Transformation: A sermon for the Eucharist on the 7th Sunday of Easter, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 16 May 2021 by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar. (Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; John 17: 6-19)
Last Thursday was of course Ascension Day and when I worshipped at a church in South London in my twenties it was the Patronal Festival. It was a church which shaped me and encouraged my vocation. It was a high church and so there was a chance for much smells and bells. I love this kind of celebration; it is in my DNA, and for the great festival of Ascension it is right and proper that we should be in the clouds.
Many people let Ascension Day pass them by and yet it is the fourth most important day of the Christian year yet because it never occurs on a Sunday for some it is just not on their radar. This is a pity because it truly is an important day and to use a modern phrase it gives us closure on the events of Easter. Ascension Day also provides us with a bridge between the events of the past and the events of the future. The past as in Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to the disciples and the future as in Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday and the life of the early church which follows.
Above all Ascension is about transformation. Transformation needed to begin with the disciples who were still very firmly in the mind set of their culture and tradition. They had to reassess their futures. What would happen to them now Jesus was no longer a physical presence with them? They may have thought that they would return to Galilee and to their former lives as fishermen, farm workers and tax collectors. Jesus has much bigger plans for them – ‘you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ he says– some job description! Jesus gave his disciples the responsibility of establishing the kingdom of God on earth, even to those who were at the fringes of society. There was no love lost as we know between the Jews and the Samaritans and the rest of the world – the Gentiles, again this was a major shift in the disciples’ thinking. Of course it did not remain the responsibility of the disciples. We are their heirs and Jesus’ commission to them applies just as much to us. We need to take the gospel of our Lord to those who are on the margins of our society today; those who will not hear the word of God unless we speak it to them, unless we show God’s love in action.
The disciples were transformed by the experience on the mountain. Jesus had promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit which would empower them for the work he had just given to them. In the days in Jerusalem as they waited, and they of course had no idea how long they would be waiting, they began a ministry of prayer as a group which included Mary the mother of Jesus and the women who followed Jesus. Our gospel reading comes from an intense period of prayer after the Last Supper. Jesus indicates a change in the tone of his farewell address by lifting his eyes to heaven, adopting the stance of prayer and by speaking with an intimacy to God. He addresses him as ‘Father’, as he prays for himself and for his disciples that they might understand the events which are about to unfold. In the following chapter Jesus left the upper room and walked across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. In this prayer the intimate union between the Son and the Father is revealed. A union which was experienced in this world yet transcends time and space. This prayer also reveals that the community of Jesus’ followers is also envisaged as being able to share in this same intimate union while it carries on its mission in the world. This is perhaps what the disciples may have reflected on after the Ascension – Jesus has gone from them but they can still share in that relationship with him, through prayer and fellowship. 2000 years on we continue to share in that relationship through prayer, worship and fellowship with one another.
This past year the church has had to learn the lesson of transformation. How could we transform what had become so regular to us in our worship to something that would meet the needs of those now at home? How could we transform our natural way of pastoral care by meeting with those who were in need to something on the end of the telephone? God was still expecting us to minster even though traditional means of doing so were not available to us. The challenge now is to continue with the that transformation so that we are open to new ways of doing church and ministry which reaches out to those who have felt side lined by the church or anxious or who for various reasons have lost touch with the church.
Back to Ascension and its celebration; we need the power of the Ascension in our church, our world and our lives, to transform us into the people God called us to be. Too often we can be found staring into space instead of looking into the face of our Lord, and listening to his voice. God promises to make all things new. We are free to help or hinder. At the Eucharist we come despite ourselves and we are offered forgiveness, and a place at his table, that we may sit and eat and be sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory. God offers us all that: we must respond positively; we have no other choice. Amen