May 17, 2015
+ I don’t know if you notice it, but I sure have. In fact, James and I were talking about this last week. Occasionally in the life of a church, we find surges, we find losses, and we find plateaus. I was certain—absolutely certain—that beginning about a year ago and going at least to few months ago, we had hit a plateau here at St. Stephen’s. After several years of outstanding growth, we just balanced into place. That’s a good thing.
Plateaus can be interesting and meaningful and important in the life of a congregation.
But then, growth started again. Fairly recently. New members. New active ministries. And we find, not a plateau, but a resurgence. And that’s always incredible. When these things happen, I always say: look, at the Spirit of God moving in our midst.
We find ourselves moving into a place, yet again, that is very similar to place those first followers of Jesus were in right about now in their following of Jesus. They are being prepared for the movement of the Spirit of God in their lives. This week, in our scripture readings, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.
In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us. Now, he has been taken up. We find a transformation of sorts happening. With his ascension, our perception of Jesus has changed. No longer is he the wise sage, the misunderstood rebel, the religious renegade that he seemed to be when he walked around, performing miracles and upsetting the religious and political powers that be. He is now something much more. He is more than just a regular prophet. He is the Prophet extraordinaire. He is the fulfillment of all prophecies. He is more than just a king—a despotic monarch of some sort like Caesar or Herod. He is truly the Messiah.
At his ascension, we find that he is, in a sense, anointed, crowned and ordained. At his ascension, we find that what we are gazing at is something we could not comprehend before. He has helped us to see that God has truly come among us. He has reminded us that God has taken a step toward us. He has showed us that God loves us and cares for us. He has shown us that hold death held on us is now broken. He has reminded us that God speaks to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions.
But God is with us and speaks in us, God’s prophets. The puzzle pieces are falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together. God truly does love us and know us. And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.
For the moment, we are in this plateau, caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen. But things are about to really change. Man, are things about to change! We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.
See, plateaus are not bad things. A plateau offers us a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy, in this time before the Spirit moves and stirs up something incredible.
This week, smack dab in the middle of the twelve days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we find ourselves examining the impact of this event of God in our lives. And God has made an impact in our lives. We, those of us who are fortunate enough to experience the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, at least liturgically, in our Sunday readings and in our liturgy, find ourselves constantly confronted with the meaning of these events from God. We are faced with the reality of them and what we should do to make sense of them.
I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but I can say this: if we only see the ascension as some kind of mystical event and don’t see it as a mirror for ourselves, we’ve missed the point. The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well. We must love—fully and completely. Because in loving, we are living. In loving, we are living fully and completely. In loving, we are bringing the ascended Christ to others.
And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world. When we think about what those first followers went through in a fairly short period of time—Jesus’ betrayal and murder, his resurrection and his ascension—we realize it was a life altering experience. Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever. They would never be who they were again. Oftentimes, when those experiences happen to us, we find ourselves reeling from them.
We find ourselves simply moving through the life-altering events with bated breath. Only later, when everything has settled down, do we have the opportunity to examine what had just happened to us. And it is then that we realize the enormity of these changes in our lives.
For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a change to ponder their life-altering experiences. As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along. Just when they had experienced Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’s Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred. Nothing was allowed to settle. That is what our ministry is often like.
One day, very early in my career, I came to that realization myself. Ministry is perpetually on-going. There is never an ending to it. It’s always something. One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.
Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings. In the course of a week, one can go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between. And some of what comes in between are days when nothing much happens. In between, there are meetings, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry nights. More often than night, there are nights just like the nights before. There are nights when one follows the same rituals one has followed. And one does what one has done before without thinking, without pondering.
In between those moments of great energy, there are frustrations or boredom. There are moments when it all seems to be useless and pointless. There are moments when one is, quite simply, frightened. There are moments when one feels so overwhelmed by the fact that one is simply not qualified to be doing the work.
These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with. Yet we, like them, are sustained. We, like them, are upheld. We, like them, are supported by the God who welcomed the ascended Jesus, whose work we are doing in this world. In those moments when our works seems useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the God who brought Jesus back still triumphs.
We all remember that song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby.” I remember how sad I used to feel when I heard them sing about Father Mackenzie, how he
“…wipes the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.
No one was saved.”
It feels like that sometimes. But those moments are moments of self-centeredness. Those moments are moments when we think it all depends on us. On ME.
Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and the return of the Holy Spirit to us, is simply let God do what God needs to do in this interim. We need to let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us. We need to let the God who brought Jesus to heaven be the end result of our work. When we wipe our hands as we walk from the grave, lamenting the fact that it seems no one was saved, we need to realize that, of course, it seems that way as we gaze downward at our hands. But above us, the Ascension is happening. Above us, Jesus is triumphant—as Prophet of prophets, of King of Kings, as the High Priest of all priests. Above us, Jesus triumphs—and we with him.
All we have to do is look up. All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up. And there we will see the triumph. And as we do, we will realize that more were saved than we initially thought. Someone was save—we were saved.
Jesus has ascended. And we have—or will—ascend with him as well. He prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].” That joy comes when we let the Holy Spirit be reflected in we do in this world.
So, let this Spirit of joy be made complete in you. Let the Spirit of joy live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you. When we do, we will be, as Jesus promises us, “sanctified in truth.”
We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension. We will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy .