Acts 1: 6-11 John 17: 1-11
I think there is a question that many people have been asking this week, and it is relevant to our Bible readings, too. Where’s Jesus?
On Monday night we first heard the news of the bomb going off in Manchester, and all week the police have been investigating and trying to make sense of what has happened. So many lives lost – and so many of them young lives, children ready to be picked up by their parents at the end of a pop concert. And where is Jesus in that? In the carnage and the fear and the desperation – where’s Jesus?
Well, we have glimpsed Jesus in some places, haven’t we – in the story of Steve, the man who is homeless, but was outside the Arena & went to help people who were bleeding, without thought for his own safety; in the speech given by Fawzi Haffar, from the Manchester mosque who said ‘this act of cowardice has no place in our religion – or any religion’; in the café which immediately started giving a free ‘brew’ to anyone who needed it. In the midst of terror there is also human kindness and love, and where love is, God is – Jesus has been seen on the streets of Manchester.
And yet… we wonder whether Jesus could not have been more present at an earlier stage: clearing the area before the bomb went off, thwarting the plans of the terrorists in some way, even melting the hard heart of the bomber himself.
There is no satisfactory answer we can give when the grieving heart wants to cry out ‘where was God?’ ‘where is Jesus?’. Anything we say risks sounding like a hollow platitude. But the hope and joy of Easter can bring us the lasting light that God’s resurrection love is unstoppably present, even in the darkness. Because we are at the point of the Christian year when we see the initial thrill that Jesus is alive again begin to mature into a realisation that he is present in a new way.
Last Thursday, 3 days ago, was Ascension day – the day when the church remembers that the resurrected Jesus was seen by his followers going back into heaven – back to the place he came from in the first place.
But Jesus has promised that we won’t be alone, because he will send his Holy Spirit to be our Counsellor and Guide. Yet we know that Pentecost won’t come for another week : we will be celebrating it next Sunday.
We have celebrated the risen Jesus, but now his resurrection body has gone back to the Father and we have to wait for the gift of the promised Spirit.
We wait because that’s what Jesus first followers had to do. It’s what the angels told them to do when they found the looking blankly up into heaven after Jesus had gone.
The book of Acts tells us that they went back to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer – ‘they’ being the 11 remaining disciples plus ‘certain women, including Mary his mother and also his brothers’.
Then Simon announces that they must replace Judas (who has committed suicide) with another man who has been part of the company and seen all that Jesus has done: they draw lots to choose between Justus and Matthias, and Matthias is chosen.
But surely as well as drawing lots and praying there must have been a lot of story-telling or reminiscing, of reminding each other what Jesus had said and done and all the things that had happened – all that they had witnessed from the time of John the Baptist until the ascension itself.
Perhaps one of the things they talked about was that last supper, when Jesus seemed to have so much to teach them. We have been hearing various parts of John’s account of the Last Supper in our Sunday readings since Easter, and we had another chunk of the teaching today.
You might almost feel as if you want to draw a diagram:
Father, glorify your Son, so that your son may glorify you,
since you have given him authority over all, to give eternal life to all
that they may know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…
The words you gave to me I have given to them...
They know that I came from you & you sent me…
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you.
I wonder if the disciples pondered long and hard about the ascension – they saw Jesus go up into heaven – the final proof that he came from heaven in the first place. Jesus and the Father were one, as he said.
But they now have a task to fulfill – sent out into the world to be the witnesses for the world of what has happened.
Heaven has touched the earth – God has come in human form to visit his creation: how can they possibly convince the world about Jesus?
The answer is, of course, that they can’t ! No amount of trying to explain the relationship of Earth to heaven, of the Father to the Son, of the amazing message of love shared with God’s people; no amount of diagrams or hand-waving is going to convince people that this carpenter’s Son from Galilee was someone unique.
The disciples will be witnesses, but not in their own strength. Before they can go out they have to wait: not just to build up their human strength by getting back to 12 disciples, and remembering the stories of Jesus’ life but they will need the power which will come to them from heaven. The resurrected body of Jesus went up into heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit will come down.
The disciples must have used this time to change the way they were used to thinking about Jesus. For three years he had been their friend and teacher – flesh and blood alongside them. Then came the seeming calamity of his death, and then a new way to see Jesus with them – the risen Jesus.
Jesus was still with them, but in a new resurrection body – not always instantly recognisable as Jesus – but real, living, touchable. Now they are in a new phase of knowing Jesus – he is the ascended Jesus – his risen body back in heaven with God the Father. But soon they will know Jesus’ presence in yet another new way, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Without the ascension we would always be looking for Jesus as a thirty year-old, bearded man. But now Jesus is released from his body, set free into the world, so that the power of the Holy Spirit can bring the reality of Jesus’ presence into all times and all places.
Jesus is alongside us, within us, empowering us… in Manchester,
Jesus shows his followers that he can be with them in many different ways: as friend, teacher, healer, victim, victor, resurrected one, ascended Lord, power from on high. And Jesus can be all this to us, too.
In our lifetime of following Jesus it may well be that our view of who Jesus is and how we encounter him might change, especially when life’s events challenge or frighten us.
May the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Jesus be with us and may his Spirit come to strengthen us to grow in knowledge of Jesus Christ, and to be witnesses to his love and to God’s kingdom of peace for all people.
And do not let your hearts be afraid: for Jesus is with you. Here. Here's Jesus.