Today, following on from Pentecost, we start to work our way through the Book of Acts as we think of the earliest Church and what it can teach us now. We will continue, on Sundays, to work our way through the Psalms.
Acts 1: 1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Few of us, I guess, relish the thought of bidding farewell – unless, of course, we’re glad to see the back of the person concerned! Saying “goodbye” can be tough. And, come the “ultimate farewell”, we can struggle with the reality of it so much that we say nothing rather than embrace the vulnerability of letting go. We collude in pretending that there is nothing to prevent things remaining just as they are. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the Ascension is not observed with anything like the prominence given to Christmas or Easter. Life, however, entails bidding farewell – endings as well as beginnings. For others’ flourishing we often have to let them move on. Parents know that one day their children are likely to leave home – for university, for work or to share their life and love with another. In his thoughtful book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, W.H. Vanstone suggests that “authentic love” can be recognised as and when we are willing to relinquish control of the other for their sake. No one could claim doing so is easy, though! Such is “love’s expense”.
The Ascension reminds us that the disciples had to bid farewell to Jesus and to accept that life from then on was to be lived without the physical presence of their friend and Lord. Luke suggests that they were “gazing up towards heaven” – focusing on the reminder of departure. It was tempting to dwell on reminders of where they had last seen him. Their attention, however, is redirected to the future – reoriented back to the city, back to life’s duties and encounters. In Matthew’s account of the Ascension Jesus tells them to “Go!” and adds the Great Commission as the work to keep them – and us – occupied (Matt. 28: 19). He also assures them, Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28: 20).
God, enable us, we pray, to believe that you never leave nor forsake us. Bless, this day, any and all known to us who know the pain and heartache of having to say farewell to those whose company they yearn to keep. Trusting in your abiding presence increase in us our willingness to love and serve you without counting the cost. In the name of the Ascended yet ever-present One. Amen.
The Revd Geoffrey Clarke, is the minister, of The Crossing Church (Methodist/United Reformed Church), Worksop