An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Look around you!

A sermon by Alison Sampson on Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53
(Preached at Christ Church South Yarra during an Ecumenical service for the Feast of the Ascension)

There he was, living and walking and eating among us. There he was, hanging on a cross. And there he was, among us once again and explaining the scriptures and breaking bread. And then he simply… disappeared.

Again and again people say that God is absent. A father is dying; his son is in primary school: where is God? A longed-for baby is stillborn: where is God? Even in our wealthy suburbs, children live in desperate poverty: where is God? Overseas, girls are kidnapped and brutally raped; young boys are pushed into military service; widows’ houses are bombed; farmers are pushed off their land; and good soil is turned to dust. And where, where is God?

Tonight we remember the Ascension, that time when the Risen Christ in the form of Jesus left his disciples once and for all. So where is God? Well, it seems that God has left the building; and we are left holding nothing.

And we are left holding nothing because, more than two thousand years after the life of the One who showed us the power of sacrificial love, many of us are still waiting for a god in a flaming chariot to come charging down from the sun and fix everything. And so we stand with our hands shading our eyes, peering towards the sky, and we wait.

And while we wait, the world goes to pieces around us. The poor are still poor; widows are still lonely; refugees are still locked up and refused a place to call home. Benefits are cut and emergency relief is slashed. Journalists are compromised and the powerful feed on the fat of the land while children go to bed hungry. Countries wage wars; seas rise; forests are cleared, and we wait. While we look to the sky seeking a god who will save us, our church buildings crumble and our numbers dwindle and our congregations age, and every now and then we glance around and wonder vaguely where all the people are. And we wait.

There’s nothing strange about this behaviour. People have been waiting for a messiah for thousands of years; even the first disciples stood looking up to heaven. We’re in good company.

And yet to stand and wait and keep on waiting is not Christian. We enact the Christian journey through the liturgical year, and this gazing at the sky is one tiny step in the journey – and we do it living in a post-Ascension, post-Pentecost age. And so we know a thing or two.

For example, we know that many people these days respect the man Jesus. People find him inspiring. They describe him as gentle, witty, wise, loving, compassionate, generous, and forgiving. A man they can respect.

We also know what many people think about the church. When many people talk about their experiences with churches or church-goers, they often use other words. Words like judgmental, self-righteous, narrow-minded, harsh, prejudiced, and uptight.

The first disciples were tremendously lucky. Not only did they meet the man Jesus; they weren’t bound by the institution of the Church. They didn’t have to uphold tradition and doctrine and hierarchies and buildings and everything else that goes with the idea of the Church; they were inventing it as they went along. They took a history of faith and memories of the person they had known, and stories about the Risen One they had encountered, and they told all these stories and sang praises, and somehow all the history and stories and songs were whizzed around in a metaphysical blender, until they poured out love into the world. While the powers and principalities raged around them, they were working out how to love the world and, as those of us who follow the lectionary have heard over the last few weeks, they were tremendously powerful, and God added daily to their numbers.

But they weren’t made powerful by standing on a hillside, peering up into the sky, and waiting for the messiah. The Risen One told them to return to Jerusalem and wait until they were clothed in the Holy Spirit; and so in obedience they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and spent time in the temple blessing God. And then, as we will celebrate in a few weeks, the Holy Spirit came upon them and the world was filled, absolutely filled, with an explosion of the presence of God.

This presence was not a sun-god in golden robes. It was God poured out in us and through us and out into the world in the form of love. For two thousand years, the Church, that fraught institution, has been the body of Christ in the world, charged with living out the presence of God. And so let us think again about the ways so many people perceive the Church. Judgemental. Uptight. Prejudiced. Fearful. Narrow-minded. Anxious. And I wonder.

There is no doubt that we are frail. We are all human. We all get scared, and angry, and anxious. When we gather in groups, we can intensify this, and a group of scared angry anxious people is a terrible thing, a harsh judgement or a hateful explosion just waiting to happen.

But harsh judgements and hateful explosions describe the behaviour of people who are defensive, people who are hurt, people who believe they have been abandoned. They are the characteristics of lonely people who are aching with the pain of absence. And although we heard tonight that the Risen One ascended into heaven, we know that this is not the end of the story. We know Pentecost, and we know that we are not abandoned. God is with us, right here, right now.

And so we don’t need to keep on waiting endlessly for the messiah to return. Instead, once we pray together, and rejoice, and sing, we too are filled with Holy Spirit. And then we can do something much more interesting than shading our eyes and looking to the sky and feeling abandoned: instead, together, as the body of Christ, we can live the presence of God.

And since God is love, we have one job, and one job only: to live in love and peace with each other, and everybody else. For that is our task: to be the proof that God is love, and that God loves the whole world. Not just the people in this building; not just the people in our respective congregations; not just those who have signed onto our confessions of faith. God loves everyone, already, just the way they are. And it is our job to show that love, and to pour it out through the whole world.

As members of the body of Christ, love is our purpose; it is the core of our identity. We are not abandoned, not fearful, not anxious. We are not to be judgemental or narrow-minded, self-righteous or uptight. For we make ourselves in the image of our god, and our god is gentle and wise, witty and loving, generous, forgiving, compassionate and kind.

During this season, these are things to ponder. And like the first disciples, while we ponder we must not wait with our eyes to the heavens. We must turn our gaze earthwards. We must leave the hilltop and return to our training ground, the Church, where we can gather together and sing and pray and listen for the Word. For it is in communities of faith that we learn to turn our eyes away from the empty skies and to see, really see, other people. It is in communities of faith that we are strengthened and equipped. And it is in communities of faith that we will see glimpses of the One we long for. For when we worship and work and pray together, and pay attention, “[e]very now and then, someone will say something that sounds a bit like him; every now and then, someone will do something that looks a bit like him”* and we will know that we are not alone.

Of course, there will be times, many times, in our lives that it will be hard to sense the presence of God. There will be times, many times, when our courage will fail and we will wonder again if God is absent. And yet we know that God is love – it is the faith in which we stand – and so we know, that as long as love is here, then God is in the house.

So why do you stand looking up to heaven? Just look around you, brothers and sisters! Just look around! Ω

*Quoted from Barbara Brown Taylor (1998) ‘The day we were left behind’. Christianity Today. Accessed 3 May 2015. Her thinking influenced this sermon, and the final paragraph paraphrases her final paragraph. This sermon was also influenced by Steve Chalke (2006) Intelligent Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).


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