A sermon given at Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension Day, by The Reverend Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

As we gather at Choral Evensong on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension, we might ponder a little what this event means in the life of Jesus.

In the final verses of the Gospel according to St Luke, we read the words:

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;

We might ponder what this event means in the life of Jesus. And we might ponder a little what it means for us as we journey as his disciples, walking his way, guided and nurtured by him. Jesus’ life on earth seemed to be a series of arrivals and departures. We ponder his miraculous birth in the stories from Matthew and Luke’s gospels. His arrival which we hear told in the nativity stories, scenes, the carols we love and our festive gatherings, this arrival was woven with images of earth and images of heaven. The incarnation, God made flesh, heaven encountering earth, could not have been made at once more mysterious and yet more clear than in the earthy scene that is a nativity stable. Mary and Joseph and Jesus wrapped in swaddling bands in a manger, a feeding trough, are surrounded by farm animals and the shepherds who care for them. Angels sing, though, and, guided by a heavenly star, the wise men pay homage bearing gifts heavy with significance. Yes Jesus’ birth helps us glimpse the arrival of one who is sent by God.

After this we hear very little. It is almost as if the Jesus story is silent until he arrives in Galilee about thirty years old. Jesus is baptised by John, spends forty days in the wilderness and then enters the scene proclaiming “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Good News.” And his time of ministry begins. Jesus’ three years of ministry are not without their arrivals and departures. When he is present, that presence is one of deep connection with those around him. He teaches hoping always to give insight into the ways of God, the kingdom of God, hinting at these deep truths through the teasing mystery of parables and through wisdom sayings. He encounters those who are possessed by negative forces and through his calm presence frees those troubled ones and sets them free. His encounters with those who are blind or deaf or lame show his profound faith in a person in need of healing’s faith, asking those before him what they want him to do for them and bringing about healing on the wings of that person’s own faith.

But then he departs. Up into the mountains, the place of his Father, God, the place of prayer. All that he does flows these times of prayer, from his closeness to his Father who he calls “Abba”, a closeness that only Jesus knew. Yes, Jesus found his home in earth and heaven.

We have journeyed this year as we do every year through Holy Week and we have witnessed what seems to be the final human departure, Jesus’ dying on the cross. His death, like any death was so final. The departure so complete. His broken body taken down from the cross was again wrapped, this time in graveclothes, and placed in a tomb.

Early in the morning of the Third Day an empty tomb, a stone rolled away, the presence of angels sitting at the head and feet of the place where Jesus had lain hinted at an unwitnessed arrival, the resurrection, the God event, the undoing of the departure that is death.

The resurrected Jesus arrived and departed, physically present, the marks of the nails in his hands the marks of the spear in his side, and yet, he came and went in strange ways, hinting at a presence beyond the presence of an earthly life. These resurrection appearances, as they are sometimes known, took place just as long as they needed to. Took place to heal the pain of the death, to forgive sins, to bring peace, to give presence in the place of doubt. To reflect on the scriptures and help all the baffled and broken disciples know the presence of the one who gave them life and love.

And then there was the Ascension.

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;

Joy for he had been with them and joy for there was a mysterious promise of another arrival to ponder …Jesus’ final arrival and the arrival that will never be taken away. The arrival we will remember next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In the story told in the sixteenth Chapter of the Gospel according to St John, when Jesus was speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, he said:

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…

Jesus’ Spirit is the spirit of truth. It is the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus, the one with the marks of the nails in his hands and the mark of the spear in his side. The one who died and died forgiving. The one who blessed his mother with a new home and offered comfort to the soldiers dying in agony with him. The one who poured out the truth of agony and abandonment. The spirit of the crucified and the risen Jesus. And this spirit will not leave us again. This is the final arrival.

It may not always feel like it. That Jesus’ spirit is with us. We may feel all the loneliness and suffering and fear that Jesus knew on his cross … but it matters that he did know. We may wonder how to live with hope in a world where human violence has taken such a hold as the hold it has taken in Ukraine, and other parts of the world, but the spirit of peace and courage, seen in so many acts of courage and kindness in that awful war is with us. It may be that we experience great guilt and fear about the struggles of the planet that is our home and we cannot see how healing will come. But the spirit of the one who created this our earthly home, the one who was in the beginning with God at the time of creation, is with us.

And this spirit will not leave us again. This is the final arrival. The Pentecost arrival. The coming of the Holy Spirit who will accompany us and guide us into all truth. For the Spirit of Jesus is always arriving … The spirit is always arriving.