St. Mary’s Anglican Church – Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder
Well, for the last six weeks since Easter Sunday we have been proclaiming and celebrating in church the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead. And we are not quite finished yet! Alleluia, Christ is Risen!….
And then last Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
For those who missed the service, happily for us at St. Mary’s, there is no avoiding the Ascension of Jesus Christ. It is something that literally stares us in the face every Sunday morning, in the window above the altar.
At our open house Saturday before last, I explained to the people on the church tour, that in the Ascension Jesus does not become the world’s first astronaut, blasting off the earth and going up into heaven out there somewhere beyond the stars. The Ascension is Jesus into heaven is His entry into the eternity of God.
The way it’s been explained to me, which I have found personally very helpful, it’s a bit like what happens when you stick iron in the fire. What are physical properties of iron? Iron ordinarily is cold and hard, but when you stick it in the fire, what happens? It glows and becomes red hot. When the iron enters the fire, it remains iron, but now only known through the properties of fire. And what has happened to the fire? The fire hasn’t changed, but it has become embodied in the iron.
The Bible speaks of God as a consuming fire, which doesn’t mean that God burns really hot. It means that he is beyond space and time. Through His suffering, death, and resurrection Jesus entered bodily into heaven. It was like iron going into the fire. But Jesus remains a human being, but is now known, not by his physical properties: 5 ft 6″, 180 pounds, beard and long hair, and so on, but the properties that belong to God: holiness, power, majesty, and so on….God for his part, remains God, but now has become embodied in a man.
So when Jesus ascends into heaven, it’s not so much that Jesus leaves us, but that the mode of His presence with us changes. Jesus’ presence with us is no longer limited by space and time. It’s precisely because Jesus has entered into heaven, that He is able to meet with us right here and right now, in the Holy Communion.
Isn’t it wonderful how the very architecture and structure of this beautiful church, with the Ascension window above the altar, is so full of meaning and rightly proclaims the Word of truth?
But just it case, we missed the point of the visual, whoever designed the window came up with the brilliant idea of including a Bible verse at the bottom. What is the verse? Hebrews 4. 14-16, which says…anybody? Let me read it to you while you focus your attention on the window….l“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. “
So that’s the Ascension of Jesus.
Now, next Sunday, on the 50th day after Easter, we come to the great and wonderful Feast of Pentecost, and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in Jerusalem. It was here where the apostle Peter preached the very first Christian sermon, and conducted the very first Christian baptisms. And so appropriately, next Sunday we will have our Bishop with us to preach and to preside at the baptisms Aweng, Mark, and little Nyamuon, who will become the newest members of our church. Happy Day!
In our lesson this morning from Acts, the Philippian jailer asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Note the irony that it is the jailer who is asking to be released from the prison of sin and death, and the prisoners who give him the answer. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will saved, you and your household…. And that night, he and his entire family were baptized.”
In baptism we lay claim to the promise of God to save us, to release us and our children form the prison of sin and death, and we do so in the hope that faith and prayer to the Lord Jesus becomes just part of the air that they breathe. So when somebody asks them, “When did you become a Christian?’ They will say, ” I can’t remember a time I didn’t know and love Jesus. I got the Gospel with my mother’s milk. In fact my mother’s milk is the Gospel!”
You know how in our church calendar we celebrate the death of Jesus as one thing, the resurrection of Jesus as another thing, the Ascension of Jesus as yet another thing, and so the sending of the Holy Spirit, but in John’s Gospel, the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit are described in terms of a single saving event, which like a ray of pure white light which gets refracted into all the colors of the rainbow when it passes through a prism that is our church calendar.
We see something of this in our Gospel lesson for today from John, where Jesus is at the Last Supper with his disciples around the table. But what is Jesus doing? He is praying for them. But Jesus says, I ask not only on behalf of these, ( the 12 disciples ) but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Who would that be? That would be us! …
But wait a minute. Jesus hasn’t died yet, he has risen yet, he hasn’t ascended yet, He hasn’t sent the Spirit yet, the apostles haven’t started to preach yet, and yet He is praying as if all of that has already happened! It’s as Jesus is already in heaven praying for us as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Jesus is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 4.25)
This morning as we come and draw near to God through faith and prayer to Jesus, we experience something of the result of His prayer for us: salvation, release from the prison of sin and death.
And as we make intercession this morning for the world and the church, we join our prayer to that of Jesus which He offers before the throne of the Majesty on High.
What is the prayer? Jesus prays “they may all be one.” Jesus praying for unity among his disciples, and in His Church.
Now, what on earth is that supposed to mean, how is that even possible?
It’s important for us to note here what Jesus means by unity. When Jesus prays for unity, He is praying for His disciples to be united to, to become One with the one true God. How does a person become united to God? Through faith and baptism, God unites us to Himself. And in uniting us to Himself He unites us to Jesus in His death and resurrection. To be so united to the One true God is to share and participate in the one life of the one God. This is why Jesus says, “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”
What is the one life of the one God in which Jesus prays for us to be united? This where the Father surrenders Himself in love to the Son, and the Son surrenders Himself in love to the Father, and the Spirit unites the Father and the Son in the bond of love. How is this possible? It is possible because Jesus has united Himself to us, and has held nothing back, offering us His Body and His Blood.
In the Holy Communion which celebrate here on Sunday morning, under the sign of bread and wine, God surrenders Himself in love to us, and holds nothing back of His mercy, forgiveness and loving kindness. We feed on Him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, that we might live in Him and He in us.
It belongs to our sin that in this life we never really realize this union in a communion of love. We invariably hold something back. We say, “Yes, I want to be One with Christ, but I reserve the right to my own opinions and actions!”
That is simply a contradiction in terms.
In the same way, we cannot approach the Holy Communion with reservations towards one another.
We can’t say, “I want to be one with Christ, but not with him, or not with her!”
It doesn’t work like that.
The sacrament of love that is the Holy Communion can never be a private moment between ourselves and Christ alone. This explains why as an Anglican priest I am forbidden from celebrating the Holy Communion by myself. I need at least one other person.
When do you think does that moment actually comes, when we get to fully and completely surrender ourselves in love to God, and hold nothing back?
When will that moment come?
That moment of course, is the moment of our death, is it not? Yes, indeed, that will be the moment when the iron passes into the fire, and you become truly one with God, and God becomes truly one with you.
If that’s the case, you might say that our coming to receive Holy Communion is a dress rehearsal for the day of our death. Having received the Eucharist, having fed on the Body and Blood of the Lord, we then “offer ourselves and souls and bodies to be reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” which is what we will actually, hopefully, do on our death bed.
Our God is our consuming fire, and it is our destiny, in union with Jesus Christ, to enter into the all consuming fire that is the love of God, and to be united with God and one another in that love. If that is true, then in the Cup from which we drink in the Holy Communion, there is fire, the fire of God that burns away our sin.
We do well before coming to Holy Communion to pause and take stock. Moses has commanded us to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. How and in what ways am I holding back…? How and in what ways have broken communion with God and with my fellow Christian? Having found an answer to that question to then bear a little shame, and repent and confess our sin, that it my be burned in the fire.
Any union that is not fire, any union that cannot burn, is not union with Jesus Christ. (Stephen Freeman)
Here is how St. Symeon one of the ancient elders of the Church put it, words we will want to take to heart as we come to Communion this morning.
“These things give me courage, rejoicing and trembling, they give me wings, my Christ, and I place my hope in the abundance of Your grace to us. I partake of the fire though I am dry grass. O wonder! — 1 am refreshed and not burned, as the bush of long ago, which was in flames but not consumed. Therefore, thankful in mind, heart and to the depths of my souls and body, I bow before you in worship and glorify you, my God, who are truly blessed now and in all ages. Amen.”