This and That: a sermon at Little St Mary’s at the Confirmation Eucharist on Ascension Day

e77e705c8cf6ca01b15b4c414b0c8442“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures… and lifting up his hands he blessed them.”

Do you remember how Jesus did just the same thing with the Scriptures for the disciples on the Emmaus Road? Now at his Ascension he is doing it for the whole disciple company, for the church as a whole. In Jesus Christ God is doing a radically new thing, but one that is in radical continuity with his Old Covenant as well, opening up its full meaning and promised future. Jesus is both Alpha and Omega: he was in the beginning, he is now, and he will be when we stand in judgment before him.

So this new thing by no means ends with the end of the Scriptures. The story goes on. Jesus promises the Paraclete and his promise is not in vain. The trajectory of the Spirit in the Old Testament as his work slowly spreads from the favoured few to the promised pouring out on all flesh is wonderfully fulfilled, in a grand democritization of the work of God. Nor is there any hint at all in Scripture that this is a temporary arrangement.

So as we meet today, celebrate today, are confirmed today, live out our lives today, staying in the city as it were, how are we to inherit the promise of the Paraclete? How are we to meet with Jesus, see the Scriptures fall open before us, know his presence and the fire of his Spirit?

The great insight of the Catholic tradition within which the church we are meeting stands is that this is precisely what happens in the Eucharist, just as Jesus promised, in which we shall share tonight, and some of us for the first time. We are gathered in his name and he is with us, really with us. The bread is his body, the wine is his blood. We ourselves are the Body of Christ. His Word is opened to us and we are blessed. This IS that. So I find it very strange that at least in some places and at some times the proper celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition and the lively sharing of the Word and hands raised in blessing are seen as two quite different times things.

I was at a remarkable conference a few weeks ago when this was absolutely not the case. You perhaps wouldn’t have known that my first incumbency was in a church enjoying what was then called Anglo-Catholic Renewal. (That plus having a Mirfield priest as a father plus rather a lot else means that my own Catholicism is now of the Morecambe and Wise variety: so I promise you all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order …) That movement’s present descendant On Fire Mission had somehow got my name and there I was speaking and presiding with full Catholic privileges, the Regina Coeli and smoke everywhere AND speaking and singing in tongues, prophecies and the Spirit moving in power. The pictures are on Facebook to prove it.

What has all that got to say to us here and now? What do we do next if we want This to be That for us too as well. The first disciples were sent off by the Ascending Lord to pray, and that must be our starting point too.

First and especially pray for those to be baptised, confirmed and received this evening and those making their first communion. What an inheritance they are entering into. What a tradition, not in the sense of unthinking repetition, but a handing on and reimagined recreation of the sharing of the Christ with his disciples – once then in Palestine, once and to all eternity in the messianic banquet of heaven.

Secondly, pray for this church and the Catholic tradition it represents, even if it is not your own. To them I say, do not be afraid, do not be afraid to enjoy and express your full inheritance. Even unlikely people like me might find themselves there alongside you and God’s presence is real. Invite people to come and meet him, in the flesh, and be converted by him. But do not be afraid either to pray earnestly for the gift of the Spirit, and not just at ordinations. The Christ in whose ascension we rejoice today has promised to give his gifts to us men and women, to his expectant church. And when the Spirit comes he will never deny all that God has already given you: he will just paint it in colour.

And of course it’s happening already. Probably quietly and privately for the most part, but happening all the same. That’s often how God wants it – but not always. Because his will is that his kingdom should come.

So thirdly, pray that the Lord’s Prayer will indeed be increasingly answered even in our own time, and that kingdom come – in the real and everyday world out there of examinations and elections, economics and enterprise that takes up most of our time. A novena of prayer for that is starting right now under the banner Thy Kingdom Come across our denominations and traditions. Pray earnestly for the Spirit of God to come and reveal Christ to his world; pray for it to happen right here in Cambridge. Pray for it to happen and transform real lives in need for the better and build the real common good.