Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: Daniel 7:9-14; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
It’s been a strange ending to the Candlemas Semester. No chugga-chugga of luggage heading to the bus station. Only a few soakings on social media. The windswept platforms at Leuchars Station empty of students. It’s been an ending almost without ritual, beyond students popping through to the living-room and telling a parent, That’s it then. I’ve submitted my last exam. Must remember to tune in to my graduation. Never have so many leave-takings from friends and colleagues consisted in someone being the first to click on Leave Meeting.
And yet there is something apt about the end of the semester coinciding with Ascension. That was another odd leave-taking. After another spell where people stayed indoors, fearful of going out, with only occasional and unplanned encounters here and there, Jesus met his disciples one last time. He promised them that the Holy Spirit would arrive, though in the present circumstances could not predict exactly when that freedom would come. And then Jesus was carried into heaven, a physical distancing if ever there were one.
There is another overlap with this season and our Gospel reading today. We heard Jesus’ final words to his disciples and they resemble nothing so much as a revision class. These are my words that I spoke to you… He then goes back over the promises of scripture and points out how they had seen these things being fulfilled in his life – the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day… You are witnesses of these things.
For the examination to come, the disciples were encouraged to remember what they had seen, and not only seen but heard in Jesus’ teaching, smelt in the perfume anointing his body, tasted in the bread and wine of the Last Supper, touched in the body of the risen Lord. From the evidence of their senses, they had all they needed for faithfully facing the examination to come. You could say that in this Teams meeting, Jesus cast a panoptic eye over his life and ministry, before zooming into heaven.
Jesus called his followers witnesses. Witness of course has a double meaning. It means what we have seen, and what we bring others to see. Earlier this year – it seems a lifetime ago – many people gathered at the pier at our annual Holocaust Memorial event, to bear witness to what happened in the Holocaust and in subsequent times of genocide. Only on Thursday night, I along with countless people clapped my hands to bear witness to the courage and commitment of our frontline workers.
And this is what is really going on in Jesus’ farewell. He is asking his followers to bear witness to him, to reflect in their lives – in our lives – what we have experienced in Jesus’ life. His honesty, in speaking to authority. His compassion, in encountering the bruised and broken. His justice, to wealthy, to women, to outsiders. His forgiving spirit, to those who abused him. His courage, when facing the cup of suffering which was before him.
Every Ascensiontide, in every season in fact, we are called to bear witness as Christ bore witness to the love of God. Every year, of course, the context is different.
In 1411 Henry Wardlaw bore witness in investing in education in St Andrews, for a priesthood who could understand the Bible, and the best of humanity’s works, and so share the gospel in their time.
In 1528, Patrick Hamilton bore witness in courageously debating with the religious authorities, prepared to give up his life for the sake of the truth of the gospel in which he believed.
In 1800, John Honey bore witness, swimming out again and again to rescue the crew of the Janet of Macduff stricken on the rocks by St Andrews, a feat which is recalled in the Pier Walk. (And let us look forward to again holding the Pier Walk, the red gowns a flash of hope against the grey North Sea.)
In 1895, Agnes Blackadder witnessed to the worth of her intelligence, in graduating from Andrews, the first woman to do so, and devoting her life to medicine.
In 1914-18 and again from 1939-45 women and men of the University committed their lives to Monarch and to country, and to the vision of a Europe and world in which justice would prevail.
And in 2020, we bear witness to Christ in the midst of a pandemic. Some are called to a particular courage. An acquaintance of mine in hospital chaplaincy wrote to me last week as follows:
For 8 weeks we (Chaplains) have served on the front line of the NHS. I have worked with patients and staff in the Red Zones, never knowing if you have been infected or exposed. Worrying about what you are taking home to your family and if you are putting their lives at risk. All the while staying positive and offering support to colleagues – telling them over and over again “its ok not to be ok.”
Not all of us are called to such acts of service. But we are all invited to bear witness in our own ways in this examination, you in your small corner, and I in mine.
Honesty – in living so far as we can within constraints put in place for the common good.
Compassion – in helping our neighbour, our friend, our colleague – from care parcels, to a caring smile in yet another Teams meeting.
Justice – in taking thought for the countless people whose lives will need financial support for a long time to come.
Forgiveness – for those who struggle to be a superhero, and who can be allowed the odd inessential journey.
Courage – as we all face a future which may frighten us: returning to a world in which we brush up against each other, where we cannot banish risk, where we need to trust each other.
We bear witness in the hope that while Jesus may be physically distant, he is not socially far from us, but near, present in our zoomunity, present in the communion we’ll share, present in our households and lives. He said he would send what his Father promised – the Holy Spirit – and that his disciples would be clothed with power. They may well have thought they’d be looked after from the worst the world can do. They’d be shielded from the effects of evil. They’d be entering into Witness Protection.
I usually don’t read my old sermons. But this year I thought I’d reflect on the previous occasions I’d preached on the Ascension. More innocent times perhaps. Reading one, I got to that point when I spoke of God being with us, that Christ was not hidden in heaven but was everywhere, that the Ascension guarantees the social nearness of the Lord. Then I realised that I’d preached that sermon on the Sunday a baby girl was baptised in St Monans, the daughter of a couple I’d married, who had become friends of ours. But what I know now is that the father of that girl died of cancer a few years later, a couple of years after I moved to St Andrews. What protection do witnesses really receive? Nobody’s life comes with PPE.
And yet the more I think about my friend, the more I think that his life was a wonderful witness, in his enthusiasm, his commitment, his love for his wife and daughter, and his voluntary service for the church. And I still believe that Jesus was with him, his wife and daughter during and beyond that time. They didn’t enter a witness protection programme. Instead, they witnessed in the hardest of times to honesty, compassion and courage.
It is a mercy that we do not know the future. None of us, when we celebrated Ascension Sunday on 1 June 2019 imagined how we’d be spending it today, with the choir recording the anthem separately, with our Principal and Chief Usher reading from their own homes, with no freedom to share the peace with a hug or even a Presbyterian handshake.
And no-one completing their degree this summer will know what life has in store beyond St Andrews. But that was always the way. A St Andrews degree does not determine the future, it doesn’t even protect someone from the vagaries of life. But it does provide a set of principles to which we bear witness for the rest of life. And I think by now they may be familiar:
honesty – in the face of the temptation to bend the truth;
justice – recognising the privilege inherited over 600 years and the imperative to extend it;
compassion – for all our fellow-creatures with whom we share this fragile planet;
forgiveness – allowing others to be imperfect but still accepting them;
and courage – when fear tempts us to give up on all of the above.
In other words, this Ascension is not that strange after all. It is the same old same old, same 600 years old. You are witnesses of these things. Bear witness.