May 24, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23

Today is Ascension Sunday, the day that the church celebrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven. After Jesus had died on a cross and been buried in a tomb, we believe that God raised him from death, and he appeared to many of his friends and followers. But the risen Jesus did not just keep hanging around with the followers of his way. The last chapter of Luke’s Gospel and the first chapter of the book of Acts tell the story of his ascension into heaven.

He spoke a few final words to his friends, and then he was gone… up into the sky, into heaven, carried away by a cloud. That’s the way the story’s author describes Jesus’ departure. We may not want to take the description literally today, but we get the point that the early Christian community wanted to convey: Jesus was no longer physically present among them, but they did not believe that he was dead and gone, rotting in his grave. They believed that he was gone to be with God, seated at God’s right hand (like a prince beside a king) and that he would rule the world with all power and authority forever and ever.

We hear the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians on Ascension Sunday too, because in it Paul emphasizes very strongly that Christ lives in heaven with God, where he rules over all of creation with great power and might, far greater than any other power or authority.

But when I first started to look at and study this passage, it wasn’t the power of Christ that I noticed. The first thing that struck me in the text was that Paul was praying that the Ephesian Christians would have HOPE — that they would know the HOPE to which Christ had called them.

HOPE. It makes me think of Barack Obama who used the word hope an awful lot when was rallying American voters to give him a chance as President of the United States. And many of them did place their trust and their hope in him — that he, with like-minded people, would be able to lead their nation into a time of greater justice, equality, and opportunity for all. Whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen, I suppose, but it is clear that his leadership has given many people hope once again.

Hope is an amazing gift. Hope is what keeps us going when all the odds seem to be stacked against us. Hope gives the person with cancer the will to keep on fighting it. Hope gives the foster parent the encouragement to keep taking in children, despite the challenges. Hope strengthens the struggling student to keep on working after a poor grade. Hope keeps partners together to work on their relationship, even when they have hurt and disappointed each other many times. Hope empowers those who care about the environment to keep trying to save our planet, despite reports that it may be too late. And hope is the reason why many of us Christians keep on this journey that we have begun in relationship with God through Christ.

There are versions of the Christian Gospel that proclaim (or at least imply) that when you become a Christian, everything in your life will be just great. You will be saved. You will feel happy. Some of them even sell the idea that you’ll be rich and prosperous once God is on your side. I don’t think that has been the experience of most of us here. In fact, some might say that the decision to follow the way of Jesus has brought challenges and complications into their lives.

The way of Jesus has called us to use our time differently — to worship, to pray, to spend time in serving others… and our friends and families haven’t always understood that. The way of Jesus has invited us to become more generous people… with our money, our time, and our gifts. We haven’t become richer, at least not in financial terms. And the way of Jesus has not always led us to happiness. We’ve spent more time with people who are suffering, and we’ve paid attention to those on the margins who are poor or oppressed or excluded. We’ve learned that the way of Jesus is not always happy, and rarely is it easy. But the gift that we have been given is HOPE.

Yesterday I was visiting with a long-time member of our congregation who has not been able to attend church for many years. She has a chronic illness that keeps here home-bound, and she recently had to move into a nursing home. We read the Ephesians passage together, and I told her that I was planning to preach about hope today. I wondered aloud how it is that our Christian faith gives us hope. And she said, “Well, it definitely does. I don’t know how other people manage without that hope. My hope in Christ is the only thing that keeps me going.”

I’ve spoken to quite a few Christians at the end of their lives, and I’ve so often been encouraged by the hope that they have in God. From their death beds, I’ve heard so many say, “I’m at peace. I trust God. I’m not worried about what will happen to me when I die. I’m in God’s hands.”

I think that kind of hope is a part of what Paul was talking about. In the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we see God’s great power at work. Though death appears to be the end of things for us, we can see in the story of Jesus that death is not the end. Though we have little idea of what heaven, or eternal life with God, will be like, we have hope that life wins out over death, and death is not the end for us.

Now maybe it’s because I’m still fairly young, but I rarely spend much time thinking about heaven. The question comes into my mind only when I’m faced with the deaths of people that I love, or when I’m ministering to those who are dying or their families.

There’s another place in Paul’s writings where he encourages Christians to always be ready to explain the hope that we have. And I wouldn’t say that my hope has much to do with what will happen to me after I die. The hope that I have is more to do with the future of our world and its people.

When Paul writes to the Ephesians about the hope to which Christ has called them, he talks about Christ having power and dominion over the world and everything in it. And this is the continuation of a very important theme in the Gospels and in Jesus’ own preaching and teaching.

Right from the beginning, and all the way through his ministry, Jesus talked about how the kingdom of God was arriving in him. Christians get so used to hearing about the kingdom of God that I think we sometimes forget its significance.

The kingdom of God means that God is in charge. In the kingdom of God, people look to God both for protection and direction. And in the kingdom of God, God’s commands are followed, people love one another, and everyone lives in peace and freedom.

When we look around our world today, it doesn’t look much like the kingdom of God. You might think of the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. You might think of the little girl that was abducted and killed in Ontario recently. Or you might just look west on 20th street, and notice the poverty, the drug trade, and the prostitution within our own neighbourhood. These are not the kinds of things that should be happening within a world where a loving and powerful God is in charge.

So where does our hope come from? Well, it begins for me in Jesus’ announcement of the coming kingdom. He stepped into a world and a community that was struggling just as much as we are today. Poverty, illness, and oppression were keeping the common people down and crushing their hope. And Jesus said, “God’s kingdom of love is here! I am making it happen, and you can follow my way and join in building the new kingdom.”

And Jesus wasn’t all talk. He launched right into the work of creating God’s kingdom of love and peace. He healed the sick and cast out demons. He showed love for the outcast, and made room for those who had been excluded. He welcomed children and women, and he forgave people who had made mistakes. And he called others to do the things that he was doing. When they began to love as he had loved them, the kingdom would grow and grow.

Making God’s kingdom on earth wasn’t easy work, even for Jesus. There were many people who objected to what he was doing. They were used to their earthly kings, and to the power of the religious establishment to lord it over the weak and the powerless of society. There were many challenges — many arguments with the religious leaders — and as we know, Jesus’ mission and message eventually got the authorities so angry and scared that they had him put to death.

Talk about a situation that doesn’t inspire hope! Most of the disciples who had decided to follow Jesus’ way got scared and scattered at that point. They probably gave up the idea that his message might be true. God couldn’t possibly be in charge if Jesus had ended up dead!

But that’s where they were wrong. On Sunday morning, the man who had been dead and buried on Friday appeared to one woman in a garden, and then to a whole group of others in an upper room. Those who opposed Jesus’ way seemed at first to have won, but the truth was that God’s power of love and life was still stronger. Jesus was raised from death to live and reign forever with God.

And if that was the end of the story, the only hope that we would have might be that when WE die, we might also get to go to heaven like Jesus did. That’s the hope that many people do hold on to. But I think of today’s story from the book of Acts, and Jesus’ words to his disciples. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That’s got to be the same power that Paul wrote about to the Ephesians — “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” The power of God that raised Jesus from death, and that brought him up to heaven… that power would come by the Holy Spirit onto the disciples on the day of Pentecost. And that power would not only help them to tell about God’s love in Jesus, but that power would give them the ability to keep on building God’s kingdom on earth.

The hope that I hold on to is that God’s kingdom is coming. I see little glimpses of it right here in our own Christian community… in the way that we care for each other, and work to share God’s love with our neighbours. It is so easy to get discouraged by the troubles of the world, or by the difficulties of our own particular lives. And yet, we do hang on to this hope that we have in God through Jesus Christ.

Like Paul, we pray for one another, for believers and seekers throughout the world, and for all who are looking for some kind of hope. We pray that God may give each one a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. May God fill us with hope, as we participate, with the Spirit, in building God’s kingdom of love and peace. Amen.