This is the text of my last Sermon May 16, 2021 Sheila’s final Sunday at St Peter and St John’s
This morning as we are all too acutely aware we are thinking about leavings and endings. And our two readings address those two themes. Jesus at the end of 40 days of appearances to his disciples after his resurrection. 40 days of wonder and convincing proofs that he was alive 40 days of probable bewilderment for those disciples, Luke recalls how there came a specific moment on a specific day in a specific place when Jesus left them.
He left them! How could he do that?
He had called them into this adventure of faith those three years earlier, they had gone on this rollercoaster of an experience through the years of Jesus’s public ministry they had been heartbroken and devastated, traumatised even to see him die on the cross, amazed then three days later at the resurrection.
Surely now the accumulation of this story was not for Jesus to leave them. And yet our reading from John where we are listening in to Jesus’s private prayer to the Father, reminds us that Jesus knew full well that he would be leaving them we began with the phrase quote I am coming to you now” and Jesus goes on to specifically pray for his followers and his prayer is very much about how they are staying and who they are to be, specifically not that they will be removed from the world but that they will be protected from the evil one.
I love the Ascension Day story because it is one of those moments in the church year when we celebrate and remember that Christ is risen ascended and victorious, one of those Sundays when we get a little glimpse into the cosmic greatness of the entire story. So let’s open up our hearts again to this story as if we were those disciples and let’s hear again what Jesus said to them because he would say the same things to us.
Let’s remember that those first disciples would not have felt unrelentingly positive and upbeat and cheerful about the idea of Jesus leaving them. And if I might be so bold as to apply the story personally, even though I am so very well aware that I am not Jesus, I think it’s likely that many of you may be identifying with the same sense of feeling bereft at our departure.
Jesus would say to you, as he says to me also,
- don’t get worked up about times and dates
- trust that you have all you need because you will receive power from the Holy Spirit
- and don’t stand around staring into the sky because a) there is stuff to do-we are all called to be witnesses and b) we haven’t yet got to the end of the story. Jesus will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven” in other words there is a moment coming when history will be wrapped up, story will close. And you and I may live to see that moment, or we may not
The point is that that moment, that end of the story is still there ahead of us, and therefore there is a journey for all of us to travel today and tomorrow and next week and next month and into next year.
Wherever we are, whoever we are, and along with those others who are called on the same journey, we are called to be faithful to the response we made when God first called us.
When Jesus first met those disciples who were standing around staring up into the sky having gone on this incredible journey with Jesus all he said to them was “come follow me”. He didn’t give them any guarantees or promises or explanations or insurance policies or pension plans, he just said “come follow me.
This week I was incredibly blessed by being in St Andrews Benn School where they prepared an assembly to say goodbye to me. They chose to read a story from the Bible about being called to follow Jesus, it’s from this Jesus storybook Bible
Here is how the storyteller renders this particular calling of those first disciples.
Jesus left the desert and set about the great rescue. He was going to get God’s people back.
But first he needed to find some helpers and friends. He had a lot to do. He would need some people to help him.
Who would make good helpers, do you think? Clever ones? Rich ones? Strong, important ones?Some people might think so, but I’m sure by now you don’t need me to tell you that they’d be wrong. Because the people God uses don’t have to know a lot of things, or have a lot of things – they just have to need him a lot.
It was that last line that really got me. Do you need Jesus a lot?
Because all you need is to need Jesus – alot!
If so, that need will provide you with everything that you need in order to follow “blessed are the poor in spirit (those who know their need of God) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
Obviously, I have thought for some time about what I might say to you on this final Sunday. When David and I talked about this he suggested that I might want to revisit the very first sermon I gave you. Well, I was very surprised he remembered it, but he did. Apparently I set out what I had come to tell you, and that was that God loves you. The God is for you, that he loves you, that he is on your side, that he loves you. Maybe I said it in much more fancy ways, I don’t know because I can’t actually find the first sermon in my files.
So like someone writing a good English essay, where you start out by saying what you are about to say then you say it. And this morning I have reached the concluding paragraph where I am going to say that I’ve said it.
You are loved, there is nothing more important to grasp than this. When you hold this is deeply and profoundly as you can in your heart then you can accept yourself and love and accept others. Accept yourself with all your own failings, weaknesses and limitations, and accept others with all of theirs.
And if you have this love among you and towards one another, new people whom God may send you to work alongside, the new person who God is calling right now to work here, for example but also those others of your brothers and sisters in St George’s who you don’t yet know. If you have this love among you, a tender gentleness forgiveness patience with one another’s shortcomings, then you absolutely have everything you need.
So that’s what I told you at the start of my ministry here (allegedly relying on David’s memory) but In searching for that first sermon though I did find one other of the very early ones, a sermon I gave just a few weeks after my arrival at the end of November 2013 (I had arrived on November 6th) on the Sunday that we call Christ the King.
Christ the King Sunday is a bit like Ascension Day Sunday, on both the Sundays we lift up our eyes to celebrate the amazing cosmic picture of our Risen and Ruling saviour. We remind ourselves that Jesus, who walked and talked and was just like us, and was with us, rose from the dead and ascended and is now an all-powerful, supreme, pre-existent, clothed with all authority, the creator of everything. We are to draw strength and courage from this vision. It is the only way in which we can learn to live with hope and joy, even in a pain filled world.
I’m not going to put the whole of that sermon into this sermon but I will just draw one thing out from it: I spoke about the thief on the cross and how in that moment of darkness fear and confusion the thief saw something and Jesus gave something
The thief saw something in Jesus, even though he was nailed to a cross and seemingly helpless, he saw some kind of authority and power. The thief glimpsed this greater reality behind how everything looked on the surface. And Jesus gave something to the thief. What did he give him? And might it be that he could still give that same something to us to help us hold on, have strength and courage in the face of dark or difficult or uncertain times?
Jesus gave him a promise. It perhaps wasn’t what the thief on the cross wanted. His immediate pain was not relieved, the Romans were still in charge of this crucifixion scene, and a couple of moments after giving the promise the promise giver expired, the thief was left alone.
In our darkest moments are we comforted by the presence of Christ who is suffering alongside us and he promises to be with us always even to the end of the age or do we demand instead that our immediate pain be relieved? In other words will we trust that the promise is enough? That is a challenge for us all is “is the promise of Jesus enough?”
I don’t mean the promise that he will take us to heaven when we die, because we not meant to just stand around waiting for that moment, as important as that promise is. I mean the promise of ‘I will be with you always’.
And how will Jesus be with us? It will be by the presence of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, sending us out to be witnesses. So Jesus, about to be enveloped by cloud and taken out of sight reminds those disciples of the promises he had already told them about “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” and “unless I go the Holy Spirit cannot come”.
So as my journey of following Jesus moves me on, I want to say to you my companions on this same journey, all you need is to know you are loved,
all you need to do is to love one another, welcome the stranger keep open hearts to those you don’t yet know, God has provided you with all that you need and God will provide you with all that you need. So long as you are relying on him because all you need is to simply need Jesus, a lot!