I wonder what your favourite nursery rhyme was when you were growing up? Any suggestions?

Well, I don't know if it was my favourite but the Grand Old Duke of York is always one that has stuck in my head. If you remember he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again; very possibly for no apparent reason!

Well, this week on Thursday morning, we celebrate Ascension Day – the day that Jesus ascends to heaven, not to be seen again. But unlike the soldiers in the Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme he is to go for a reason, to be with his Father, and ours – think of the words at the beginning of the Lord's Prayer – in heaven. In doing so, he passes the baton onto us; it is now our job to bring something of the kingdom of God, in heaven down to earth. He has shown us the way and, through his very persona, he has revealed what the Kingdom of God is like: a place of justice, peace (note the words from the Gospel – 'my peace I leave you,) love, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus last promise before his ascension is the Gift of the Holy Spirit, which the apostles have already received and, the wider group of worshippers is to receive at Pentecost. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is saying to us: 'even though I am to ascend I will never leave you.' Of course the purpose of the Divine Gift is to equip us to carry on working for the kingdom, to become as Christ in a deeply shattered and broken world, to show Jesus to the world as 'the way, the truth and the life.' And, of course by following in Jesus' footsteps we hope one day to dine with Him in paradise.

But, here is the nub of the issue: in order to ascend, we have to first descend; just as Jesus did. Jesus the ascending God was also, in the words of Henri Nouwen, the 'Descending God.' What does it mean to descend and how can we do it? Again, I think Henri Nouwen provides some insights. Nouwen suggests, and this has been my own experience, it means abandoning false perceptions of our own self-worth, Nouwen wrote: ' I get the impression that under the blanket of success, a lot of people fall asleep in tears.'

To descend means to get over ourselves and throw away the illusionary, to recognise that my self-worth and yours is simply this: that we are children of God: 'The descending way of Jesus, is the way to find God. Jesus doesn't hesitate for a minute to make that clear. Soon after he has ended his period of fasting in the wilderness and called his first disciples to follow him, he says; how blessed are the poor in spirit.' Spiritual poverty means taking a realistic view of ourselves, and learning to love ourselves for who we are. And when we have done this, we can descend to help, or love, our neighbour because we then start to see our neighbour as our equal: 'the descending way of love, the way to the poor, the broken, the oppressed becomes the ascending way of love, the way to joy, peace and new life.'

So if we are serious about our faith, before we even begin to think of ascending we need to learn to value ourselves properly through the eyes of God, and then we need to value others likewise. Only under these circumstances do we experience peace, Shalom, right relationship. And, we will never get their under our own strength, only in the power of the Holy Spirit; Jesus' final gift to us.

Of course this gift is made present to us in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist we are fed to become the sort of people who make Jesus' 'joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love, one in heart and one in mind.' If we expect God, through the Holy Spirit, to be at work in the sacrament of the Eucharist, it is reasonable for us to expect that we might become the type of people where 'nothing is done out of jealousy or vanity; instead out of humility of mind' and where we descend into a state where 'everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.'  

The logic of the Gospel is that this is the only real way to ascend; let’s do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

Groucho Marx who famously quipped 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me.'

What was he railing against? Was it clubs and institutions per se? Was it that he knew that his own deep character flaws?  Did he understand the propensity of many clubs and institutions to insist that its members all act and behave in the same way? Did he crave to belong to a club that was so eclectic and diverse that it accepted all manner of folks?

I suspect that it was a mixture of all of the questions that I have just raised and this raises a paradox: we all want to belong, but sometimes, often, we are frightened of what belonging entails, or demands of us. We want to be made welcome, yet at the same time we are afraid of losing are individuality. Yes, we need to be clear clubs and institutions can stifle us and force us to put on a false persona.

And, the Church is no different. At times the Church has failed to understand its own rules. Churches can seek to create a congregation of little me's, moulded in the image of a charismatic leader and his or her acolytes. But, here is the problem Church's like this don't conform to the set of rules described in today's readings.

For our guiding rules – theologies if you prefer – must be inclusivity, diversity, love and grace. Jesus came for all and he wants all to join his Church, even folk like Grouch Marx, even folk like you and me. And, if we fail to get that message out there our aspiration to be an hospitable church will be fairly meaningless.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter's great vision, must have been scandalous to both Peter himself and the Jewish community. Through the vision Peter is to learn about grace, diversity and inclusion. He is to learn that not every believer is expected to be a theologically modified clone of the other. Grace means widening the parameters, flexing the club rules, opening the doors to all manner of people.  Grace means looking beyond mere externalities and accepting that the potential to live a Christ like life, comes from within. It is about the rule that governs our hearts not the clothes we wear or the food we eat.  Grace is divine, the law had become a set of human constructs. We must as a Church always try to get to the heart of things.

But, in order to keep any institution afloat, and thriving, we do need some rules, or perhaps at least a rule. And the Church's rule is love. And, it turns out that love is an active and dynamic rule. Love

can't be put under a microscope for analysis, it can't even be hard coded into a set of rules and placed in a governance manual, the Jews, through the Pharisaic elite had tried to do this, and look where this led them. But, love can be experienced and felt and the effects of a community where love rules are not invisible, as Jesus said: 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.'

Love implies looking into the heart of the other and saying 'I know that you are beloved by God.' The twentieth century mystic summed it up like this: 'The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.'

Love, grace, diversity, affirmation, inclusion these must be our guiding rules and principles. These underpin our aspirations to be an hospitable, holy and healing community. We must desire to be  community where each and every person knows that that they are known by God, and where they can truly be themselves, for only then will everyone know that we are his disciples, Amen.

 

When I was younger various folk, teachers mostly, used to occasionally ask me 'why do you always have to have the last word?' Funnily enough I always had the sense not to reply.

But today's gospel reading is about not last but first words.

And, the first word used, twice, in today's gospel passage, by Jesus, is peace: he is the bringer of peace; we are to be bringers of peace. Peace is an important concept in Christianity, just note how many times the word is used in our liturgy.

So here's the question: 'what does peace mean in explicitly theological terms?'

The biblical word which we translate as peace is Shalom, which translates as 'right relationship.' Peace in Christian terms doesn't simply mean the absence of violence or injustice, nor does it mean feeling good about ourselves. Peace is not to be reduced to sentimentality. Peace or shalom is all about relationships. Righteous relationships with God,  righteous relationships with each other. And if we are serious about our discipleship we need to strive to be bringers of peace. We need to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi who famously prayed 'make me a channel of your peace.' We need to allow ourselves to be inspired by the likes of Desmond Tutu who understood that right relationships, or peace, only become a possibility when we seek truth and reconciliation, when we become willing to let go of bitterness and resentments and when we say to the past that it cannot govern the future, for surely this is, in part, what takes place through the resurrection? If we wish to be children of the resurrection, we must be prepared to give hurts, pains and failures back to God, so that we can move ahead forging better, more righteous relationships.

But, how can we do this, for we need to be clear and honest? Sometimes our failures, or suffering, and our rightful indignations seem to have the upper hand. Well, the gospel again provides the answer: through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 

Are we prepared to sit here this morning and allow the Holy Spirit to be breathed over us, into us? Are we prepared to receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit?

 

I would like to suggest that if we are serious about our aspirations, the three H's, hospitality, healing and holiness we need to allow ourselves to be shaped, nurtured and inspired by Jesus' post resurrection gift; the Holy Spirit. And if we do permit ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit something even more remarkable might happen:

We will become the sort of community where the living God is experienced as real and tangible. Where the honest doubter, the modern day Thomas, stands a chance of being met and greeted by Jesus, where doubt becomes the raw material of faith. We will become a church that can do no other than to grow in number and in holiness; a church where people perhaps find themselves saying somewhat unexpectedly: 'My Lord and My God!' Surely that's an exciting vision?

Sometimes churches can become a little snooty about those on the periphery, those who come to church only occasionally, those whose faith doesn't appear to be fully formed. What I say is let's pray that our periphery expands, let's welcome the cynic, doubter and occasional worshipper as a gift from God.

Pope Francis recently wrote that when someone starts hanging around with Christians – just as Thomas did, even though apparently he didn't believe- 'they need to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when they stand at the threshold, when they start to feel nostalgia for God.'

These are wise words, which we should pay to attention to, for our role is to welcome all who approach us and to trust in the Holy Spirit. It is God who converts not us. As St. Francis also said 'go and preach the gospel everywhere but use words only where necessary.'

This does not imply that we should be passive, or avoid words for sometimes they are necessary. I do however think it implies that we should be concerned with the quality of our own community and the message that it gives out.

Are we a community into whose very DNA is breathed peace, right relationships, reconciliation and truth, Shalom in other words? I hope and pray so. Amen.

 

Rev Andrew Lightbown