John 14:23-29 : Anticipating the Ascension

This Sermon was delivered at St Andrew’s Fersfield and St Remigius’ Royden for Eucharistic Services on the 26th May 2019. Readings: John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15.

trees in park
“Go in Peace, to Love and Serve the Lord.”

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is risen, Alleluia. He is Risen indeed, Alleluia.

Today we find ourselves on the 6th Sunday of Easter, in a season of Eastertide. Throughout Lent we have journeyed alongside Jesus as he heads, step by step, teaching by teaching, and miracle by miracle towards the cross and his atoning sacrifice for our sins. At Easter, the man-who-is-God who had died and been laid to rest in a tomb, seemingly defeated by death, was resurrected to a life which can never again die. For as long as he lives – which is forever! – he lives as a promise of both the constant reality of the love of God, and as an offer to us of a entering into a transformed life which, like his, will endure beyond death.

This is what we have been celebrating, this is what we have gathered to remember and to hold on to for these last few weeks. Yet this season is coming to an end. Well, to say ‘end’ isn’t quite right, not really. It’s not that we’re coming to the end of Easter but rather than we’re about to head deeper into the full meaning and consequence of Easter.

Easter is a joyful time for the Christian because we remember what has happened for us. We recall the events which took place some two thousand years ago. In that sense, our faith is a ‘historic’ faith. This shines through in our liturgy, we use ancient prayers such as the Lord’s prayer or the creeds and we join together to say ‘Holy holy holy Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory hosanna in the highest.’ These are words which have echoed from the lips of the church throughout the centuries.

Yet presence of God within reality, incarnate within our humanity as the man Jesus, is not just an ‘historic’ event such as the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, or the signing of the Armistice on the 11th of November 1918, or even the successful Norman conquest of England in 1066. The activity of God within this world is not an action which is contained as a historical event “back then”, but is an ongoing reality for us today.

This is at the heart of our Gospel reading today where Jesus is spending time with his disciples explaining that he is soon to go to the Father. We find ourselves on this sixth sunday of Easter, on the precipice of the coming Ascension day, which we shall be celebrating on Thursday evening in Diss.

For some people, Christmas is the most important celebration of the Christian faith; it is the moment when God comes to us as a human being. Others focus on Good Friday and the sacrifice which happened upon the Cross. Many find that Easter day, with its resurrection hope and triumph over death is the highlight of the Christian year. However for myself, it is ascension day which I find the most profound, mysterious, exciting and encouraging. Because when Jesus ascends into heaven, he completes this movement of God first approaching and coming alongside us, and then having taken a hold of our hands guides us into his eternally loving presence.

By this I mean that it was a real human being called Jesus who died on the cross. It was a real human being called Jesus who rose from the grave and ate with his disciples, and it was a real human being who ascended to the right hand of God the Father where he lives without dying – and thus still lives as that human being today just as you and I live now.

Jesus in speaking to the disciples is keen that they should not just remember him, but continue to walk with him even though he has gone. This is a confusing thing to say. Just before our portion of scripture began, Judas – not the one who betrayed Jesus – asks Jesus to explain how this is possible.

Jesus responds by saying that his Father will send the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Helper; that is, the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is sent to us by the Father in the name of Jesus. In a few weeks we shall reflect more intentionally on the Holy Trinity, but it’s worth noticing briefly how inescapable each is from the other. The Father sends the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Jesus describes the Spirit as his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” When we say “Go in peace” we are saying: “go in the peace of Christ; go with the Holy Spirit in your life as you both love and serve the Lord”. The same when we share the peace, we’re not saying good morning to one another; we’re reminding each other that we have peace with each other through the Spirit of Jesus who is with and in each of us who believe in him.

(This is also a good moment to symbolically make up with one another should we need to).

Jesus also says that the Spirit will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to the disciples and, by extension, to the Church; which includes ourselves. This intimate relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit who is sent by the Father in Jesus’ name means that wherever the Spirit is present, Jesus is present. And wherever Jesus is present, the Spirit is present.

Given that in his ascension Jesus is eternally present to the unfolding sweep of history, meaning that he is just as present to us today as he was in the 16th century as he was to the early Church, the presence of the Holy Spirit reveals to us that which has already been made known to us in Christ. Rather than continually unveiling new revelations and understandings, the Spirit continually realises the revelation of Jesus, that is the self-giving presence of God himself, within our lives.

Two of the ways in which this happens most clearly is through the reading of the scriptures and by hearing the Gospel proclaimed through preaching on them, and also by coming forward to receive the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is perhaps the best symbol we have for worshipping the ascended Jesus because in it we remember the historical narrative of Jesus’ sacrifice and indeed his own words of self-offering, “This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for many for the forgiveness of sins”, and, in eating and drinking the bread and wine, we are spiritually nourished by the living presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit and thus are equipped for and sustained through our daily lives.

We shouldn’t wish to limit the Spirit of God to just these moments of encounter through scripture and the eucharist. Our reading from Acts makes it clear that Paul heard God calling him in a dream to go to Macedonia. Once there, Paul and his friends, including Luke, were outside the city of Philippi and met some women by the river. They spoke to them and a woman named Lydia and her family came to believe in the Lord Jesus and were baptised. This story serves as an example  of Jesus’ words that those who love him will keep his word and will do the things which he has commanded us to do, such going out into the world to make disciples of Christ.

Again we have this sense that our faith is not just about that which happened long ago, or even previously in our own lives. Our faith naturally and significantly contains a calling beyond ourselves to others, so that through our words and lives we might be a part of making Christ known to others.

Let us remember the words of Jesus, that the Father will send the Holy Spirit, the Helper. God will send help, a help which is to us an impossible peace which gives us confidence in the midst of the World. Having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus says “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”.

Yet, if we’re honest, we are both troubled and afraid. We each have topics, or health conditions, or circumstances which give us anxiety; which we would rather ignore or delay. As for our faith, perhaps we are content for it to remain ‘ours’ or think that people don’t want to hear about it and so value our religion quietly on a Sunday morning rather than being awkward or making a fuss about what we believe in case people think us odd or weird.

As we come forward to receive the sacrament, let us turn our gaze away from ourselves and lift up our anxieties to Christ. May he fill us with his Holy Spirit to help us, and surprise us, in not just our lives but with those who are in our lives. And let us rejoice in the Father to whom Jesus ascends, and who quietens our troubled hearts with his peace so that we may go with the Holy Spirit in our lives as we both love and serve the Lord.