A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
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.
Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, and we observed it at our Wednesday Eucharist. The conversations with Jesus present with his disciples are over and he ascends to heaven. It is still another week before Pentecost, when the church celebrates the Holy Spirit breaking into the church. From the standpoint of the church’s liturgical narrative, this is an odd time. You might think, “Jesus is gone and the Spirit isn’t here.” That might make some anxious. Of course, people do get anxious. There are lots of times that people get anxious. And sometimes clergy get anxious about stopping anxiety. But there is one thing that stops that anxiety: It is knowing the truth.
The Gospel lesson today is from Jesus’ long prayer at the end of the supper with his disciples, just before his arrest. It is often called his “High Priestly Prayer.” The truth, from any perspective, was that this was the end of this journey together with these disciples. There was no turning back, and no return to the good old days of wandering around Galilee, teaching and healing and doing miracles. Jesus says this:
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
He does not deny the pain of separation or of his death. Yet in his prayer he knows that what his disciples needed, they have gained from him: “For the words that you gave to me I have given to them and they have received them.”
At this point in the Gospel, the resurrection still lies ahead. In the time between Easter morning and the Ascension, he taught them to interpret and understand the scriptures: “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” as it says in the Gospel of Luke as it is read on the Ascension. These are things that could not be understood or appreciated without the experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And then he told them, “You are witnesses of these things.” His followers now hold within themselves the whole truth of Jesus, and as witnesses they are responsible for living that truth and sharing it.
And so, at this point, Jesus leaves his followers to it. Jesus ascended to his Father and they are responsible for being his witnesses, his church. At this moment, they are left with that. It is enough, the Gospel is within them. Without any miraculous pyrotechnics or miracles, or sure signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless they have the Truth within them and that suffices.
I spoke last week about the Holy Spirit, and next week will be Pentecost with the tongues of fire and many languages and all that. The Holy Spirit is essential in the life of God’s church. But this quiet time, these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, are not a time of being bereft or anxious, it is a time of hope, of being responsible for living in the Truth and being its witnesses. Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning ends with their return to the city, to that upper room, and it lists not only the Eleven, but also several other disciples including women and it says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Notice that unlike the time before they had seen the resurrected Jesus, they are not waiting fearfully, but praying, living in hope, integrating that truth into their lives. Next steps would come, but first they prayed and envisioned.
It has been just short of ten months that I have had the privilege of being here with you. We’ve looked a little bit at Jesus, and a bit at ourselves as a congregation, and mostly we have known the compassion of God in one another. The good things that we have learned, we carry with us, in our hearts. I carry with me the generosity of spirit I have seen at St. James, the experience of seniors doing ministry, and taking joy that it is not for their own benefit—blessing pets in the public square, extending themselves to serve and welcome Special Needs Kids and their families for celebration and worship on their own terms and their own times, providing a Community Garden that serves and draws together diverse aspects of the community of Lincoln, California. If you have received anything of value from me, it will dwell in your heart, whether I am here or not. Jesus is still the man from God’s point of view, and it is he that blesses us with his compassion and good humored acceptance.
Thank you for welcoming both Paula and me. She particularly asked me to extend her thanks for warmly including her. I have experienced the healing power of the nurturing acceptance of this congregation—don’t underestimate how important it is for people in need of healing to have your quiet and wise presence. That is a foundation for new things, perhaps significantly different than now or the past. Humbly living the compassion of God, and accepting people, including their hurts and anxieties, makes it possible to live hopefully in all circumstances.
Here’s how our lesson from the first letter of Peter ends:
“Resist the Slanderer or Devil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”