Ascension – a new normal?

(Readings: Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11)

As I came to the end of my training for ministry, I went to visit an isolated farm in the North Pennines to arrange a baptism. I parked the car on the road and walked down the track to the gate of the farmyard. A large dog ran up, barking, put its paws on the top rung of the gate and looked me in the eye. I’m ok with dogs, tentatively reached out and the dog was fine. I opened the gate and went in. I then got to the entrance to the garden, through which was the path to the farmhouse door. Unfortunately standing in the entrance was the biggest black and white pig I had ever seen. Nothing in my training had prepared me for this new situation! I tried calling it, patting it, shooing it but it wouldn’t budge. It was a bit of an impasse and a time before mobile phones. In the end the farmer’s wife saw me from the window and came out to rescue me. She just called it’s name (Gilbert!) and off it trotted. I learnt early on that life as a minister was going to be full of the unexpected for which I was unprepared.

A few months ago the phrase ‘the new normal’ would not have meant much to any of us. Having said that any of us who have ever experienced a major life changing event might recognise the sense of a ‘new normal’. We adapt to new ways of living and routines whether we want to or not. The ‘new normal’ has now entered our vocabulary as we start thinking about how things are going to be in the weeks, months and years to come. It applies to society, communities, churches, families, shopping, cafes, etc. We will be working out new routines, practices etc. Is this what any of us were expecting at the start of 2020? I expect not!

This experience, however, puts us in good company alongside the disciples. The ascension of Jesus draws a line in the Jesus story. It marks a big change for the disciples. Jesus was no longer going to be around in the way he had been. Everything changed. The whole world and the lives of the disciples had changed. Is that what they wanted? Is it what they had been expecting even a few months before – I expect not! They were facing a ‘new normal’ with no ‘ladybird’ guide as to what to expect, what to do and no doubt feeling somewhat unprepared.

The story of the ascension as recorded in Acts 1:6-14 is a hinge point in Luke’s telling of the gospel story. The gospel written by Luke is Volume 1 and the Acts of the Apostles is volume 2. The ascension marks a transition of disciples to apostles. From learners/followers to those who are sent. Of course, they continue to be disciples and they had already been identified as apostles earlier by Luke (6.13). But there is a significant change in their understanding, their reality at this point. A change that encompasses the whole of creation as Jesus identified in that passage from the gospel (John 17:1-11).

Jesus ‘finished the work’ revealing the Father’s glory which was there before the world began. Christ is more than a world changing event, Christ is creation changing event, everything is transformed. This is the new creation, a new normal and this is the world the apostles (and we) now inhabit. But the disciple apostles know that in this changed world they are not alone. There may not be a ‘ladybird’ guide but there are the words and actions of Jesus inhabiting the scriptures. This is to be their guide not simply as something they have learnt but as something that is alive within them. A lived reality – a new normal. This was what John Wesley discovered when he felt his heart strangely warmed in Aldersgate Street on 24 May 1738. In this new creation God’s words are in us, but even more than that God’s Word is in us: All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them (17:10). And what do the disciples do immediately after seeing Jesus being lifted up? They locked themselves away and devoted themselves to prayer. As we prepare for what lies ahead prayer is a good place to start recognising the words and Word of God within.

Peace be with you.

With love, Nick

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