Last Thursday was the feast of the Ascension; the day on which the Church celebrates Jesus’ Ascension up to heaven.
I used to enjoy the Ascension Day service as we always had the anthem ‘God is gone up’ by Gerald Finzi. We would sing, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout: The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:” and I found a fine example of the anthem on You Tube.
But the reading from Acts says nothing about trumpets sounding, just the reverse. The disciples seemed somewhat surprised as initially they just stared into heaven. Surely as Jesus was taken up from earth, his disciples must have felt a tinge of sadness. How would they cope without Jesus’ presence? Surely they would miss him?
When the apostles had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
So in our Gospel reading we hear the Farewell Prayer of Jesus which he made sometime before the crucifixion. Jesus had accomplished all he set out to do during his lifetime. He had made God known and fulfilled prophesies from the Bible. He had passed God’s message on. Now there remains only his death for the sins of the world, and beyond it the glory of the resurrection and ascension. But Jesus knows that his followers will be in a hostile world and will miss Him. So he prays that God will protect them; that their lives may be shaped by the truth of God’s word; that they may display such unity among themselves and that the world will be shaken out of its disbelief; and that they may, in the end, go to be with him and see his glory for themselves.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.! have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So, after time, these same disciples came to realise that Jesus’ ascension was very much to their benefit. They came to realise that whilst Jesus might not have been physically present with them, once his spirit had been given to them at Pentecost, it would always be with them. And so we read in Acts that they went back to Jerusalem and they all gave themselves to prayer. They also came to understand that in heaven Jesus himself was praying to the Father for them, as in St Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes: “Christ Jesus, who died … was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is interceding for us.” And it was surely this presence of Jesus by His Spirit and his prayers for them that encouraged and empowered them in those first difficult days of the Church’s life.
Jesus prayed, and so should we. Even Jesus’ disciples knew that their prayers were not all that they could be, and so they took the very sensible step of asking Jesus for help. And as we know, Jesus was only too happy to oblige. And so it was that Jesus taught them the prayer that we all know so well; the prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer.
I would hope that you would use the Lord’s Prayer as part of your prayer life every day. And yet, many of us feel that we would like to pray more, or to have more depth to our prayers. Well, those of us who feel like that are in good company. Whilst, on the one hand, prayer is the simplest thing in all the world: we just talk to God, we need to practice it; to make it a habit.
So perhaps like me you have a desire to learn and grow and experience more in your prayer life. You too might like to join me in praying, “Lord, teach me to pray.” But well we might ask ourselves, why bother? Indeed, why pray at all? Doesn’t God know everything already, and won’t he do what he wants regardless of whatever we might say to him?
Archbishop William Temple famously said, “When I pray coincidences happen. When I don’t pray, they don’t.”
I’ve found that to be true.
Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive”. The Bible seems clear, that for His love for us God has determined that he will listen to and answer our prayers, and so from the comfort of our own sitting rooms or indeed anywhere – even in the car, we can change the world. As we pray for people and situations, God acts.
The truth is, that we can sometime change to become like the people we spend time with. And by spending time with God in prayer, we mysteriously become more like God’s Son, Jesus.
Over the past three and a half years more and more worshipping communities have dedicated the eleven days between Ascension and Pentecost to pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’. We are praying that the Spirit will inspire and equip us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our friends and families, our communities and networks. It has been amazing how many varied ways there have been in which people from every tradition have taken up this challenge. The effects have been remarkable.
It is our prayer that those who have not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and his love for the world will hear it for themselves, and respond and follow Him.
Each and every Christian across the country is invited to pray that God’s Spirit might work in the lives of 5 friends who have not responded with their ‘Yes’ to God’s call.
Whether you have joined in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ before or not, you are invited to take part this year – along with churches from over 65 different denominations in 178 countries around the world. Archbishop Justin Welby has said that “In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.” So during the 11 days of Thy Kingdom Come, it is hoped that everyone who takes part will:
• Deepen their own relationship with Jesus Christ,
• Pray for 5 friends or family to come to faith in Jesus,
• Pray for the empowerment of the Spirit that we would be effective in our witness.
United in prayer, we hope and trust that we will be changed to became just a bit more like Jesus, and we hope and pray that through our prayers for our community, nation and world, God will change the world for the better. Perhaps you might like, in your own way, in your own situation, to join in this movement for change – so pray for the world, for those around you, and don’t forget to include yourself.
While watching an Ascension Service on line I was reminded of the famous saying of Saint Teresa of Avila which reminds us that Jesus is relying on us –
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”