After the Ascension, Jesus was and is still here

Keith Anderson, 23 January 2022

Jeremiah 1: 4–10; Acts 9: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30

First of all, a kind of thank you. It was lovely to be here last week and this week to see members of our congregation commissioned. When I was in London I used to train and commission pastoral assistants for the Willesden area of that diocese, and it’s just nice to see the work expanding and growing and people responding to God throughout the country. So, thank you for that.

What’s so special about St Paul’s conversion that we celebrate it? Why do we do it? It is, after all, the only one we celebrate, as far as I know. In Acts chapter 2, Luke informs us that over 3,000 people were converted. Now, that’s pretty big stuff to celebrate, but we don’t (we remember them). In Acts chapter 8 – this is just before Paul’s conversion – we read of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion. He is the first individual after Pentecost to be recalled in Acts, and that is important especially as it is traditionally seen as the beginning of the internationalisation of Christianity. And the Ethiopian church see their roots in that conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. That’s pretty big stuff as well, isn’t it? So why Paul?

Yes, I agree his conversion is the best attested in the New Testament; there are four descriptions of it. And yes, Paul is a major player in the early church. But I don’t believe they are the critical reasons for remembering Paul’s conversion. The conversions of the 3,000 were the responses to Peter’s testimony about Jesus. Similarly, the Ethiopian eunuch’s was a response to Philip’s. Paul’s conversion is important to us because it is the first occasion when the risen and ascended Christ revealed himself to someone.

After the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, Jesus could have taken his place in the heavenly realms and said, ‘Well, that’s it. It’s up to them now. I’ve been down there, taught them, performed a few miracles, died for them, was resurrected and met a few hundred people after my resurrection. I’ve done enough; time to put my feet up and have a rest.’ Why not? But the incarnate Jesus had not disappeared after the Ascension. He was still ministering here on earth.

The twelve are the apostles of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Paul is the apostle of the risen and ascended Christ – and that is the Christ who is with us today. Now does that mean that we all should have some ecstatic experience of Christ? No.

Some come to faith through the faith of another, others through intellectual struggle, and a few have some direct encounter with the ascended Christ.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he thanks God that the faith he saw in Timothy’s grandmother and mother were manifest in Timothy. Many of you here, like Timothy, will have grown up in a Christian family and trace your faith to that experience. Some of you may have come to faith through the faith of another, like the 3,000 who heard Peter’s testimony. And others may have grown in faith through intellectual struggle, as the Ethiopian eunuch did in the company of Philip. And yes, a few of us have had some direct encounter with the ascended Christ, like Paul.

But how we have found faith is God’s business. What we celebrate today is that in Paul we have the earliest known experience of the risen Christ continuing his ministry. As the author of Matthew’s gospel wrote and Jesus said, ‘Remember, I am with you till the end of the age’. Paul’s conversion is our earliest record of that promise being fulfilled. We are today witnesses to it. Amen.