Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter - Daniel Parkinson

Sunday 12 May 2024

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-end; John 17: 6-19

In today’s gospel reading we hear a part of what is known as Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer”. On the night before his crucifixion, Christ prays for his disciples, that they may be protected and sanctified in his name, united with one another, and filled with his joy.

This morning, I want to speak about what it means for Jesus to be our High Priest, especially in connection with the Feast of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday.

The Ascension of Our Lord to his Father in heaven is one of the most misunderstood aspects of our faith. I can remember feeling confused when I first heard those passages of scripture read in church, where Jesus says that it is good for him to go to the Father, and that if the disciples love him, they ought to rejoice at his departure from the world. How could it be good for Jesus to leave his disciples? Would it not be better for him to stay?

Part of the problem is that there has been a tendency in Western Christianity to narrow down the good news of the gospel merely to the events of Good Friday, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, Easter Sunday too. As a result, we can often think that the work of salvation is limited to the cross and the empty tomb. If the Ascension is not an intrinsic part of our redemption, then it can have no real significance, and so the question remains: why is it good for Jesus to go to the Father?

But this is to lose sight of the cosmic proportions of the gospel. The significance of the Ascension lies in the fact that it is the moment when Jesus enters the heavenly temple as our High Priest, to do what all priests are appointed to do, to offer sacrifice, so that the Holy Spirit might be sent to God’s people.

I want to try and explain this by briefly considering the priests and the sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We must remember that the Hebrew understanding of sacrifice was not about killing things. Bread, wine, oil, and incense were frequently offered to God in sacrifices which involved no shedding of blood. And when blood was shed, the sacrifice consisted not in the slaughter of the animal, but in offering the blood at the altar.

The animal was killed by its owner, but the priest was the one who took the blood and offered it in sacrifice, because, as we read in the Book of Leviticus, the life is in the blood. The killing of the animal was necessary because it was the only way in which the worshipper could let go of their claim to ownership, and spiritually hand the life of the animal over to God. But what was offered to God in sacrifice was not death, but life.

Now some sacrifices were offered in exchange for the forgiveness of sins, but most were offered to express devotion and thanksgiving to God. And animals offered in sacrifice were often received back as food to be eaten in ritual feasts, with God spiritually seated at the head of the table. The point was to enjoy life and communion with God in a circle of mutual gift-giving. Gifts of creation were offered to God who, in return, bestowed his heavenly blessing upon those who approached him in worship.

Just look, for example, at the gospel reading this morning, and the number of times Jesus talks about what he and the Father have given to one another, and what Jesus has given to his disciples. The life of God simply is this mutual self-giving, and the sacrificial system was the way that flesh and blood human beings could be drawn into this divine communion.

So, let us now return to the Ascension.

As we hear in the Epistle to the Hebrews, what qualifies Jesus to be our High Priest is the power of his indestructible life. For in his death and resurrection, he has defeated death itself, and set his people free from the slavery of sin. The cross and the empty tomb are the new Passover, the new Exodus, which bring about the new creation, because death cannot keep Jesus’s boundless life contained.

And so, in his ascension into the heavenly temple, the risen Lord goes to offer sacrifice, not with the blood of bulls and goats like the high priests of the Hebrew scriptures, but with his own blood, which represents the power of his indestructible life. In other words, what Jesus offers is nothing other than himself, his life of utter self-giving love, the life which was given even to the point of death.

And this life is the most perfect offering that earth can make to heaven, and so, as Jesus rises to heaven on clouds, like the sacrifices of old, which were carried up to God in the smoke of burnt offerings, heaven responds with its own gift, and the Holy Spirit is sent to Christ’s people on the Day of Pentecost.

This is why it is good for Jesus to go to the Father. So that earth and heaven can be united in the circle of divine gift-giving.

We are drawn into this dramatic action every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. In this holy sacrament, in the words of today’s collect, the Holy Spirit “exalts us to where Christ has gone before”, and we are then sent out into the world, just as Jesus was sent by the Father.

Just as the Father and the Son give all that they have to one another, Jesus gives to us, his people, the dignity of sharing in that mutual gift-giving. For he does not want us simply to be servants. He does not want us to be spiritual infants, who sit back passively, and merely receive the gifts he bestows. He calls us to be his friends, and friendship involves the sharing of life.

And so, as Jesus commanded, we gather to present our gifts of bread and wine, fruits of the earth, and symbols of our human life, and, as we present them at God’s Altar, we make our own ascent into God’s life of self-offering, and he responds by giving us Christ’s body and blood, that is, his very life, as our gifts are returned back to us in this sacred meal.

This dramatic action is captured beautifully in an ancient prayer of the Latin tradition: “In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”

Jesus has given his Church this sacrifice of thanksgiving so that we can ascend into his heavenly kingdom, and share in his priestly work. And it is only as we do so, and are filled with his heavenly grace and blessing, that we can be sent back into the world to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, as the cycle of self-offering is repeated in our service of our neighbours.

We do not ascend into heaven to be taken out of the world, but in order to be sent back into the world with renewed vision and hearts strengthened by God’s gifts. So, in these days of Ascensiontide, let us pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we may be a kingdom of priests serving God in the world, declaring with great joy the marvellous works of him who has called us out of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.