Sunday after Ascension Day

This morning’s service was live-streamed from St Margaret’s church by Rev Sue, assisted by +David. You can watch again here:

The service included two items from the Thy Kingdom Come website:

You can read Rev Sue’s sermon again here:

The one who knows our every need

When our daughter was 11, I came home one evening to find her in tears. “What’s the matter?” I asked? “Daddy has been helping me with my maths homework. I can’t do fractions”. Now, I know, and most of you know, that fractions are really difficult to understand. But unfortunately, Emma’s dad didn’t. He was utterly perplexed that anyone would fail to understand something so simple, and she concluded that she must be really stupid. He was banned from ever helping with maths homework again. He was allowed to tell the children whether the answer was right, but never to attempt to explain anything. What the children needed was not just someone who understood maths, but someone who understood them, and the way their minds work.

Luke, who also wrote Acts, more than the other gospel writers, realises that what we need is a God who understands us. In the Old Testament prophets knew God as powerful, compassionate and interested in human affairs. He knew them as an artist knows his creation. But he didn’t know what it was like to be them. Luke describes Jesus in the way that makes us realise that he was a real living, breathing human being, who ate and drank and slept and wept, who could be maltreated but who could forgive. The point of the story of Jesus rising bodily into heaven, is not that heaven is a place, but that Jesus has never ceased to be a human being. After he was raised from the dead, he was different. Even those closest to him didn’t always recognise him, he would appear and disappear, but he explained to them that he was not a ghost, but real flesh and bones. To make the point he ate a piece of fish. He was transformed, yet human still. He had conquered death, so would die no more. I wonder whether the disciples thought that he would be with them always, in Palestine, throughout their whole lives? But just as children cannot become adults if they live always with their parents looking on, the disciples couldn’t turn into the missionaries that took the gospel throughout the known world while Jesus was there in person. He had to leave, to allow them the freedom to achieve their potential.

But what that meant was that Jesus, fully human still, was now seated at the right hand of God. In heaven we have a human being who knows pain and loss, suffering and joy, frailty and even humour, just like us. When we pray to the Father, we do so through Jesus Christ our Lord, knowing that he understands our every need.

One way of looking at prayer is simply that we are conscious of being in the presence of God.  Prayer is not words, but words are one of the ways we express to each other our awareness of God, by articulating our response to the gift of his presence. In church we have a mixture of ways of praying. Some prayers we use every week, because we human beings vary so little in our basic nature. We will, for example, always have sins to confess. Other prayers vary season by season. Just a few weeks ago we were focusing on the sadness and shame of the crucifixion – now we express the joy and triumph of the resurrection. But the prayers that change week by week, are those we call the intercessions. They are led by a variety of people, because they need to express the breadth of the concerns throughout our congregation. If you don’t think that they do that, there is room for you on the rota!

The word intercession means asking someone to explain our needs for us, like asking a barrister to plead our case in court. It is not that the Father does not understand us, but words are inadequate to express our hopes and longings, our wishes and fears, and we know that Jesus in his life on earth experienced the feelings we experience and, in his humanity, understands everything we struggle to articulate. Jesus is at the right hand of the father, who has sent the Holy Spirit to convey our prayers to him. To quote Sam Wells, there, too, are the saints and angels, “who are not pleading on their own behalf; they are in heaven, after all; everything that was a cause of pain or distress or regret in earlier times has been transformed into blessing, and they want for nothing for themselves. So they are constantly interceding to God on our behalf”.

The task of the Holy Spirit is to convey our prayers to the Father through the Son, and at the same time makes Jesus present to us both in the words of the Bible and in Holy Communion. The Spirit is the Go-between God who is forever connecting heaven and earth.

When David finished his curacy, his vicar asked what he would like as a leaving present. To save embarrassment he asked him to suggest a range of things he might like, a bit like a wedding list, so the parish would find something to match the amount collected. I remember the first thing he put on the list was a box of paper clips, the he included some more expensive things, like a stole. Of course, he got some, but not all the things he asked for. It definitely included the paper clips. Sometimes we slip into presenting God with our shopping list. We think that an end to the pandemic is a likely option, and we include world peace because we feel we should, but with no real hope. But this is because we forget that we have met God in Jesus crucified on the cross – a compassionate and suffering God who cares deeply about our every need.  When we pray, we are not listing our requests, but expressing our deepest desires, and with them the willingness to co-operate in the transforming work of God. We have seen the ultimate transformation in the pain, betrayal, shame and death of Jesus on the cross  into the new life of resurrection joy, and in every story, every picture of the Risen Christ we see his wounds, no longer painful or death dealing, but they have become the symbol of victory of hope over despair, life over death and joy over sorrow. Those illnesses, bereavements, wars and famines, and all the anguish brought to so many lives in so many ways by the coronavirus are the wounds which can become for us the blessings. I do not say this lightly. The suffering is real, and there is no way round it. As we pray, we acknowledge that reality in ourselves and others and ask for the strength to keep going, while the processes of healing and redemption continue their work beneath the surface until their fruits of peace and new beginnings appear.

As we remember the ascension of Jesus that puts a human being on the throne at the Father’s right hand, and we wait with the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, it is fitting that this should be a particular time of prayer. So we are called to make a special effort by joining in with Thy Kingdom Come, the international movement across denominations. You will have received prayer journals to fill in, and there are many more resources on the website. Let us pause for a moment and listen to Pete James singing the familiar 2018 song, Your Kingdom Come.

In a few moments, Carol will offer prayers on our behalf. May each and every one of us become part of that process of joining our hearts with hers, offering our petitions to the Father through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, praying that as God hears our heartfelt requests he will work in us and all those we pray for his transforming power of healing and salvation.

I am indebted to the book: Crafting Prayers for Public Worship: The Art of Intercession by Samuel Wells

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