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May 24, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, May 24, 2020 in Easter, Sermons

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 24, 2020

From the first letter of 1 Peter this morning:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place … as though something strange were happening to you. … Resist, [and be] steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering…and know that the God of grace will “restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”

Today we honor Ascension Day, calling us to reflect on the the post resurrection ascension of Jesus into heaven. We began prayer this morning by reading the Collect for Ascension Day, and then immediately after, the prayer for tomorrow’s Memorial Day, to honor and mourn those who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. I thought about the unintended connections of the two in both honoring those beloved who are no longer on this earthly path; military who have died and Christ who died, rose from death, and ascended to heaven. All for us. Families often grieve the losses of those on active duty differently because they weren’t with them, perhaps their bodies were not recovered, or they’d not seen each other for a long tour. Seeing with our own eyes plays a big part in the interweaving of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. For good or bad visuals become symbols of major life events,

The whole of Eastertide is filled with such symbols; sunrise, an empty tomb, angels, grieving women, burial cloths, meeting him on the road, grilled fish with Jesus at the lake, a locked room. And yet we also know that no one witnessed the resurrection itself. They only saw him afterwards, and in his appearances to them over the next 40 days. The ascension of Jesus is very different from the resurrection, and in authoring Acts, Luke works hard to be sure everyone understands they were there, they saw it, they witnessed this event in the moment with their own eyes. Again and again Luke uses such words; seeing, watching, gazing, looking, witnessing, sight, and ‘you saw him’. They saw the Ascension, and then both the men and the women followers of Jesus returned to Jerusalem and the upper room to pray together in community.

The reading begins “when the Apostles had come together…” We catch the subtle conveyance of meaning; waiting for God to act is not only for an individual, it is (more powerfully) a community’s venture. Waiting with others is an act of concord, of unity of purpose and hope with them. The Apostles didn’t go their separate ways to await a private solo appearance of the risen Lord, or chase after proof of the value of their divine faithfulness. When they heard the resurrection news they joined together in that upper room to share their grief and fear, to pray for God’s presence and action, whatever it might be. Here they are gathered with the risen Christ, drinking in his words, his teaching, his love, his instructions for them. How surprised they must be to see for themselves his ascension! As Luke says, they were gathered together in constant prayer and studying scripture together. Waiting on God is not a passive activity nor must it be a solo one. The importance of their spiritual unity is held up for us.

So much of this reading from Acts involves those believers coming together — to wait, to learn, to pray, all in preparation to be witnesses of what they now know, doing so with the Spirit’s presence. The very identity and mission of God’s church is being defined here; communities are called together by God through Christ Jesus and sent into the world by the power of the Spirit to share and interpret the message of Jesus’ resurrection, to the ends of the earth.

Being all together is also a theme in our gospel passage from John today.  Like last week, we are still in that last evening with them, as Jesus prepares for immanent death. He’s talked with his disciples and been with them all day and into the evening attempting to prepare them; sharing supper with startling new words, servant-like he washes their feet. Now as he prays for them we see he is preparing both his disciples and himself for his death. He is saying goodbye and showing his love.

These days death is spoken about more often, the number of those who have died from COVID-19 are on the news hourly, the models for how many will get sick, how many will die, are endless, and we don’t know the end of it even now. We struggle to accept that we are unable to be with loved ones at their death, to share those last moments, words. It is part of how we say goodbye, how we grieve, how we prepare to die. The closeness of Jesus with his disciples is stark contrast now, because in our world of separation for the sake of health and life, we miss those moments, we miss what voice or face or touch conveys. We aren’t holding funerals in that most important set of days after death. Nor weddings or baptisms or joyfully packed Easter services. We can offer them with 10 people only (with distance), hold them online, or delay until whatever normality eventually comes.

Yet, this pandemic has taught us something enormously important I don’t think we would have guessed; we can be deeply and meaningfully united even while separated. We are the Body of Christ regathered from all the corners of the earth on Sunday mornings, even East Anglia, North Carolina and Southern California, just to name a few! As we hear the story of Jesus’ ascension today, it comes home to us that this is what he is preparing them for; to continue as one body, united with him, with each other, even when they miss the physical presence of Jesus who called them together. Without realizing it, St. Michael’s faithful have prepared to do this too, and do it well, even as we miss being the church in our physical church building.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Can you imagine their stunned faces looking up and him no longer there? I imagine stunned silence, a questioning confusion. It’s not a bad thing to have no answer, it’s just fine to simply stand still, silent, and wonder. It’s all right to find ourselves muddling through one step at a time, even a step backwards occasionally. And it’s human to be upset missing those we love and whose embrace we crave. It’s right to bring all of that into worship here, we pray and lay it at the altar of our Lord, and remember that even in this strange stunned time of unknowing we are united in Christ and with each other. We have allowed this time to teach us valuable lessons of blessing, care, unity, and prayer. Has it brought us closer to the rest of the world too, as we see the numbers in various countries rise and fall? What an odd thing to be united by, and then I think that as we pray, so do they. One God.

When we hear that “a cloud took him out of their sight” we are united with our forebears from the book of Exodus (16:10, 19:9, 24:15-18), because the “cloud” repeatedly symbolizes God’s liberating presence among the faithful people. “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” god says to Moses. We come together today, blessed to be in a long line of faithful who have trusted and followed God.

At gatherings where people from other traditions (or no tradition) are here, like weddings, baptisms, funerals, major Feast Days, I remind people that in the sacraments we are in God’s time, kairos. In that kairos time we know we are sharing that sacrament with all the believers who have gone before us and all who are yet to come. Physical distance or time cannot ever separate those united in Christ’s love. It is eternal. We come together in this new live-streamed worship and physical distance, and realize it’s not so new after all.

Jesus said to them;

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”   John 17:11

Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.


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