he saw the life and the word in action yet did not do anything about it. James did not follow Jesus during his earthly life, and was only converted after a resurrected encounter with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). This helps to frame the urgency, the passion with which James writes. For James, if you truly know the word, you will want to do something about it. For James, only listening and not doing anything about it, is the issue. One would have to know what the ‘word’ was before acting upon it. James would have encouraged studying, meditating, and pondering the word.

John, like James, is emphatic about knowing the word. The word made flesh and dwelt among us. John makes clear that asking has to be done in the name of Jesus. Do we know what that means? It follows that if you are going to ask for something in someone’s name, you better know them. God’s love should compel us to want to know him better, love him more. Blessing at the heart is about love. It is not about accumulation of stuff or favourable circumstances to be #blessed. It is to be loved.

The Father, who is the ultimate source of blessing, loves and wants to bless us. Sometimes that blessing comes down and sometimes we have to ask for it.
Other times we have to work at it but in the right way through relationship, study, pondering and doing.

During these next few days of Rogationtide, my prayer is that we will consider again what it is to be truly blessed and be a blessing to others. May we find the courage, the passion to seek God’s blessing for the world, creation, for our neighbours and for ourselves. May we be aware and ready when God’s blessing simply falls on us because He loves.

Bless you.