Raised Up (In this life and the next)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I read or hear today’s Gospel, I think of the hymn, “I am the Bread of Life.”  It’s one of those hymns in which the words don’t quite match the music of each stanza and it can feel like a challenge to sing, if you’re new to it.  But by the time we reach the refrain, everybody’s joining in with, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

My colleagues and friends at a previous church used to joke with me as they observed that I usually managed to be away on a particular Sunday in late summer. They thought I was trying to avoid that hymn, because I would often grumble about it, whenever we sang it. But it wasn’t the hymn I minded. I love the hymn. The problem, for me, was in that place, where the organist would try to make this folksy, popular hymn from the 1960s into a concert piece with all the stops of a giant organ working – almost against any hope of the people hearing themselves sing. But make no mistake—I like the hymn, and I love it’s message.

The hymn’s message is important because it helps us, as Christians, express one of the central tenets of our faith: God raised up Jesus and God will raise us up. Resurrection is the beginning and the end of our faith. It’s the core of what it means to be a Christian. 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 sometimes the resurrection of Jesus has become a kind of litmus test for orthodoxy, and that misses part of the point, I think.

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—sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually. He raises up the sick and the wounded. He raises up those who are brought down low by others. The Blessed Virgin Mary sings of this in her song, proclaiming what God has already done for her and for others: “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. The Church teaches 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.

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 God’s intention to raise up all things and 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, it’s Elijah who gets raised up—but not in such a dramatic way as at the end of his life. Here, the “raising” can almost be overlooked.  If we were to read more widely in First Kings, we would recall how the prophet Elijah, several times, got to the point of almost giving up. He had been doing his best, but it didn’t feel like it counted for anything. The most serious threat had become real: that because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, was after his head. No place was safe. People weren’t listening, and so, in readings like today’s, Elijah begins to feel 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.

Last year, about this time, we had reopened the church for about a month, and we were extremely careful to keep our masks on, throughout. Because of this, it was sometimes hard for me to recognize certain people. One day, after the service, a woman was lingering in the pews, so I stopped by. I wasn’t sure I knew her, so I introduced myself.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and said, “thank you.”  “Thank you so much for being here.”  I again said my name, and then she said hers and explained that over the summer, it had felt like her life had fallen apart. A parent had died. A relationship had ended. Her friends had moved out of the city, and her workplace was having trouble coordinating remote work. She had just moved in, across the street from the church on Saturday, was worn out, and fell asleep. She woke up on Sunday morning and noticed the doors open, so she came in, and she was dazzled by the space, the music, the feeling, and a word of hope she heard that morning. She received Communion for the first time in years, and it fed her.

This worshipping community, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, raised her up that day, for at least another day, another season, and time for a new start.  Her life has gotten busy and full again, but she occasionally stops in to reconnect and to add her part in the life of God’s spirit to raise up.

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.

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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