Raised Together

Two friends help another in Zambia.

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2012.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, and  John 6:35, 41-51.

Today’s Gospel and the one for next week put a hymn in my head that I can’t get out very easily.   I bet you’ve heard it or sung it somewhere.  It’s often sung at youth conferences.  At other times, it’s sung at a funeral. The hymn, “I am the bread of life” is not the easiest to sing—the words don’t match the notes in the same way from stanza to stanza, and so, a lot of us tend to sort of mumble as we sing the verses.  But things clear up when we get to the refrain.  Everyone sings.  Whether they are on pitch or off, whether they sing well or not so well, almost everyone does their part with the words that sing, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.” 
Christians often make a big fuss over the raising up of Jesus.  In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has often been the test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ.  But in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the point of his rising is to raise up others, to raise up you and me, that we might walk tall and strong in this life, and that we might join one another in the next. 
Throughout the Gospel stories, the Greek word that we translate as “rise up” [anistemi] occurs again and again.   The man who is healed of a withered hand, the daughter of Jairus, the prodigal son rises up and goes to see his father.
Jesus also uses the same word when he is talking with the disciples about the Son of Man, he says that the Son of Man will be delivered over to the people, mocked, spitefully treated and spit upon, and they will put him to death; but on the third day he will rise again.
In this life Jesus raises up.  He raises up the sick and the wounded.  He raises up those who are brought down low by others.  We are reminded of his raising power in the words of the Magnificat, when the Virgin Mary sings with faith of what God has already done, “He has lifted up the lowly.”  And he lifts up still and he empowers us to be his hands in the word to help lift up others. 
Christ lifts us up in this life, but he also lifts us up into the next.  We believe that through his death on the cross and his descent into hell, he has gone through the very worst of what evil and death can do.  No matter how lonely, no matter how painful, no matter how horrible—Jesus has endured it.  And he has overcome it.  With his resurrection, we are given the power through God to make it through anything death can deal us.  With the power of Christ we too rise to new life, we rise to everlasting life.
Just as wheat rises to become bread, bread rises in us to make us become more like God.  Each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we are nourished by Christ.  We are fed by his body and blood and made strong and made faithful.  At the beginning of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the celebrant bids us, “Lift up your hearts.”  And we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”  This is a statement of faith, in a way.  It is a statement of faith that even in our prayers, in as we celebrate the sacrament in this life; we are made one with God.  We are united with Christ through his body and are lifted up into the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. 
The Eastern theologian and catechist, [7th century Byzantine] Maximus the Confessor worked hard to help people understand and believe basic Christian beliefs.  Underlying all of his teaching is his belief that it is God’s intention to raise up all things and to bring them to a new and extraordinary place in the presence and the heart of God.  Maximus wrote, “…it is clear that He who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically [Maximus writes] when he says, ‘…that in the ages to come [God] might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).”(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II) According to Maximus, God is working to bring all thing together and to raise them up. 
In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the prophet Elijah, who was at the point of giving up.  He’s been doing his best, but it isn’t paying off.  Because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, if after his head.  No place is safe. People aren’t listening, and so Elijah feels sorry for himself.  He prays to God to take away his life.  And then he goes and sits under tree and falls asleep.  But an angel wakes him up.  Who knows if this angel is a winged thing come out of heaven, or a woman from down the street with something to eat, or a child who comes by and knows where there’s good food.  Something stirs Elijah.  Something rouses him that is of God, and so it is an angel, a messenger of God who says to Elijah in some way or another, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.”  Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger. 
That’s the way it works so often.  We are raised up by one another—when we feel the prayers of other people, they sometimes feel like we’re being given a boost, and we are raised up.
When someone offers us a hand or a kind word, and we though nobody noticed how down we were, we are raised up. 

When someone offers another way of seeing a quandary or tackling a problem, we are raised up.
God’s raising work can surprise us.  Earlier this week, I felt like I was running pretty low.  Between a head-cold and the summer humidity, I was moving slowly.  But I was also obsessing on some of the challenges before us as a parish.  A new couple who recently joined the church have decided they are called to attend another church.  A wonderful family who has been involved here for years is moving away.  Another several individuals who have been a quiet, but steady presence in this parish have found jobs in other cities.  And so, between the heaviness of the way I was experiencing the week, and the heaviness of mid-August, I was a little down. 

But Thursday night there was a meeting with some of those who are planning for accessibility and changes to our building.  The facilitator of the meeting asked everyone to say a few words about why they come to All Souls.  What led them to All Souls or why do they stay?  As each person shared his or her story—in simple, unrehearsed, immediate language–, it was everything I could do to keep from crying.  I was witnessing Christ in our midst, revealing himself in ordinary (but extraordinary) ways, ways that I often overlook or ways of which I am simply unaware.  Through other people’s stories, reflections, experiences, failures and successes, I was raised up, I was lifted up, I was set back up to be able to move forward, renewed and strengthened.

Maybe it’s through conversation, through prayer, through political action, or charity;  whether it’s a stranger, a family member, a friend, or a fellow parishioner—the opportunities abound for us to participate in God’s work of raising up all of creation, and gathering us to himself. 
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” 
Let us give thanks to God that we are being raised up, that we can participate in this holy work until we are, indeed, all raised up on the last day.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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