The Ascension Puts Us On Mission

On Mission

I have placed a picture on the front of the bulletin of the Apostles looking up, with two Angels evidently explaining what just happened. This scene is from the Book of Acts and happens immediately preceding the choosing of Matthias. This is what it says in Acts, with the resurrected Jesus addressing the Apostles. “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said,’ Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up into heave? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

I may get into trouble for this but this scene strikes me as somewhat comical. Jesus had just given them instructions and then ascended into heaven. Rather than doing what Jesus told them to do they are standing around looking up in the sky with their mouths open. So the Lord sends two of His messengers to tell them to get back to work. They are not to stand around and simply wait for His return. They have a mission to fulfill, so get to it!

This picture could also be a picture of some of the Church today? I have witnessed and worked with Churches whose only mission was to survive, which is the corporate equivalent of standing around with your mouth open while looking up? We are to grow the kingdom but the kingdom does not grow if the Church is in survival mode. Think of the many ways that Jesus told us that when He comes back He best find us doing what He told us to do and not find us with our talents buried, or our lamp out of oil or our branches without fruit.

How about us as individual disciples? Are we on mission? If not then this is a day for revaluation and a day to make a commitment to get back on mission. Except instead of sending you two white-robed Angels God has sent you Groucho, Chico and Harpo. I let you decide which priest is which.

It is my contention that an important step for getting us on mission is to better understand and more fully embrace what the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has done for us. Such knowledge will inspire us and empower us to His service.

First we are inspired and empowered for His service by embracing Christ’s victory. A few years ago I accompanied John Drivas to an Easter Eve celebration at a Greek Orthodox Church. There was a lot in the liturgy that was foreign to me and I my not have my memory of it exactly as it happened, but that did not keep it from being absolutely beautiful. At first the church was dark, lit only with candlelight. Suddenly the doors of the iconostasis opened up and a tall bearded priest stepped out with a lighted Paschal Candle and announced that Christ has risen. The darkness turned into joy. Then we did an interesting thing. We all processed out of the church with the priest and the doors were closed behind us. The priest shouted to the doors and a man inside responded. They were quoting Psalm 24. The priest said, “Lift up your head, O Gates. And be lifted up , O ancient doors, that the King of glory shall come in.”The man behind the doors responded, “Who is this king of glory?”The priest said,“The Lord strong and nighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”And they did this versicle and response for a few more verses until the doors were opened and we entered back into the church behind the priest.

I had never seen the ascension of Christ represented this way and I found that part of the liturgy to be deeply moving. It portrayed to me that in the Ascension we see Christ returning as a mighty warrior who has won the battle. Christus Victor. And He did it for us!

Some might ask, “What battle has he won?” He was victorious over sin by leading a sinless life and by atoning for the sins of the world. He was victorious over death and the grave through His resurrection. He was victorious over our ancient enemy by freeing us from his prisons. And then He has ascended into heaven to receive the honor and glory and power of His victory.

But wait, if Jesus defeated them why do they still exist? And we know that sin exists because we battle with it every day, if we are honest with ourselves. Obviously we know that people still die so how has death been defeated? And the powers of darkness certainly seem to be very real for those who are paying attention. John Eldredge writes in his book All Things New, “Human sin is not sufficient to explain the rampaging, unspeakable evil of this age. There are powerful, ancient dark spirits…who are now deeply involved ensnaring, entrapping, fueling evil people making war on holiness and the human heart” And he points to human trafficking and the abortion industry as exhibits A and B. I believe that he make a good case.

So how have our enemies been defeated? This is where we must see and walk with the eyes of faith. And when we do so, we see that the happenings of sin and death and the powers of darkness are but the death pangs of the dragon. It is still roaring and spitting fire but it is dying.

And so while there is still sin in the world, Christ has given us the power to not live under its control. When we do sin we simply confess it, receive forgiveness and move on in life without condemnation.

What about death? I was speaking with Fr. Guill last week who told me that his mother was very close to death. In the midst of his explanation about all they are doing for her he said, “And so we look forward to her ultimate healing.” That is why we as Anglicans will we pray for those who suffer to experience a quick and holy death. Because of Jesus’ victory death is just a gate through which we pass to the larger life.

And when it comes to the powers of darkness not only have countless millions renounced them as they were baptized into Christ but the Revelation of John tells us that God’s holy vengeance will fall upon those powers as they are cast into a lake of fire along with death and hades. Thus in the new heaven and new earth there will an absence of sin, an absence of death and an absence of evil.

Imagine it! We won’t have to be victorious over temptation because there will be no temptation. We won’t have to create bucket lists to get the last dregs out of life because we will never die a second death. We won’t have to put on the armor of God because there will be no more enemy with which to battle. Jesus has won for us an eternity of life and peace and holiness. And so Eldrege concludes, “No wonder joy is the constant mood of the kingdom! Not to mention massive relief and vindication too.” It is in the light of this reality that we are called to be on mission, to work for His kingdom in the here and now.

Second His death, resurrection and ascension inspire and empower us to live for others. I say that because through His actions there is nothing left that we need to do to be right with God. In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple not made by human hands. And as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for the sins of the world.  Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”Did you catch the significance of those last words? “….he has appeared once for all….to do way with sinby the sacrifice of himself.”

So again there is nothing more to be done to complete His sacrifice. There is nothing else that I need to do to become more enlightened or to become one with the universe or to empty myself of self-awareness or anything else to earn my salvation. All that I can do is to accept this free gift of forgiveness and once it is accepted then I am free to focus on others. His Ascension liberates us from a prison of self-serving to the liberty of serving of others

Third his death, resurrection and ascension give us a higher calling. Because of His Ascension He has become our High Priest in the heavenlies and as our High Priest He ever lives to make intercession for us. The Gospel lesson today is a portion of what is called The High Priestly prayer and in it we can get a glimpse of the kinds of things that Jesus is praying for us.

But we can take this a step further. Because He is our High Priest and we are His Body on earth St. Peter says that it is His will for us to be a kingdom of priests. This is from 1 Peter in the New Living Translation. “…for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” Did you hear that call to mission? “As a result you can show others the goodness of God.”

Practically how do you do that? How do you show others the goodness of God? First as I just mentioned by having a servant’s hearts towards others. That stands out in a dog eat dog world. When most folks are asking “what is in it for me?”and you come along and ask, “how may I help?”they will see the love and goodness of God in action.

A second practical way you can show others the goodness of God is to invite folks into your life. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? “Drop your nets and come with Me.”Invite folks for a meal. Invite folks to join you at a sporting event. Invite folks to join you in your hobbies. Oh here’s an idea…..INVITE THEM TO WORSHIP!

When we put on events like Octoberfest or offer special classes it is always our intention that we do so not only for the parish but for our parishioners to use it as an outreach opportunity. So come and support these efforts but alsobring a friend. You are a royal priesthood and your mission is to show others the goodness of God. In this high tech hyperactive culture it is all too easy to become insular and only focus on yourself and those immediately around you and keep every one else at a safe Facebook distance. Don’t do that. For God so loved the world He didn’t send tweet. Be like Jesus. Be incarnational.

One last example of how His death, resurrection and ascension inspires and empowers us to be on mission. We will see this in its fullness next week as we celebrate Pentecost. Jesus did go away but He did not leave them abandoned. 10 days after His Ascension the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, empowering them for service. He, that is the Holy Spirit, so emboldened those fearful disciples that they took the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth and most of whom faced a martyr’s death.

We receive that same Spirit at our baptism and at our confirmation. Not a different Spirit but the same One that fell on all those in the upper room. He is an incredible blessing to us because Jesus has called each of us to do so many things that we cannot do in our own power and so He empowers us. The Holy Spirit will provide us with all that we need to be faithful and fruitful.

When it comes to the Christian journey you have been given a V8 with a turbo charger so don’t drive like a grandpa. You have the Holy Spirit! Take a risk. Step out in faith. And if you mess up, and you will, learn from it and then step out again. And step out again and step out again and keep stepping out in faith until your arches fall. When you read the Book of Acts you see that the Apostle’s didn’t do things perfectly. They even had some petty squabbles and divisions but they stayed on mission and they changed the world. They did not do that under their own power and neither will we, but because of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus we don’t have to.

I beg of you, let’s make a commitment as a church that we are not going to stand around looking up in the sky with our mouths open, hoping that Jesus will return. We already know that He will because both He and the angels have so. The question is really when He does return will He find us on mission? Let’s be sure that He does. Amen.

 

Know and Show: Back to the Basics

Basics

Last weekend I was in Dallas Texas for the 25thanniversary of Bishop Iker’s consecration. As I was taking a taxi to church I had a flashback. I was in Dallas 46 years ago this summer with 80,000 other students for an event called Explo ’72. We gathered for evening worship in the Cotton Bowl to be led in worship by folks like Johnny Cash and to hear sermons by Billy Graham as well as other luminaries of that time. During the day we had evangelism training and then we went door to door sharing our faith. I drove from Florida to Texas and back, cramped in a VW Beetle with two other really big guys, and by what must have been a miracle we still remained friends and didn’t murder each other.

If you had asked me then where I would be on my Christian journey in 46 years I would have guessed that I would be much farther along than I actually am. I can easily say with St. Paul that I have not obtained my goal. I say that because each week when we confess to God that we have not loved Him with our whole heart nor our neighbor as ourselves, I really mean that confession because I haven’t. I want to but I haven’t. My one consolation is that since this confession is written in our Prayer Book for the WHOLE Church to pray EVERY Sunday, my guess is that I am not alone.

 That said I do not consider myself a failure as a Christian and I hope that you do not either. We only fail if we quit and the word “quit” should not be in our vocabulary. So if quitting is not an option then the next question is “What is the way forward?” How do we grow more deeply in our love of God and our love for our neighbor? Two things jumped out to me in today’s propers that I believe point us in the right direction. The first is from the collect where we pray that we will KNOW Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life. The second is from our lessons which clearly call on us to not only know it but to SHOW it.

Notice that the prayer does not ask for us to be shown the way but rather to know Jesus as “the Way.”  This is the correct way to pray because Christianity is not merely an ethical religion where someone tells us what is right and wrong and then we are left on our own to do it. Jesus comes along side us to take us with Him. He does this through the Holy Spirit whom He promised to His disciples. So we must never forget that we are not in this alone. The Way is not a direction, the Way is a Person.

Before the 1979 Prayer Book it was typical for a parish to march all 6thgraders through a Confirmation class, often rather they wanted it of not. Kids were given assignments to memorize the Lord’ Prayer, the 10 Commandments, the 23rdPsalm etc. Many were taught the catechism and some were even warned that the Bishop may ask them really difficult questions and so they better have it down cold by the time that the Bishop visited.

None of this was wrong in itself, and the Church might do well to reintroduce some of those disciplines, but one problem arose from this process. It led some to believe that all they had to do to be a Christian was to have the right information, to be able to pass the Bishop’s test.

But as you know memorizing the Creed and believing the Creed are not necessarily that same thing; just as liking Jesus and living like Jesus are not necessarily the same thing. Our reading from 1stJohn drives this home.

How do we know that we have passed from life to death? Is it by how many verses we have memorized or how much theology we know? No! We know that we have passed from death to life when we love as He loved. We know that we have passed from death to life when we lay our lives down for one another. We know we have passed from life to death when we share with a brother or sister in need. We know that we have passed from death to life when our love is not in words but in deeds.

Bob Goff in his book Everybody Always tells of meeting a witch doctor in Uganda who was arrested and tried for mutilating a boy as a child sacrifice, but the boy lived to testify against him. Although this custom of child sacrifice by witch doctors was prevalent in Uganda this man named Kabi was the first one ever to be put on trial. Bob is an honorary consul of Uganda so he attended the trial and said to look at Kabi was to look in the face of evil. To Bob’s delight Kabi was convicted and sent to the kind of prison in Uganda that makes medieval dungeons seem like Disney World.

But something bothered Bob. Bob was on a journey of moving from liking Jesus to becoming like Jesus and so Jesus words about loving our enemies weighed on him. He pulled some strings to meet with Kabi in prison and in time Kabi repented of his wicked life and sought forgiveness through Christ. Bob not only knew Jesus to be the way but he showed Kabi the way.

Next Bob got permission from the warden to have Kabi share his story with the other prisoners. Kabi stood before hundreds of men and told what Bob called the worst gospel story he had ever heard. Most of what Kabi said about Jesus was so wrong that Bob began wonder about his own beliefs. But in spite of this horrible speech a sea of men came forward and Kabi and Bob grabbed bottles of water and baptized them by the scores. When we act with this kind of love we not only know Jesus as the Way but we show Him to be the way. The challenge is as Bob put it, “Don’t put a toe in the water of love; grab your knees and do a cannonball.”

We also pray to understand Jesus as the Truth. You certainly have  heard of Scientology. It is a self-proclaimed religion invented by a science fiction writer. In truth it is a cult that had been publically accused of imprisoning and even murdering some of its detractors. So I have great admiration for actress Leah Remini who left it after 30 years and has been vocal about their abuses. One of their core doctrines is that 75 million years ago a being named Xenu brought billions of people to earth in space crafts, placed them in volcanoes and then blew them up with a hydrogen bombs. They clustered together as thetans and became negative forces that attach themselves to people today. It is the job of Scientology to help you get rid of the thetans…for a price. Why do I bring up this totally believable religion? Because it is estimated that there are about 30,000 followers in the US! That is the size of a large diocese.

So we pray to know Jesus as the Truth because we are so easily deceived and there are so many competing voices out there. We need to have one clear voice. We need to be convinced that Jesus is the Truth. He is the final authority and He is the canon by which every thing and every one else is measured. It is absolutely true that He speaks through the Scriptures and through the Church but we do not call either the Bible or the Church “Lord.” It is as we trust Him to be the Truth, and to lead us into all truth, that we are set free.

But again we must not only know Jesus as the Truth we must show Him to be the Truth? How do we do that? We do it through the fruit of our lives. The Bible calls it walking in the truth. Jesus said, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

If there is no difference between how we live and how non-believers live then people would be justified in doubting the validity of our beliefs. But if we evidence our love by keeping His commandments then our lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit. When folks witness love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. they will want to know what it is that we know and we will be able to tell them not what we know but WHO we know.

We also pray to know Jesus as Life. There is an old black and white movie of the sinking of the Titanic that ends with the crew and passengers singing an old Welsh hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” There is some debate if this is the last hymn that was sung before the ship went down but there is no debate that a number of hymns were sung by the passengers as they awaited their deaths. The survivors in the lifeboats testified to that.

One wonders what they would be singing if a cruise ship went down today. Would there be enough people with faith and practice on board to come up with the verses of even one hymn? I would hope so.

It is knowing Jesus to be our life that prepares us for our inevitable death. The family members of Barbara Bush testified how her faith allowed her to die with great peace and on her own terms.

But more than that, it is in knowing Jesus to be Life that gives meaning to our lives here and now. Have you noticed that people without faith often feel like victims of life’s circumstances. But people of faith can say with St. Paul, “For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”  It doesn’t mean that we understand or even like all that life brings us but in the end we know that there is nothing that the Good Shepherd cannot work to our good and so we are free to face life without fear.

How do we show Jesus to be the Life? We do so by living lives of contentment and peace. We end the Mass by blessing you with the peace of God that surpasses all comprehension and the intent is for you to walk in that peace during the week. How can you do this? Because your sins have been put away, you have worshipped in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, you have united with Jesus through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, you have been declared a citizen of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, you have been given His Spirit to empower you, He is now preparing a place for you and He will return to  receive you to Himself. If that doesn’t give you contentment and peace then all the pills in Walgreens are not going to help you. And please don’t lose that precious peace be taken away over a drop in the price of Bitcoin or the latest scandal in Hollywood or whatever those knuckleheads in Washington DC are doing or not doing. All that stuff is going to pass away with the new heaven and the new earth.  You are accepted in the Beloved and the kingdom is not in trouble. Walk in peace.

46 years ago I was a pretty idealistic kid. I just knew that I would become the Navy Seal version of Christianity and here I am 46 years later still trying to learn the basics of loving God and loving my neighbor. But I’m not discouraged! There is one thing I am convinced of and that is 46 years from now I will finally have my act together and so will most of you. Christ is risen and is coming again. Amen.