May 28, 2017


Image of Stained Glass Window


Easter 7 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D. Johnson, III


When I was little, I remember asking this question, “what ever happened to Jesus after the Resurrection? I know there were the appearances, but then what? What ever happened to him after that?” And I remember no one seemed to know. Of course, I was raised Presbyterian, so maybe we didn’t have the same emphasis around the Ascension, but still, you’d think someone would have known.

Eventually though someone did remember, and I learned this story about the Ascension. Nothing much more happened around it though, at least that I recall, until I took our college students to Hawaii for the Provincial Event in 2012. We were there, in the Cathedral in Honolulu, gazing up, as it were, at this 50-foot stained glass window, when I noticed that in one of the scenes near the top, it looked like Jesus was on a surfboard. And, I was informed when I inquired, that yes, it was a surfboard, and it was meant to represent the Ascension. It was confusing because it looked like he was coming down; but in fact he was ascending, and of course it makes sense that he could be looking back toward earth while surfing toward heaven, and that he wouldn’t need to be watching where he was going. He’s the Risen Lord, after all. And I have a picture if anyone wants to see it afterward.

So perhaps, like other biblical stories we have, this one too is difficult to believe if we try to understand it literally. But never fear, for this we have surfer Jesus to the rescue. Plus, if you recall, the author of the Gospel According to Luke, who announces himself also to be the author of the Book of Acts as well, has Jesus ascending into heaven on the same day as the Resurrection in Luke (yes, it was quite the busy day, apparently); but here in Acts, that same author, has it happening forty days later.

So let’s not worry too much about literalizing the account, as if heaven were somewhere “up there.” Rather, let’s recognize that that was simply the way the universe was understood at the time the account was written.

Anyway, there’s no break for those poor apostles, is there? I mean, they are literally gazing up toward heaven as the Risen Lord is being carried out of their sight when they’re abruptly asked by two men in white robes “Why are you standing here looking up toward heaven?”
I mean, really, um…, didn’t you just see?...

So the message in today’s first reading is clear: if we place ourselves in the story, the Risen Lord tells us we will derive our power from the Holy Spirit; our job is to be Christ’s witnesses in the world; and our focus needs to be here, doing Christ’s work on earth, and not star gazing, waiting for Christ to return.

Now there is another important message here as well, and it is found in the upper room, to which the apostles return. In fact, we have two upper room scenes today, as the gospel account from John also takes place in the upper room on the last night, so I thought I would mention that as well.
But as the first reading goes on to tell us, the apostles were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. So yes, we need to be doing Christ’s work in the world; but we also need to sustain ourselves with prayer, in community, in order to do it. And please notice, they were there together with certain women! Once again, the women are almost completely written out of the account, but they were there.

Now I trust that many of us already understand that it is not for us to spend our time focusing on what’s to come, but it is for us to recognize that we are in the world, and that we are here to address the needs of the world. We are not to sit around waiting for Christ’s triumphant return, as if the needs of the world do not concern us.

In fact, I remember being asked once by a student, as we were helping to build a home, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, what I thought about Christ’s return and whether we would be prepared, and I said “well, you know, I think if it happened right now, we’d be in pretty good shape. I think this is pretty much the fulfillment of what we’ve been called to do.”

But do we see it that way? Do we see our work as God’s work? I’m not so sure. I remember when I was still in Vermont, before seminary, but several years into my discernment for ministry, when I thanked a fellow parishioner for his ministry. And I’ll never forget what he said: “that wasn’t ministry, I just fixed the roof.” Yes, that’s right folks, it was Vermont, the steep roof of the old church was leaking into the organ pipes, and he got up there, in the middle of winter, and patched it, and got it to stop leaking until the snow and ice cleared and the church could then try to raise the tens of thousands of dollars that it was going to cost for a new roof, but he didn’t see that as ministry! He didn’t see that as doing God’s work!

And so, after reminding him that Jesus was, in fact, a carpenter (“Oh yeah, that’s right, you know, I hadn’t thought of that”) we had a gentle conversation about honoring all work as sacred, and it shifted his perspective. And sometimes, that’s all it takes. Shortly thereafter, he noticed that the church really needed a new sign out front, and he ended up making this absolutely beautiful carved, wooden, hand-painted sign which is still there today; but he did it with a different understanding of what ministry is, and what it means to do God’s work.

But here’s the thing: if we are going to do God’s work, we are also going to suffer; because to do God’s work in the world is also to give of ourselves in Love. Ultimately, it is to love others as God loves us. And if we love, we are, at some point, going to suffer.

So we have to talk a little today about suffering as well, because it is mentioned three times in today’s second lesson. In fact, as one of the commentaries points out, First Peter contains twelve uses of the verb “to suffer” out of only forty-two in the entire New Testament.

The suffering to which Peter is referring in today’s second lesson would of course be the suffering of the early church. The reference to the “fiery ordeal” may in fact not be hyperbole at all, but the very real consequence of following Christ in those times. And yes, while I do realize that these things continue to happen in the world today - and we have a news story from just the other day of a busload of Coptic Christians being killed en route to a monastery - that’s likely not the kind of suffering to which most of us can instantly, or intimately, relate. So, I want to offer some words on suffering that are more likely to strike us at our core.

Because when we suffer loss, the loss of someone we love deeply, the kind of loss that strikes us at our core, or when we suffer betrayal, as Christ did, at the hands of someone we love, or have loved deeply, then we come to know what it means to suffer. We grieve. We are disillusioned. Sometimes, our entire world is turned upside down and around to the point where we become paralyzed by the enormity of the loss or the betrayal. And where do we turn, to whom do we turn, in those moments?
That is when we turn to God. That is when we turn to our Risen Lord. And what do we hear, when we cry out in our pain? What does the Risen Christ, in those most desperate of moments, tell us? “Yes, I know; and now you know, too; and I am with you.”

Do you see? It is in and through our own suffering, that we are joined to Christ in his suffering, and that is the lesson we hear today. This is why we are told to cast all our anxiety on God.

What does Jesus tell them, in that upper room, as he is praying for his disciples, on that last night in John? “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

We come to know God, we come to know our Risen Lord, we come to experience eternal life, and we come to understand Resurrection, through our own suffering, because God is intimately acquainted with our suffering. To me, this is the gift of our Christian faith. This is the consolation...that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” And I stand before you today as a witness to this truth, as a recipient of that grace, that peace, that Resurrection.

The message for today could not be clearer: yes, the Risen One has ascended to the Father, but we have not been left alone; and it is by being here, in the world, and it is by bringing Christ’s healing, Christ’s reconciling love, to the world, that we come to know God more deeply, and that we come to understand Christ’s suffering more intimately. We are met and known by God when we share in that suffering, and that is also our Great Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist we celebrate at the table.
So, when you feel alone, when you are grieving, when you have been forsaken, despised, rejected, betrayed; whatever loss, or sense of loss it is that you are experiencing, remember to cry out to God, remember to pray, remember to ask for that consolation, that peace, that understanding, which the world cannot give; because that is when we come to know God more deeply, and as the gospel tells us, that is when we enter eternal life.

Let us pray: O God, the King of not leave us comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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