Monday, May 18, 2015

Being an Easter People

Sermon notes for the 7th Sunday of Easter
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

As we celebrate the 7th Sunday of Easter - the last Sunday of our yearly Easter journey - we might gain some insight into its import, meaning, and impact if we can recognize its place at the confluence of three great feasts: Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. Yes, coming at the end of the season which began with the Feast of the Resurrection and appearing between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost, I think that on this final Sunday of the season we can finally get a glimpse of what it means for us to be an Easter people.

First of all, in being an Easter People we should live as a people who know and and trust that we are on the Sunday side of the cross. We are, in other words, a Resurrection People.

What does it mean to be as resurrection people? Primarily, it means that we are a people of hope, demonstrating a confidence that death no longer has the final word. It means that we live aligned with Jesus or, as John has written, that we abide in Jesus – in Jesus’ love just as Jesus abides in the Father’s love.

To see what this might look like we turn to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6), where there is a new kingdom come, a new way in the world.
  • Blessed are the rich? No – blessed are the poor and humble. 
  • Blessed are powerful? No – blessed are the meek and merciful. 
  • Worry about what is to come? No – learn to trust the generosity of God. 
  • Love those who love you? Well, yes – but also love those hate you and persecute you. 
This same reversal shows up in big and small ways throughout the gospels:
  • The widow put in just a penny but gave more than everyone else combined.
  • The tax collector, stunned by Jesus forgiveness, gives half his possessions to the poor and pays back four-fold those he cheated.
  • The Samaritan woman, so burdened by shame that she was afraid to draw water with the other women and was reluctant to talk to Jesus, shares her encounter with the Lord with all in her village
Where lives demonstrate hope, living as though love has the victory, there is a Resurrection People.

“Then he 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 worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. ” (Luke 24:50-53)

We should never imagine that God is remote or inaccessible. The biblical picture is of Jesus still being involved in the world to which he came.

Yes, Jesus “ascended far above the heavens….” (Collect for Ascension, BCP 226). But let us not confuse ascension with absence. Indeed, we trust that he “abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” The ascension of Jesus does not mean the absence of Jesus; rather and to the contrary, it means a very real presence often seen in weakness, in the despised, in the small, but backed by the infinite power and glory of the Trinitarian God.

In the final story of Luke’s gospel, I notice three details that are particularly significant for us who want to be an Ascension People. First, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” For me, this is quite liberating because it means that we have been invited into the story of God, to know it and to digest it. While Jesus is referring specifically to Old Testament scriptures, particularly those referring to the Messiah, it is nonetheless easy to see how this conceptually might also apply to the much broader story of God with the creation and with us.

Second, even though Jesus disappeared from their midst, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They had hidden during the passion, crucifixion, and burial out of fear so why are they now filled with great joy? Is it perhaps that, now, they finally understand Jesus and his mission? Is it perhaps that they also finally understand their place in the story and what they will be in the spreading of God’s kingdom of love?

Third, the opening of their minds has made them “witnesses of these things.” Witness is such a powerful word. They have seen and can bear evidence…but of what? Simply, the disciples are witnesses to the resurrection. They are witnesses to a new creation and to new life. They are witnesses to love. And they know it.

And they have been given a job to do (a mission). Their life has a purpose, spelled out in Acts 1:8b: “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.”

Living this purpose is what it means to be an Ascension People: to be witnesses to Jesus and our life with Jesus. It happened to those to whom Jesus appeared:
  • The disciples on the road to Emmaus, who felt their “hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road,” returned to Jerusalem and “told what had happened on the road.”
  • On the seashore, Jesus commands Peter, the representative of the eleven, to feed the sheep and tend the lambs.
  • On the hill in Galilee, Jesus commands his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The two men dressed in white ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” They ask us as well. It is time for us to continue with the disciples’ mission.

The disciples, once fearful, found themselves courageous beyond imagining: singing in the face of imprisonment, merry in the face of floggings, buoyant when confronted with crosses, lions, vats of oil, stones, beheading, new instruments of torture. Their persecutors exhausted themselves trying to find more frightening forms of execution. And still the disciples, and those who came after, women, teens, thousands on thousands, went to their death rather than deny the truth they’d come to believe: Jesus, God himself, raised from the dead, has the way to freedom and life.

Being witnesses as Ascension People, witnessing to the power of Resurrection, doesn’t mean we are left to our own devices. Indeed not, in Jerusalem on Pentecost, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the gift of being able to communicate, the obstacle of Babel was undone. On that day, the disciples were empowered to tell the story, even in a “diversity of languages.” Not a curse but a marvel. So take courage, God undid Babel. We have the authority in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Common Prayer summarizes the power of the Holy Spirit in this way: “The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.” And “we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” In other words, we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we stop being strangers with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all creation.

There will be more on Pentecost next week. For now, a word from Origen, an early church theologian who at seventeen lost his father to beheading, lived most of his life under the threat of persecution, spent years in hiding and more years suffering a mix of ingenious tortures. In his “Principles,” he wrote: “We trust in the protection of the One who said, ‘Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. From His victory we take courage.'”

So, take courage and be an Easter People.

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