Ascension Day: Living in the Gap

Ascension Eucharist


Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

Living in the Gap

I think that many of us often live in the gap between expectation and reality. Expectation is what we think or want to happen in a situation. Reality is what actually happens. When the gap between expectation and reality is small – we are generally happy. The wider the gap – the less happy we might be; as what we thought or hoped might happen can be a far cry from what really occurred.

I suspect that this gap is wide for many people in these trying times. We expected things, events to happen and they have either been delayed or cancelled. You might get a refund; or you might not; you might be able to rebook or maybe not. Many are living with the grief of events that won’t ever happen. We will all be living with some level of disappointment in the present moment.

I think that the disciples of Jesus had something of a gap between expectation and reality after his death. All the way along, Jesus had been telling them that he was going to leave them, go back to the Father, then send the counsellor, the Holy Spirit to be with them forever. It would appear as though the disciples did not fully understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.

Now the moment has arrived: Jesus is going up into heaven and the Holy Spirit is coming to clothe them with power from on high.

But is it what the disciples expected?

If you read all of Luke 24 starting with the women, Peter and John at the empty tomb to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus to Jesus standing among them and eating the broiled fish – there is fear and doubt and disbelief. I suspect that the gap between expectation and reality was wide in these moments.

Thankfully, it is in the Ascension of Jesus that the gap is finally narrowed for the disciples and for us too. Sometimes seeing really is believing! However, we are those who must believe without seeing; our comfort comes in knowing that we are blessed for it.

While we may not have seen the Ascension for ourselves, many artists have depicted it over time; I will share a few of my favourites! I have a side interest in art – I love a wander around a museum looking at paintings. Can’t wait to do that again!

Benvenuto Garfalo (1510-ish)

Adriaen Van Overbeke (1516)

El Greco (1577)

If you notice, many Ascension paintings have two parts: an upper Heavenly and a lower earthly part. The ascending Christ often carries a banner or a scroll or makes a Blessing gesture with His right hand towards the group below him.
I pay attention to the faces in the crowd, watching as Jesus ascends – some people look peaceful and calm, others bemused, others in shock and disbelief. Some are reaching, falling, covering their eyes at this sight Others are looking away or looking down. A mixed response to Jesus. The gap between heaven and earth is small. Garfalo shows the cloud of witnesses waiting for Jesus – leaving the rest with a glimpse of heaven. Van Overbeke’s entrance into heaven is small, narrow.

Some paintings are dramatic – such as El Greco’s. El Greco paints Jesus as he arrives in heaven. He is very white, a sign of his purity and holiness. I think Jesus looks tired, but also peaceful and at rest in the arms of the Father. The angels attending to him look a bit more stressed. The white dove hovering above the scene represents the Holy Spirit.

In these paintings, we get a visual of Jesus filling the gap between heaven and earth, us and God. Jesus also helps to bring our expectations and reality closer too.
Jesus doesn’t mind the gap – he fills the gap. There are a few gaps that need to be filled:

The first gap is the matter of his body. The Resurrection of Jesus without the Ascension leaves us with the problem of what happened to His body. The gospels are clear that the body which was laid in the tomb on Friday evening left the tomb on Sunday morning.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples in the resurrection accounts, they were seeing a real body. Jesus said, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”. A hallucination can fade away, but a body has to go somewhere. If Jesus’ resurrected body didn’t ascend, as the scriptures say, what happened to it?

Regardless of belief in Jesus or not – it is fairly accepted that He did walk on this earth and He was killed by the authorities. In their desperation to disprove His followers, why did they not just exhume the body and show everyone what a lot of nonsense it all was.

Jesus did ascend and He is in Heaven.

Heaven is the second gap that gets filled with Jesus’ ascension. Many people have ideas about what heaven is and isn’t, where it is and what happens. I take the position that heaven is not a location within the universe, but a different dimension. Heaven is where and when we will spend all of eternity with God the Father and Jesus the Son.

The astronauts who went to the moon were no nearer to Heaven than us. The Russian astronaut who sneered that he didn’t see God or Heaven while in orbit came as no surprise.

Finally, in the Ascension, Jesus fills the gap of what we are to do next. I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to remember what Jesus said as he ascended into heaven.

The short answer is nothing new.

In Acts, Jesus tells the apostles that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit imminently and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Luke says essentially the same thing as Jesus opened the apostles’ minds to understand the scriptures.

They were no to be silent witnesses either! The apostles were to go and tell the story, spread the Good News.
Jesus didn’t leave them alone to get on with it. He was with them. Instead they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy”. This is not the emotion you feel when you lose your best friend. They somehow knew in that moment they were going to getting more of Jesus, not less.

As we read the book of Acts, we see an excited buzz of activity among the 120 believers. They were meeting together and praying and planning the work that needed to be done. They knew they had a job, and that is why they selected another apostle to replace Judas. They knew there had to be 12 people, representative of the new Israel. They just needed to wait in Jerusalem, until they received the Holy Spirit.

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus’ last words as: ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Jesus’ Ascension means the presence, not the absence, of Jesus. The apostles didn’t take the Ascension to mean that Jesus was no longer with them. There was no feeling that the good old days with Jesus were in the past. Rather, there was an anticipation to even greater things, as had been promised He is not absent as we understand absence.

Jesus is the filler of gaps between our lost expectations and the reality that we might not want. He was to the apostles and is to us now. His position in heaven means that we have a place there too. This is the Good News that needs to be shared with those around us who do not know or belief. In the season of Thy Kingdom Come, we can share this amazing news with those around us whose gaps are wide and unfillable. Let’s be bold, and brave as those first apostles were.

Easter Sunday – He is Risen!

Christ is Risen! 

This is always the good news of Easter! Always has been and always will. This year has been different of course. What is usually a very busy weekend with a number of services has been quiet. In lieu of an Easter Vigil last night (although a number of dear Priest friends were doing them online) I opted to re-watch the Passion of the Christ without distraction (my phone). I vividly remember watching it when first released in 2004. At the end of the movie, the entire audience left the cinema in silence. Again, it left my in silence. 

As per request I am posting an Easter Sunday sermon. This was from last year. Still good! 

He is Risen Indeed! 

Acts 10: 34-43
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.

Jesus is Risen. That is the message of today. I know that and you know that too. I kind of want to sit down now!

We come together this morning as brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate what was done for us by Jesus on cross, we it meant and what it continues to mean. My hope this morning is that as we hear again the familiar story of the empty tomb, the reactions of those who were that we can put ourselves somewhere in the story of that first Easter Day.

Luke’s account has slightly different details than the other gospels, this doesn’t mean it is better or more accurate than any of others. Luke’s perspective is just different. I read through verses 1-12 with a stop every few verses with a thought or reflection with a brief pause. 

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,  but when they went in, they did not find the body.

• These women, who had been at the cross, went to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ body; they had seen it hanging on the cross so knew the condition it would have been in. They were prepared to finish the job of preparing the body. But they did not find it.
• We can only imagine the shock and surprise these women faced. There was a body yesterday but not today!
• How do we do when our expectations go unmet? When we turn up, ready to complete the job, meet that person, do what needs to be done and we can’t?

While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
• Are we looking in the right place for things? Are we looking among the dead? Do we do the same things time after time but expect different results? Do we treat people the same way, with the same expectations – but want a different response? Maybe it is time to look somewhere new?

He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words,

• Sometimes we too need to remember what we know about the promises of God. He did not come to meet our expectations but to meet our needs. This is cold comfort sometimes. I think this is why many people struggle with God; he doesn’t act or behave in a way that would make life more convenient or easier for us.
• Jesus rose again on the third day so that we could be with him forever, be forgiven and freed from our sins.

and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

• I’m not sure about you – but I struggle when I am not believed. If I am telling someone about an event or situation or telling a story, I expect that I will be believed. I like to think that I am a credible person!
• We have some idea of what these women have been through – the disciples (the men) all left Jesus on the cross as they couldn’t bear to watch. It was these women who were up early to get to the tomb to finish the preparations. The grief they must have been feeling. And now the hurt of not being believed.
• There is something in this about how I believe other people when they share their stories with me. Do I hold the same level of entitlement to be heard and believed that I think I deserve to other people? I think of some recent encounters with people and I have had to think seriously about this very issue. Am I treating the stories of others as an ‘idle tale’ or the real lived experience of another human.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

• Luke has Peter going to the tomb by himself. Matthew and Mark make no mention of Peter, John puts himself and Peter going to the tomb.
• Evidently Peter believed what the women had to say so he went too. Maybe one of the unnamed women was his wife or mother-in-law whom Jesus had raised? Anyway, something that Peter heard was enough to get him out of the house and on the road. Remember too that Peter was the one who had denied Jesus three times as Jesus told him he would. We again can only image how Peter must have felt that next day – his grief, his shame could only have been overwhelming.

• Now maybe in his mind Peter had a way to make things right. He saw the linens clothes by themselves and went home amazed at what has happened.
• What would it take to be amazed about the death and resurrection of Jesus today? Have we become complacent in our faith? Has life worn us down and we no longer feel that Jesus is bothered with us?

Friends be reminded again that He loves you, that everything that happened in that week 2000 years ago was for you today. As we hear these verses again let’s try to renew our amazement of all that Jesus did and continues to do for us.

Easter Vigil: Don’t Be Afraid, Come and See

Tonight is my favourite service of the year – the Easter Vigil. I love this service because it has all the elements that I love. It starts outside and in the dark with the lighting of the Paschal candle before processing into the church, the Exultant is sung, baptism vows are renewed and the first Eucharist is celebrated. Tonight I have been invited to preach.

St Thomas – Easter Vigil

Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 28:1-10

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

I took the time this week to read and re-read the four gospel accounts of the first Easter Day. There are of course many similarities and many differences given the differing perspectives each of the writers had on this one event. I don’t think these differences diminish one over another but gives a richness, a fullness to the whole story.

I tend to like the mention of the women bringing perfume and spices in Mark and Luke. My younger sister on hearing one of these accounts at Sunday School, asked our Mum if she would please put perfume and spices on my sister’s body when she died. This was quite profound for a five-year-old: when she died, not if she died.

With all their differences there are things common to them accounts. One of these is that each gospel tells of something completely unexpected. Despite his teaching, Jesus’ followers had no expectation that he would rise from the dead. The resurrection came as a wonderful surprise!

My hope is that we have not lost the surprise of the resurrection. Yes we have the benefit of hindsight and we know how the story ends but this came mean that we lose the expectation, the surprise.

When was the last time you were genuinely surprised by something that blew away your expectations? Can we, for a few minutes, place ourselves in the story tonight? Try to forget that we know the ending?

There are three common elements in the four gospel accounts: the empty tomb, the announcement of the resurrection to the women, and the meeting of the disciples with the risen Jesus.

The empty tomb is found as the first day of the week was dawning, very early, while it is still dark; darkness signifies confusion and lack of understanding. Matthew does not make mention of the perfume and spices; the women would not have been able to see very much in the darkness and the guards wouldn’t have let them anyway.

For Matthew, the only reason the Marys were there was to see the tomb. They were there. They had seen the condition of Jesus’ body as they were at the cross until the end. I’m not sure if they wanted to see the body again, that would have been a horrible sight. Yet they were still willing to go, just to be there. How ready are we to go to in darkness and confusion, when things don’t make sense? When the job that is at hand is pretty horrible?

I don’t want to dampen the festive mood too much but neither do I want to gloss over the events of that first Easter morning. The sun rose that day as it has every day since but that isn’t to say that it was all Easter bonnets and bunnies.

I remember watching Cardinal Luis Tagle, he is the Archbishop of Manilla and the president of Caritas (the largest charity in the world) be interviewed; he is a very smiley and jovial man. He was asked about this and he commented, ‘as a people, it is true that for me and many Filipinos that we smile and laugh a lot because we cry a lot. People who have suffered know who to smile.’

In a few verses, the Marys leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. They went to the tomb to do one thing that they had expected and planned to do yet came away totally differently. They had to cry a lot before the joy came.

We will get to the joy but not quite yet!

I think that I have always pictured that first Easter morning as a fairly calm affair. The sun rose, the tomb was empty. I want it to be a calm affair – help my nerves Lord. No earthquakes and be-dazzled angels looking like lighting. I do like this angel though as he rolled back to stone and gets to the point. He also has two very important messages for the Marys.

The first one is: ‘Do not be afraid, I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

What are you afraid of?
What is it the keeps you awake in the middle of the night?

I am afraid of being forgotten, left behind or left out. I was on a ride along shift with Thames Valley Police emergency response Team 5 last night. I had been working on one of the computers when I realised the crew that had been assigned to look after me weren’t in the report room anymore. My first thought was, they forgot me.

Just as I am thinking this thought, another officer came to tell me that the crew had gone down to the wash bay and I was to meet them there in 5 minutes. Still convinced that I was to be left behind, I grabbed my hi-vis and went outside to the cars. The crew were washing the car and had decided to hoover it as well as they had ‘their vicar’ riding with them. Not only had I not been forgotten, special attention was being paid to make sure that I was not forgotten!

We get so convinced sometimes that we know! And so often we don’t. In the Romans reading, Paul talks of having the old self crucified with him so that sin might be destroyed; and we can be free. I think that I still have some of the old self still be crucified.

The angel knew exactly what the Marys were looking for. He knew their fears, their confusion and doubt. They get addressed! By showing up at the tomb, despite their feelings and their fears, the Marys have these very things addressed.

There is a lesson in this for those of us who have real fears. Bring them in the dark to God so he can reveal his light. He knows. You aren’t hiding anything from him. For some of us, we need to face up to our fears, get up close to them and see them for what they are. Sometimes they are nothing but by getting a closer look we can see that for ourselves.

Here’s the other thing, you don’t just have to take his word for it. The angel invites the Marys to ‘Come, see the place where he lay.’ The stone was rolled away, they could see for themselves that Jesus was not there. In my relatively trivial example of the police last night, I was not only told but was shown that I was not forgotten or about to be left behind.

Come and see that the Lord is good.

The Marys come to see and then they had to go with the message for the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee and will meet them there. Obedient to the instructions with fear and great joy they go.
Suddenly Jesus met them.

Suddenly! No expectation from the Marys, Jesus is there in front of them. Taking hold of his feet, without shame or reservation. Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an illusion – the resurrection body was real. Jesus knows the fear that his sudden appearing would have provoked. He welcomes them, the Mary’s knew who it was and worshipped him.

All four gospel accounts start in both literal and metaphorical darkness, in confusion, fear and no expectations of the resurrection. Each account ends with the proclamation that the Risen Jesus is indeed light and life.

We mirror this in the first Easter Eucharist we are about to celebrate tonight. We began in darkness, in fear. The fears that we have are known to God if no one else. We are invited in the Eucharist to exchange our fears, our slavery to that fear with light and life. We are invited to come, see the place where he lay; eat and drink in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, and then go and tell so we too might walk in the newness of life.