Well, I don't think I have ever before preached at just gone six in the morning! And, although I am happy to be here, I suggest we don't make a habit of meeting so early. As Sallyanne will tell you I am not a morning person; I can be a just a tad grumpy first thing.

But, I am really glad we are here. I think it is really important that we celebrate the Ascension and, for two reasons:

First, it reminds us of Jesus' real status as both fully human and divine. The God made flesh, becomes the one that goes to sit at the right hand of His Father. And in doing so reminds us – because we have a common Father – of our eventual destiny. This is good news indeed. The Ascension validates Jesus claims that we may also get to dwell in the House of the Lord forever. The Ascension also makes sense of the Resurrection. Without the Ascension it would be very hard to see the point of the Resurrection.

But, secondly the Ascension reminds us that the baton has now been passed on to us. The mission of the Church and the spreading of the Gospel, is now, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our responsibility.

Jesus through his earthly life characterised for us the Kingdom of God; he showed that the kingdom is concerned above all else with with justice, peace, love and joy in the Holy Spirit.

He showed us through parables how to live the Gospel in the here and now.

For some living the Gospel, bringing something of the Kingdom of God, to 'earth as in heaven,' may mean doing something really big and significant; just like Desmond Tutu has done in leading the reconciliation process in South Africa, or Mother Theresa through her works of charity amongst some of the world's poorest people.

But, for most of us, it will simply mean being Christian, or as Christ, in the place we find ourselves in; this is the genius of the parish system.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this:

'One's task is not to turn the world upside down, but to do what is necessary at the given place with a due consideration of reality.'

And, if enough of us do this our all the individual acts of love will 'converge to form the mosaic of charity which can change the task of history.'

The Ascension reminds us to remember that our task, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to be the contemporary representatives of Christ, 'risen, ascended, glorified.'

 

Amen.

I wonder what your favourite nursery rhyme was when you were growing up? Any suggestions?

Well, I don't know if it was my favourite but the Grand Old Duke of York is always one that has stuck in my head. If you remember he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again; very possibly for no apparent reason!

Well, this week on Thursday morning, we celebrate Ascension Day – the day that Jesus ascends to heaven, not to be seen again. But unlike the soldiers in the Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme he is to go for a reason, to be with his Father, and ours – think of the words at the beginning of the Lord's Prayer – in heaven. In doing so, he passes the baton onto us; it is now our job to bring something of the kingdom of God, in heaven down to earth. He has shown us the way and, through his very persona, he has revealed what the Kingdom of God is like: a place of justice, peace (note the words from the Gospel – 'my peace I leave you,) love, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus last promise before his ascension is the Gift of the Holy Spirit, which the apostles have already received and, the wider group of worshippers is to receive at Pentecost. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is saying to us: 'even though I am to ascend I will never leave you.' Of course the purpose of the Divine Gift is to equip us to carry on working for the kingdom, to become as Christ in a deeply shattered and broken world, to show Jesus to the world as 'the way, the truth and the life.' And, of course by following in Jesus' footsteps we hope one day to dine with Him in paradise.

But, here is the nub of the issue: in order to ascend, we have to first descend; just as Jesus did. Jesus the ascending God was also, in the words of Henri Nouwen, the 'Descending God.' What does it mean to descend and how can we do it? Again, I think Henri Nouwen provides some insights. Nouwen suggests, and this has been my own experience, it means abandoning false perceptions of our own self-worth, Nouwen wrote: ' I get the impression that under the blanket of success, a lot of people fall asleep in tears.'

To descend means to get over ourselves and throw away the illusionary, to recognise that my self-worth and yours is simply this: that we are children of God: 'The descending way of Jesus, is the way to find God. Jesus doesn't hesitate for a minute to make that clear. Soon after he has ended his period of fasting in the wilderness and called his first disciples to follow him, he says; how blessed are the poor in spirit.' Spiritual poverty means taking a realistic view of ourselves, and learning to love ourselves for who we are. And when we have done this, we can descend to help, or love, our neighbour because we then start to see our neighbour as our equal: 'the descending way of love, the way to the poor, the broken, the oppressed becomes the ascending way of love, the way to joy, peace and new life.'

So if we are serious about our faith, before we even begin to think of ascending we need to learn to value ourselves properly through the eyes of God, and then we need to value others likewise. Only under these circumstances do we experience peace, Shalom, right relationship. And, we will never get their under our own strength, only in the power of the Holy Spirit; Jesus' final gift to us.

Of course this gift is made present to us in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist we are fed to become the sort of people who make Jesus' 'joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love, one in heart and one in mind.' If we expect God, through the Holy Spirit, to be at work in the sacrament of the Eucharist, it is reasonable for us to expect that we might become the type of people where 'nothing is done out of jealousy or vanity; instead out of humility of mind' and where we descend into a state where 'everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.'  

The logic of the Gospel is that this is the only real way to ascend; let’s do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

Groucho Marx who famously quipped 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me.'

What was he railing against? Was it clubs and institutions per se? Was it that he knew that his own deep character flaws?  Did he understand the propensity of many clubs and institutions to insist that its members all act and behave in the same way? Did he crave to belong to a club that was so eclectic and diverse that it accepted all manner of folks?

I suspect that it was a mixture of all of the questions that I have just raised and this raises a paradox: we all want to belong, but sometimes, often, we are frightened of what belonging entails, or demands of us. We want to be made welcome, yet at the same time we are afraid of losing are individuality. Yes, we need to be clear clubs and institutions can stifle us and force us to put on a false persona.

And, the Church is no different. At times the Church has failed to understand its own rules. Churches can seek to create a congregation of little me's, moulded in the image of a charismatic leader and his or her acolytes. But, here is the problem Church's like this don't conform to the set of rules described in today's readings.

For our guiding rules – theologies if you prefer – must be inclusivity, diversity, love and grace. Jesus came for all and he wants all to join his Church, even folk like Grouch Marx, even folk like you and me. And, if we fail to get that message out there our aspiration to be an hospitable church will be fairly meaningless.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter's great vision, must have been scandalous to both Peter himself and the Jewish community. Through the vision Peter is to learn about grace, diversity and inclusion. He is to learn that not every believer is expected to be a theologically modified clone of the other. Grace means widening the parameters, flexing the club rules, opening the doors to all manner of people.  Grace means looking beyond mere externalities and accepting that the potential to live a Christ like life, comes from within. It is about the rule that governs our hearts not the clothes we wear or the food we eat.  Grace is divine, the law had become a set of human constructs. We must as a Church always try to get to the heart of things.

But, in order to keep any institution afloat, and thriving, we do need some rules, or perhaps at least a rule. And the Church's rule is love. And, it turns out that love is an active and dynamic rule. Love

can't be put under a microscope for analysis, it can't even be hard coded into a set of rules and placed in a governance manual, the Jews, through the Pharisaic elite had tried to do this, and look where this led them. But, love can be experienced and felt and the effects of a community where love rules are not invisible, as Jesus said: 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.'

Love implies looking into the heart of the other and saying 'I know that you are beloved by God.' The twentieth century mystic summed it up like this: 'The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.'

Love, grace, diversity, affirmation, inclusion these must be our guiding rules and principles. These underpin our aspirations to be an hospitable, holy and healing community. We must desire to be  community where each and every person knows that that they are known by God, and where they can truly be themselves, for only then will everyone know that we are his disciples, Amen.