Resources for Ascension Day focused on Acts 1.1-11
This is the only reference to a 40-day span of teaching and nurture by the risen Jesus after Easter. Without it, the account of the Ascension in Luke 24.50-53 could have described an event on Easter evening. These accounts end Luke's first volume (the Gospel) and begin his second volume (Acts), so this event is obviously important to him.
Most of our Ascension Day hymns have a heavenly focus, bursting with delight at Jesus' elevation to God's right hand, hailing him as the exalted Messiah, heavenly High Priest or homecoming Son. The most significant thing about 'Luke's' accounts of the Ascension is their earthly focus.
The Ascension is a moment of pastoral crisis. Jesus has gone – what are his shaken, unreliable followers to do now? We overhear the departing Jesus trying to prepare them for life without his bodily presence, twice counselling patient waiting until the pouring out of the promised Spirit of God. They are to continue with faith, trust and patience – and God's Spirit will assuredly come to them.
The whole of the rest of the Book of Acts could be read as a deliberate pastoral response to this problem: a long, encouraging demonstration that the absent Lord is, in fact, actively present with his people, by his Spirit, come what may.
But before that demonstration begins, there is one small incident that 'Luke' stops to tell: the choosing of Matthias (Acts1.21-26).
Prepare the space
The concept of the Ascension can be complicated for all ages to grasp, just as it was for the apostles who witnessed it. Today we are going to explore with the children just how it must have felt for those first followers suddenly to not have Jesus walking around with them, teaching them and helping them understand the kingdom of God better. For them, the Ascension would have been something that, although enthralling, would have left them feeling as though the most important part of their work was missing – and thoughts of the future would have filled them with fear. Seeing Jesus ascend into heaven was something they may have had difficulty in explaining to those who did not see it with their own eyes. Just how would they be able to witness to God's presence without Jesus standing there with them?
- Set the room very differently from usual. Have something important missing from it – perhaps the chairs or tables – or take down pictures that are usually there. Create a feeling of discomfort or strangeness.
- If you are unable to do this, perhaps someone who is usually part of your volunteer team could be missing, or try to sing some songs without your usual musical accompaniment.
- Alternatively, be absent yourself at the start of the session. See what happens when the children realise you are not there!
- If you can arrange it with your minister, maybe they could forget to do something at the start of the service and you have to remind them.
Ask the children what differences they notice this week.
Gathering activities for children
Play a game without a vital piece of equipment, for example, say that you are going to play a ball game and then announce you don't have a ball; or introduce musical chairs and take all the chairs away. Talk with the group about how difficult it can be to play some games without certain equipment. See if the children and young people are able to make suggestions to improvise and then play the game.
Alternatively, make a collection of board games for each group and take vital parts out – like the dice, question cards, or counters.
If you have access to a JengaTM game, let the group play this. At a vital point remove a piece that is obviously going to make the whole tower collapse. Discuss how difficult it can be to complete the tower if a vital piece is removed.
Alternatively, with younger children, have a simple jigsaw for them to complete and remove the last piece. Talk with them about how we cannot see the whole picture if there is a bit missing.
Set up a treasure hunt for the children to complete, but when they get to the end they discover that the treasure is missing. Talk about the feelings of disappointment that it was not there. Make ready some other 'treasure' on stand-by to make them feel better!
Gathering activities for young people
Seek and find
Play 'Snakes and Ladders'. Talk about the players' progress towards their goal. It is not always as they expect, is it! The apostles were told not to go on looking upwards for God.
Is God there?
Prepare some cards each of which describes a situation, including: a noisy birthday party; a bible-study session; a country walk; a wedding; in bed with 'flu. Invite young people in turn to choose a card and talk briefly about it. Is this a situation where we might expect to find God? Or not? Might God be found where not expected?
Make a game to play. Draw out a track similar to a 'Snakes and Ladders' board. The two points to get over are: first, that it was more important that the Spirit came 'down' than that Jesus went 'up'; and second, that the apostles were firmly told to stop looking 'up' into heaven because God was not hiding in clouds and emptiness.
After discussion, invite the group to construct a game that will make these points. Show life situations in which God is to be found, marked with a 'dove' perhaps for the Holy Spirit, and appropriately illustrated. Every time you land and have the chance to 'find God' you take a short cut nearer the goal of the game (a 'ladder'). As there is no human situation where God cannot be found, all that can divert you away from your goal is failing to look for God. So if you want a game with diversion 'snakes' as well as short-cut 'ladders' you will need to introduce scenes to show that.
Open the Word
Using a mobile phone, recount the story of the Ascension by having a 'conversation' with one of the apostles. Ask another adult helper to ring your mobile and interrupt you as you start to tell the story from the Bible.
Many stories in the Bible tell us about Jesus. He was crucified and died on the cross, but came back to life and was once again teaching his followers about how God wanted the world to be.
Today… (phone rings and interrupts)
Oh, excuse me. I forgot to turn my phone off. Just let me take this call…
Answer the phone saying: Hello… oh hello, Peter.
Turn to children and say: It's Jesus' friend, Peter, calling.
Back to the phone: So, Peter, how are things? It must be great knowing that Jesus is OK and still around to help you. (pause)
What do you mean? Jesus is gone. Gone where? (pause)
Back up to heaven! Did you say that Jesus has gone back to heaven?
Oh, my goodness!
And you say that you saw it all? (pause)
You were talking with Jesus. He was telling you how the Holy Spirit would come to help you. Yes, I see. (pause)
And then someone asked when all this would happen and Jesus said that it was God that would decide. OK. (pause)
You are kidding! Tell me that again. (pause)
He went up into heaven on a cloud and disappeared from your sight! That must have been something to see! (pause)
And who do you think those two men were who appeared? (pause)
Angels! And what did they say? (pause)
And do you really think that Jesus will one day come back, just like he went? (pause)
Well, that's great, Peter. I can understand how it must all be a bit scary for you at the moment. But I am sure you will all be fine. (pause)
Well, if you know that the Holy Spirit will come to help you, then that's great.
I'd better go, Peter, I'm in the middle of something right now. (pause)
You too, Peter. Take care. Bye.
Ask the children to go into groups and talk about the conversation they just overheard. It is important to check with younger ones that they picked up the various parts of the story. If you feel that they have not, then go back to the Bible and go through the story with them, picking up on the bits that were mentioned in the conversation.
Older children could discuss the amazing sight that the Ascension would have been and how anyone who saw it would have been feeling.
One very important point for all ages to grasp is the idea that although God cannot be seen in the person of Jesus for us today, there are many ways in which we can see God around us.
It was an uncomfortable time for the followers of Jesus. They had recovered from the crucifixion only to have Jesus seem to leave them again.
- Discuss with the children what situations make them feel uncomfortable.
Encourage them to share their feelings in confidence and safety.
- Ask the children how they think God can help them through their uncomfortable times.
In this story it is clear that Jesus meant the disciples to take the news of the kingdom of God to others all over the world. The Holy Spirit came to help them do this.
- Discuss with the children how they think the church takes the news of Jesus to the people in their community and school
- What things could they do that would help to spread the story of Jesus?
Watching the Ascension take place would have been an amazing and perhaps slightly frightening experience. One of the problems the disciples might have faced was convincing people that it really happened.
- Talk with the children about how it can be difficult to talk to people who do not believe in Jesus. If they have had experience of this, ask them how they felt and how they got through it.
- Discuss the importance of the church community as a group of believers who can draw strength from each other in a world where many do not believe in God.
With older children start asking about the 'how' of this story. Discuss the meaning of this story and how we cope with different thoughts about what it says.
With young people
Were you there?
Think about the apostles talking about the day after Jesus had left them. Write a conversation between them.
What had they seen? Jesus disappearing, two 'men in white'.
What did they think about these? What had they been told to do?
To wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. To become witnesses throughout the world.
How did they feel: fearful, frustrated, inspired? Were they willing to return from the mountain where Jesus had left them to go to the city? What did they decide were their priorities?
Note that in the rest of the chapter from which the reading is taken, the disciples choose Matthias to replace Judas in their company.
Where's he gone?
Or think about 'gazing into heaven?' Why did the apostles do this, do you think? Invite the young people to write a brief monologue or meditation beginning: 'I just wanted him to come back!'
This passage might be about leaving the 'comfort zone' in order to find God. The apostles have grown used to having Jesus among them again, at least intermittently. Now this is coming to an end and they have to wait for the unknown.
- What is our 'comfort zone' in this context, our family, our church community, our Junior Church group, our house group?
- Are we inward-turned when we should be outward-turned? How do we know?
- Can we get the balance right between knowing where to look for help, in prayer, in the church fellowship, in the Bible, and when we are too inward-looking?
- Are we looking in the right places to find Jesus? Do we know when we are looking vainly up to heaven?
Or think about waiting for the Spirit – letting things happen.
- Do we manage this? Do we manage it well?
- How would the group react if told: 'Don't just do something, sit there!'
- What do you think about the wristbands that say: 'Pray Until Something Happens' or 'PUSH'?
- Do we need to know what we're waiting for?
Respond to the Word
God in our world
Seeing God around us is not as easy as it was for the first followers who could sit with Jesus and share a meal with him. Discuss with the children the ways that we can see God around us today. It could be as simple as being able to see the church (both the building and the people), or the sight of a rainbow in the sky.
Encourage the children to share their ideas with each other and then draw them on paper. Add the children's drawings to a large frieze entitled 'Seeing God in our world'. You could use the Prayer web as a background for this.
Either using a badge-making machine or simple cardboard cut-outs backed with safety pins, ask the children to make badges with the logo God is here! They can decorate them with different things that show God is around us. They can wear these and take them home to remind them of God's presence around us at all times.
At the end of the passage two men appear and talk to the disciples. These angels remind us of other times the disciples saw such things. Can the children remember angels outside the tomb appearing to the women who went to treat Jesus' body? What do the children think that angels look like, and what do they do? Discuss any other places where angels are mentioned in the stories they have heard.
Using tinfoil, silver and gold wrapping paper, and cotton wool, invite the children in small groups or all together to make banners to symbolise the amazing sight of the Ascension. You could either put a representation of Jesus on the banner, or use the words: 'He was lifted up'. These banners could then be used to decorate the church for the following Sunday.
God in the news
Look for God's presence in the world by taking a selection of news stories from the week, either from the printed media or from the Internet. Ask the children to look at how some of these stories show us that God is here in our world, or, alternatively, what people could do to respond to something in the news to show God's love and care.
Pray in stillness
Talk with the children about how the Ascension was a mighty thing to see, but that God is not only found in the amazing things of life; God is also in the stillness and silence we can create around us. In your time of prayer today, encourage the children to be still and silent and to think about God. It might help if you give them something to focus on while they are being quiet, such as a pebble, a simple cardboard cross, or play some music for them to listen to.
Remind the children that prayer keeps us connected to God and also to one another. Invite the children to stand in a circle and, using a ball of string, ask the children to throw it to one another across the circle. When it is their turn, they could each name something that God has created in the world around them that reminds them of God's continuing presence. As the prayer continues, the string will form a web, connecting them all together. Display this web or use it as a background for the frieze in God in our world.
You are there
we thank you that you are always with us.
When we see the sun in the sky,
we remember you are there.
When we feel the rain on our faces,
we remember you are there.
When we watch the birds flying,
we remember you are there,
When we sing and pray together,
we remember you are there.
When it is dark and we feel alone,
help us to remember you are there.
God with us
Giving and loving God,
on this special day we remember your loving actions in this world,
the sending of your Son and the glory of your rising from death at Easter.
Thank you that you guide us.
We recognise that we are never alone,
for we are always surrounded by your love.
Help us to witness your presence in a world that needs your love.
Strengthen us with your Spirit
and let your light shine through us.
Be still - with young people
This might be a good time for a short time of undirected prayer. Light a candle and sit in a circle around it.
Read verse 8 aloud slowly and thoughtfully.
Think about the transition from Jesus as a companion, actually present with the apostles, to Jesus present with them through the Holy Spirit, and what it meant in terms of seeking guidance.
Think about taking prayerful decisions, not being busy but letting the Spirit guide us into the right paths.
On the other hand, not being limply passive but dynamic and proactive, using the minds God gave us.
Think about the challenge to leave the comfort zone but still to put ourselves in the Spirit's path.
Leave silence for a while, then gather up the group's thinking saying:
Lord Jesus, who returned to the Father,
stay with us in Spirit,
draw near us when we need you,
and guide us to follow your paths.
Be still and know that I am God (JP)
Anytime anywhere (CHY)
Be bold, be strong (JP)
Holy Spirit, fill me now (KS)
Holy Spirit, we welcome you (MP)
Jesus, send the helper (SV)
The Spirit lives to set us free (JP)
All over the world, the spirit is moving (JP)
Jesus Christ is alive today (JP)
We want to see Jesus lifted high (KS)
Our God is so big (CHY)
Thank you God for sending Jesus (JP)
He's got the whole world in his hands (JP)
If you believe and I believe (WG)
He came down that we might have love (WG)
Enemy of apathy (WG)
Candle in the window (CP2)
Roger Jones, Saints Alive, Christian Music Ministries, 2001, ISBN 1874594554. No 2 'Power to be witnesses' begins with the Ascension, 'Why stand there gazing into Heaven?' The accompaniment is available on CD or tape from www.eden.co.uk
Sarah M. Hupp, PUSH!: Pray Until Something Happens, Peter Pauper Press, 2000, ISBN 0880881402.