Steadfast after the Ascension

A sermon preached at Choral Evensong with the join choirs from All Souls and Redeemer, held at the Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, MD, on the Seventh Sunday after Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension.  The scripture lessons were taken from the Mass readings for the day, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 and John 17:1-11.

Last week I was visiting family and, as often happens when I am in that familiar house, with old pictures on the wall, I’m flooded with memories. One memory has to do with me and my brother when we were very small. I remember playing a game with our father in which he would hold his arm out straight and we would jump up and try to hang on it, as though he were a monkey bar. He would let us almost reach it, or reach it and lift us up higher. But after a while, (maybe because his arm was getting tired) he would simply put his arm behind his back. We would be keep right on jumping and jumping, full of energy and excitement, intent on our mission, but completely losing sight of the fact that his arm was no longer outstretched. Carried away with ourselves, we had missed the point of our striving.

I wonder if the church doesn’t sometimes do the same thing with regard to the spiritual life.

The Feast of the Ascension can feed our energy for a kind of spiritual upward mobility. Though we know that the Ascension does not describe a geographic reality, we can get a lot of mileage from the imagery of “going up.” We believe somehow that Christ was removed from the here-and-now, and taken into the full presence of God and there seems something archetypal about understanding salvation as up rather than down. Good things go up. Important things happen at a summit. Holy things happen on a hill. “God has gone up”—so shouldn’t we aim to do so, as well? If the way of faith, the way of the Church, the way of Christ himself is onward and upward, then it just makes good sense that we assume the spiritual life should have to do with movement in the direction of Up. We speak easily of a growing relationship with Christ, increasing involvement, expanding program budgets, and bigger congregations.

But then, what happens to our faith when growth and increase are not our experience? The scripture we just heard from 1 Peter isn’t directed to a people on the increase. Rather, they’re under attack. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you….If you are reviled for the name of Christ [and it seems as though during the persecutions of Domitian, many Christians are indeed being reviled] you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” And so, Peter counsels, don’t try to “grow beyond” the current reality. Do just the opposite: “Humble yourselves,” for now, he says. “so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.”

That last verse, about the roaring lion, always makes me smile. If you know the service of Compline in our Prayer Book, or if you’ve been to a monastery that prays the night office, you might be familiar with that verse. The Prayer Book version says:

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (BCP, p. 132).

I’ve always imagined monks and nuns, since the Middle Ages, at least, hearing those words before retiring to their cells in the darkness. It’s a prayer that tries to banish naughty thoughts and make for a peaceful (and chaste) sleep. But in the context of 1 Peter, those words are anything but sweet. People are dying. People are being persecuted for their faith. The “fiery ordeal” is all around.

We have our own ordeals. We have them personally, in our families, and in our workplaces. At All Souls, we are in the midst of a construction project, so there are some minor inconveniences and some major inconveniences. And there is the ever-present anxiety about the money it’s taking to do the work. “The adversary” seems busy around our place—sometimes wearing a hardhat, sometimes offering me a check, and sometimes looking back at me when I go the mirror. At Redeemer, your ordeal is called an “interim period” and if your interim period is anything like most, then our “adversary the devil” is prowling and prancing and tempting and trying his best to create havoc. Be watchful, but also remember to watch for him in the mirror.

As if our local situations were not ample opportunity for the devil to do his mischief, both our churches are part of an incredibly anxious denomination, part of a fairly anxious Christian faith—worried about secularization, indifference, and pseudo-sophistication that confuses atheism with nihilism and self-absorption.

The Word of God comes to as promise and challenge: “Resist, steadfast in your faith.”

Whether Christ went up, down, or sideways, the point of the Ascension is that he has made himself absent so that the Holy Spirit might be present. We have his Spirit. We know his Spirit. We celebrate his Holy Spirit next Sunday, but that doesn’t mean for a second that we haven’t already received, at our baptism, all that we need to be faithful. The great prayer of Jesus in today’s Gospel has come true. God has glorified Jesus as the Christ. God does protect us, come what may. God is, even now, drawing us into eternal life.

As individuals and as a Church, we could put all our energy into aiming for the Ascension, doing the spiritual equivalent of jumping up and down over and over again, as though striving ever upward and onward, through more, more, and more will somehow get us to God. But if we do that, we’ll simply be stirring up a lot of commotion, energy, and drama. At best we might get some exercise and lose a few pounds. At worse, we lose our soul.

We lose our soul if we think for a minute that we are responsible for success in the church, for growth in the church, or the conversion of people, or the making of saints. It is God’s Church. We are God’s people and are called to keep God’s Word and live it into the world. Which means that we keep on singing. We keep on praying, serving, hoping, and praying, STEADFAST IN OUR FAITH.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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