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Thursday, 1 June 2017

Step up to the plate

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

The expression “step up to the plate” refers to “voluntarily assuming responsibility for something.” However, when someone seems to have a particular role or responsibility covered, it is then difficult for others to see the part that they could play or to think there is a need to play their part. That is, in part, what Jesus is addressing with his disciples in his farewell discourse (John 15. 26&2716. 1-4).

In the farewell discourses and also in many of his parables, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the point when he would leave them. That point was reached with his Ascension. Among the parables Jesus told to prepare his disciples was the Parable of the Talents, where the Master in the story is absent for much of the time. By telling stories where the central character was absent or left, Jesus was saying that he would be leaving and that, when he did so, he was going to entrust them with the responsibility of continuing his mission and ministry.

This was and is an awesome responsibility and we can readily understand why, for example, the third worker in the Parable of the Talents is depicted as being paralysed by fear at the prospect of the Master’s absence. However, it also shows the value that Jesus saw in his disciples and sees in us. It is amazing but true that God believes in us enough to entrust us with working towards the coming of his kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

The question, then, was whether Jesus’ first disciples (and by implication, all who follow, including ourselves) will step up to the plate and assume responsibility. When the one that was thought of as being in charge and responsible was no longer with the disciples physically, they were made aware of their own responsibilities. Jesus is recorded as saying in our Gospel reading that there were things he did not say to his disciples at the beginning because he was with them at that stage. It was only at the point that Jesus was to leave that it became essential that they heard those things. It was only at that point that they could hear those things.

What Jesus was saying was a version of the popular statement that no one is indispensable, even him. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” is another similar saying, popularly attributed to Charles de Gaulle. The reality for Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, was that he could not personally share his message and love across the known world or throughout history without disciples committed to following him and sharing him with others.

Therefore, at the Ascension, Jesus was like an Olympic torchbearer passing his light on to his disciples and calling them to bear his light. This could only happen as those following him acted as his hands and feet, his eyes, ears and mouth, his body wherever they are. That is essentially the challenge of the Ascension for us, but this challenge is combined with the promise that Jesus will send his Spirit to us to empower and equip us to be his people.

For this reason, the Ascension and Pentecost are intimately linked. The Ascension provides the challenge – “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples” (Matthew 28. 19) – and Pentecost provides the means - “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In this way we are been given the resources needed to fulfil our responsibility. Similarly, in the Parable of the Talents, the Master gave out resources (the ‘talents’) alongside responsibilities. In the same way, after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit came to empower Jesus’ disciples.

Do we recognise that each of us has much that we can give; that we are all people with talents and possessions however lacking in confidence and means we may sometimes be? We all have something we can offer, so how can we, through our lives and work, benefit and develop the world for which God has given humanity responsibility? What resources - in terms of abilities, job, income and possessions - has God given to us in order to fulfil our responsibility to bear his light in this dark world? Through his Ascension, Jesus challenges us as to whether we will be faithful or unfaithful servants? How will we respond? If we accept the responsibility we have been given, we can then pray for quiet courage to match this hour. We did not choose to be born or to live in such an age; but we can ask that its problems challenge us, its discoveries exhilarate us, its injustices anger us, its possibilities inspire us and its vigour renew us for the sake of Christ’s kingdom come, on earth as in his heaven.


Charles Wesley - Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise.

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