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Today’s Service is led by our own Rev’d Michael Hopkins. You may wish to light a candle during the Call to Worship.
Good morning. My name is Michael Hopkins, and I am minister of a group of United Reformed and Methodist churches, based around Farnham in Surrey. Our service today uses the readings for Ascension Day, which was last Thursday, and which is the theme for today’s service.
Call To Worship
One: We meet in the name of God, the Holy Trinity of Love
Many: who knows our needs, hears our cries, feels our pain, and heals our wounds.
One: God is our light and our salvation. In God’s name we light this candle and are reminded of Jesus, the Light of the World, God’s own Voice who came to live with us.
Many: May our hearts be open to you, O God, now and always. Amen
Hymn Hail the day that sees him rise
Charles Wesley 1739
Alleluia is sung after each line
Hail the day that sees him rise,
to his throne beyond the skies;
Christ, the lamb for sinners giv’n,
enters now the highest heav’n!
2: There for Him high triumph waits:
lift your heads, eternal gates,
He has conquered death and sin;
take the King of glory in
3: See now heav’n its Lord receives;
yet He loves the earth He leaves,
though returning to His throne,
still He calls the world His own.
Prayers of Approach, Confession, Assurance of Pardon
Loving heavenly Father, you are glory and love, power and possibility. We celebrate with you the work of your son Jesus, his humility and care, his love for the truth, his commitment to love and service, his reconciling the world to you by his life death resurrection and ascension. We celebrate his homecoming with you, and we lift up our hearts in praise and worship.
As we praise your greatness, we see in the reflection our own frailty and brokenness. Forgive any lack of worship in our lives, any grumpiness or selfishness, any frustration with the situations in which we find ourselves.
Thank you, God, that you are mercy and love, and that you have forgiven us. Help us to accept that, and also to forgive ourselves and other people. Open our ears to hear your good news; draw us to yourself; accept and heal and empower us, so that we may draw others, too, to love and praise and live for you.
As our Saviour taught us, so we pray Our Father …
Introduction to the Service
My daughter, who’s seven, loves jokes and riddles, and I’ve got a riddle for you this morning: What has a sole but no body? A tongue but no mouth? Needs ‘heeling’ but there’s no wound? Can be any length but is always a foot? And what is it that must always accept de-feet!
The answer is a pair of shoes, of course.
There are millions of shoes in the world, from ballet shoes to walking shoes; from high-heeled shoes to Wellington boots; from trainers to babies’ bootees.
Think back to the last time that you bought a pair of new shoes. Was it to find the right size, style, and colour, despite there being so many to choose from? Or was it even more of a challenge? How many pairs of shoes do you own? How many of them are empty just at the moment? Perhaps empty shoes may bring memories for you? Perhaps you might think of the last time you wore your school shoes or your work boots?
When Jesus ascended into heaven, I don’t know if we he was still wearing his sandals, or whether he left them empty on the ground, but it did make me think that he when he left his disciples at the Ascension he certainly left an empty place – an emptiness after three years of being together; after the three days of death and resurrection; and after the 40 days of his re-appearings.
Perhaps some imaginary empty shoes of Jesus can help us to understand what had happened?
Think a pair of football boots – perhaps they’re well worn, and have scored many goals. They might remind us of the winning team. At his ascension Jesus goes up to collect the cup from the Easter victory and if we’re in his team we too can say ‘we’ve won’.
Think of a pair of slippers. Perhaps you’re wearing some just now. At his ascension Jesus went home – to be with his daddy – where he could be relaxed and comfortable, and he’s showing us that we also have a home there.
Think of a pair of sandals, perhaps like Jesus may have worn as he lived his earthly life like you and me. At his ascension Jesus took all this experience with him, so that he can pray with us and for us.
The letters of shoe – S H O E – remind us that in the ascension Jesus is Seated High Over Everything.
Hymn: Christ triumphant ever reigning
Michael Saward (b 1932) © Jubilate Hymns
Christ triumphant, ever reigning,
Saviour, Master, King!
Lord of heaven, our lives sustaining,
hear us as we sing:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
2 Word incarnate, truth revealing,
Son of Man on earth!
power and majesty concealing
by your humble birth:
3 Suffering servant, scorned, ill-treated,
death is through the Cross defeated,
4 Priestly king, enthroned for ever
high in heaven above!
sin and death and hell shall never
stifle hymns of love:
5 So, our hearts and voices raising
through the ages long,
ceaselessly upon you gazing,
this shall be our song:
Prayer of Illumination
In a moment we’re going to hear two Bible readings, the first from the very end of Luke’s Gospel and the second from the very start of the Acts of the Apostles, which is often described as the second volume of Luke’s Gospel. Before we read them, let us pray that god will help us to understand them.
Lord, break open the bread of your Word among us, and nourish us with your truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
St Luke 24:44-53
Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they 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.’
Is the ascension of Jesus a fictional story of something that couldn’t have happened, written by people in an age when they still thought the earth was flat, and so of no relevance to us today? Or is it – although impossible to explain in modern rational and scientific terms – a literal truth?
The trouble with both those positions – whilst validly held by many – is that it all seems irrelevant to most people’s lives, and the ordinary, and yet also difficult, situations and problems affecting us, our hopes, our fears; and our concerns don’t even feature, let alone find an answer or a response.
I’d like to suggest an alternative somewhere between those two extreme points of view, which doesn’t deny either the event or the developments of our intellect over many centuries, and so suggest that perhaps the ascension is relevant to thinking Christians with the concerns of the 21st century on their shoulders.
At the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk (not one of my regular hang outs) there’s a side chapel dedicated to the ascension, which features a large plaster pair of feet dangling from the ceiling. A little closer to my home territory, there’s an ancient window in the chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, which depicts a group of disconsolate disciples gazing up at a cloud from which a pair of bare feet are protruding.
Strange as this may seem to us, the early followers of Jesus were rooted in the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, where Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven, and although Jesus was risen, there was no longer a physical Jesus walking around. With their pre-scientific understanding of the world the ascension was the only way to understand – they weren’t idiots, they were making sense within the world view in which they lived.
The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts vividly describes the ascension of Jesus. The story of the ascension is a faith narrative. What I mean by that is that the story cannot just be a literal history, because heaven is not physically up in the sky. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos, it’s been impossible to think of heaven as up in the sky and hell underground. Perhaps some of you remember Yuri Gagarin, who made the first manned space flight in 1961? I’m told by people who were around then that some were concerned that the godless Russian might use his craft to break physically into heaven. In 1999, the then Pope, John Paul II, said, “In the context of Revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity”. This is what I mean when I say that the story of the ascension is a faith narrative: it’s been skilfully crafted to convey a theological message. That message is simple, it’s the lifting up of Jesus into the Being of God, into the consciousness of God, into the Godhead.
George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community, talked about the island of Iona as a thin place, meaning earth and heaven feel closer than normal. Ascension reminds us that there are things we cannot quite touch, but sometimes we can see they’re closer than we might think.
Ascension also says something about value. In our world, height is a symbol of value. We speak of a football team going up to a higher division. We talk of the upper House of Parliament, and of “climbing career ladders”. The ascension of Jesus carries the idea not just of a transfer from a physical to a spiritual existence, but of a move by Jesus from human status to his real place of authority within creation. There’s something aspirational for us as human beings – we are perhaps more important to
God than we sometimes think. Our physical existence has spiritual significance as well.
Although some of us may not completely share the view of those who designed the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, or the window in The Queen’s College, Oxford, Jesus’ ascension can still speak to us because it helps us to take a God-like view of things, to try to rise above our usual limitations, to see the glory of a life set free from fear.
The key to making sense of the ascension doesn’t lie in seeking a complete explanation of the practicalities, nor in debating whether and how it actually happened or not, but it may lie in finding ourselves with the group of disciples gazing up like spectators at the launch of a hot-air balloon. The disciples surely didn’t understand what was happening in detail. They were aware of loss, the final departure of Jesus, but it was with the warm glow of his blessing. Their call to ministry hadn’t ended. So they returned to Jerusalem and got on with their lives with a new sense of spiritual worth and physical purpose. I think that might be the message of the ascension for us.
Next week we will be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our choice is whether to remain on the sidelines or to live as Jesus lived, but there is really only one choice for us to make. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, God with us. At Easter, we celebrate the Risen Christ in our midst. It is right for us to do that. But the ascension affords us the opportunity not to wallow in the presence of God, the presence of Jesus, but to reflect on his absence. We live between the beginning and the end, when the prophecy of Jesus has not yet come true but can do so. Jesus’ absence is a call to decision, to action and away from the sidelines. Do we stand idly looking up to heaven or do we set about the work of Jesus? In Matthew’s gospel – the parable of the sheep and the goats – Jesus asks each one of us if we have fed the hungry, visited the sick and welcomed the strangers. Now is our chance.
Music for Reflection by Leslie Schram
Ascension, by Malcolm Guite:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
Music for Reflection by Leslie Schram
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in God.
Despite His silence and His secrets we believe that He lives.
Despite evil and suffering we believe that He made the world so that all
would be happy in life.
Despite the limitations of our reason and the revolts of our hearts,
we believe in God.
We believe in Jesus Christ.
Despite the centuries which separate us from the time when he came to
earth, we believe in His word.
Despite our incomprehension and our doubt, we believe in His
Despite his weakness and poverty, we believe in His reign.
We believe in the Holy Spirit.
Despite appearances we believe He guides the Church;
despite death we believe in eternal life; despite ignorance and disbelief,
we believe that the Kingdom of God is promised to all. Amen.
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Loving heavenly Father, God of eternity, today we look both back and forward: back to the ministry and passion of your Son Jesus, fulfilling the words of ancient scriptures, back to his glorious resurrection, his assurance of life’s triumph over death; and forward to the Church’s earliest years, to challenges made and lives turned round.
As we thank you for the Gospel of hope, and for your offering of forgiveness, give usthe wisdom and courage we need to be your witnesses in today’s world. Through the gift of your Holy Spirit grant us the insight to be true to Jesus’ life and teaching, and the compassion to offer good news to people near and far.
God, we bring you the needs of the world around us, near and far. Help us to show the good news of your love to everyone. Fill us and all your Church with your Holy Spirit, so that we may serve you and others, working with you in building your kingdom, and building up your body on earth.
Amid the challenges of our current situation, help us to live your peace. Grant us the will to use the gifts we have to how and to share your coming kingdom. Equip us to work in your service, and build up your body on earth.
God, we bring you our prayers for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit, especially those with Covid19, and those who have lost loved ones may they know your hope. Be with all who work in the medical profession: medics, support staff, and chaplains; be with those in the emergency services, those keep our post and parcels arriving, and those who deliver and sell our food.
Lead us, God, in humility, gentleness, and patience. Help us to be forbearing with one another, equip us to serve you and others, build up your body on earth, and guide our footsteps and the footsteps of those for whom we pray as we try to follow you.
We ask these and all our prayers, spoken and silent, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Offering and Prayer of Dedication
God has been very generous to so many of us in so many ways. If you’re lucky enough still to have your income coming in each week or each month, our churches and other charities still need our support, whether through our banks and by putting cash aside, so I’m going to offer a prayer for this: Generous God, as thank you for all that you give to us, and we ask you to bless our time, our skills, and our money, as we use them to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hymn Crown him with many crowns
Matthew Bridges 1800 – 1894
Crown Him with many crowns,
the Lamb upon His throne;
Hark! how the heav’nly anthem drowns
all music but its own!
Awake, my soul, and sing
of Him who died for thee,
and hail Him as thy matchless King
through all eternity.
2: Crown Him the Lord of Love:
behold His hands and side;
rich wounds yet visible above
in beauty glorified:
no angel in the sky
can fully bear that sight,
but downward bends his burning eye
at mysteries so bright.
3: Crown Him the Lord of peace,
whose power a sceptre sways
from pole to pole, that wars may cease,
and all be prayer and praise.
His reign shall know no end,
and round His piercéd feet
fair flowers of glory now extend
their fragrance ever sweet.
4: Crown Him the Lord of years,
the Potentate of time.
Creator of the rolling spheres,
All hail, Redeemer, hail!
for Thou hast died for me;
Thy praise shall never, never fail
Our service has ended. As you return to other matters, the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is upon you, and all God’s people, today, tonight, and forever. Amen.
Sources and Thanks
Call to worship adapted from New Patterns of Worship and The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Affirmation of Faith from the Reformed Church of France.
Other liturgical material written by Michael Hopkins.
Ascension Day Sonnet by Malcom Guite used with his permission and from Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press. His blog is worth a look at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog/
Hail the Day sung by the OCP Session Choir.
Christ Triumphant by Hyperion Records.
Crown Him With Many Crowns recorded at Westminster Abbey by the BBC. Music for reflection by Leslie Schramm of Stewarton URC.
Thanks to members of Barrhead URC for recording the Call to Worship and Affirmation of faith and to Kathleen Haynes, Carol Tubbs, and Barbara Redmond for reading various spoken parts of the service.