Sunday After Ascension
Readings: Acts 1. 15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5. 9-13; John 17. 6-19 (view all)
One of the most sacred tasks in priestly ministry is to minister to those who are close to death. I can still remember the first time I was asked to visit someone, a lady, who knew she only had a few more days to live. She was there in bed, with her daughter gathered in close to her, and there was a profound sense of love between them, but also the profound sense of God’s love enfolding us as we prayed together, as we shared comforting words of scripture and as she was anointed with oil.
In our gospel reading this morning, unique to John’s gospel, we are presented with Jesus’ final prayer, his final wishes, for the Church and for his disciples. So what can we learn from Jesus’ prayer for us, to enable us to live out our calling as his disciples?
The entire prayer, probably a later meditation written by John rather than a word-for-word transcription, is framed by Jesus’ vocation to share with the world his gift of abundant life. This calling, to make God’s name known to those gifted by the Father in Jesus’ care, is to draw all into the incredible mutual love and oneness of the Father and the Son.
As Jesus prepares to leave them in order to embrace his ultimate vocation at the cross, he entrusts his disciples, and the whole Church to come, into the care of the Father in order that God might enable them to continue the mission which Jesus himself began. And he asks for protection, knowing that if we are to truly live out our calling it will mean living in a very different way to the world around us.
To continue his work, Jesus knows that we will need to pioneer an entirely new, Christ-centred way of life, which will be distinctively different to the way of the world around us. We will need to serve a world in which we don’t belong, while at the same time remembering our citizenship in heaven, and express God’s love to those who may well often respond with hostility and rejection, in the same way they responded to Jesus himself.
This calling is not something to be taken lightly, but carefully and intentionally — just as the eleven are deliberate and intentional in the way they appoint a new apostle to prepare them to continue Jesus’ kingdom work in our reading from the beginning of Acts.
However, while we should not take lightly the distinctive way of life that Jesus calls us to lead — it is no more and no less than the giving of our entire lives for his kingdom — we should not be downtrodden or downhearted, because it is this way — the way of Jesus, the way of the cross — that is the very route to fulfilment and lasting joy. As our reading from John’s first epistle affirms:
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
These sentiments are echoed by the vibrant image in the first Psalm, that the one who lives according to God’s plans is:
Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; whatever they do, it shall prosper.
I wonder, as we gather this morning: Will we take seriously Jesus’ calling to a distinctive way of life which glorifies him? Will we choose to serve the communities in which he has placed us, choosing to extend hospitality, love and care, even when those around us choose to reject or abuse it?
How can we live out the distinctive way of Jesus, in order to embrace the abundant life he longs for us to discover and abide in?
There is a wonderful letter, which I also quoted at our Ascension service this Thursday, written very early in the history of the Church. We don’t know who it was written by, but it is known by the name of the person it is addressed to: The Letter to Diognetus. The author writes this of the early Christians:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified…
To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.
Jesus invites us, his body on earth, to continue his work of love. May we embrace his call this morning, through the gift of the Spirit, that his joy might be made complete in us.
O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.