Sermons
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May 24, 2015, 12:00 AM

Easter 7 - Year B


Easter 7

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. Amen. 

 

 

    Preparing this week’s sermon was made somewhat more difficult by my indecision this week. Normally, I try to decide which of the four lessons might be the most interesting, but this morning I had to first decide which day’s lessons I wanted to preach about. Last Thursday marked the 40th day after Easter, a day also known as the Ascension of Christ. For the eagle-eyed liturgists among us this morning, you may have noticed that the Paschal Candle has returned to the sacristy, a small but important nod to our understanding that Christ, our new Paschal lamb, has returned to heaven. 

    We actually recognize this every week in our worship when we repeat the words of the Nicene Creed: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The belief in the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God is one of the oldest and most oft repeated affirmations of the faith, and the Feast of the Ascension, last Thursday and forty days after Easter is one of the principle celebrations of the Church year.

    And yet…It is only in the Gospel of Luke that the Ascension of Jesus is mentioned at all. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that the period of Jesus presence among his disciples after his resurrection is delineated as being precisely forty days; and it is only in Luke that we are given a description of the place and the manner of Jesus’s departure.

    So the event, the fact of Jesus Ascension is, then, of particular importance to Luke, but why then is that so? For Luke, the Ascension was of such great importance because it came to symbolize and to mark to an essential transition in the history of the faith.

    For Luke, the Ascension of Jesus serves as a dramatic and final conclusion to Jesus’ ministry as a human being on this earth. Again, for Luke it is important for all Christians to understand that Jesus’ work here on earth has been successfully completed and that he will not appear again amongst us until, as the Creed says “he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead: and his kingdom shall have no end.” 

    It is not as if that at some point after Easter Jesus just vanishes, or that he fails to appear again. It is rather, that having completed his mission he purposefully leaves and we will not see him again, until time itself ends. For Luke, the ascension is the final validation of Jesus’ ministry here among us. He came down from God, was incarnate as a human being, as one of us, he taught, ministered , healed and saved and was put to death upon the cross for our sins. He rose from the dead, thereby opening the way to eternal live to all of us with himself and his father in heaven, to which he, himself, has now returned and waits for us.

    In short, Jesus job is now complete, his task is fully and finally finished and his ascension is the sign of his triumph and our invitation to follow. That is one of the reason Luke emphasizes the Ascension more dramatically than the other Evangelist.

    The beginning of the second reason can be found in the last words which Jesus spoke to his disciples before he ascended to God. He told the apostles: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  And in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s sequel to his Gospel account of Jesus’ life, Luke gives us his schematic history of the first generation of the Church, wherein, the Church grew and expanded exactly as Jesus had predicted. 

    At the outset, the first converts to Christianity were Jews of Jerusalem who were so moved by the sermons of Peter and John that they asked to be baptized and become Christians. Next came the Samaritans who were first proselytized by Philip and then converted and baptized by Peter and John. 

    This was, in a very real sense, the Church’s first steps beyond the cradle of orthodox Judaism in which it was born. You may recall that during the reign of King Solomon’s successors, Israel became divided into a Southern and a Northern Kingdom: the North being called Israel, the South Judah. By the sixth century before Christ, both Kingdoms had fallen to foreign enemies and had many of their citizens deported. While many of the citizens of Judea were allowed by the Emperor Darius to return and rebuild their capital in Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom continued to languish for centuries, even loosing its name “Israel” to the re-established Judah. And the remnants of the Northern Kingdom became known as the Samaritans.

    But because the Samaritans, the people who lived in the area of Samaria, continued to practice the old religion and worship in the old holy places like Bethel, the Jews of the South held them in contempt, and it was considered impure for a Jew to have anything to do with a Samaritan. It was this Jewish contempt for the Samaritans that Jesus played upon in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and here in the Book of Acts, these conversions of Samaritans represent a giant step by the Church to reach beyond the bounds of its Jewish roots. And was precisely in line with Jesus prophecy minutes before his Ascension.

    Next came the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, who represents yet another step away from Christianity’s Jewish roots and towards the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. We are told that when Philip encountered the Ethiopian, he was reading the book of Isaiah, which implies that he was a serious student of Judaism, but according to the stricture of Jewish law, a eunuch could never become a full-fledged Jew. So first the Gospel is preached to the Jews of Jerusalem, then outwards to the Samaritans and now to a man, who though a student of the Jewish Law, can never become a Jew himself.

    The final step in the fulfillment of Jesus’ Ascension prophecy comes in two parts: the first is Peter’s conversion of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his entire household, for here there is no Jewish connection at all. And finally with the conversion and then the ministry of St. Paul who, almost literally, took the message of Jesus and his Gospel to the ends of the earth, preaching and converting Gentiles through what we know as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Malta, and all the way to Rome. As Jesus himself had promised, “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. Within on generation of the apostles, all this had come to pass. 

    This schema of evangelization becomes, in Luke’s talented hands, his own way of understanding, not only the life and accomplishments of Jesus, but the whole history of God’s creation. For Luke the history of the world is divided into three very distinct parts. For Luke, the first chapter of God’s saving history began with creation and includes the entire history of God’s dealings with Israel. From Abraham, the Exodus, Kings David and Solomon and on through all the prophets, the first chapter of this history is the story of God and his Chosen people. This first chapter ends with and is culminated by the witness of John the Baptist who recapitulates and embodies the teachings of all the prophets of whom he is described as the greatest.

    For Luke, the second chapter of the story is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From Jesus’ birth, through his public ministry of teaching, healing, and boundless love; his betrayal and death, and his resurrection, Jesus is the incarnation of God and his love among us here. He is the personification of all of God’s people, and God’s embodied call to each of us. This second period of history is then the real turning point, the fulcrum of God’s dealings with us. For Luke it is Jesus, himself, who is the very center of all history. And this center-point concludes with Jesus Ascension.

    Then finally, the third period of history which is inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and is the story of the Church. The Church, for Luke, has become now the new Israel, the inheritor of all the promises which God has made to his Chosen People throughout history. And this age will last until time itself runs out.

    Now any arbitrary division of history into different periods is always a little suspect, but I find Luke’s to be very helpful. It reminds us that the history of the Church continues and that we are a vital part of that story. We sometimes tend to think of the Church as a matter of Medieval and Reformation history, something that happened some time ago. But Luke reminds us that the Church is very much alive and still making new history, by God’s grace each new day. We are indeed the beneficiaries of a long and costly heritage and what we do, here and now, with our lives and at Christ the King will shape that history from now on.

    Reading the Agile Church this week, it became clear to me how appropriate it is that we reflect on the present challenges and future promise of our faith in our culture and community. Jesus told his disciples “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth,” yet that was not a static command to a group of historical figures. We have become Disciples of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism, and strengthened to continue to this work of discipleship every week through the sacrament of Communion. Their charge has become our duty, and by God’s grace we shall never fail in this endeavor. Amen.


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