Text: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, as we celebrate the Ascension, we see an important shift for those who follow Jesus from being turned inward, focusing on their common life and learning at Jesus’ feet, to begin to look outward to the needs of the world.
In Luke’s two books, his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles, he describes the work of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit as part of a continuum of God’s involvement and engagement with our world.
The Book of Luke begins in the temple in Jerusalem. The gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies. It is there that the angel Gabriel appears with the news of the coming of Jesus’ forerunner: John the Baptist.
The Gospel of Luke will then continually return to the temple: for Jesus’ naming, and for his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple. Finally the gospel ends with the final line verses, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”
The temple has a gravitational pull in Luke’s Gospel, everything is always pulled back to that centre. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then goes outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not to the ends of the earth, he will reach to Rome and beyond through the ministry and testimony of Paul and the other Apostles and Early Disciples.
In Luke, everything was focused inwardly on building up the group. In Acts, that group is shot out from the centre point. Pentecost will come like a bomb going off, which sends out a creative rather than destructive force. Ascension Day is the seam that holds those two narratives together. This is where the inward focused turned and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus began.
In the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham there is an Ascension Chapel, and above the altar there is an image, a sculpture perhaps embedded in the roof: you can just see the feet of Jesus disappearing through the clouds. You know it’s Jesus, because the feet are pierced. I love that chapel and made a point of taking the children on the children’s pilgrimage to see that, not least because it amuses me, but also to make the point that after the Ascension, we cannot simply continue staring into space at the place to where he has gone, we need to change our focus onto what he wants us to become.
With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples became apostles. They stopped looking for Jesus here and there, and they began to pray for the Holy Spirit who would be with them always. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.
Change focus. Change from looking inward into looking outward. What would it take for us to change our focus? A church does not exist for its own sake, but as a resource for the people of God to engage Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. Although we strive to create a beautiful sacred space, what is more important is that we bring about the encounter between Christ and this community, and that our fellowship, our witness, our very lives are turned outwards to bring Christ into contact with the people in this area who so very deeply need to know the love of Christ.
We are the body of Christ. The word “member” should probably not even be used to describe aligning oneself with a given congregation. We are not to be members of a club, exclusive or otherwise, as if Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were for the purpose of starting a new institution. The institution of the church exists to further God’s mission – reconciling the world to God. We are missionaries working on the front lines of the mission of the church, which is what we each encounter everywhere we go.
This need to turn outward is so crucial, that perhaps at the end of Mass, someone should stand and take the role of the two men robed in white who said, “Men [and presumably women of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” These words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples’ gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission.
After that push, the apostles would be prepared when the Holy Spirit came ten days later on Pentecost to begin the work of taking the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
In the dismissal at the Mass, we have such a moment. The deacon or priest says, “Alleluia. Go in the peace of Christ” or similar words that focus us outwardly. This is no idle moment. This is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar – that point where we last saw the Lord. The dismissal is a reminder as our Service of Mass is, the service of the Lord in Mission is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.
This is the transformation of Ascension Day. The tide is turning. Before many minutes pass, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Flow forth from this place to begin to fulfil that mission anew. This is the day for turning our eyes outward. This is the day for changing our focus to see Christ in the world anew. And having seen, we can begin anew to love and serve the Lord.