Ascension Sunday

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Readings Acts 16: 16 – 34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22: 12 – 22 & John 17: 20 – 26

Writing in an impressive collection of essays published in 2012 on the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw says, “If we only ever express in worship those things that we already believe, how will we ever be led to those things that we do not yet believe?” (“Liturgical Development” in Comfortable Words, edited by Stephen Platten and Christopher Woods, SCM Press, 2012).

I’d like to use that idea to explore today’s readings – from Acts 16, Revelation 22 and John 17, keeping Psalm 97 in mind too. Every Sunday since Easter Day the first reading has come from the Book of Acts, the 2nd from the Revelation to St John the Divine, and the 3rd from the Gospel of John. Where Revelation is clearly written as Apocalyptic, that form of literature which flourishes when times are tough and persecution of believers rampant, Acts, as its author St Luke tells us, is an attempt to write ‘an orderly account’ of the ‘events that have been fulfilled among us.’ (Luke 1: 1 & 3) Specifically Luke attempts to give his readers an account of the progression of the fledgling belief that will eventually come to be known as Christianity. Both books tell of difficult times.

Revelation is written to encourage those suffering persecution for their faith, belief in, and worship of, Jesus Christ. Like parts of Psalm 97 it offers a confident assertion that despite what is happening now – the ridicule, the singling out, the suffering, the unemployment and, at its extreme, the execution of people of faith – despite this, God is in charge and the risen and ascended Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. This is the message of the Ascension, captured in the centre-piece of the reredos in front of you. Christ is seated in glory, resplendent in gleaming robes, triumphant even over death. It’s interesting to note the timing of the reredos. It was installed in the very early 1900s, at the end of the then longest reigning British monarch, when so much of the world was painted red, part of the great British Empire. Here in Adelaide, we not only believed that, but lived it – and sent our sons, and then daughters, to fight for the cause.

At the very end of the Book of Revelation we read the words of today’s reading. It’s something of a summary chapter of the whole book. Jesus is identified as the Alpha and Omega (symbols written on the Paschal or Easter Candle which continues to burn at all services throughout the Easter season). We hear mention of the tree of life and the living water, both taking us back to that idyllic picture painted in Genesis of Paradise. The link with the great King David is made – Jesus is a descendent, the bright morning star. And, rather oddly to us these days, there is a clear distinction between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ – the ‘dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters’ of verse 15. The book ends with that great cry of longing by an oppressed people, “Maranatha, come Lord, come.” It is the cry of any and every oppressed people, those enslaved by others, those whose lives and countries are torn apart by war not of their making. Come Lord, save us. It is the cry uttered by the People of Israel which the God of Moses heard all those centuries ago, and around whose response of saving love, the history of the Jewish people is fashioned.

The Book of Acts is different, for it marks the start of something new. It begins with an ending as Jesus of Nazareth, freshly risen from the grave following the crucifixion, leaves the bewildered disciples in a cloud of glory. There was great wisdom in deciding to hang the rood, that great cross with the figures of Jesus, Mary and the beloved disciple, above us and in front of the reredos with its focus on Ascension. It’s impossible to walk into this Cathedral and not notice it – so in your face is it. And it is interesting to me that that piece of artwork went up following a time of great suffering – the 2nd Word War; just as the Pope window, with its stained glass of the twisted tortured body of Christ on the cross, was erected following what was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

Our readings from Acts throughout the Easter season have taken us on something of a whirl-wind journey through the early church. True to his command, Jesus’s disciples, beginning in Jerusalem, took their Gospel message to the ends of the world. Acts ends with St Paul in Rome – the greatest city of his day.

Along the way these early Christians, at first called simply ‘followers’ of the way of Jesus Christ, had to cope with all sorts of challenges and opportunities. Next week we will hear of the first challenge when, on the Day of Pentecost, thousands of people, speaking a multitude of languages, flocked to hear more, to be baptised and to become members of the church. In the context of the Bible as a whole that great babble of voices and peoples, all hearing the Good News in their own tongue, is an undoing, a reversal, of the tragedy of Babel. There God gave the different languages to cause confusion and mayhem; here God offers the Spirit which interprets different languages so that a common message is heard. About 12 years ago I had the privilege of attending a Global Christian Forum meeting in Hong Kong as the Christian representative from New Zealand. Christians from across the spectrum of Christian expression gathered to tell and listen to each other’s stories. We were a handful of Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics, with far more from the various expressions of Asian Pentecostalism, and a good number of the different Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. Jesus’s prayer for unity in today’s Gospel reading from John was very evident in this gathering as we worshipped using different formats, discovering a common identity in Christ.

But the early church had challenges other than language. Very soon there was the challenge of culture, then early persecution by zealous Jews, fearful that their faith was being undermined and corrupted. Non-Jews, the so-called Gentiles, flocked to the Church, drawn by the example of love for each other, and a place in the scheme of things for all. What to do with these non-Jews? What about women? What happens when Christians fall out with each other – part of which story we will read tonight? Even the great Paul had disagreements and parted company with Barnabas, the man who had sought him out in his darkest hour. Today’s reading offers us some other challenges.

Paul gets increasingly irritated with a slave girl and her utterances. In the language of the day she had a ‘spirit of divination’, in that of the King James Bible she was possessed of a ‘demon’. Before we simply dismiss this idea as something that ignorant people of another age believed of people with psychological problems, we should note what the spirit is saying through the girl. As in the Gospels, the spirt or demon is able to identify who God is – the Most High. The girl herself is a slave twice over – first to her owners, shamelessly exploiting her malady, and secondly to the ‘spirit’, whatever that means.

There is another spirit at work in the story; one we see, sadly, too often in our own day: that is, the spirit of the crowd, whipped up by the owners of the girl. Like the crowd of Good Friday baying for Jesus’s blood, the crowd in Philippi bays for the blood of Paul and Silas. They too prevail and the two itinerant preachers find themselves in gaol. In some striking parallels with the death of Jesus, an earthquake rips the prison apart setting free the prisoners. Here is another beginning of a church – as the gaoler with his whole family, is baptised on the spot.

Before we leave this intriguing story of the slave-girl and her spirit, let’s think a little about the ‘spirits’ or ‘demons’ at work in our day. This week a photo has gone viral of a 5 foot 3 inch tall Afro-Swedish woman standing alone to confront a mob of some 300 ultra-right-wing extremists. ( ) Despite the ugly rhetoric, undeniably racist and xenophobic, London has a new mayor, Sadiq Khan, a Muslim. “I am so proud that London has today chosen hope over fear,” he said following his election. In a way it is Dick Whittington all over again, and demonstrates the power of genuine democracy. As we have come to realise in our own congregation, demonising those we don’t know is easy. It is much more difficult to want to send refugees and asylum seekers back when they have a name, a face and a place in our midst. Nor is it good enough to lay the blame on those who care sufficiently for others when despair, brought on by successive government policies driven by vote-seeking, ends in self-immolation.

To end, let us return to the Psalm, number 97. It is a psalm of invitation – an invitation to see who really holds the power in the world. Yes, as we found in the Book of Revelation, the rulers of this world seem to have the power. But in the greater scheme of things the mighty empires of this world, whether Roman, British, Soviet or any other, have fallen and will fall. There’s a lesson there as Australia gears up for the polls. Righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne. It would be hard to get much better than that.

What, if anything, does all this have to do with Paul Bradshaw’s words, “If we only ever express in worship those things that we already believe, how will we ever be led to those things that we do not yet believe?” Perhaps nothing! Perhaps the challenge to seek for other ways – to seriously look to be led to those things that we do not yet believe and live!