Down to earth faith
John Chapter 17 verses 1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he 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.
“I 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 the name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Many years ago, I learned a lesson about power the hard way! In our busy photographers shop we were always running out of fuses, so rather than taking the trouble of going out and buying new ones from time to time we used a little trick. If you roll up a piece of silver foil in a certain way and squeeze it to the right size, you can insert it into a plug and it will work just like a fuse. Please don’t try this at home my friends because it is highly dangerous as I discovered one day to my cost. I had done this procedure many times but as the old saying goes ‘familiarity breeds contempt!’ The plug went in, the switch went on and a significant voltage shot up my arm literally and for a few moments I saw stars! I survived to tell the tale, but it taught me a very important lesson, electricity always needs to be grounded or ‘earthed’.
Faith needs to be grounded too, and this is why I love Eric Gill’s depiction of the Ascension. Here although Jesus is rising into the heavens his feet are still on the earth. I like to think they are worn and dirty feet because they have walked many ministry miles. Having walked up the mountainside I like to imagine Jesus ascended in just the same way as he walked about on earth doing good, in a dusty pair of well-worn sandals. In Eric Gill’s work the feet are wounded, and if we take a look the hands, we will see that they are scarred too. Far from, in the words of the famous hymn being ‘parted from our sight far above the starry height’, this is a Christ who not only understands but has experienced life in all its fullness: love, anger, laughter and pain. Furthermore, he treasures each human experience and carries it with him back to his father.
Equally he knows that those who will walk in his footsteps are going to need all the help they can get, which is why, even after he ascends, he continues to pray, (to intercede), for his followers. See how the hand held up is blessing the very ones who, because they are ‘only human’, failed to keep watch when they were tired, fled under pressure because they were scared and denied their lord when they were afraid to commit. I can’t help wondering in Christ’s eyes, as depicted by the artist if, even as he pronounces his blessing, there isn’t still a hint of a doubt that these folks will be ready for the roller coaster that lies ahead.
Within the course of 11 days, if we take the scriptural timeline literally, we might imagine that these unpromising disciples threw aside their fears and were instantly transformed into a bunch of confident, top-notch evangelists. However, reading through John’s gospel I suspect the process took a whole lot longer; a period of gestation, imagination, and realization before they got from a to b.
John’s gospel features 4 long chapters known as the farewell discourses in which Jesus prepares his disciples by teaching them and demonstrating in a very practical way, (as he puts his robe aside, kneels before them and washes their feet) that he will become as a servant for all, laying down his life for the world. It may seem strange that today our lectionary re-visits the passage in which Jesus shares his farewell supper with his disciples on the eve of the crucifixion. Yet reading this passage in the light of the ascension we realize that Jesus is preparing them for the time beyond the resurrection when he will be gone. I will not leave you as orphans he tells them in an earlier place and today’s passage contains a powerful prayer for protection and unity. ‘Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’
Most of us understand what it’s like to be with someone as they prepare to die. There are important conversations. A desire to set the record straight, to ask for or to offer forgiveness, reassurence, or even to tell someone that we love them. It’s not a time to waste time on peripheries. Later in this chapter Jesus will pray to his father for his disciples ‘sanctify them by your truth, for your word is truth’. Moments of crisis teach us truths; this was so for the first disciples and it is for us. Crisis can bring clarity and fresh understanding of truth. In John’s gospel Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life. Through his death and resurrection, the disciples discover that the worst thing never has the final word, because in Christ all things are being made new.
Perhaps right now in these strange times we are also discovering fresh truths about what is important and what is less so, about what we can live with and live without, new ways of being and doing and ways of being united with one another even when we have to be apart, but it’s not an easy process.
After Jesus has ascended the disciples look around open mouthed first at the sky and then at each other with a kind of ‘what on earth happens now?” It takes an angel to bring them back down to earth with the question: ‘Why are you looking up toward heaven?’ (Acts 1:11). It’s Ok to not know what to do next, it’s Ok to be still, it’s Ok to put one foot in front of the other and muddle along and it’s Ok to be taken aback by physical separation from those we love and whose presence comforts us. At least it’s Ok for a while, but then the moment comes to move on. We can stand gazing up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses”. Our faith needs to be grounded, our love for God needs to find its outworking in action.
Nobody knew this better than John Wesley whose life, together with that of his brother Charles, we celebrate today. Prayer and practicality were Wesley’s watchwords. His emphasis on personal devotion and prayerfulness was matched by his desire to share the gospel not only in words but in practical ways, his interest was in the whole person body, mind and spirit. Throughout his life and ministry Wesley had a passion for education and raising social standards, he was a keen advocate of the abolition of slavery and a supporter of women preachers. Besides their use in worship the words of the hymns he composed with his brother became a means of teaching, of raising spirits and inspiring minds. Among his many wise sayings these are two of my favourites: “Prayer is where the action is” and ”the best thing of all is that God is with us”. Wesley’s faith was never about ‘being so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly use’ rather it was grounded in love for God and for his fellow human beings. Wesley believed that we are all one in Christ and furthermore that in Christ neither death nor life, nor anything in all creation (he might add today, nor even pandemics) can separate us from God’s love. It is estimated that during his lifetime Wesley preached around 40,000 sermons and travelled over 250,000 miles on roads that were often little more than muddy ruts, sometimes facing great dangers. In all of this he constantly affirmed that God was with him and travelled with him wherever he went. This confidence was based on a deep relationship with God and also on a very grounded faith.
The Prayer of John Wesley.
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
“A Covenant with God” Methodist Church in Britain. Retrieved 6 January 2014
I am including for today Charles Wesley’s famous Ascension hymn ‘Hail the day that sees him rise’ in a shortened version.
1 Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
to his throne above the skies. Alleluia!
Christ, the Lamb for sinners given, Alleluia!
enters now the highest heaven. Alleluia!
2 There for him high triumph waits; Alleluia!
lift your heads, eternal gates. Alleluia!
He has conquered death and sin; Alleluia!
take the King of glory in. Alleluia!
3 See the heaven its Lord receives; Alleluia!
yet he loves the earth he leaves. Alleluia!
Though returning to his throne, Alleluia!
still he calls the world his own. Alleluia!
Question to ponder.
How grounded is our faith?
Do we affirm in our lives that our Lord is with us and travels with us wherever we go?
Would we ever be courageous enough to pray a prayer like John Wesley’s prayer and mean it?
The prayer for the Sunday after Ascension Day
Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph
fill your church on earth with power and compassion,
that all who are estranged by sin
may find forgiveness and know your peace
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
A prayer commemorating the lives of John and Charles Wesley.
God of mercy, who inspired John and Charles Wesley with zeal for your gospel:
grant to all people boldness to proclaim your word
and a heart ever to rejoice in singing your praises:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From Exciting Holiness
Collects and readings for festivals and lesser festivals
of the Church of England
©Canterbury Press, Norwich 1997
We take a moment to hold in our prayers those who are especially in our thoughts today.
If we are joining with the Thy Kingdom Come prayer initiative, we may like to remember the five people we are praying for during this period between Ascension and Pentecost.
We also remember those who are unwell either at home or in hospital.
And we pray for all affected by coronavirus:
Those who are having to self-isolate or shield.
All doctors, nurses and carers.
For scientists working to find a vaccine against coronavirus.
Lord Jesus Christ, you taught us to love our neighbour
and to care for those in need as if we were caring for you.
Give us strength to comfort the fearful, to tend the sick
and to assure the isolated of our love and your love.
Give strength and wisdom also to all involved in medical research
that a vaccine may be found and lives saved.
Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer
A Prayer for ourselves.
When we stand gazing upwards,
bring us down to earth:
with the love of a friend,
through the songs of the sorrowing,
in the faces of the suffering.
When we look to you for action,
demand some work from us:
by your touch of fire
your glance of reproof,
your fearful longing.
As ruler over all:
love us into action,
fire us with your zeal,
enrich us with your grace
and make us willing subjects of your rule.
Prayer for Ascension-tide by Janet Nightingale.
The Book of a thousand Prayers
©Angela Ashwin Zondervan publications 1996.