Sermon preached on Ascension Day (29 May 2014) by The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on Ascension Day (29 May 2014) by The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas discusses 'Ascension: Absence, Presence and more than a Brief Encounter'.

Forty days ago we began to celebrate: He is risen! The cry echoed around this building and in our hearts - and still it continues.

But today the Church remembers his Ascension –– the taking up of Jesus, 40 days after the resurrection, in the presence of his gathered disciples.

Now I just can’t help it – often when I think about the Ascension I’m taken to the film ‘Brief Encounter’. That venerable black and white 1945 film by David Lean, staring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, based on Noel Cowards earlier play, it revolves around hard choices and heart-rending partings. For me it evokes the turmoil of society and the actual partings of then recent war years –made all the more striking because of its restrained pathos.

Many of us will know the gamut of emotions wrapped up in separation. Recently I came across old black and white photos of my parents and me leaving Malaysia, which had been our home. We were moving here to the UK, my Father’s home – a new start – but one which began with separation. There in the photos: brave fragile smiles as the family gathered to wave us off, then increasingly sombre faces. Now I realise that that was the last time my mother saw her father alive – and as for me, I never saw my grandparents again.

Most of us know the depths of separation – of absence and endings.

And so I wonder about those disciples of Jesus – what a time they’d had: crowds cheering on Palm Sunday, the betrayal, arrest and brutal crucifixion, the silence of the Saturday, the triumph of the empty tomb, then the exhilarating way in which the risen Jesus had been present to them over the past few weeks.

Now it seems that they must get used to living in a world without him.

Disorientating, even frightening – what happens next? Is it back to tax collecting, to fishing?

His coming had been celebrated by angels, the name given to him, ‘Emmanuel’ meant ‘God with us’ – and now he is leaving…? A world without God?

Had it all just been a Brief Encounter and now it was over?

Maybe not… maybethere is more to absence and to presence than we might think at first glance.

Speaking of which - I wonder if you have come across the work of a contemporary Chinese artist called Lui Bolin. He had his first solo British exhibition here in London a few weeks ago, it was called "The Heroic Apparition” - I was glad to be able to go along.

Bolin uses his own body as a canvas, painting himself, with the help of an assistant, to merge with his background. These pieces of performance art, captured in photographs, have earned him the title ‘the invisible man’. Each piece takes around 10 hours to complete and when photographed it can be near-impossible to spot him at first glance.

This phase of his work began after his Beijing art studio, along with the studios of other artists was shut down by the authorities in 2005. The government had stipulated that it didn't want artists gathering and working together. Bolin decided to use his art as a means of silent protest. It’s continued from there and he has painted himself into ordinary settings like a supermarket display stand, a market stall and socially-loaded backgrounds like Tiananmen Square, Wall Street and the Tiles for America 9/11 memorial.

In all this work the artist seems absent – but is actually profoundly present.

So sometimes in apparent absence there is a deeper presence -which is worth noting on Ascension Day.

For Jesus is not just absent, he hasn’t just gone away– His promise ‘I will be with you, always’, still resounds. Our risen, ascended, Spirit-sending Lord has not absented himself, but as Rowan Williams has put it, he "has gone deeper into the heart of reality – our reality and God’s”.

As he left, Jesus asked his disciples to wait, to wait for the gift he would send, the Holy Spirit, through whom he would be present to them in life-giving power which would change the world. This was no Brief Encounter – God is not absent but deeply present to his world through his Spirit and in his people.

God is still present to you and to me – even if sometimes we have to look hard and it seems like the artist has disguised himself most cunningly. It’s as if he loves to invite us to find him through our pressing into the world with our eyes and ears open to discern him – perhaps where we might expect to find him least.

God is present TO you and to me.

God also longs to be present to his world THROUGH you and me – Jesus asked his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit – for they had a task to do, a calling – they were to be those whose lives revealed the presence of God.

An interesting question then, one with which to close: the extent to which my life reveals the presence, or the absence of God, to the world?