A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
Today we celebrate the last Sunday of Easter. We’ve spent the past 43 days reading about the Resurrection – from various Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles. Next week, on the 50th day, we will celebrate Pentecost – one of the major feasts in our church and the season will shift into the season of the Spirit, the long Season after Pentecost.
Six weeks ago we celebrated Easter and read Matthew’s version of what happened that day at the tomb, which is similar to Luke’s. Mary and a few other women go to the tomb. The stone is rolled back (either before or while they are there). And someone in white appears to explain what’s happened to them. In Matthew, it’s one angel. In Luke, it’s two men. Then the women are sent to tell the others, making them the first apostles, the first to go and tell. The first to proclaim.
Now, in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have two men in white again. Scholars all agree that the author of Luke’s Gospel is the author of the Acts of the Apostles, that Acts is a continuation of Luke. And we have these two men as kind of bookends – to the Resurrection and, consequently, to our Easter Season.
The two men in white mark the beginning of the resurrection and the beginning of the Ascension. We’ve interpreted that these two men are angels of God. Messengers doing what they always do: point us in the right direction.
And here’s what they say to the women at the tomb: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ (Luke 24:5)
Which is similar to what they say to the rest of the apostles as Jesus ascends and leaves them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
The events are different, but the message is the same: God has indeed done wonders in this person Jesus. God has shown us Christ, given us a Son. But don’t stand here gaping. Go and join Christ in the world. Go and find Christ in your human siblings, in the vast creation that you have been given to steward. Go and serve Christ there. Go and serve life through love.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Christ is not among the dead.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Christ is not in heaven.
Christ lives. Here. With us. Amongst us. In us and through us. Christ is alive.
The Feast of the Ascension was celebrated this past Thursday – 40 days after Easter, which is what these readings are referencing. Jesus, who has been walking the earth as the resurrected Christ, finally ascends to heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.
The skeptic in me tells me that this was a story created to explain why Jesus no longer walks the earth. But the believer in me, the mystic, looks for a deeper meaning – What is the ascension about?
I think the key is in the first part of today’s reading from Acts:
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)
“Lord is this the time…?” The disciples are still looking to Jesus to lead them in a worldly battle. The disciples are still, after all this time – the crucifixion and resurrection, and all the miracles, all the teachings, all the healings – the disciples are still unable to fully acknowledge why Jesus was sent and what God is really about. They still have plans for God, a wish list for God to fulfill. As if God is Santa Claus or a vending machine.
They want worldly power and worldly comfort. They want Israel restored to its former glory. They want their enemies to be vanquished. They want the world to be the way they want it and they want God to provide that for them on their timeline.
It makes one wonder if they have learned anything at all from Jesus. But then, that’s usually what we witness in the disciples. They follow but they don’t learn. They say the right things, but they aren’t transformed.
And Jesus tells them: “It’s not for you to decide what’s going to happen or when. This is up to God. But the Holy Spirit is coming and She will give you power and wisdom. Then, perhaps you’ll get it. When you, yourself, have been filled with Love and inspired by Love, then you’ll bear witness to Love, you will become that Love all the way to the ends of the earth.”
Then, as Jesus says, “they may be one, as we are one.”
This may seem incredibly mystical. I can’t imagine anything more mystical than the Ascension, actually. But the Ascension is also one of the most pragmatic, one of the most practical things God has ever done.
Because God understands human nature. In order for humanity to be able to focus on Love and live into becoming Love’s messengers ourselves, we must be able to remove our gaze from the person of Jesus and look into the eyes of our siblings around us. If we are to change the world through Love, we have to stop waiting for Jesus to lead us. And we have to BE Christ in and for the world.
Jesus told us that whomever believed in him would do “even greater things than” he did, in the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. But this requires something of us. It requires us to choose love over empire, over our comfort. It requires us to choose life over the economy. It invites us to give of ourselves, to empty ourselves, until only Christ – only Christ – resides in our hearts.
And this is not some feel-good spiritual joyride, this is the everyday hard work of showing up for others and being willing to be changed by their presence. This is what ministry is. Is it convenient? No. Not usually. Is it easy? Sometimes, not always. Is it rewarding? Yes, it often is. Is it joyful? Yes. Every single time. Yes.
And being a member of a congregation is like boot camp, honestly. It’s a training ground for ministry. We learn to be there for one another, to give of ourselves for one another so that we gain confidence and skill to take that Love out into the world, beyond the walls of the church building.
We learn to love one another around a Table of Reconciliation where in thanksgiving, the Body of Christ is taken, blessed, broken, and shared. And we do this so that we may become what we receive – the Body of Christ, taken, blessed, broken, and shared.
In our celebration next week, we will celebrate that sharing, that “being sent by the Holy Spirit”, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. But there is this in-between time. This time of waiting. Between the Ascension and its promise and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This time of waiting, much like our lives are like right now… during which, we are called to hold onto Christ in our hearts so that we can seek out and serve Christ in the world around us.
This time of waiting when we are called to continue breathing, continue paying attention, continue praying… so that when we are able to act, when it has been revealed to us what is needed, we know what to do.
The world is changing, my friends. We see this and many of us have hoped for this and celebrated this. So now, how are we called to respond? How are we called to share our space and resources? How are we called to steward the arts and advocate for social justice? How are we called to inclusive and intergenerational worship and communal life?
The things we expect, our own wish-list that we want God to fulfill, may just need to change. So, are we ready to really embrace that? “Why do you look for Jesus among the dead?”
I was watching the CDSP graduation this past Saturday since it was livestreamed and I was blessed to hear my professor and mentor Susanna Singer offer these beautiful words, which are so appropriate for this moment in our communal lives:
She said, even though we cannot share the Eucharist, we are called to continue “living Eucharistically. That is, thankfully. Offering ourselves into God’s hands to be taken, blessed, broken and shared.”
And then, she offered this prayer:
From where we are now to where you need us. Jesus, now lead on.
From the security of what we know to the adventure of what you will reveal. Jesus, now lead on.
To refashion the fabric of this world until it resembles the shape of your kingdom. Jesus, now lead on.
Because good things have been prepared for those who love God. Jesus, now lead on.
And the blessing of the Enteral Majesty, the Incarnate Word, and the Abiding Spirit, one God…” now, lead on.
Let us prepare to celebrate the Season of the Spirit. Alleluia! Alleluia!