"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015

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Ascension Sunday: Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Easter 7, May 17, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Pray.  Today we mark the Ascension of Jesus.  This event, in modern times, is one that the modern church views with some skepticism, at least partly because of our love of rationality.  If you doubt that assertion, you should look at some of the comments made on the news story last October about the Pope announcing that Christians needed to be prepared to put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6) to do battle against Satan.  Many were incredulous that a modern religious leader could continue to believe in such superstition nonsense.

This reflects our church’s love of rationality – and how we push aside those things which seem an affront to reason, even though the New Testament is full of such references.  Paul seemed to have no trouble with the idea of the warfare to which we are all called, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And because of that he tells us to take up the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.  But I digress.  My point is our love of reason often forms the first and  final test of things that we engage on the basis of faith.

That perspective is one of the reasons why the modern church speaks so little about the ascension – frankly, it’s a little embarrassing for moderns to think about someone being lifted up into the clouds, something more at home on a Sunday school flannel-graph than with adult believers.  For that reason the modern church tends to avoid the ascension or at least to minimize its place in our worship and our understanding of the church.

As one example, we have nine modern communion prayers authorized for use by Anglican churches.  The ascension is only mentioned in two (and one is the so called ‘star wars’ prayer #4, which I’ve only ever heard used once).  By contrast, it is part of the one traditional common prayer service, and so every communion using the common prayer setting you would hear: “Wherefore, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, we thy humble servants, with all thy holy Church, remembering the precious death of thy beloved Son, his mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension…”  We rehearse the entire sequence death -> resurrection -> ascension, which indeed is important if we want to keep perspective on what it means to be the church.  My main point today is to talk about how our avoidance of the ascension leads to fundamental misunderstanding about what the church is called to be.

Jesus says some fairly profound things before he departs.  He tells the disciples once again that his presence on earth was to bring fulfillment to everything that had gone before: in Torah, the Law of Moses, the Psalms and in the Prophets.  That statement unites our Scriptures under one interpretive lens – that all things past, present and future point toward the Son of God as the fulfillment of all things.

The second profound statement is the direction to the disciples to return to Jerusalem and remain there until the disciples receive the gift of fire in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We’ll hear more about that event on the feast of Pentecost.

Once these last words had been said, Jesus leads them out to Bethany, blesses them and then, “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven”.  The description is what causes moderns to raise eyebrows at this text, as we’re not in the mode of thinking that heaven is ‘up there’ or ‘over there’.  Just a word on the physical description – note that the action observed by the disciples was Jesus withdrawing from them.  I might liken this to watching a passenger airplane that is life-size at the airport gate, but as you watch it take off and climb to altitude, becomes smaller and smaller until it effectively vanishes from view.  Even though you know the airplane is still up there somewhere, it has for visual purposes, ceased to exist in your present.

This departure of the resurrected Christ was to allow him to take up his rightful place, as we say elsewhere, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From that seat he shall judge both the living and the dead.  The departure of Christ was necessary to bring the cycle to completion and, paradoxically, to put Christ in a position where he once again becomes accessible to the entirety of creation.  This is profound, as the act of raising Christ to the Cross, so that he might rise from the dead and ascend into heaven, is the act that once again brings the possibility of unity to a broken creation…the possibility that the brokenness can be healed.

This is a mind-twisting event, and we’re waist-deep into theology (and probably quantum physics as well) as we consider the implications of what we’ve just heard.  This shouldn’t be a cause of fear (or stopping listening) because as Christians we are by default applied theologians.  The act of attempting to follow Christ while living in the world means we each make theological assessments and decisions multiple times per day, even if we don’t consider ourselves theologians.

This is worth a moment of reflection, because it is core to our being as Christians in the world.  Once you have declared your faith in Christ, through baptism, through worship, through taking the bread and wine regularly, you become a force of transformation in the world around you…even if you never consciously undertake that task.  Your presence, with the Holy Spirit indwelling you, becomes this force for change wherever you happen to move and act.  So, your presence at a place of work, in your family, at play dates with other parents, with your non-believer friends and acquaintances, and even your home in your neighbourhood all become places of light that subtly work bringing Christ’s transformative presence into that place and that time.  This is called sometimes the “ministry of presence”, that a Christian, merely by being present in a place, becomes a mediator of God’s grace.

This is why I say without hesitation that the act of being a follower of Christ makes us all theologians, and makes us all evangelists, merely by our presence in the world.  You may sometimes hear about this from other people – have you ever had a co-worker or friend say to you, “there’s something different about you”.  Part of God’s great grace to this broken creation is that he works these mysteries through broken followers.

Now that idea is actually quite key to our understanding of why the ascension is so central to our understanding of who we are as a body of believers in this world.  Christ’s departure in the ascension renders him absent from the body of believers, but because he has departed he becomes present to all believers in a way that was not possible previously.  Christ is at once absent from our midst, and Christ is at once present in our midst.  Matthew 18:20 provides us the promise that whenever we gather in groups of two or three, Christ will be there with us.  In a few moments as we gather around the table and pray as a community over the bread and the wine, Christ will become present to us in a real way – and it doesn’t really matter at this point if you’re a Calvinist or an Anglo-Catholic, because the real presence of Christ in the midst of a community while breaking bread is nearly universally accepted (even if we sometimes violently disagree of the precise mechanism of that presence).

Before his departure, Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures.  In contrast to their oft-noted blindness previously, the disciples now understand the narrative of which they are a part.  This is the reason why at the end of Luke, we don’t hear of the disciples weeping and keening as they leave Bethany, rather we’re told that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God.  This is the same temple that just days before was the beginning of the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, and yet they’re now full of great joy.  Their joy is because they now understand that the story is not about the death of a teacher, but the resurrection and ascension of their Lord.  This is a part of the reality that we each live into in this moment and throughout our days by virtue of our profession of faith.  Because Jesus ascended, we too can approach the Scriptures with our minds opened to the reality of the Church militant and triumphant – that we are a part of that communion of saints by virtue of our profession of belief.

The other potential opened for us through Jesus’ ascension is the descent of the Holy Spirit on believers.  Prior to the ascension we had the baptism of John, but afterwards we have the baptism by fire that is the Holy Spirit.  It is this indwelling presence that transforms each individual Christian into a witness as to the presence of Christ wherever we happen to move in our daily lives.  It is said that “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon their knees.”  from the hymn by William Cowper.  That is our birthright as Christians, and the idea that you’re not enough of a believer, or not holy enough to make a difference, are complete lies intended to keep you inactive.  This is one reason why we’re told to remain active in the political life of our country – not because God wants us all to vote for one particular party, but because our presence in the process brings Christ’s witness to the process.

Now, what does it mean to follow a Saviour who is at once absent, and at once present?

If the church gets the ascension wrong, the organization ends up living too much in the world – that is, the physical departure of Christ is intended to be a lasting motif for the Body of Christ that remains on earth.  We are not to “hold on” to this world, because we too, like Jesus, are awaiting our ascension to be with the father.  A church that lives too much in touch with and too engaged with the world, is a church that spends all of its time focused on the earthy: what do our performance metrics look like?  How successful is our work to gain added market share from the Baptists down the road?  You can see how quickly believers can get drawn into earthy models of being, which almost invariably leads to the church being run much like a business, fully part of this world.

We need to keep our eyes focused on the otherworldliness of our calling here as the Body of Christ.  That is, as Calvin said, we gather around the table of He who is “in a manner present and in a manner absent”.  Our being as the Body of Christ exists in the same mode, at once present, and at once absent – while we may be a part of this world through our physicality, we can never forget that the gift of the Holy Spirit has made us into something more than just physical, into something that has a home elsewhere.  The call of the Christian in following Christ, is in effect a call to a form of homelessness, for we can never feel totally at home within this physical world.  Like Christ, we echo his declaration that, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)  So too Christ’s church.

This is reflected as well in our understanding of what it is we do around the communion table.  The communion is not something of our making that we use to define what we stand for as a community through elegant language and linens.  Rather, communion is a gift given to us through Christ that in fact constitutes our being as the Body of Christ.  This is why you will sometimes hear me use St Augustine’s words just before we distribute the bread and the wine: behold what you are, become what you receive.  You are the Body of Christ, this is the Body of Christ, as you receive Christ, become more conformed to Christ.  As the disciples recognized Jesus in the instant of the breaking of bread at Cleopas’ home after the Emmaus road, so too do we as the Body of Christ recognize ourselves anew each week in the breaking of bread.  This recognition is huge, and it keeps us grounded in the reality of who we are.  That knowledge is the necessary starting point of all mission work, of all work in the world.

Through receiving the Body of Christ, we are reminded of our share in the reality of Christ.  As is said in the Lutheran communion service, ‘grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come’.  As we gather around the table we are unified as one Body of Christ, and we are reminded of the utter and absolute communion that will eventually be a part of that future.

We are reminded in communion that our time here is provisional – and only in knowing our provisionality can we speak with any authority and integrity to a world that believes it is the end of all there is.  Do you understand the problem of being a church that is soundly grounded in the world?  How can a church that is not distinguishable from the world offer the residents of that world a vision of what exists beyond the shopping malls and cities?  The answer is we can’t do it credibly as long as we look like the world we dwell within.  I’ll suggest that this is the primary way that the mainline churches have lost their way, in believing that to become accessible to people living in the world, they have to look familiar to the world.  Rather, the church is called to claim its birthright by offering a radical alternative to the way of the world, a way that stands in contrast and sometimes in opposition to the world.

The reality of our calling is this: if we are living in the manner the church is called to live, it will not result in your greater acceptance into the places of power in this world.  This should not be a surprise to us, given Christ’s departing words to his disciples: “you are witnesses of these things”.  The word in Greek for ‘witness’ you might recognize even in the Greek, martyros (μαρτυρες).  Jesus literally says to the disciples as he leaves, “you are martyrs of these things.”  Christianity is not meant to be a normative expression of life in the world, but rather a contrary and paradoxical way that calls this world into judgement.  May God make us always aware of our proper place within the creation, and always keep us mindful of Christ’s call.  Amen.

 

Ascension

Salute the last, and everlasting day,

Joy at the uprising of this Sunne, and Sonne,

Ye whose just tears, or tribulation

Have purely washed, or burnt your drossy clay;

Behold the Highest, parting hence away,

Lightens the dark clouds, which he treads upon,

Nor doth he by ascending, show alone,

But first he, and he first enters the way.

O strong Ram which hast battered heaven for me,

Mild lamb, which with thy blood, hast marked the path;

Bright Torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see,

Oh, with thy own blood quench thy own just wrath.

And if the holy Spirit, my Muse did raise,

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.       Holy Sonnets, John Donne

In addition to John Donne I relied on Darrell L Bock’s excellent commentary on Luke part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary series.  I also looked at a book that has been sitting on my shelf (embarrassingly) for 10 years ever since my intern supervisor recommended it.  Now that I’m reading it I can’t believe I hadn’t looked at it before…and in fact my copy is on loan to someone I can’t recall, so I had to sign this one out from my local library.  Douglass Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, 1999.  Third source was an editorial out of the US concerning the decreasing number of Christians in the US church, and how this was a good thing: “Is Christianity Dying?”, http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/05/12/is-christianity-dying/

I last preached ascension at the parish of St Timothy’s during the absence of their rector, Joe Walker in 2008.  The use of Joe’s departure as part of the kid’s talk illustration has a certain poignancy about it now.  RIP+

Children’s talk: pitcher with water and red food colour, & blindfold.  Jesus has gone away – remember the suitcase and the travel that Joe spoke of last week?  Jesus promised to return…just like Joe is now away and has promised to return to us.  But Jesus told his friends that something else would happen – after he left, he would send someone to help them…do you know who that was?  (Holy Spirit)  So Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come upon them – and would cloth them with power from on high.  What does this mean – to be clothed in the Holy Spirit?  Can you tell with your eyes if someone is clothed in the Holy Spirit (no)?  Our eyes don’t tell us everything about God…because some of it you can’t see.  So I need a volunteer to be blindfolded.  This jug of water is you – the jug is the part of you we can see and touch, and the water is the stuff in side you.  Take a look at the jug.  Now I’ll blindfold you and we’ll ask the Holy Spirit to fill up our jug person (add food colouring to water).  Without taking off the blindfold, feel the jug and tell me if it has changed (no).  Ah, but it has changed – take off your blindfold.  So the Holy Spirit comes and fills us in the same way the water was coloured – from the outside we look the same, but he changes our inward person just like fire burns wood.  Let’s pray.

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Written by sameo416

May 17, 2015 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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