It was lovely yesterday morning to conduct worship services in two rural Kinross-shire congregations, in beautiful settings on bright sunny days after the recent depressing weather. The people in both places were lovely, radiant in their faith.
We were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus and all that it means to us. If you're not familiar with the story you can read it here. Thursday just past was Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).
And this Sunday coming, churches the world over will be celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church.
I would argue that Christmas, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost are all of pretty much equal importance in the Christian faith. Not the festivals themselves.... what we DO to celebrate or even WHEN we celebrate them isn't fundamental. But a Christian faith that only focusses on Christmas and Easter is not a proper faith at all, in my opinion.
The world and its wife celebrate Christmas. It may be only May but behind the scenes the retail
business will already be making its plans for the Christmas bonanza. Easter isn't such a big thing but is still quite commercialised, and there is a bank holiday and Easter eggs (the first promotion of Easter eggs for this year that I saw was on New Year's Day). And of course, pre-Christianity there were festivals at those times of year anyway.
However, when it comes to Ascension Day and Pentecost, we in the Church are left to our own devices. The card shops don't sell "Happy Ascension Day" or "Happy Pentecost" cards. Sometimes I wonder if we take our cue from the world and largely ignore the two events ourselves.
It's not celebrating the festivals that I'm concerned about, though I'm all in favour, but it's remembering the other two corners that complete the square along with Christmas and Easter in the structure of our faith.
We need to believe in the Ascension, and focus on it sometimes, to remind ourselves of some key things:
1) Jesus went into heaven in front of His friends' eyes and that's where He is now.
2) In heaven one of the things He is doing is fulfilling His earthly promise to go and prepare a place for us!
3) In heaven He is also interceding for (praying for) us.
4) In heaven He is glorified and ruling along with the Father.
That last one is so important for us to remember and focus on, and explains why a faith based solely on Christmas and Easter will be a weak and ineffectual one. The Christmas story is awesome - God becoming one of us, humbling Himself to come as a wee baby in a manger in a stable in a backwater place, is the "Incarnation". The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus 33 years later mean the difference between being lost and found for us. Through that first Easter, death and sin are defeated and it is now possible for us to be reconciled to God and adopted as His children and citizens of His kingdom.
However, the two images of Jesus we have through these stories are weak images. Jesus was weak and defenceless when He was a baby in a manger. He was even weaker when He was hanging, broken, on the cross. But He was only a baby for however long one is officially a baby (a year?) and He was only on the cross for a matter of hours. Through the story of the Ascension we are powerfully reminded that for the best part of 2000 years, Jesus has not been weak and powerless and defenceless. We pray not to a defenceless baby nor a dying man but to a risen, glorified king - indeed the King of Kings. When John saw a vision of Jesus as He is now, described in Revelation 1:12-18, he quite understandably fainted!
When I was a small kid in the playground, whenever there was an altercation between two children, you would hear, "I'll get my big brother on you!" I think I probably said it myself even though I didn't have a big brother. In heaven, Christians have the ultimate big brother - and he's rooting for us.
And then there's Pentecost - the other corner. Jesus left the Earth and rose up into Heaven where He's at work on our behalf. But He left us the Holy Spirit to empower us and counsel us and comfort us. Without the Holy Spirit we'd be as much use as an electrical gadget without electricity.
A mature Christian faith has all four corners in place - the festivals are fine and fun, but the doctrines that they celebrate will make a world of difference to us if we fully grasp all four of them.