Listen to the sermon HERE.
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 and is popular at funerals. 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 have made a big deal over the raising up of Jesus. In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has been used as a 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, this special one of God foretold in scripture. Jesus 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. His mother Mary sings of this power before his birth, prophesying what will be as she affirms, “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, 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.”(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 a tree and falls asleep. An angel wakes him up and something awakens deep within Elijah. Elijah is told, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.” Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger—whether that messenger was an angel with wings who hovered and flew or an angel that looked a lot like a thoughtful lady from down the street.
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, sometimes, even when we’re praying for it. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, remembers an occasion when this happened for him. He and his wife were visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Goma. They were at a refugee camp where there were some 25,000 people, sheltered on volcanic rock, with almost no food. Welby went into a hot tent with disabled children who’d been abandoned. They lay, basically dying, on filthy mattresses, while overstretched doctors tried to make them comfortable. In the midst of that, having sat with an elderly woman, who was blind, hungry, and had lost her entire family, the Bishop came over to Welby, and said, “Say something to encourage them.” Archbishop Welby recalls,
I did what I’m afraid I tend to do when I can’t think of anything to say I talk for a while to see if I’ve got any ideas . . . I started off by saying: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And I was then going on to say something about bringing practical help or something […… but] the crowd started clapping and cheering. [They went on clapping and cheering.]
The Archbishop goes on to reflect, “The gospel is good news to the poor in and of itself. Yes, it changes society, yes, it transforms our existence, yes, it does all that. But it is in and of itself, by itself an end in itself, not a means to an end. It is good news for the poor.” (From “Prayer and Community as the First Priority,” Religious Life and Renewal: Exploring Roots and Shoots, The Archbishop’s Day Conference at Lambeth Palace, Friday 28th March 2014).
Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, we can sometimes take the Gospel a little bit for granted and forget its power to lift others up. Our bearing witness to the Gospel (whether with words or in action) can lift up others. Maybe it’s through conversation, through prayer, through political action, or charity; maybe 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. As hard as we might work at it, the Archbishop’s story reminds us that it is the liberating power of Christ to resurrect that saves us all.
Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Let us give thanks to God that we have been raised up; we are being raised up, and that on the last day, we will be raised up into the full love of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.