Ascension Day

  • 1 June 2022
  • Jeff Ware

May 29th, 2022, Sermon St Michael’s Vaucluse

There’s been a fair bit of comment in the last week about Anthony Albanese: his humble background, his ascent to the highest office in the land. No matter what your political preferences and tendencies are, I think it was hard not to be moved by the story. He said it himself upon being elected: “My fellow Australians, it says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister.”

It’s powerful narrative. And it brings a smile to my face that Anthony Albanese’s ascent to the Lordge has occurred in the same week that we celebrate another and a greater ascension: the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The celebration of our risen and ascended Lord.

For hundreds of years the story of Jesus’ ascent has been celebrated. Thursday was the day set aside in our Church year to commemorate this: Ascension Day, sometimes called the Feast of the Ascension, Ascension Thursday, or Holy Thursday. We don’t make a big deal of it here in Australia: no public holiday, though there is in some parts of the world. No ‘Happy Ascensiontide’ cards,  though Easter and Christmas cards are common enough. Even here at St Michael’s where we link ourselvesand express connections with Christians worldwide by following the lectionary (most of the time) and observing the different seasons in the Church year – we let Ascension Day slip on by without paying it much attention at all, and attend to it this Sunday.

So here we are, reflecting on the ascension of Jesus, and it is a very powerful narrative.

We celebrate Jesus’ descent at Christmas: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of truth and grace.’ His ascent, his arrival, his entry. Today we celebrate his departure, his exit, his ascent.

Our passage: Acts 1:2: after his suffering and death, he appeared to his disciples alive, over a period of 40 days. 1:9: after this, he was taken up to heaven. He was with them no more, not in the way he’d been present with them until then, no longer in a position to relate to them in quite the same way. He was taken up into heaven, he ascended. As  say in the Apostles’ Creed – ‘He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’

Our passage also involves a conversation that spells out what this will mean for Jesus’ disciples. Why? They ask. Are you about to restore the fortunes of Israel, is now the time you’ll establish a Jewish political kingdom? No, he says, no, no, no. Will I? No. Will you help establish the kingdom ? Yes. It’s not that I have to stay and do it all myself. No, I will ascend, and you, I trust you, to be my hands and feet and voice. You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and then Judea, Samaria, why even from one end of the world to the other. 

And then, Jesus ascended, v9, he was taken up to heaven. And this brings to an end Luke’s account of all the things that Jesus began to say and do, and now the book of Acts will go on to record all that Jesus continued to say and do, through his apostles, as they were enabled by the Holy Spirit. And that theme we will take up next week on Pentecost Sunday.

One group of people who did celebrate Ascension Day on Thursday was a group of Heads of Independent Schools, Heads of Anglican Schools. They meet with the Archbishop every year on this particular day. It’s a very appropriate time to meet. Yes, they are Heads, but they recognise their accountability to one another, to their communities and boards, to the Archbishop, and on this day – to the ascended Lord.

I well remember the words of one such Head, Dr Ruth Shatford, Principal of Tara and the 1980s and 90s. She said: ‘I feel that I do my best work when in my prayers I say: ‘Lord, I perceive myself as your deputy in this place. You’re the Head, and I’m your willing pair of hands, and your willing mind, and I’m prepared to do things, but I need you to give me the discernment and the direction I need.” I also find that it takes away a lot of the strain and stress, because it reminds me that the Lord has probably got the school even more on his heart than I have on mine.’

I was saddened during the week to hear of the death of Caroline Jones, the journalist, reporter, ABC presenter, aged just 84. From ‘This Day Tonight’ to ‘Australian Story’, for the best part of 50 years she was part and parcel of Australian broadcasting: respected, intelligent, classy, authentic. I especially appreciated listening to ‘The Search for Meaning’ in the early 1990s. I have listened to and read a number of things she did in the last few days, as my way of paying tribute to her including an interview where she spoke about her Christian faith in her mid sixties:

‘What I believe in, if I believe in anything, is a good story, the story of Jesus Christ rings true to me. He grew up in a modest family, working-class in a little country town and the place occupied by a foreign power. He made friends across the whole spectrum of the society, but he had a special want for the poor, for women, for the homeless, for the prostitutes, for the mentally ill, the disabled, you know the people on the edge of society. And he went about saying that the way to live was by loving God and loving each other. And what did he get for it? The betrayal of a friend, and then the mob turned on him and the leaders of his day brought about his downfall. He was put to a terrible death. 

It rings true to our human life. You hear people say of someone they loved who died, ‘It’s so unfair, he was a wonderful man, he didn’t deserve that’, and that’s right, that’s how it happens in life. I have found deep companionship for my own grief in the remembrance of Jesus Christ going through his suffering and his death. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story, you know. Tradition has it, and our belief as Christians would be that he rose to new life and that life has inspired people to live lives of love and service for over 2,000 years.”

Caroline Jones: to God’s mercy and grace we commend her.

‘That life’ – earthbound for a season, crucified, risen, now ascended, exalted, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  ‘That life’ – has inspired people to follow in his path and to live lives of love and service for over 2,000 years.

In a moment, we will take bread and wine. It’s a practice that is loaded, thick, with meaning and significance. One way to understand it is that we are taking those elements into ourselves. We don’t just observe or hold them. We take and eat, take and drink, that we might absorb Christ’s life into our life, that his mind might be in us, that we might be his hands and feet and voice, that he might live through us, as we seek to live lives of ‘love and service’ like those who have gone before us.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is ascended. And we are his witnesses, our task is to follow in and show forth his way – in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, in Vaucluse, Sydney, Australia – even to the very ends of the earth. Amen.

Latest Sermons