As we prepare to worship, I invite you to watch the following video, sung by the Birmingham Citadel Salvation Army Singers, giving us assurance that wherever we are and whatever we face God will always be with us.
Call to worship
Come near to God and he will come near to you (James 4:8)
Lord God, we come to worship you (this morning/evening) with your command to draw near to you ringing in our ears. It sounds so obvious Lord, so simple, but we find it so difficult. A thousand trivial things get in the way such as our appetites, the television, our hobbies, or even the tickle we have in the small of our back. Help us this morning Lord to forget all these and to bring you our whole attention so that we can hear you speaking to us. And when we have heard, help us to obey. Amen
Jennifer Martin – The United Reformed Church
Sing Praise to God who reigns above (Singing the Faith 117. Hymns & Psalms 511)
Prayers of Adoration, Praise & Confession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)
Almighty God , at this time we come to You together in spirit rather than as a physical congregation, to praise you for all that you are and all that you do for the world. You have shown us your truth and your love through your Son Jesus Christ. Help us at this time to worship you in spirit and in truth. Help us to be aware of your presence with us at this time so that we may pray to you in faith, may sing your praise with gratitude and listen to your Word with eagerness.
Almighty God, you are infinite and eternal in wisdom, in power and in love. We know that our words can never fully describe your nature and that our minds and only begin to glimpse a little of your greatness. But we come as we are, and we bring what we are to offer You our worship as a sign of our love and an expression of our praise. We praise you again for the world in which we live and all the beauty and wonder of your creation. We praise and thank you for the lives you have given us and for all that you have done in and through your Son Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, we thank you again this morning that in this difficult time in all our lives we know that we are never alone; you are always here with us and that we can always depend on you. We thank you that always you are faithful, you are true, you are loving, and you are merciful. We thank you that at this time, day by day, week by week, month by month you are still working out your purposes; that seen or unseen, recognised or unrecognised, through your Holy Spirit, you are still moving and building your kingdom in today’s troubled world.
Almighty God, as we bring you our praise and thanks, we also recognise that there have been times when we have not lived faithfully as your disciples. That there have been times when we have not loved you as you have loved us; times when we have not loved our neighbours as we love ourselves and times when we have preferred our ways to your ways. We come to you now, repenting of our failings, seeking your forgiveness, and asking for your help to change, to become people whose lives clearly witness to your love and who live in ways which are consistent with what we believe and are honouring to You. Help us always to remember that your Son Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and that to all who turn to him he says, “Your sins are forgiven”
We bring this our prayer in the name of your Son Jesus Christ in whose words we all now pray together “OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN……….”
Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35
Acts 1: 6-14 – read by Beth Guttridge of St Mark’s
Refection – Acts
It’s been six weeks since Easter Sunday, and only now do we have the story of the Ascension. Jesus isn’t gone for long though, because next week we have Pentecost, a reminder should we need it, that Jesus is eternally present.
I wonder, when you think of heaven, what spring to mind? We are all influenced by the artists of the past, so for many of us, despite our rational minds telling us it can’t possibly be so, our thoughts go ‘upwards’. Wherever heaven is, it seems to be ‘up there’. When my son’s friend tragically died a couple of years ago, the tributes has a common theme for him to ‘fly high.’ I found it fascinating that despite most of these teenagers declaring no religious faith, the language they reached for at a time of grief was deeply religious, confirming that life wouldn’t end for their friend and that whatever happened to him after death, he was still somehow alive. For many of us, when using our hands in worship, we point ‘up’ to God, we raise our eyes and hearts heavenward. Up is good; it is where we assume God and heaven are found.
So we might all have sympathy with the disciples, when confronted with an actual cloud that seems to lift Jesus beyond their sight, they are left standing and gazing upwards. How unreasonable then, when a couple of people (are these angels?) give the disciples a ticking off for looking in the wrong place. They had just witnessed Jesus go ‘up’; of course that’s where their eyes were searching.
But this seems to be a continuation of the disciples getting it wrong – a familiar scene for anyone who has read the gospel accounts of disciples frequently misunderstanding, asking the wrong questions, being in a state of confusion about who Jesus was and making mistakes. This story starts with them talking to Jesus in expectation. They asked him, so you’ve hung around for a while now after your resurrection, we assume that’s because you’re about to do something spectacular. Is now the time when you’re going to make everything better? You seemed to be doing so well, and then you got yourself killed and we were massively disappointed, but your resurrection confirmed your ability to put things right. What they’re actually asking is, when are you going to be the Messiah we want you to be?
Jesus replies, it’s not for you to know. It’s not for you to dictate when or how God’s purposes will be worked out. It’s not for you to determine whose side God is on. But just in case the disciples yet again felt hurt and confused, Jesus reminded them that with God they are never alone. They will receive God’s holy spirit and through that power will be able to fulfil the mission of Jesus to the whole world. And that’s the point when he vanishes.
I wonder how the disciples felt. They had just placed all of their expectations on Jesus, and in putting the responsibility for action on his shoulders, they were of course, denying that they had any part to play. As we will learn next week, the one thing we can say about God’s Holy Spirit is, she loves company. Jesus cannot fulfil his mission independently and in isolation. He needs the disciples to step up.
In the Methodist Church, or at least in those churches that I have been a part of, Ascension Day has never been a big deal. Perhaps we don’t like emphasising the absence of Jesus. When we read of Jesus being lifted up out of sight into a cloud, it all feels a bit implausible, the stuff of magic. We want to ask, how is it done. Since the age of Enlightenment we have become fixated on the notion that facts equal truth, that the things of the Bible are problematic because myths are not facts. We worry about the corporeal being of flesh and bones; where is that if the tomb is empty? Where did the body of Jesus actually go? In our modern age, we might want to send a drone up with Jesus with a camera on board to capture on film the events happening in real time. And some of our theology has tied itself up in knots because if we cannot establish these things as fact, they cannot be held to be true.
The disciples are being so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use, as the phrase goes. Jesus calls us back to terra firma. To the reality of where life is, to where people are and where the need is greatest. The mission of Jesus was to promote love and justice and he did that not by daydreaming and stargazing, but by embracing the gritty reality of peoples lives and entering into their spaces to heal and restore.
The story of the ascension is a universal one – Jesus is not left in just one geographical place at one particular point in history. His ascension and the arrival of the holy spirit soon after releases Jesus to be in all places in all time. That’s why we refer to the risen Jesus; Jesus is alive because he is no longer subject to a historical life. If all we do is get bogged down with what happened to his actual body, we consign this story to an event which only occurred 2000 years ago and has little or no relevance to us today.
The post-resurrection Jesus is different – he tells his followers not to hold onto him, he appears not recognised and disappears without warning, he enters locked rooms and now we have him disappearing into the weather. It is only Luke who tells us this story as a continuation from his gospel when he is writing about the activities of the new disciples, the apostles. And in this story Luke is drawing a line under the life of Jesus – scene one has ended, the curtain has come down and we’re just about to witness the start of scene 2. The ascension is absolutely necessary – the resurrection was such a dramatic twist – like the Spanish inquisition, no-one expected that to happen. But the drama of the resurrection would have just petered out if we didn’t have a final moment. It was necessary Jesus should come into this world, and just as necessary that he should leave it.
The ascension can remind us not to be pulled down, but to be set free; to be liberated to allow the holy spirit of God to enter our lives, to be the living presence of Jesus. So, don’t look for Jesus thinking he is a long way above us; rather than looking up, we can look within ourselves to find him. Jesus has not left us. Jesus has filled us.
When circumstances make my life too hard to understand (Singing the Faith 641. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
(for a reflection on this hymn, see: https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/when-circumstances-make-my-life-too-hard-to-understand-stf-641/ )
John 17: 1-11
1 Peter 4: 12-14, 5: 6-11 – read by Stephen Varley
The reading from 1 Peter speaks to an audience suffering an ordeal, reminding them to ‘cast all your anxieties on God’, with the promise of restoration, support, and strength. I find this particularly relevant at the moment, when most of us are finding this lockdown increasingly difficult. It seems to become more of an ordeal with every passing week. There is much anxiety around and mental health crises have increased.
Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and The Mental Health Foundation has chosen this year’s theme to be ‘kindness’. Studies unsurprisingly show that both those who are being kind and those who receive kindness find an increase in their wellbeing. If we can be kind, we see a reduction in our own stress levels, and we are more able to reimagine a better world and help to make that happen. For those on the receiving end of acts of kindness, these acts do not have to be extravagant or time consuming to have a significant impact on a reduction in anxiety levels. A simple act of kindness can transform a person’s day.
Peter is writing during the reign of Emperor Nero, a known hater of Christians, who mercilessly persecuted the church for over a decade. Peter knew that trouble was brewing and potentially heading their way. He’s trying to give these early Christians, these Followers of the Way greater understanding about why they might suffer, and to provide them with reassurance of the strength of God.
I wonder, how many of us are feeling anxious at the moment? How many of us are worrying about this virus, about the health of the ones we love, about when and how the church can meet again, about how we can safely get our shopping done this week, about whether this years crop of strawberries will be any good. There are many things that cause us to worry and feel anxious.
Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (Matthew 6:34)
I am an optimist. My husband is a pessimist. He says a pessimist can never be disappointed. But I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and in the immortal words of Monty Python, will try and always look on the bright side of life. So why have I found the last couple of weeks so difficult? Why am I struggling to cast off my anxieties and look to God for restoration? I was listening recently to a sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber (I’ve mentioned her before – she’s worth checking out) who talked on exactly this issue. She told the story of some prisoners of war during the second world war. When they were eventually released, one of them was asked, out of their group, who coped the best during their confinement. The pessimists, came the reply. The optimists were constantly hoping and expecting rescue and kept getting disappointed and eventually this had a crushing effect on their morale.
I know in my conversations with many of you that we’ve all been experiencing the occasional wobble. For some of us, it might feel more intense than a wobble, a bit more serious that is perilously close to crushing our morale. So my message for you, which is a message I need too right now, is not to worry about tomorrow and to cast your anxieties on God. Try not to get sucked into thinking too far ahead. Most of us did not initially reckon on the lockdown lasting this long and our worries are now being propelled to a future worry.
Jesus reminds us that today has worries of its own and that’s enough to be coping with. There is no point in trying to paint a rosy picture about the pandemic – the statistics are grim. It can be very helpful to be honest about how we are all feeling; by expressing how we feel can be helpful to mental good health. Suppressing our feelings is the opposite of this. But this isn’t the end of the story. Today is just one day. For now, it might be a bit rubbish, but our hope is in the eternal and extraordinarily gracious God. And that hope can restore our soul. It doesn’t always make today better, but it can remind us that today will pass. If we can rest within God, to rely on God’s strength and support, we can be assured that eventually all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
You will never run away
Prayers of Intercession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)
O Loving God we give you our thanks that you are always with us ; that you are with us in both good times and bad times – particularly that you are with us as struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus . When we are uncertain about what lies ahead may we turn to you for guidance. When we are discouraged or depressed may we turn to you for inspiration. When we are in despair may we turn to you for hope.
We thank you for your love, your mercy and your faithfulness. As we remember that your love never ceases , that your mercy is renewed every day and that your faithfulness is so great may this give us the confidence that in the days that lie ahead whatever problems we may face , whatever disappointments come our way, whatever sadness we may experience , you will grant us the hope that stems from the confidence that you will always be with us and will have a continuing purpose for us.
At this time we pray for the leaders of the Christian church that they may be enabled to use the opportunity given by the impact of the coronavirus which has both disrupted our set ways and also highlighted the really crucial links in our communities. May the church be enabled to reassess our priorities and make changes that bring us closer to our neighbours and closer to You.
At this time there are so many people for whom we want to pray that you are with them at this their time of need. We think of those who are now ill from the corona virus and those recovering (sometimes over a lengthy time) from such illness. We think of the thousands of bereaved relatives and friends of the victims of the virus.
We think of the doctors, nurses and other health and care workers treating and caring for those suffering from the virus – sometimes at great risk to themselves. We think of the millions whose daily lives have been disrupted by the “lock down” arrangements some who do not know whether they will have a job in the future and some isolated at home on their own. We think finally of the leaders of our nation who must take decisions and make choices which will have life and death consequences for so many – that they be given the wisdom and the strength to discharge this task in the best interests of all.
Finally, a (slightly edited) prayer by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century:-
Give us O Lord:- a steadfast heart which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;
an unconquered heart which no tribulation can wear out;
an upright heart which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside;
Bestow upon us also O Lord our God:-
understanding to know You;
diligence to seek You;
wisdom to find You;
and a faithfulness that may finally embrace You,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
May the God of strength support you
May the God of healing restore you
May the God of grace surround you
May the God of hope embolden you
And may the God of love enfold you and those you love, today and every day. Amen