Parting and presence

Happy Ascension Day! Here is the reading and reflection from today’s communion service. And here’s a link to the song I played at the end – a lovely gospel infused melody from Mavis Staples called ‘God is not sleeping’.

Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes down upon you.”

Then he led them out of the city as far as Bethany, where he raised his hands and blessed them. As he was blessing them, he departed from them and was taken up into heaven. They worshiped him and went back into Jerusalem, filled with great joy, and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God.

As we think about that story, maybe we can see a parallel with our own times. There was a physical parting. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after Easter he talked with them, and ate with them, and walked with them – he was, in some mysterious way, physically present with them.

But from this day onwards they would no longer be able to be in the same room as him to see him, or touch him, or hear him talking. We know all about that at the moment, as we long to be in the same room with some of our loved ones, to see them, and hug them, and sit down together to talk.

You could also see another parallel. In his earthly life Jesus could only ever be in one place at a time. He could only be with a relatively small number of people in one geographical location. The Ascension is not really just a movement upwards – it is an explosion outwards, so that now Jesus can known by people all over the world, wherever they are.

Is that a bit like our online services? Churches no longer connect just with those who can make it through the church door, but with people all over the place. And for many of us now we’re realising more and more that we can meet not just by going to see each other, but online, through the wonder of Zoom – so maybe like me you are meeting up with some far flung members of your family or old friends in ways that you never did before.

And all that can be very good. But… maybe you have had the experience of being Zoomed out – or the frustration of a connection breaking down. or maybe you just long for a real physical meeting that goes beyond looking at a screen – and a sharing in Communion which this online service can never really match.

So, what about our relationship with Jesus? Was there a price that the disciples had to pay for letting their Jesus free to be there for everyone?  If that were the case, surely we would have a much stronger sense of the sadness of this parting. But Luke tells us that they went back to Jerusalem filled with great joy.

And as he goes on telling the story of the early church in the book of Acts, you don’t get any sense of the disciples looking back with longing and sadness to the time they spent with Jesus back in the day. In fact they seem to be more connected with him than ever. Whereas before they often failed to understand what he said, and were hesitant and frightened, now they do amazing things in his name, and seem to feel his presence very close to them.

When we come to the story of Pentecost next week, we’ll hear about the giving of the Holy Spirit accompanied by powerful symbols of wind and flames. But John gives us another description. When Jesus comes to the disciples in the upper room he breathes on them and says ‘Receive Holy Spirit’. So maybe even before Pentecost the disciples had a growing sense of the life of Jesus in them.

The life of Jesus in them. We still often get stuck with the idea of God out there, or God up there – perhaps the language of ‘ascension’ doesn’t help. But when Jesus talks about the coming of the Spirit, he says: ‘On that day you will realise that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.’ God is not somewhere out there, but somewhere in here.

I am in you. I’ve been using those words in my times of quiet each morning, as I breathe in and out. I am in you. It can mean both things – we are in God – we live and move and have our being in him – and God lives in us. That’s what we were thinking about last week – we are at home in God, and God makes his home in us.

This is far more real than an online connection or a Zoom call. This is God present in the deepest part of our being – God as near to us as breathing. ‘God is being’ I read today – he is our being and he is the being of the whole world – which is why through him we can feel so deeply connected to other people and to the whole of creation.

If the place that we most naturally find God is in here, that also makes a difference to the way that we might see God acting in the world. We long for God to act externally – to intervene – to stop things like the coronavirus, or protect people from physical danger. But perhaps we should see God more as acting internally – through us. ‘God listens in our listening, God comforts in our comforting, God gives in our giving, God visits in our visiting’. God’s love is active in the world, through us –  because he is present in us. Like those first disciples, he has breathed his life and his love into us – and he reaches out through us to bring his love to a world in need.

  • We think of those who are parted from each other at the moment – and those we are parted from… Lord Jesus, you knew the warmth and comfort of physical closeness. We pray that through your life in us, we may reach out with love to those we are parted from, and all who are isolated – so that even through the partial connection of the phone, or the computer or a letter or a wave, they may really feel our love, and yours.
  • We think of our world, in its needs… Lord Jesus, may the power and energy of your love motivate and strengthen all those who work for the welfare and healing of their fellow human beings, and of the earth and her creatures – through science and political action, through peacemaking and the search for justice, through compassion and care, in the ways that you lead them.
  • And we pray for ourselves… Lord Jesus, you give yourselves to us just as fully as you gave yourself to your first followers. Breathe your spirit within us, and help us to open up more and more to your lifegiving presence.

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