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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
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Ascension I - 06/05/11 Is. 65:17-14; Ps. 24; I Pet 4:7-11; Jn. 15:26-16:4
This is the first Sunday after Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. What is the ascension of Jesus all about?
The ascension of Jesus has been treated for the most part, at least in my living memory, as a kind of stage trick to get a now "irrelevant" Messiah off stage. Very few sermons I have heard make much of the event, and tend to preach around it to find something to say.
But it is an essential part of the Divine Drama of Salvation. Very specific things happened on that day. It is, first of all, Jesus' ending of the Incarnation and His home coming back to the heavenly realms. There must have been a banner celebration in heaven upon His arrival, putting the return of conquering kings on earth to their capital cities into the dim, pale shadows.
Paul, in Ephesians 4:8, makes reference to the Ascension:
When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive (or, He led a host of captives), and He gave gifts to men..."
Conquering kings would give lavish gifts to their friends and allies from the bounty they got from their conquests. Jesus did the same thing, which Paul goes on to describe as the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
...and His gifts were that some should be apostles, some evangelists, some prophets....
...and so forth. In John 16:6, Jesus tells His disciples,
Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.
The disciples were reacting like Mary Magdalene when she saw Jesus at the tomb and recognized him. She apparently wanted to put her arms around Him, but Jesus said,
Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father... John 20:17
Jesus reminds her of His prior warnings that He would depart from them, but that He would send another Comforter. He has to work to convince the disciples that His leaving is a good thing.
We all have a tendency to latch onto what God has given us for a time, we want to eternalize a temporary gift, a temporary blessing. We get used to what we have, hang onto it, and thus can inhibit the ongoing process of our spiritual growth.
God gave us only for a time this extraordinary gift of an incarnate Lord. That event had its own special purposes, to draw the disciples through their death-to-self, to pay the price for our salvation, to make God more imaginable to us, who tend to see God as far off, distant, and abstract, not as close, warm, available, and loving.
If we cannot imagine some blessing, especially a spiritual blessing, it is impossible for us to receive that blessing. It is not yet a part of our reality picture. We may hear about it, we may read about it, even in the pages of Scripture, but it will remain for us distant and unavailable. A large majority of Christians, I think, today are in that unhappy situation. It is hard for us raised in a secularized world to believe that God will intervene in our lives.
That power of the Holy Spirit among us to perform miracles dwindled and diminished as the centuries wore on, so that by the 1700's, skeptics were openly mocking the Church for its inability to do as recorded in Scripture and as predicted by Jesus -- that we would do more mighty miracles than He had done.
We even formed theories to explain that failure, such as that the ages of miracles ceased at a certain point, such as the finishing of the Scriptural canon. Nothing in Scripture justifies such an unhappy conclusion. And, indeed, among the faithful, miracles are still happening, though on a greatly diminished scale.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are meant to persist among us until, at least, the return of the King. They are a part of our armory to win the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. That battle must be won both in our personal lives and in our relations with friends, neighbors, and even enemies. We will not win it completely, but we will win it substantially, visibly, just as the early Christians won the heart of Rome. It was not perfect, but it was substantial and visible.
The Church of God is not meant to mope along with its tail between its legs, barely able to say a word in public about the Lord Jesus Christ.
But in order to sustain our own spiritual growth, we must be able to let go of early stages of our spiritual journey to move on to the next stage. That will happen over and over as we grow up into adulthood.
Perhaps the best example of that is our leaving home, letting go of mother and father as our constant supporters and directors. If we have matured as we should have, as Jesus did, we will by 12 years old know who our real Father is. We move from mother and father being God, to God both mothering and fathering us. A mature stability-of-being from God, our Creator, and moral direction from God our Father, makes us invincible to the acid effects of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But we lose touch with that if we do not "let go" of early relationships with God so as to move on to a more mature relationship. We stagnate.
The Ascension of Jesus put the disciples to just that test. Could they stay open to the next stage of their spiritual journey to become not only disciples (students, learners), but now apostles (men sent out, teachers, evangelists, spiritual warriors)?
The Epistle for Ascension Day, last Thursday, is Acts 1. Jesus reminds the disciples ...
You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
That could not happen unless Jesus left them to return to heaven. They would have to move on to their next stage of spiritual maturity, which means they would have to let go of Jesus, just as Jesus told Mary Magdalene. "Do not hold Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father..."
In our Gospel for this morning, Jesus tells His disciples,
When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness....
And then dire warnings, that they shall be put out of the synagogues, and that whoever kills them will think they are doing God a service -- because they know neither Jesus nor the Father.
In the West, that open hostile persecution is not generally happening, but there are those among us in the West who would not be unhappy to see that happen. And they are becoming more vocal because we Christians are so silent and ineffective.
Pray for this power of the Holy Spirit. Do not fear what God wants to give you. Pray for it. Beg God for it.
Be constant in your prayers, be constant and quick to confess your sins. Unconfessed sin is probably the greatest barrier to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We hold onto our presumed innocence because we fear the judgement of God. Pray for the judgement of God, pray that God will judge your sins as soon as possible. Pray that God will tell you what you are doing wrong. Only then can you repent, be forgiven, and set free from guilt. The goal and effect of confession and forgiveness is freedom and joy, not a heavier burden of guilt.
The cause of guilt is our sin. Confession is the cure for guilt feelings, not the cause of it. We are never, never, never to beat up on ourselves for our sins. We are to confess, be forgiven, and set joyfully off in a new freedom of life. Sin is the cancer of the soul. Confession and forgiveness is the immune system which eradicates the cancer cells.
You probably received an email on Friday from me asking for help in moving the household goods of a man who was dying, who had been evicted from his house for defaulting on his rent. His son found our church, probably on the internet, and called me asking for help in moving his stuff.
The son wanted to rescue the belongings of his father, but the landlord would not let him back into the house unless he has verifiable reason to believe that a crew would be coming over to remove his belongings.
It turned out that the son had almost sufficient money to pay the back rent, and that the rest, with a considerable additional sum of money, would be coming in on the 22nd of this month. But the house was owned jointly be several family members, all of whom live outside of California, who voted to evict the man. The member who was in charge of the house affairs required the missing $700 to let the father back into the house, with a deadline of yesterday evening, leaving only a few hours. The son asked the landlord to call me to get confirmation that we would be helping to remove the belongings.
A somewhat gruff and slightly bellicose voice said, "I was told to call a Father Fox -- or something like that." I think he thought I was going to chastise him for evicting a dying man. I said, no, I just wanted to let him know that we might be able to help remove his tenant's goods -- at which he became much more calm. He was absolutely adamant that he could not change the vote of his family members. But he did reduce the required amount from $700 to $500. I told the son that I would see if I could raise that amount. That proved not possible, and it was probably already too late in the day, Friday, even if the money was available. The deadline was 9 p.m. that night, Friday.
It then became apparent that it was a large house with far more furniture than we could handle, so I told the son that the best we could do would be on Sunday to rescue small items, especially those of worth.
So, it seemed that the father would not be allowed back into the house, and might lose much of his belongings to the landlord who would sell them to get his rent money -- even though the son had most of the rent money, with a large additional sum coming in on the 22nd.
But yesterday morning, Saturday, the son called me to say that he was able to raise the money and that his father would be let back into the house. I think the landlord, for all his gruffiness, had a conscience and gave the son more time to find the funds necessary.
I tell this story to ask the question: How do Christians respond in such a bizarre situation? A call out of the blue from a desperate man with a sick and dying father, evicted from his home.
The first question one might ask, of course, is whether this is a scam artist. I was sure that it was not, but nevertheless, one takes one's chances. There are sometimes ways of testing and verifying the truth of the claims made. Sometimes there are not. So what do Christians, who are commanded to love their neighbors, do?
The answer lies in our lessons this morning, in the subject of Jesus' ascension, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit. A community of Christians who are united in the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit have resources far beyond the touch of ordinary people.
Occasionally there will be no time to talk with others about a situation. An emergency is apparent, and one must make a decision on the spot. If you have a talking relationship with God, then you ask for His will in the matter and trust what you believe God is saying. And then act on it calmly and expeditiously.
If there is more time, you immediately gather the community of the faithful, or those who can gather, especially leadership, present the matter at hand, spend a time in prayer to discern what God is saying, and then share what you hear.
The kind of wisdom which comes out of such a relationship with each other and with God is often beyond human accomplishment. But that presupposes a community of Christians who have that kind of relationship with each other and with God.
It would be a community which understood that they are the stewards of their wealth, not the owners, that God is the owner. And it would be a community which is submitted to the will of God for the disposition of their wealth and resources.
Our coming to that kind of unity is what Jesus prayed for in John 17:23
The glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved Me.
Unity among ourselves is at the core of the meaning of a salvation community. The world cannot produce that kind of unity, and must always resort to force, bribery, deceit, and a little bit o' luck to create even a fragile unity. The world has no substantial moral unity by which to unite its people. Only God can provide that.
God wants to give that kind of unity to us here at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church. It means living in the light with each other, being vulnerable with each other, being ready to help each other, and out of that strength, to help those around us. It means being leaders and followers in our appropriate places. Leadership means nothing at all without followership. There are skills and gifts of the Holy Spirit for both. And leadership is itself a servant role.
When Jesus ascended back to heaven, He was not just "going home". He was on a triumphal march. He had entered the world almost unseen and unnoticed. But He left leading captivity captive. His ascension smashed a gaping hole in the closed circle of the Fallen world, just as the curtain of the Temple was rent in twain, opening the way to the Holy of Holies for us human beings. Jesus blasted a hole through that shroud of death we read about in Isaiah 25, covering the whole earth.
St. Paul urges us in Colossians 3:1:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
The ascension means that we can, in the Spirit, ride on Jesus' coattails to the heavenly throne, standing on the Hand of God, the holy ground of eternal security. The ascension restores the sacramental integrity of the cosmos. We here on earth are reconnected with the Holy and Undivided Trinity in heaven.
That is the meaning of being "in the world, but not of it". We are still in the world, but our source is no longer of this world, it is of God. We are children of God, no longer children of the world. We are children of God, and therefore adults in the world.
This is all to happen right here and now. That is the life of the Trinity season, toward which we are drawing, two Sundays away, first Pentecost next week, then Trinity, living the life here on earth into which Jesus came to draw us.
Lord, we want to be Your servants. Take away our hesitation, our fears and anxieties for the future. Enable us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and by obedience to your word, to become the kind of community which You can use to challenge and to change the world. In the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.
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