Surely the most tender, moving ‘farewell’ in history took place on Ascension Day.
Luke records the story with great poignancy: ‘When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands - and blessed them.’
As Christmas began the story of Jesus’ life on earth, so Ascension Day completes it, with his return to his Father in heaven. Jesus’ last act on earth was to bless his disciples. He and they had a bond as close as could be: they had just lived through three tumultuous years of public ministry and miracles – persecution and death – and resurrection!
Just as we part from our nearest and dearest by still looking at them with love and memories in our eyes, so exactly did Jesus: ‘While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven’ (Luke 24:50-51). He was not forsaking them, but merely going on ahead to a kingdom which would also be theirs one day: ‘I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God…’
The disciples were surely the most favoured folk in history. Imagine being one of the last few people on earth to be face to face with Jesus, and have him look on you with love. No wonder then, that Luke goes on: ‘they worshipped him - and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’
No wonder they praised God! They knew they would see Jesus again one day! ‘I am going to prepare a place for you . . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ (John 14:2,3)
In the meantime, Jesus had work for them to do: to take the Gospel to every nation on earth.
We too, having the privilege of knowing the risen (and now ascended) Lord Jesus, worship Jesus with great joy until we are also gathered up and meet him face to face. Joyously willing to fulfil our calling to continue Jesus’ ministry by going into all the world, to make disciples.
Within the Easter story there is at least one disciple, Thomas, who doubted the resurrection.
Doubt is a common response to life as we see it. Doubt can be a good thing, it often prevents us from rushing into something without due caution. It is not a sign of weakness nor is it a lack of faith. Doubt only becomes a problem if we persist in an attitude which refuses to accept the revealed truth and person of Jesus Christ.
Do you ever look at other Christians and wonder: ‘Do they REALLY believe this stuff? That Jesus really was the Son of God who rose again, and is alive today?’
Doubt is an honest place to be, and is not the opposite of Christian faith. To believe is to be in one mind. To disbelieve is to be in one mind also. To doubt is to waver between the two minds. To doubt is to be willing to believe it – IF you can find evidence to back up the story.
If you are in this state of ‘two-minds’ over the Easter story, you may find the story of the disciple Thomas (John 20:24-29) to be helpful. Unlike the other disciples, he was not present on that first Easter night when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. Instead, Thomas was told some-one whom he’d seen crucified and dead was alive again three days later, in perfect health.
Thomas had been devoted to Jesus, but the fact that dead people don’t rise again was just too much for him. So despite the joy of the other disciples, he could get only as far as: ‘unless I see the nail marks... I will not believe it.’
It was a week later that Jesus appeared again to his disciples and confronted Thomas. He said simply: ‘Put your finger here; see my hands . . . stop doubting and believe.’
Jesus then looked forward to all the millions of people in the future who would never meet him in person, and so would have understandable grounds to doubt. ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’
Thomas needed physical recognition before he could say ‘My Lord and My God.’
Today, if you want to believe, but honestly struggle with doubt, talk to someone about it and try using this simple prayer:
‘Lord Jesus, I have never seen you in person. So I sometimes doubt that you exist. The Bible tells us that it’s only the Holy Spirit who can open our ‘spiritual eyes’, and so I ask you to do that for me. Please give me not physical recognition, but faith recognition. I will do my bit, and read about you each day in the Bible. Through your Word, please open my spiritual eyes so that I can see you clearly as Jesus, the risen Son of God.”
Today is our Sailing the Course 2011 booking day. PJ recently interviewed our speaker, Rev Ian Coffey. Here are some of the reasons he gave for why we should book our place at Ashburnham for this September.
PJ: What is the value of a church weekend away?
Ian: I think the value of a church weekend is three things: First, it’s about friendship. We don’t just have 20 minutes at the end of a service we actually have a weekend to get to know some of those people. The second thing is that it’s to do with listening. We have an opportunity to listen to God outside of the normal confines of our environment. And the third thing is that it’s about vision. Because I’ve often found in my experience as a church leader those things that we’ve been reaching towards have crystallised... and we’ve seen the next step on the journey.
PJ: What are your hopes for our weekend away in September?
Ian: The prayer that I always pray... is that God would equip me in order that the words that come are not my words but God’s words. And the safety of that is that we’re coming from Scripture. I always pray that God would prepare people so that they are ready to listen. But I also ask that God would allow some of those moments to come, where we end up in conversations that are just a small spontaneous moment of God, where we open up about something, where we share with someone a need, they pray for us, something is said as a word of encouragement or affirmation... where we are perhaps walking on our own or talking with a friend, and the Lord Jesus draws close to us and we hear him speaking.
PJ: What would you say to someone who is in two minds about coming?
Ian: I just feel that often in church generally, we come in, we have the service, we maybe chat for a few minutes and we go out. And our relationships become terribly superficial. And the value of this weekend at Ashburnham, is that it’s an opportunity to go deeper – deeper with God, but deeper with each other - and away from the normal pressures of a weekend at home and all the things we’re trying to fit in. Here’s an opportunity for space, to reflect and to relax and to be together with God.
At 31st December 2010, All Saints' electoral roll had 450 parishioners, of which 269 were residents of Lindfield. That means nearly 5% of the adult population of Lindfield (say 6,000) are on the electoral roll of All Saints. Plus, Lindfield has two other churches focused on the village, another that meets in the village, and a good number of residents that worship at churches outside the parish.
We praise God for such an abundance of Christians and churches. We also long for the many (still the majority of Lindfield!) who do not know Christ to come to know Him.
However, such numbers stand in stark contrast to the situation in the part of the world that OMF is focused on: East Asia.
In Japan, there are 24 cities with no church at all, and over half of its 1,020 towns and villages have no church either. Many rural areas are scarcely touched by the gospel - including many of the areas hit by the recent devastating tsunami.
Indonesia's huge population (232 million) comprises over 750 distinct people groups. Of these, there are 128 people groups larger than 10,000 people with a Christian population of less than 1%. Together, these 128 groups account for 60% of the country's people (i.e., 140 million people). Thirty of these groups have no known believers or full-time Christian workers.
There are vigorous churches in many of the peoples of East Asia. South Korea (which now sends out more missionaries than the UK) has one of the largest. However, there are still many unreached peoples, where - if someone does not cross barriers of language, culture, ethnicity and prejudice - they will not hear of Christ.
As the apostle Paul wrote:
"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent."
This Sunday we start our time looking at Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, and what a fascinating and relevant letter it is. You may find it helpful to read right through it (and possibly his second letter as well) at some time in the coming week.
Corinth was a port city, a trading centre at the crossroads of Greece. Everyone and everything that needed to go from northern Greece to the south had to pass through the narrow strip of land (just 4 miles wide) that Corinth was built on. And this was also true of all east/west trade between Rome and its empire as well, which was brought by sea up the long Saronic Gulf and then transported across the isthmus before being reloaded on to ships that would set off for Turkey and all points further east.
The church in Corinth was a very young church – when he wrote this letter it was just three or four years since Paul had founded it on his second preaching tour in AD 50 (see Acts 18). He had arrived in Corinth straight from an unsuccessful mission in Athens: exhausted, still recovering from the beatings he had received in northern Greece and perhaps rather depressed; the prospect of preaching in a rough port city with a reputation for immorality frightened him. He stayed there for 18 months, making tents for a living and preaching, first in the synagogue and then in the house next door when he was thrown out by the Jews. A tiny church began to grow, made up of a very mixed bunch of people – as you would expect in this cosmopolitan town.
We can see from his letters that Paul grew to love them and to care for them; all together he wrote to them four times and visited them three times, more than any other church he founded.
Many of the issues Paul writes to them about still affect us today: cliques and factions, leadership, living in a pagan society, marriage, worship, our common life together, and many others. I think we will have much to learn from this letter.