Here’s my sermon from last Sunday – apologies for it being a little late this week. The reading from Acts is the account of the Ascension. As it was the Sunday after Ascension Day, and as we had a disappointingly small congregation in church for the Ascension Day service, I concentrated on Acts rather than the gospel reading.
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-11
It is the dream, surely, of every advertising executive to come up with an advertising slogan that so captures the public imagination that it enters the language. It then gets used in other contexts, but every time it’s used you recall the original product. In my previous church I preached one Christmas Day picking up on the famous slogan of the Canine Defence League: A dog is for life, not just for Christmas, and then going on to talk about how Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas. After the service a young man came up to me, very excited, and said, “I loved your sermon!” He was so animated that I thought he was about to say something along the lines of, “It’s changed my life – I want to know Jesus better”, but instead he added, looking really pleased with himself, “My advertising company thought up that slogan!”
A good slogan will find itself used and adapted to suit all kinds of situations. Two which immediately spring to mind – if you haven’t now thought of them already:
Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. Heineken, of course. Much plagiarised with all manner of thing substituted for beer.
Love it or hate it. The famous Marmite slogan. And now you hear about people applying “The Marmite Test” to all kinds of things.
One of the more recent advertising slogans which has now entered the language in its own right is that of Ronseal, first used in 1994? Any one know? Of course, it is the well known phrase: Does exactly what it says on the tin, now used in all kinds of contexts. And which is the theme of my sermon this morning.
Today in our first reading we heard the story from Acts of the final resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples. Last week we were thinking about the final words of Jesus to his disciples before his death, in the Farewell Discourses record in the Gospel of John. Today Luke, in the follow-up to his Gospel, gives us in Acts the final words of Jesus to his disciples before he returns to his Father. And this is the point where Jesus tells his disciples what the Church is to be about. This is where Jesus tells them what it says on the tin!
“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.”
You don’t need to spend hours in Bible study or have endless theological discussions to work out what the Church is here for. This is it. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That’s what I now expect you to do, says Jesus – be my witnesses. And in case anyone is in any doubt that that is what the Church is supposed to do – in case you’re not sure that what is written on the tin marked “Church” is being witnesses, then Matthew reinforces the message. At the end of his gospel the eleven disciples meet Jesus on a mountain. Matthew doesn’t specifically mention the ascension but it is implicit. And Jesus says “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
That’s it: summed up by Matthew and Luke. That’s what the Church does – or at least what Jesus says it should be doing. That’s what it says on the tin. Its members witness to Jesus, make disciples, baptise them and teach them to do that Jesus has commanded. “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth,” says Jesus, and then he’s gone.
In a way it couldn’t be more simple. That’s all they have to do. Witness to Jesus through their words and their actions, bring people to the point where they want to become followers of Jesus themselves, and teach them how Jesus expects them to live. And to make it easy, says Jesus, I’ll even give you the power to do it – the power of the Holy Spirit. And from this point on Luke, in the book of Acts, shows the Church doing exactly what it says on the tin.
The story in Acts focuses on the community of disciples, just as the Gospels focus on Jesus. It begins with the ascension and then shows us how the period between Jesus’ ascension and the gift of the Spirit that is given at Pentecost is a time of pausing for prayer and reflection. The group of disciples – by this point numbering about 120 – is a community that is starting to live out the instructions given by Jesus. It is portrayed by Luke as a community of prayer that embodies God’s grace and love. It’s a community that practices inclusion. The eleven disciples are joined by the brothers of Jesus and “certain women,” including Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary – the first disciple in Luke’s gospel. The first to witness, the first to proclaim faith in God’s saving action. Her commitment, “Let it be with me according to your word,” and her declaration expressed in the words we now know as the Magnificat of the work of God in the world, had opened the world to God’s grace made manifest in Christ.
Now, as the early followers begin to move out in the spirit of witness, Mary once more stands at the beginning of a new era. This waiting community of prayer is the community for whom Jesus prays before his trial, as we heard in today’s gospel reading from John, where Jesus prays for the community of disciples, with the promise that God will be glorified in their spirit of witness. And once the Holy Spirit has come, as we shall hear next week, this new community sets out to witness to Jesus through their words and their actions, taking the gospel, the good news, to the ends of the earth. They make sure that the Church does what it says on the tin.
– You will receive power
– You will be my witnesses
We are, of course, inevitably left with a question. Are we as a church doing what it says on the tin? Those first disciples were told to begin witnessing locally – in Jerusalem – and then to move out to the wider context, all Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. And that gives a good model for each of us to work with. For witness must begin with ourselves and our own context. Witness is not something someone else does.
– Am I, are you, as a disciples of Jesus, doing what it says on the tin. Are these instructions given by Jesus to the fledgling Church something you hold dear?
– Are we as a Church community doing what it says on the tin, allowing the promised power of the Holy Spirit to work through us, are we witnessing to Jesus, showing Jesus, in our community.
– Is our Church nationally doing what it says on the tin? Many would suggest that in its arguments – and often deeply hostile arguments – over issues such as women bishops and gay bishops – it is failing in its witness.
And whatever your answer to those questions you are left with a further question. If your answer is no, then what are we going to do about it? And if your answer is yes then we have to ask why we are not being more effective in our witness?
After Jesus ascended the followers of Jesus spent time waiting for the promise to be fulfilled – the gift that Jesus had promised would come, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then they went out in that power and witnessed. And that witness meant that many of them went to their deaths – martyred because they witnessed for Jesus in a hostile world. The word ‘martyr’ actually means ‘witness.’
We now wait for the Holy Spirit. We wait to celebrate the coming of the Spirit in power upon the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. This, for the Church, is a time when we can reflect on what Jesus is wanting us to do and look forward to receiving the power to do it. For this is what the Church is here for – to receive and know the power of God at work in our own lives and to bear witness to those around us – to take the message of salvation through the death and resurrection and the abiding presence of Jesus. Not everyone will want to receive that message – but love it or hate it it’s a message that Jesus wants everyone to hear.
So prepare, by reflecting upon the call of Jesus to his disciples and to you and me, to be open to receive the Holy Spirit next week, allowing him to refresh the parts of your life that nothing and no-one else can reach. And pray during this week that we as a individuals and as a Church may do for Jesus exactly what it says on the tin.