After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. (Rev. iv. 1)
Today is Trinity Sunday. And so, following as we do the traditional understanding of the Western lectionary of readings, we enter the season not of Pentecost but of Trinity Tide, intending no disrespect to the Holy Spirit, but acknowledging that our life in the Holy Spirit must never be severed or divorced from the Father and the Son. Trinity means three, and Trinity Tide is an invitation into the trifold life of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Should we make the mistake that many post-modern churches do in abandoning the Trinity in favor a seemingly independent season of the Spirit, we should end up finding ourselves being moved far more by spirits than God’s Holy Spirit, and by our own imaginings than by the life of the Father, the truth of the Son, and the spiritual transformation that the Holy Spirit brings from both.
The Trinity Season is then all about the Revelation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Christianity is a religion founded on the facts of Divine Revelation. Its God is a God who wishes to be known. The Old Testament is a record of His Revelation of Himself in history. [In the New Testament] Christ is the Revelation of God in our Manhood. (The Christian Year, p. 142) Christians believe that all of creation reveals and discloses the wisdom, power, and love of God the Father. Christians believe that man’s redemption comes about through the revelation and disclosure of God’s will in the life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. Christians believe that man’s sanctification through the Holy Spirit ensures his permanent participation in the life of God. So when God opens a door to the experience of any man, some deeper truth and understanding forever alter his consciousness and place in the world. He begins to realize that behind and beneath the appearance of created reality lies God’s being and life, His spiritual wisdom and truth, and His mystical love and passion for all men’s salvation.
And we find the first intimations of this alteration in human consciousness in the Old Testament. This morning we read the words of the Psalmist and we cannot help but be struck by his awe and wonder at the revelation of God’s voice or Word that evidences power, strength, and majesty. It is the Lord that ruleth the sea; the voice of the Lord is mighty in operation: the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice…. The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness: yea, the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Cades.... The Lord sitteth above the water-flood : and the Lord remaineth a King forever. The Lord shall give strength unto his people: the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace. (Psalm xxix. 4,7,9,10) The Psalmist is overawed and humbled at the presence of the Lord, whose voice and Word ensure His rule and governance of all nature and creation. The experience of the Prophet Isaiah is even more startling. He tells us this morning that he saw the Lord upon the throne, high and lifted up, [whose] train filled the temple…that above it stood the seraphims…. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. (Is. vi. 1-3) The vision completely humbles and floors the visionary: Woe is me! he cries, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. (Ibid.5) The Lord sends to him one of the seraphin who touches his lips, purges his sin, and equips him to travel and spread the Word of the Lord. Behold a door is opened; man is humbled, forever changed, equipped and strengthened to share the vision of the Lord.
But for Christians another door has been opened that reveals that the image in which we have been made is the Trinity. St. Augustine of Hippo, that great 4th century North African Doctor of the Church, compares the Trinity to the human soul. The human soul is – it exists; it knows – it understands; and it wills – it loves. So also God is, He knows, and He wills. God exists; God eternally begets or generates His knowing – His Word or Son; and out of his knowing proceeds His love or his Spirit. God is one substance or activity who expresses His spiritual life through three Persons.(De Trinitate. Aug. RC summary) We believe that God is three Persons and one God. We believe that each Person is fully God and yet distinct in his respective relation to us.
We believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and we believe that Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, desires to reconcile the whole of the created human person to God the Father. But what is it that will make the truth of the Trinity applicable to our lives? Behold [another] door is opened to us in this morning’s Gospel lesson. We read that a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night. Men who come to others in the night arrive with the hope that the darkness will shield and shelter them from other men’s observation, detection, and, perhaps, criticism. John Calvin tells us that Nicodemus’ eyes were dazzled, as it were, by the splendor of his own greatness and reputation… and yet there appears in him some seed of piety…and so he is moved to obtain what [Christ] has. (J. Calvin. Comm’s. Vol. xvii). But though the day is far spent and the evening is at hand, Christ will bring Nicodemus into the light of God’s spiritual day. Nicodemus says, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. (St. John iii. 2) Nicodemus knows that God is with Jesus in some way. Perhaps Jesus has discovered some additional facet of the Law that will prove useful to the life of the Jews. Nicodemus is moved by the doctrine of Christ, but has not yet perceived the Person that He is. And so he is still blind. He is spiritual, but not religious, as so many confess in this dark age of ours. Jesus ignores his obsequious patronizing and cuts to the quick: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (St. John iii. 3) Nicodemus is worldly and fleshly. He wonders aloud how a man can be born again after his mother has birthed him once. Jesus responds: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.(St. John iii. 5-7)
The new birth that Jesus Christ comes to bring is birth from above, heavenly birth, birth through God’s Grace which overcomes sin and opens up to man the gates of everlasting life. First a man must be Baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, as Original Sin is washed away, and man is incorporated into the death of Jesus Christ. This Nicodemus must also learn. Death to sin is not enough. Every man who would enter the kingdom of God must become dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God [the Father] through Jesus Christ. (Romans vi. 11) There will be the ongoing habit of dying and rising, as the Spirit progressively grounds a man in the life of this Person who stands before Nicodemus, this man whose Death and Resurrection will become the pattern and form of new birth and new life that the Spirit will carry into the realm of eternal salvation.
And still there is more; the door continues to open. Jesus says, Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (St. John iii. 8) The wind is invisible and untraceable, and so is the Spirit. The Spirit is present that we may be born; the Spirit is invisibly present whereof thou art born, for thou too must be invisibly born, (Tractate xii, St. John iii) Augustine remarks. Nicodemus, still, does not understand. Jesus responds, If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (St. John iii. 12) Nicodemus has forgotten that God’s mysterious rule belongs to the working of the Spirit which also orders nature and is beyond the understanding of man. Consider the wind. Can it be caught, captured, imprisoned, and examined to find its source and origin? The minute you think you’ve caught the wind, it escapes you. And besides, how can you be sure that you have caught it all? Jesus reminds Nicodemus that if the mysteries of nature will not lead his mind back to their spiritual cause, neither will his heart be open to the mystery of spiritual rebirth.
The way back to God is from the flesh to the Spirit, from the earth to heaven, from man back to God. Jesus closes His dialogue with Nicodemus with these words: And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (Ibid, 13-15) For man to return back to God the Father, the Son must lift him into His life through the passionate prodding and longing of His Holy Spirit. Man, for his part, must believe and follow into the mystery that God unfolds. Behold a door is opened. Our response to that mystery is worship. Worship is the highest and truest act of faith, and the worship [we] offer is the homage of [our] whole being, in body, mind, and spirit, in joyous response to that vision of God which has been granted to [us]. (The Christian Year, p. 144) Worship belongs to the divine order which governs nature and man. In worship each believer reaches the highest action of his manhood, and finds himself in the company of those pure spirits who stand before the throne of God ( Ibid)– [the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit] - and praise Him for ever and ever in words vital with the energies of grateful devotion: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. (Ibid) When we worship, we discover ourselves in the presence of the angels who believe and obey, who so sing and praise God forever and ever. When we worship, we realize with John Donne, that:
All the world is but speculum, a glasse in which we see God: and the Church itself, and that which the Church begets itself in us, faith itself is but an enigma, a dark representation of God to us, till we come to that state, ‘To see God face to face, and to know, as we are known. (Sermon xxi).
And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
(St. John 15. 27)
Ascension Day is sadly a spiritual feast that elicits scarce little attention in the post-modern world. Like his Incarnation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration to which too few people pay attention. Yet both feasts direct us to the fons and origin of eternal life. The Incarnation marks the union of God with man; God came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. The Ascension marks the union of man with God, or a return of our humanity to the Father in Him. He came down from Heaven, and now He returns to Heaven. God in Jesus has come down to earth to generate new life for all mankind; and now he carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of God in Christ descending from the Father and then returning to Him.
Christ’s beginning with us in conception reminds us of God’s approach, his coming near to His people, his assumption of that human nature which had rejected and removed itself from God’s permanent influence, desire, and intention for His human creation. The conception of Christ inaugurates God’s desire to cross the borders and frontiers of man’s self-willed alienation, separation, and seclusion from his Maker. Silently and invisibly the journey of salvation began in the concealment of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s womb. What had happened and how it came to pass was visible and known only to the faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. The truth of the matter was concealed to all others.
Between conception and Ascension there is much that is disclosed and revealed. And yet still there are gaps in the record of Jesus’ historical life. We have the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke, followed by a record of His circumcision and then His Presentation in the Temple. But pursuant to these events there is silence until we find the twelve year old Jesus learning and teaching in the Temple with the theological doctors. So much is concealed from our knowing. After His Presentation, we hear nothing of Jesus until we find Him some sixteen years later as His public ministry commences with baptism by John in the River Jordan, when God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. (Acts x. 38) For three years then we have a record of His teaching, preaching, and healing, and then its abrupt termination with His suffering and death on the Cross. In death He disappears again, and His meaning and message seem destined to join the ranks other great historical men who died for something that could not last or endure. To be sure He had taught with provocative parables and even faintly promising teachings, but what were all they now that He was dead? The truth that He carried would surely now be concealed from men’s minds and understandings forever.
Of course, as we know, the Resurrection changed all of that. What had been concealed was now revealed, what had been hidden was now disclosed, what had been obscure was now clear. And all of this was conveyed to the hearts and minds of the Apostles through a risen and glorified Jesus – body, soul, and spirit intact, continuing to call, summon, lift, and carry His friends into the truth that they thought had died but was now miraculously alive. In Eastertide the faith of the Apostles is made new, their knowledge deepened, their hopes increased and their loves made strong. They begin not only to see the Risen Lord, but to grasp, know, and penetrate the mysteries of truth that call them into new life, new meaning, and a new destiny through Him. In Eastertide the Apostles begin to understand that what was concealed from their senses and perceptions was the Love and desire of God for his people, as what had come down from Heaven, was made flesh, suffered, died, and had been raised up. In Eastertide what the Apostles begin to see is that Christ was reconciling the world to God in his life, through his death, and now by Resurrection.
And yet first, once again, room must be made for a space and time of silence and invisibility. Christ must ascend back to the source of his Being. The new stillness and invisibility mirror the other side of Christ’s conception. Now once again Christ will become invisible to the tangible, physical, and material apprehensions and perceptions of the race of men. Christ’s journey began from the invisible source of the Love that came down. Christ’s mission will culminate as the Love that returns to its invisible end. The 6th century Kontakia of St. Romanus puts it this way:
He Who descended to earth, as He alone knew how, Rising up from it, again as
He alone knew how, took the ones whom He loved, and gathering them together,
He led them to a high mountain in order that, when they had their minds and sensibilities
on the height, might forget all lowly things. And so, when they were led up to the Mount
of Olives, They formed a circle around the Benefactor, as Luke, one of the initiates,
narrates in full. (Lk. 24:50-53) The Lord, raising His hands like wings-- Just as the eagle
covers the nest of young birds which she warms-- Spoke to the nestlings: "I have sheltered
you from all evil Since I loved you and you loved Me. I am not separated from you; I am
with you, and no one is against you.
Jesus takes his friends to a high place and calls his friends to follow. Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. (Psalm 24. 7) Lift up your souls, Jesus says to his Apostles, and follow me to this high place, far above and removed from your lonely, mundane, and earthly spaces of alienation, separation, and seclusion from God. Come with me, up, higher and higher. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close at my side in spirit and in truth. Cling to me faith and with all your desire. Come, we are moving into my Father’s presence. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. He shall come unto you, even into you, and will strengthen and embolden you. He shall come unto you, even into you, and will heal you. He shall come unto you, even within you, and you shall spread my salvation to the nations of the world. ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…Behold I make all things new.’ (Rev. 21) This is your reconciliation with God who dwells on high. It begins now. Be not afraid, follow me, for I am with you. Come up with me and I shall fill you with a love that destroys despair and raises you up out of sin and death. Long ago, my prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that ‘I am’. And one greater than Moses is here. My prophet Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven, long ago, and a greater than Elijah is here. Hear what Austin Farrer says about this:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared
to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same
way Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the
crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of
his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ’s love burnt
towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and
went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire;
the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts;
and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ calls his Apostles and us to lift up our hearts and to journey with and through Him to Heaven. The fire of His Love burns upward to the source and origin. The same Love that lept down from heaven and into the Virgin’s womb now leaps back up to the Father to complete the circle of His mission. Christ’s Love forms a circle around those who believe, enkindling and flaming a Love that ascends and carries all who will follow in the wake of His passion. Christ’s Love lights a fire on the ground of men’s hearts, soaring ever upward into the home of their destiny.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but our longing for true meaning and definition, true vocation and calling as the sons and daughters of God? What is this fire but the zeal for discovering and finding God’s eternal plan and intention for our lives? The earth cannot hold me. Heaven takes hold of me. Let it take hold of you also. Christ leads captivity captive - captive to the inner and mystical Spirit of God. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God. As Bishop Westcott reminds us, we are being transformed into service as servants. We are being lifted up; we rise through the fire of Christ’s love for the Father. With Him in heart and mind we thither ascend that with Him we might continually dwell. Christ ascends and so we too must ascend.
And in our ascending something more, at first concealed and hidden, will begin to be revealed and disclosed to us. Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: The Transfigured One took the Apostles’ hearts with Him to God, and they will never again feel altogether at home in this temporal world. For that part of the world that they most loved is now with God. And this is why everything that they see on earth becomes transparent to heaven. The Holy Spirit, which the Son sends to them from heaven, kindles in them the fire of longing in which every image on earth becomes radiant for heaven, for the everlasting life which springs up from triune love. (Hans Urs Von Balthasar) Jesus is the part of this world that we must love most. If we love Him, we will ascend in heart and mind to be with Him. We must learn to be at home with Jesus, whose heart was and is always in Heaven. Jesus shows us that we have come from God and must return to God. In this Ascension Tide let us with deepest desire begin the journey home. And let us remember also, that if we are following Christ, inwardly and spiritually, indeed we shall suffer in the world. Christ warns us that those who ascend with Him in heart and mind, and with Him continually dwell, will be rejected by this world. They shall put you out of the synagogues: Jesus says, yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. (St. John xvi. 2, 3) But who cares? We are not meant to be at home or content in this world. A Carmelite Friar asks, Do you feel shaky at times as you face your own life with all its ambiguities? The mystery of the ascension invites us, even in our shakiness, not so much to believe in God, but to believe that God believes in us. In other words, don’t get stuck looking down in discouragement, or looking up in bewilderment. Staff in hand, mantle around your shoulders, look out and step out with grace, longing, and courage. (A Homily for the Ascension) And Jesus says, Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (St. John xiv. 1-3) And most importantly, he sings, Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (St. John 16. 33) Amen.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away.
(St. John xvi. 7)
This evening we celebrate one of the most important Feast Days of the Church Year. And yet, sadly, since the time of liturgical reform in the 1960’s this most important of all days has fallen into disuse. The Feast itself is either transferred to the following Sunday, or it has been forgotten altogether. But how, you might ask, could the Church forget this days of days, this event of events, this fact of all facts without which our Christian religion is in greatest danger and peril of breaking apart, disintegrating, drifting off into the devil’s domain? Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. But if we forget this days of all days, our salvation is in ruin, our deliverance is destroyed, the one all essential link of our piety and religion with God our Heavenly Father has been denied. For on this day Christ’s humanity, and thus our humanity, is reconciled with Heaven, and on this day the great work and labor of the salvation of nations begins.
Let me explain what I mean. For forty days we have been celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in this our Easter Tide. Throughout, we have been reflecting and praying upon Christ’s appearances to his faithful Mother the Blessed Virgin, to the Apostles, and then to upwards of 500 people. Throughout this season we have been learning about who and what Jesus Christ is. The faith, which we have received from the Apostles, teaches us that, as Article IV of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion sums it up: Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things pertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature…. (Article IV) Who and what the Apostles saw was no ghost or phantom, but Christ himself, Jesus of Nazareth, risen up from death, and bearing in his hands and feet the scars of his Crucifixion, the marks of his wounded love for all mankind. Who and what they saw was his risen human nature, now supernaturalized and glorified such that he could be in more than one place at once, and yet simultaneously able to eat and break bread with the friends that were still his. St. Paul tells us that All flesh is not the same flesh.... (1 Cor. xv. 39) There is the natural flesh and there will be supernatural flesh. Christ assumed our natural flesh and he carried it to death in a way that we could not. Natural flesh is sinful flesh; Christ assumed the punishment and penalty for the natural flesh that denies, silences, and kills God, for all practical purposes. In assuming its punishment, however, he, through whom all things are made, would take this natural flesh of the old man and raise it up from death into its true and lasting relation to God. He would respond to sin, death, and Satan, with the desire to make, mold, fashion, and create new life, new knowledge, and new love, which he would reconcile and return to God the Father. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. (1 Cor. xv. 44,45) And long before Christ died on the Cross, Ezekiel the Prophet foretold of his work and labor.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the LordGod; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And I shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord. (Ez. xxxvii. 1-14)
Ezekiel prophesied of Christ’s Resurrection from the Dead. He prophesied of no resurrection of a spirit divorced from the body, or a soul without its flesh. He foretold of a Resurrection of the whole man, body, soul, and spirit. He foretold of the Resurrection of the whole Christ, not some part, not some element, not some small piece whose larger whole was to be left behind. The hands which touched the eyes of Blind Bartamaeus and opened them the vision of himself and whole world, rose up. The feet that were bathed with the flood of the Magdalene’s tears, rose up. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the whole body of the same man recognized now in his spiritual glory was raised from the dead, and not one iota of that beautiful unity of body, soul, and spirit was lost or left behind. The whole Christ was raised up, the whole of our redeemed humanity was raised, the whole of his life which climaxed in his death on the Cross for us was raised up and moving, wounds and all – dead man walking - before the astounded eyes of our fathers and mothers in the Faith who saw it long ago. The whole of a shared life continued to be shared in all of its elements, with all of its parts, created by God and now to be returned to the source of all its truth, beauty, and goodness.
And now tonight this same risen Saviour, this raised up bundle of human redemption, ascends back to the Father. He does not disintegrate into raw particles and elements of air, water, earth, and fire. We are no Epicureans or New Age spiritualists who think that life – Christ’s or ours - ends in annihilation, destruction, and a scattering of all that human beings ever were and are into the stratosphere. We are no fools who think that we were made for naught or that we were made only to meet an end in which each and every one of our particular human personalities has no meaning or significance in the eternal scheme of things. No, because Christ has Risen from the Dead, and has Ascended back to the Father, we know that we can, if we so choose, find our meaning, definition, and ultimate destiny in our beginning. We came from God, and we shall return to God, not in part and parcel, but wholly, completely, really, and truly, as individual creations like none other, whose lives will be weighed and measured according to our willingness to accept God’s desire for us. And I shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land…. (Ez. xxxvii. 14)
Christ Jesus ascends back to the Father, and is still alive and moving as he has always been. Before his departure he tells his friends (and us), Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. (St. John xvi. 7) Our Saviour ascends back to the Father to continue and perfect the work he has begun in us. He leaves the world, and as Article IV reminds us, He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. (Article IV) Each and every human being, body, soul, and spirit shall be judged by Christ. But the good news for believers is this. He desires to put [his] Spirit in us, [that we may] live, live in him, dying to the world, the flesh, the devil as he did, and rising through the Holy Spirit to the Father, beginning here and now. Old St. John, at the end of his life, having witnessed the martyrdom of all of his friends for the sake of the living and Ascended Christ, says this: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 St. John i. 1-3) Our fellowship and unbreakable communion is with the Father, through the Ascended Jesus Christ who is our only Mediator and an Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 St. John ii. 1, 2) The Ascended Christ intercedes for us through his Holy Spirit. His Ascension means that he continues to be who and what he was and always is – God’s passion, desire, yearning, longing, hungering, and thirsting for our redemption. On this Ascension night let us remember and learn Christ’s eternal desire is for our salvation. On this Ascension night let us know that he desires to reconcile every particle of what makes up our individual natures with God the Father. He has made us; he loves us, he wants us with a passion that is unceasing, unhesitating, uninterrupted, and eternal. From our side, with all of our hearts and all of our souls, through all of our bodies and with all of our members, let us let Him, through his Holy Spirit, love us into loving our Heavenly Father to such an extent and with such a passion that on judgment day, he shall welcome us into the kingdom of his Father saying, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (St. Matthew xxv. 34)
Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a
moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out
of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving,
and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas)
Today we at St. Michael and All Angels are doing two things. First we are continuing our spiritual journey together, one that we have been making for some time. Each of us is here because as a spiritual family, we have dared to be embraced in the loving arms of our Saviour Jesus Christ as a people in exile or exodus. What I mean is that we have been like wayfaring people, seeking a home, a place and space where God might move us and where we might be moved by God. We began our journey into the wilderness at the Hoyte Cathedral, where we were blessed by the kindness and generosity of Pam and Otho. It is not every day that a married couple is asked to turn their living room into a make-shift chapel, a fellowship hall, and the command–central of Christian missionary activities such as ours. More cynical people would have rolled their eyes and said that there was no room for them at the inn. (St. Luke ii. 7) To Pam and Otho we offer our heart-felt thanks and gratitude. And from there, thanks to the good offices of Arianne, we made our way to the ABCCM. Arianne’s colleague Bill, whose mission serves the hungry, the naked, the homeless, and the lost, decided that there was always more room for strays and waifs like us at his inn. The people that Bill serves are looking for love, care, compassion, and a helping hand in an otherwise cruel and insouciant world – oblivious, as it is, to the raw, tangible, and real pain that infects a nation that has lost its spiritual way. How apposite and appropriate that we spiritual pilgrims were given refuge in such a place. For we too had been seeking the love, care, compassion, and pity of others as we prayerfully sought to find a place and space to continue our healing journey of salvation. So to Bill we offer great thanks for having provided to us wayfaring pilgrims an oasis in the dessert of this difficult world. And now today we find ourselves here in what used to be TheTutti Frutti Yogurt Bar. And please don’t ask me to explain the spiritual significance of that name!
Now I said that today we are doing two things. Having described the first, I now turn to the second. We are coming out of a kind of exodus and wilderness and into a place of stability and fixity. By the Grace of God we now have a place and space that we can call our own. But this does not mean that our journey has ended. Rather, in some radical sense, our spiritual pilgrimage together is just beginning. For some days now so many of you have been working tirelessly to make ready this place and to lay a foundation. Thanks to your labors of love, now from an immovable and stable spot we can begin the true mission to which we are called. Our mission is the spread of the Gospel of Love.
In my opening remarks I quoted the, now, Emeritus-Pope Benedict XVI. I have repeated the words of the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church because I feel a great sympathy for the labor of love that he brought to the world through his tireless work of preaching and teaching. It may be that the world had not been ready to have the kind of Pope that Benedict was. He was a scholar, a teacher, and according to good sources an exceptional pastor. Relying as he always did on the learning that he gleaned from his Master St. Bonaventure, the Doctor Seraphicus,or the Doctor of Love, he exhorted his flock zealously to the love of God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. His theme was one of Love, and yet his understanding of it was both prudent and cautious. He knew the human condition, and so understood that true love is a thing obtained and possessed only by hard work, determination, effort, and persistence. Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving, and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God. (PopeBenedict XVI, Deus Caritas) Love is always about a journey out of one form of life and into another, or out of the human and into the divine, over and through the rough terrain of trials, sufferings, pain, and death and onto the trail that leads to eternal freedom and salvation.
And what a wonderful theme with which to begin our new journey together here today! We find ourselves at the end of the Church’s Resurrection season. We have been learning about the hard and difficult trial the Apostles endured during Jesus’ forty days of appearances to them. In that time their knowledge expanded slowly, as Jesus Christ –Love in the flesh - began to draw them into the net of his mission. From the Apostles we learn that Jesus’ mission is the labor and work of Love that is slowly understood, received, applied to human life, and then shared with others. Jesus’ mission is not easy. It calls every man to a process of progressive and patient transformation. Jesus’ mission is our mission, and that mission is a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed, inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving, and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God. (Ibid) Christ draws love out of his friends the Apostles. When he meets them on the first day of the week, they are broken-hearted and tormented by what must have seemed friendship forsaken and love forlorn. But their Love returns, it rises up before them and then slowly from within their hearts they become ecstatically one with Christ’s mission and meaning. Christ desires that as he came out of himself, down from heaven and into the earth, so too will his friends now come out of themselves, up from the earth and into the same ecstatic Love that returns to the Father. Love is a journey out of the self and into the discovery of God. Those who follow Christ travel with him to the origin and source of all Love, God the Father, and then out again and into the world, that others may be swept up and into the same ecstasy that leads men to their true destiny, meaning, and freedom.
And yet, as Pope Benedict suggests, the Mission of Love that is to characterize the Christian journey is not some temporary charismatic experience. It is the work of a lifetime, an ongoing ecstasy. Ecstasy means coming out of oneself, and in the Christian context it means coming out of and away from the self-centered self. As we all know, this is very difficult business. For this reason St. James exclaims to the members of his new and budding Christian mission this morning, Be ye not hearers of the Word only, but doers also. (St. James i. 22) For whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (St. James i. 25) Eternal Love offers true liberty or freedom to man. The one who patiently and persistently embraces this Love discovers that it is the eternal desire of God’s Word for man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Love made flesh, and He is also God’s Word made flesh. God’s Word is the ecstatic love and desire for our salvation. Yet if we merely hear this Word, and do not embrace it in our hearts and souls as what God desires for us to obey and follow, we are like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. (St. James i. 23, 24) If we only hear the Word and fail to obey and follow it, we are lost like those who forget who they are and what they need. We forget that we are sinners in need of salvation. We forget that we are lost and need to be found. We forget that we are sick and need a physician. Our vocation and calling, our mission and meaning, are to journey in Jesus from sin into righteousness, from futility into meaning, and from death into life. What is clear is this: Jesus alone loves this new life into being. To embrace his love we must obey and follow him, remembering who we are and what we need. To embrace his ecstatic Love we must die to our old sinful selves, and give ourselves to that Divine Passion that alone reveals and discloses our authentic meaning in the discovery of God. For… whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (St. James i. 25)
My brothers and sisters, today we begin our mission from a secure and stable place that will become our spiritual home. This is Rogation Sunday. Rogation is a derivative of the Latin word rogare, meaning to ask or pray. Jesus tells us today to ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (St. John xvi. 24) Love calls us to journey with him back to the Father and beyond. And thus we should ask and desire that he will give us the wisdom and power to accomplish the same. Today we are called to ask for his love, to petition his mercy, to seek out his wisdom, and to obtain his power that we might become a part of his ongoing mission and labor. We ask that we might not be hearers only but doers of the Word…. (St. James i. 22) We pray that we might allow God’s Word to be seen and heard in the evidence of our lives. We pray that we might pray as Christ Jesus prays, or rather in his name and nature – so that our prayer becomes a part of his converse with the Father by his Holy Spirit. We pray, in other words, that we might reveal the Eternal Love that not only moves the heavens and the earth, but stoops down from on high to transform and carry every human being back into its ecstatic embrace. Let us close with the words of Sir Philip Sydney, no stranger to God and his ecstatic love.
Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never takest rust,
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings . . .
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth in light,
That doth both shine and give us light to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heav’nly breath,
Then farewell, world; the uttermost I see;
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons