The Sunday after Ascension
Psalms 47 and 108, Leviticus 16: 1 – 24 and Acts 1: 1 – 14
Thus he (Aaron) shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins …. Leviticus 16: 16
‘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.’ Acts 1: 11
O God the King of Glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen. Collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day.
This evening’s Old Testament reading may seem rather obscure, speaking of the precise ritual Aaron needed to follow when he entered the most holy part of the Tabernacle, but the punishment of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, described in chapter 10, emphasises the extreme obedience and attention to detail necessary for Aaron to fulfil his duties on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9: 1 – 7). This day was an overarching day to atone for the sins of the entire people, as against the other regular sacrifices for individual sin. It serves as a powerful reminder of two things: firstly, the absolute holiness of God, and secondly the severe limits on how God could be approached and by whom. It is this background of God’s holy anger at the manifestation of sin that underwrites the entire Old Testament. Yes, God could be appeased by sacrifices, but this was a never-ending task because of the constant sinfulness of the people, despite their best efforts to keep the Law. Through this we are reminded once more of why it was necessary for the Son of God himself to come to earth to become sin for us, to make a single, sufficient sacrifice of his own life.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a detailed argument about how Jesus was uniquely able to fulfil this task, so that he became the high priest interceding between sinful humankind and the holy, distant God. All this separation because of sin, was dealt with as Jesus died on the cross (Hebrews 9: 11 – 14). The tearing from top to bottom of the huge curtain in the Jerusalem Temple, coinciding with the death of Jesus, and opening the way into the Holy of Holies, was symbolic of the new, unrestricted access to a God who had become near because of Jesus (Hebrews 10: 19 – 22).
That work was now completed. Over the past month we have thought of the glorious Resurrection and how Jesus made a number of appearances to the disciples to complete their training. Loose ends had been tied up, such as Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus by the seashore in John 21: 15 – 23. In our reading from Acts chapter one we are taken to the hillside outside Jerusalem forty days after the Resurrection. Jesus’ final words are to confirm that the timeline for future restoration of the kingdom of Israel, and indeed the day when Jesus would return, are with his Father. Jesus once more promises the imminent power from the Holy Spirit to equip them as the good news would spread from Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.
I was struck by the words of the two angels who appeared as the disciples craned their necks looking up as Jesus disappeared from sight: ‘Men of Galilee’. This designation links them to a rustic locality, looked down on by the snobs of Jerusalem. It is a reminder that Jesus chose ordinary working people from an unfashionable area to be his voice for the future. This designation is also a reminder that the geographical confines or labels we still use, mean nothing in the worldwide kingdom of God. In fact, we are citizens of heaven, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2: 19 – 20 (a passage we have thought about before in relation to Jesus being the cornerstone of the worldwide Church).
On Good Friday we remembered the last words of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished’ (or accomplished). Sin was unequivocally conquered by Jesus as he gave his life for us. The Resurrection showed God’s power in overcoming death and justifying all who believe (see Romans chapter 5). The Ascension was now visible proof that everything had indeed been accomplished and that Jesus could return to his rightful place enthroned in heavenly splendour. The righteous God had stooped to earth to right the blight of sin; now the scene was ready for Pentecost.
The fears of the disciples that Jesus was leaving them alone to fend for themselves was a real concern. With their track record of failure and not remembering the prophecies and promises of Jesus, how would they fare? Our reading from Acts 1 ends with a good sign of their new intent to trust Jesus’ words. They returned to Jerusalem and, along with ‘certain women’, including Jesus’ mother and brothers, ‘devoted themselves to prayer’. They were praying expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit, as our collect for today reiterates.
The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now:
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty victor’s brow.
Thomas Kelly (1769 – 1855)
Kevin Boak, Lay Reader