Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|Acts 16:16-34||Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21|
|Psalm 97||John 17:20-26|
Ascend with Christ, Live with Joy
Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day, which we marked on Thursday. The Bible gives two different accounts of the Ascension. One comes at the end of Luke’s Gospel and completes the story of Jesus’ life on earth; the other comes at the beginning of the Book of Acts and launches the stories about the early church. In both cases we are told that Jesus was crucified and that he rose from the dead and appeared for forty days to his disciples. At the end of those forty days, the risen Christ withdrew from the disciples’ sight. He no longer lived bodily on earth with his friends, but, as we hear in the Book of Acts, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). As Luke’s Gospel describes the Ascension, here is what happened: “ [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53).
The other day I was having lunch with my friend Andrea Ayvazian, the pastor of the UCC church in Haydenville, and we got to talking about how curious it is that Luke says that the disciples responded to Jesus’ ascension “with great joy.” Joy? Why joy? The disciples had already said goodbye to Jesus once. They had watched him suffer a brutal death and had felt the anguish of forever letting him go. Then, to their amazement, he had come back as the risen Christ, truly himself but now shining with divine glory. For forty days they had been blessed by his presence among them; they had received his forgiveness, guidance, and strength. And now he was leaving them again, never to appear in such visible, tangible form! You would think that they would have felt bereft! That they would have been heartsick at grieving yet another loss! Today’s Collect suggests as much, with its poignant appeal to God, “Do not leave us comfortless.”
So why did the disciples feel such joy? During the ten days between Jesus’ withdrawal from the disciples’ sight and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples were living in an in-between time the risen Christ had left them, and the fullness of the Spirit had not yet come. Yet they were filled with joy, rather than with sorrow and anxiety. How was that possible for them, and, maybe more to the point, how might that be possible for us? For we know what it’s like to live in an in-between time. We experience it as individuals, when something comes to an end and the new has not yet come, when we find ourselves in-between, waiting for someone or something, not sure what will come next or how things will turn out. We know that in-between space as a community, too, for our rector left Grace Church a while ago, and, even though we enjoy the very capable leadership of an interim rector, we wonder who the new rector will be and how God in Christ will find fresh expression among us. It can be difficult to wait during an in-between time, and easy to become worried, irritable, or impatient with our selves and one another. So why is it that the disciples, in their own in-between time, were filled “with great joy,” and what value did they find in waiting?
I’ll offer three possibilities.
First, they received this in-between time as a gift in which to absorb what God in Christ was doing for them. To use the traditional imagery: at Christmas, God in Christ descended among us, becoming fully human, and on Ascension Day, God in Christ ascended back up to heaven, carrying with him all that is human and in fact all of creation into the heart of God. The Ascension marks the complete reunion of earth and heaven, of matter and spirit, of human and divine. Thanks to the Ascension, every aspect of life, every aspect of our selves, has been infused with the life of God. There is nowhere we can go, nothing that we can experience, that God does not share with us.
So I imagine that the disciples joyfully used the period after Jesus’ ascension to absorb what had happened and what it meant. What it meant for them, as it means for us, is that everything that is in us, every part of us our anxiety, our despair, our distractedness, our inertia and impatience everything, the parts of our selves that we like and the parts of our selves that we don’t like has become transparent to God. There are so many parts of our selves and of the world around us that we want to avoid, scorn, and push away we don’t welcome them, they are too painful, maybe they frighten us but lo and behold, God is found there, too. God is everywhere now; there is nowhere we can go, where God is not. The love of God in Christ embraces it all.
So the ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost, just like the interim period between one rector and the next, give us a precious opportunity for self-examination, as individuals and as a community. Are there parts of yourself, or of this community, or of the world that you think are beyond God’s reach? Thanks to the Ascension, everything in us as individuals and as a community, and everything in the whole wide world, is now held in God. Nothing is left out. All of it has been redeemed. All of it can be transformed. All of it is open to God’s grace.
So I imagine that being one reason for the disciples’ joy. A second reason was that they trusted Jesus’ promise that he would send his Holy Spirit. So they prayed. In fact, they practically threw themselves into prayer. Luke’s Gospel ends with the words, “they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53), and early in the Book of Acts, Luke speaks of the disciples “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Jesus is always ready to meet us when we pray, for we pray with him and in him; in fact, you might even say that when we feel the impulse to pray, that it is the living Christ within us is that is drawing us to pray. In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we overhear Jesus praying for us: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17: 21, 23a). SSJE Brother Mark Brown points out that “If Christ is in me, and Christ is in you, we have something in common. We are no longer separate. We are no longer separated by so many miles or by race or class… We have something of our essence in common.”
Prayer is what held the disciples together after Jesus ascended into heaven, and in praying in union with him they discovered how intimately connected they were to each other. Prayer is what can hold us together, too, in this in-between time, this time of transition. Prayer can fill us with joy, as we put our trust in the coming of the Holy Spirit and in the good things that God has prepared for us.
Finally, here’s a third reason that the disciples were filled with joy when Jesus ascended into heaven: they were a band of people who were convinced that the kingdom of God had come among them and that they had an essential part to play in making that kingdom real. Theologian John Dominic Crossan points out that John the Baptist had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.1 John the Baptist centered his ministry around himself, which meant that if the powers-that-be killed John the Baptist, his ministry was over. But Jesus shared everything he had with his friends; he gave his power away; he passed everything he had to us, and entrusted it all to us. So, as John Dominic Crossan says, “By the time the authorities came for Jesus, the Kingdom movement could no longer be stopped simply by executing Jesus.”
We see that in today’s marvelous story from the Book of Acts, when Jesus’ followers were arrested for disturbing the city (Acts 16:16-34). With Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, a movement began, a movement that stretches straight from the ascension to Grace Church and beyond, a movement in which we have each other, and cherish each other, and find Christ in each other, and encourage each other to bear witness to Christ’s saving love in the world despite all the forces of injustice and oppression. We are free to choose this life, this destiny, or not.
So, yes, it is true that news reports from around the world give us plenty of reminders of human malice and violence, but it is also true that in Christ we can practice kindness and respect in all our own relationships, and can join peace and justice movements that advocate for policies that build a world that is free and just and safe. Yes, it is true that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have reached levels not seen for millions of years,2 but it is also true that we can quit business as usual and join the movement to protect life on this planet. Last week in Washington, D.C., I watched a climate statement get signed by the leaders of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of Sweden, committing them “to leading a conversion of epic scale, a metanoia, or communal spiritual movement away from sin and despair toward the renewal and healing of all creation.” We feel sadness and alarm for our ailing earth, but we can renew our resolve to take part in the urgent work of healing.
There is cause for joy in this in-between time, cause for giving thanks, cause for lifting our hearts as Jesus ascends into heaven and we await the coming of the Holy Spirit. If we have the faith and strength to face life’s challenges, it will be through the One whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. It will be through the One who lived and died and rose for us. When the celebrant calls out, “Lift up your hearts,” we have the joy of calling back in reply, “We lift them to the Lord.”