(June 1, 2014)
(Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 5; John 17:1-11)
Today we meet at the beginning of Reconciliation Week.
I have had the privileged over the years of interacting on a number of levels with the first people of this land: through the work of a number of churches and schools; through the Reverend Lindsay McDowell and his vision for ‘A National Act of Recognition’, and; through my recent involvement with the Indigenous and Torres Straight Islander Bible College in Cairns, Wontulp Bi-Buya.
Each of these experiences have left me filled with admiration for the our Indigenous people. Many of them are both proud of their heritage and live with profound brokenness. I always feel blessed to meet them.
Reconciliation Week is our annual reminder that not all is well with the past, the present, nor, it would seem, with the future of our nation. Our indigenous populations continue to face challenges the rest of us can barely comprehend.
Today we also meet on the Sunday after Ascension Day. It would seem we must somehow hold these two remembrances together.
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven recounts Jesus’ final words and promises, his disappearing into the sky, the stunned disciples, and finally, those appearing angels. We can easily be left wondering what to do with such a strange, otherworldly account.
Yet, this is, perhaps, the crowning moment in the great story the gospels tell. Everything leads to this point and indeed everything – including our gathering this morning – grows from it.
The Ascension of Jesus rightly sits at the beginning of the book we have called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. It is the hinge event between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Spirit of God let loose in our world. Essentially, the Ascension, without quite ushering us into the throne room of heaven, represents the crowning, or glorifying of Jesus. It is the inauguration of the one worthy of being enthroned alongside the Father.
The crucified and risen Jesus is King of Heaven.
The gospels, according to N T Wright, are the story, the account, the process, of how God became King once more of all that is. He writes: ‘…the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king on earth as in heaven.’
Surely we can never say the Lord’s prayer the same way again. To pray ‘your kingdom come’ is to join with the core purpose of Jesus’ coming among us: the reign of heaven – that place where all is right – on earth – that place where so much is wrong.
And you and I are invited to join with all heaven in the ushering in of this Kingdom on earth. I find it little short of breathtaking.
Our Gospel reading follows the disciple’s awakening to who Jesus really is: the one from God.
Jesus prays in response to this insight. It is a conversation, between Jesus and the Father that is deliberately performed before the disciples. (Jesus is praying one of those uncomfortable prayers where the listener suspects they are supposed to overhear and benefit!)
And his words offer a glimpse into the heavenly role he will soon undertake in ‘his glory’: praying before God for our growth in the faith. The Ascension story, quite simply, is an extension of what the disciples see here. It is Jesus taking his original and rightful place communing with God on our behalf.
But this is not simply a going. It also anticipates a coming. The angels message: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way you saw him go into heaven’.
And so the disciples obediently devote themselves to prayer. It is the very response that ushers in the promised power of Pentecost.
It would seem that this allowing, this inviting, heaven to permeate earth became something of an all embracing vision for the first Christians. Years later, Peter writes with a seeming inability to forget the hope these experiences instilled. He truly ‘shares in the glory to be revealed’. He is living the hope of heaven.
And he expects the same from his readers.
Peter urges leaders to ‘tend the flock’ trusting that ‘when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away’. He also writes to the community more generally to live humbly, to cast their cares and concerns on Christ, to be disciplined in the face of their adversary, the Devil.
Why? Because the ‘God of all grace’ has ‘called’ them ‘to his eternal glory’. He believes all the power of heaven is seeking to ‘restore, support, strengthen, and establish’ them in their faith.
So how might all this inform our moving through Reconciliation Week?
Surely ‘reconciliation’ and indeed, the more basic call to ‘recognition’ of past and present injustices are key issues for those who pray ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. The Ascension is not an opportunity to deny injustice – a shallow insistence that ‘all is well for our God reigns in heaven’.
It is, rather, a call to pray for, understand, and work towards a more accurate reflection on earth of what we know of heaven. After all, this is what the enthroned Jesus is praying for.
The Bible’s descriptions of God’s dwelling place are less about streets of gold than about a realm where all is right, where justice is served, and where sin is no longer hidden or tolerated. But most importantly it is the place where Jesus – that perfect representation of God’s heart – reigns above all and alongside God.
We read about this God in today’s psalm: ‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows…God settles the solitary in a home, he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.’ It would seem heaven’s goals, and prayers, are restorative.
And the Ascension insists that we are called to pray to, wait for, and work alongside this restorative God. It may be as simple as attending one of the events this week or praying for the work of God among the our first peoples.
Who knows what heaven may do with such seemingly small steps?
I leave you with a simple question: What would it look like if we were to consider our indigenous brothers and sisters in light of the coming reign of one so determined to make all things right?