Reflections for the Sunday after Ascension
As we continue to adjust to the welcome if very slow beginnings of a return to some sort of normal life, we remain very conscious of the continuing death toll from Covid-19 both here and across the world and especially the very rapidly rising death toll in Brazil. Although too early to tell for certain, initial indications are that the work to develop a vaccine may be bearing some fruit whilst scientists are continuing to work to understand the way in which the virus attacks our bodies and to use this knowledge to develop potential treatments. Do please continue to pray earnestly for those researching vaccines, conducting clinical trials, developing production routes and researching potential treatments as well, of course for those who are in the front line of caring for the sick and dying.
Although as yet there is no formal confirmation from the church authorities, we are cautiously hopeful that provided transmission rates continue to fall, we could begin to meet again in church from the beginning of July. That meeting together will be very different to what we are used to (it is unlikely for example that we will be able to sing as that significantly increases the risk of transmission of the virus) and exact details remain to be confirmed but we can at least start the planning process. Until then, we need to continue to pray for the church worldwide and especially in our own parishes that even though the buildings are closed, the church as the body of God’s people here on earth continues to be alive, loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and expressing thankfulness for all that God has done for us in Jesus by loving our neighbour as ourselves.
As we reflected on last Sunday, last Thursday marked Ascension Day, the day when Jesus’ mission on earth came to an end as he was taken back into heaven. I have to admit that I am not great at finishing things off – partly that’s the perfectionist streak in me (it could always be just that little bit better) plus it’s always more exciting to start something new than to finish off something that’s been hanging around for a long time. By contrast, when Jesus was taken back into heaven, His mission here on earth was completed – perfectly. As he breathed his last on the cross he cried “It is finished” or “It is accomplished” and at that moment, the great curtain in the Jerusalem Temple that separated the holy place from the most holy place, where the ark of the covenant (regarded as God’s dwelling place on earth) was torn from top to bottom so that all should be able to come into God’s holy presence at any time and not just one person, the High Priest, on one day of the year, the day of Atonement.
Jesus is now seated in glory at the right hand of the Father but that is not the end for Scripture repeatedly promises that Jesus will return to earth again, not this time as a babe in a manger but in all might, majesty, dominion and power as judge of all the world, to draw history to a close and to inaugurate his heavenly kingdom.
Jesus is clear that speculation about when this day will be is pointless for even he doesn’t know the date but we are called to live as if that day could be today and to help us do that, God has given us the Holy Spirit as his indwelling presence with us wherever life takes us. We celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost but this week, our gospel reading (John 17:1-11) takes us back to the evening of Maundy Thursday as Jesus prays for himself and for the disciples on the eve of the momentous events of Good Friday.
This prayer is often referred to as the Prayer of Consecration as Jesus prepares to offer himself as a sacrifice for all mankind. “Father”, Jesus prays, “the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you”. Although our translations use the word Father, the word Jesus uses here is better translated “Dad” so it is a very personal (shockingly personal for the disciples) prayer. Jesus here prays that as Jesus offers himself in sacrifice, his death will bring glory to his Father in heaven as his Father will glorify him. This is not the supposed ‘glory’ of the suicide bomber who finds ‘glory’ in the senseless killing of innocent bystanders but the glory that comes from obedience to the will of the Father and the glory that comes from the worship of those who receive God’s freely offered gift of love, grace and mercy to those who are completely undeserving.
Through Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross we are able to enjoy eternal life which is knowing God the Father and Jesus the Son. True peace comes not from material wealth or a life of poverty but from knowing God. Augustine expressed it thus “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in you”. The Westminster catechism defines our chief end as “to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever”. This is made possible solely through the perfect, finished work of Christ on the cross.
Ascension Day marks the final, perfect, conclusion of Jesus’ work here on earth. Jesus mission on earth has been accomplished, His saving work completed perfectly in accordance with and in obedience to His Father’s will.
Jesus goes on to pray for his followers (and that includes us) “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them”. This is an awesome privilege – to give glory to God!
Jesus though goes on to pray for the protection of the disciples (and us) “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one”
What a wonderful privilege we have to be so loved by God (but as the hymn puts it, Oh what peace we often forfeit, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer).
Can I encourage you to keep praying, for the life, and witness and ministry of the church throughout the world, for Veronica and the family and for those charged with the responsibility of deciding when and how to re-open our buildings for worship. Please continue to pray for our Queen, for the leaders of nations across the world and especially for our own government as they seek to find a way out of the present lockdown and to begin to restore the life of the nation. Please continue to pray for those nations torn apart by conflict and those struggling to rebuild lives and communities after natural disasters (thinking especially of India in the wake of the super cyclone which hit the east of the country this week).
The collect for Ascension Day
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever Amen.
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