SERMON for ASCENSION SUNDAY
24 May 2009
Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
By Sharyn Hall
The Ascension of Jesus was the conclusion of a tumultuous time for his disciples. The time began with the joyful entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. It seemed joyful but the disciples closest to Jesus were uncertain and uneasy. They knew that Jerusalem was a dangerous place with soldiers everywhere, and powerful religious leaders in conflict with the people.
The disciples had reason to be anxious, because Jesus was arrested, falsely condemned to death and executed. His followers scattered in sorrow and disillusionment. Was Jesus really the Messiah? How could God’s Messiah suffer such an excruciating death?
Three days later the tomb was empty. Some of the disciples saw the empty tomb, but it seemed too fantastic to believe that Jesus was alive. The risen Jesus appeared to many people, yet they were left with a feeling of bewilderment. When the disciples were with the risen Jesus, they had no doubt that it was Jesus, but in their minds questions lingered. How could Jesus be alive again, but not in the same body? Too much was a mystery.
In our readings from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke today, the disciples are talking with Jesus face to face, and yet in their hearts, they are still wondering. For the last time, Jesus explained to them why he had to suffer and die and rise again. Then he ascended into a heavenly cloud. He truly was gone. It is not surprising that they stood transfixed, staring up to heaven. So much had happened in about fifty days. They had experienced such dramatic events, extreme emotions, and what must have seemed supernatural phenomena. What was real? What was certain? And now, Jesus truly was gone.
Perhaps we can imagine how the disciples felt. We focus on Jesus through the events of Holy Week and his appearances to the disciples after his resurrection, but what were the people around him experiencing? How would their feelings impact their faith? This whole period was a time of uncertainty, a time when their faith was shaken. We understand what it is to live in times of uncertainty. Uncertainty can be personal when we face illness or sorrow or cruelty. Uncertainty in our world today takes many forms – natural disasters, the threat of war and the pace of change. We often live with uncertainty in our lives. What does that do to our faith in God and our belief in Jesus?
Faith in God recently has been an open topic for debate. Over the last couple of years, books and articles, which question or deny the existence of God have received a great deal of attention. ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is one example. A few months ago, a controversy erupted in Britain over signs on buses which read, ‘There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy life.’ The bus campaign quickly spread to other countries, including our own, but have we seen them lately?
Recently when I was in England, there was a front page headline in the London Times declaring, ‘Spread the Word, God is back.’ In a very long article, the authors argue that Christianity is not only enduring, but also growing, in many areas of the world. In developing countries, Christianity is spreading because of missionaries from evangelical branches of the church. In countries, which are primarily of a different faith, Christianity is gaining strength despite being in the minority. In Europe and North America, Christianity faces opposition from secularism and atheism, but still has strength.
The authors of this article in the Times are publishing a book entitled, ‘God is back: How a global revival of faith is changing the world.’ This is only one perspective of global Christianity, which is not shared or welcomed by everyone. A few days later, a second article appeared in the London Times with the headline, ‘Rumours of God’s return are greatly exaggerated.’ This second article argues that growth in Christianity is only in pockets around the world. What has changed is that pluralism, a variety of faiths spreading worldwide, has become the norm, not the exception.
What we understood as the dominant religion of a society is changing. In Canada, we are experiencing this transformation of our society. How do we cope with challenges to our faith and uncertainty in our lives? We could declare ourselves non-believers and concentrate on our own view of the world. We could go on a restless search for meaning, moving from one spiritual quest to another. Or we could try to live with the uncertainty by searching deeper in our own faith for greater understanding and greater trust in God’s enduring love for God’s creation. There are rarely easy answers to the realities of human life. In the mystery of faith, there are often good questions, which have no answers at all.
Perhaps the first disciples of Jesus would recognize the uncertainty and insecurity of our world. They would recognize the constant tensions between conflicting and powerful religious forces. They would understand what it means to have their faith in God tested by fear and doubt and sorrow. We can gain inspiration from their example. They went forward with faith in the mission of Jesus, even when tumultuous events left them with an uncertain future. We too live in a time ,which seems tumultuous and uncertain, so it is up to us to cope with the reality we have, by accepting the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by seeking insight in the Way of Jesus, and by trusting that God’s love can strengthen our hearts to endure all things.
Thanks be to God