What a day this is.
Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as the Sunday after the Ascension. Just a few days ago, on Thursday, the Church celebrated one of the seven principal feasts – one of the seven most important and special days of the year – the feast of the Ascension. Given this is the Sunday after the Ascension, it seems to me that to truly understand all that we have just heard we need to take a step back, and think together about what exactly happened on that great and glorious Ascension day.
There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers. No one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire. I do not know the facts behind this story, but it is certainly true. Following in their footsteps, I want to tell you an Ascension campfire-story:
As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?”
A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.
So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!”
But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.
It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. The soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him.
This story expresses in beautiful imagery the words of my favorite early church theologian, Athanasius, who says more profoundly than I could ever muster: the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine. This is what Ascension Day is all about. In fact, this is what the incarnation is all about. That one day thousands of years ago, God took on the frailty of our human flesh – God became human – so that we might ascend with God back to heaven and be transformed into the fullness of our own creation. In the Ascension the incarnation cycle is completed, but it is not finished.
This morning we hear from the Gospel of John, just how serious God is about being in relationship with us. We hear Jesus pray, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus passionately and earnestly prays to God that we might be at unity with each other and with Jesus so that we might also be at unity with God the Father. Jesus prays for all of this so we might be able to see, know, experience, and share in his glory. But Jesus’ glory, particularly in John’s Gospel is a complicated and difficult thing.
As we look at John’s Gospel, and the placement of this passage in John’s large narrative, we see these are Jesus’ final words before the account of Jesus’ betrayal. We are reminded that Christ’s glory is inseparable from Christ’s suffering. We come to know again that Jesus’ glory can only be seen from the cross. As we step back and look at this narrative it is clear that this deep and abiding intimacy with God is rooted in the cross and endures through suffering. This is the life we are called to as followers of Jesus. Luckily, we are not the only ones who have been called.
In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul and Silas, out proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman Colony. This passage contains two very different encounters that reveal something to us of the nature of our unity with Christ and the journey to which that unity calls us.
First, Paul and Silas encounter a salve girl who makes a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes. Acts tells us of their encounter with the girl, but the important part of this story has nothing to do with the girl: it has to do with her owners and their response to Paul and Silas.
When the slave girl’s owners find out what Paul has done they are furious, have Paul and Silas seized and bring them to court where they are charged with disturbing the peace of the city. They are charged with being subversive to the public order. So they are flogged, they are beaten, and thrown in jail.
The charge brought against Paul and Silas is strikingly similar to the change brought against Jesus. They are changed for disrupting the status quo. They are charge for breaking down a system of oppression and setting the captive free. For that liberating and life giving work they are punished – and punished harshly. There is a reality for us in this experience of Paul and Silas. When we do the work of Christ there is a cost. Indeed unity with Christ – that very unity Jesus begs the Father to give us – has throughout history often meant suffering at the hands of unjust powers, for the sake of love – for the sake of integrity. Being in unity with God through the person of Jesus means we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the Gospel: we must be willing to face unknown hardships and sufferings for the sake of the cross. But, suffering never has the last word.
As Paul and Silas are in jail they have another important encounter. As they sit in jail, as they sit broken and bruised, they prayed and sang hymns – they worshiped God all night long. Their worship was so powerful that it caused the earth to quake and all in the prison were set free. Yet, they did not leave – instead they save the jailers life.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the jailer says to Paul. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And without delay the jailer and his whole household we baptized. Because of the worship and witness of Paul and Silas this jailer’s life was save and transformed. This is our chief responsibility to gather in prayer and song and worship God in such a way that lives are saved.
There are many problems in this world: release needs to be brought to the captives, justice to the oppressed, and peace to those ravaged by conflict. As important as these actions are, they are only a part of a higher, more important action, the saving action of a sovereign God who enters our humanity to take it up and redeem it to its final destiny.
This time of prayer and worship is a time to clarify our values and motives, and to see all we do and all that we are in light of the gospel message. As we gather at this holy table to time stands still. Everything that was, everything that is, everything that will ever be comes together in this moment as simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Past, present, and future unite to sing the praises of God. As we receive this most blessed sacrament we, in the words of Augustine, becoming what we receive. We are receiving the physical manifestation of our unity with God – we are receiving the redeeming and life giving, sustaining, and nourishing meal of God.
Though this sacrament of praise and thanksgiving we stand with Paul and Silas, who in the face of suffering never stop their worship of God. Their praise shakes the foundations of the prison – doors are opened and chains are unfastened. When we gather at this table this is the same worship we are called to. We are called to stand in the midst of our suffering, our doubt, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty and worship in such a way that shakes the foundations of the world so that all those held captive, all those in chains, are set free.
Do you feel that? The spirit is at work in this place. Wherever the Spirit moves, the work of worship and witness by faithful people brings freedom to all who believe. Trinity Hartford this is your call. To praise God in such a way that walls of division come down, that chains break open, and all people are set free in the name of Jesus.
From the bottom of my heart I want to thank each and every one of you for an amazing year. I have learned so much, tried on new things, and come a little closer to understanding what it means to be a priest. I want to offer my particular thanks to Don who has so graciously and generously taken me under his wing and walked with me as I continue my journey to ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church.
As Jesus, in Luke’s account of the Ascension, departs from his disciples he blesses them, they worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually bless God in the temple. If I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of April, as we depart from you this day you are blessing us. You have and will continue to be a blessing in our lives, and we can only hope that you feel the same way about us. But, it is time for us to take the paths that have been set before us: to go forth from this place continually praising God. While we may be in different places we are all united by that same song of thankfulness and praise that makes eternity stand still. That God loves us so much, that God became what we are so might become what God is.
Beloved children of God; keep the faith, stay strong, and do not give up. Most importantly never stop worshiping because when you do; that is when they earth stops shaking, that is when transformation ceases, that is when lives are no longer saved.