Sunday After Ascension, 2021 – Sermon

(Modified 2021-05-16: Added recorded sermon audio)

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Sunday after Ascension, May 16, 2021 Canon Claude Schroeder

Recorded sermon audio

So today we have come to The Sunday after Ascension in our church calendar where we are remembering the time in-between Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, and Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday. It’s an odd moment for us, because we really aren’t going anywhere, or moving forward on anything, or have anything particularly to celebrate. It’s a time of patient waiting and of praying. Sounds a bit like COVID, doesn’t it?

Our Collect for today is doubly appropriate.” We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost, to comfort us and exalt us to same place where our Savior Christ is gone before.” That word comfort means to strengthen. We are praying today for God send his Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and lift us up. I think we could use a little bit of lifting up. But this lifting up is not an emotional boost, but a spiritual one. When the Holy Ghost exalts us, lifts us UP, we find ourselves, reigning and ruling over the chaos and madness of our world, it’s sin and its sadness. This precisely what is given to us to experience in the Holy Communion. It’s our Ascension to be with Christ in the heavenly places. 

It was during this in-between time that Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he would build His Church, exercised his leadership role by calling a congregational meeting. There was but one item on the agenda: to find someone to replace Judas, to join the other 11 apostles in bearing witness to the Resurrection. From among the 120 believers who came to the meeting, two men were put forward who met the requirements as outlined by Peter: they must have been a follower from the very beginning, from the day of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, 2) and they must have continued in faithfulness, through all the many ups and the many downs, up to and including Jesus’ Ascension. The name of the one was Joseph, called Barsabbas, and the other, was Matthias. Modern democratic ideas of holding an election with everyone casting a vote, was not yet part of the church’s practice. Rather having prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place,” they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. “(Acts 1.11) And with that the meeting, perhaps one of the shortest in the history of the Church was adjourned, and everybody went to lunch. That’s my kind of church meeting. No politicking, short and to the point. Let’s eat!

We might tempted to dismiss this story as a rather boring institutional footnote in the life of the early Church, much like our own annual meetings where we elect men and women to serve as Churchwardens and on the Vestry. But this story belies an important issue, and that is the credibility of the Church’s witness and leadership.

Just before His Ascension, Jesus called his apostles and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise again from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24.46-48)

Our faith concerning Jesus Christ rests on the foundation of the Apostles.” It is the witness of the apostles, their preaching, their teaching, and their practice that acts as a standard or measuring stick against which to measure our own witness, our own preaching, our own teaching, and our own practice. It’s why we believe “in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

This coming fall there is going to be a meeting of the clergy and lay delegates from each of the parishes in our Diocese of Qu’Appelle.  There is going to be just one item on the agenda: to find someone to replace Bishop Rob who is retiring this summer. Although democratic processes will be followed, we must believe and pray that the Lord will show us who He has chosen to serve as our next Bishop.

So what’s the big deal with the election of a Bishop anyway? 

It is the role of the Bishops of the Church to carry forward the ministry of the apostles, and that is to bear witness to the Resurrection of Christ, to shepherd and guide the Church, and safeguard both the faith and the unity of the Church, as the as the consecration service in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, by “driving away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s word, and privately and openly to call upon others to do the same.”
(BCP, 663.)

That’s a tough gig, don’t you think? Especially in a world where, to quote Pontius Pilate, who, in his interrogation of Jesus, in response to Jesus’ claim, “Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice” (John 18. 37) replied, “Truth? What is truth?” (John 18. 38)  Truth for Pilate, as for many people today, is an assertion of power. This is where I won’t accept that what you are saying is true, because you’re “not the boss of me.”  One of the ways in which this manifests itself is in the rejection of authority. Children reject the authority of their parents, parishioners reject the authority of their priest, and priests reject their authority of their Bishop, and everyone rejects the authority of the government.  And all we are left with is strong feelings and opinions, and lots of arguments about everything, and absolute chaos as people inhabit fantasy worlds of their own creation. But if, as it is argued that claims of truth are in reality attempts to dominate others, this raises the stakes from what might be regarded healthy disagreement over what is true, to an all-out war where what we are fighting for is not the truth, but the power to dictate what everyone else must accept is true. In this war, “the winner takes all.” This, I submit to you, is what we see happening today.

If as Christians we are in pursuit of truth, and I suppose that is a big “if,” it’s not power over others that we are seeking. It is Jesus Christ. We are wanting to come to know Him. And in coming to know Jesus Christ, we are wanting come to know God, and coming to know God, we come to love Him. This is not something that you can force on anyone.  In coming to know and love God, we come to know reality as it is, and not as we like or imagine it to be. It’s why in today’s Gospel lesson we hear Jesus, our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, praying for us His disciples to His Father,  “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… Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  (John 17.7,8). 

Whatever faith you and I may have, we have an account of someone else’s testimony. Jesus testifies to the truth He has received from God. The apostles testify to the truth they have received from Jesus. The Bishops testify to the truth they have received from the Apostles. The clergy and people testify to the truth they have received from the Bishops. In his First Letter to Timothy, one of the first Bishops of the Church, St. Paul wrote, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Timothy 1.13)

The “pattern of sound teaching”, the “good deposit”, which Timothy received from Paul has been preserved for us, thank God, in what we call, “The Apostles Creed,” to which we were entrusted in our baptism.  Paul also instructed Timothy, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses (other apostles) entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2.1). Here we find the beginning of what in the Church we call “apostolic succession”, which is the idea that through the Bishops, the faith and practice of the apostles has been faithfully kept, guarded, and handed on through the generations down to our own day.This apostolic succession is something we participate in as we keep and hand this “pattern of sound teaching” to our children.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. 

Back in 2005, two American sociologists published the results of some research they had conducted in a book entitled, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers in which they coined the phrase, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the faith and religion of American youth. The belief may be summarized as follows:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

We notice right away what a far cry this is from the pattern of sound words of the Apostles’ Creed! Nothing here concerning Jesus Christ and His victory over Satan, sin, and death, by means of His birth, death, and resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. Nothing here about the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, the forgiveness of Sins, the Communion of Saints, or the resurrection. When it came to the most crucial questions of faith and belied, many adolescents interviewed responded with a shrug and “whatever.”

The religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is concerned with inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful.

Do you know anyone who believes this?

“In this religion,” write the authors, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Makes you wonder, from whom did they learn this faith?  

Who else could they have learned it from but from their parents and their pastors?

The authors conclude, “Christianity in America is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”

It’s why today’s epistle is so important for us. St. John writes, “If we receive human testimony, (which is we clearly do,) the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that He has testified to His Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have this testimony in their hearts…And this is the testimony:  God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. (1 John 5. 9-11)

The congregation to whom John was writing was experiencing crisis of faith, due to the fact that some of their number had quit and left the Church, and have abandoned and rejected the Christian faith as proclaimed by the apostles in favour of some other version of Christianity, or some other religious faith. 

It’s always hard when people you have worshipped, prayed, and served with sometimes for years check out of church, and leave their Christian faith behind, preferring the “do good” and “feel good” religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or something else. 

It can cause you to call you own faith into question.

Are we actually Christians who hold to the Christian faith as proclaimed by the apostles?  Do we have the testimony of God in our hearts?

Our apostolic faith is not just the testimony of human beings.  It is the testimony of God. And to reject this testimony is to make not only the apostles out to be lairs. It is to make God out to be a liar. Are we participating and experiencing the eternal life, which is a life that is beyond the reach of sickness and death, which God has given us in His Son? The life that God has given us in His Son is not about staying fir, and feeling good about the good things we are doing.

It’s about holiness. This is where we don’t belong anymore to the world. We belong to Jesus Christ. We order our lives according to the truth He has revealed. And it is to this end, that God, in answer to Jesus prayer, and the prayer of His Church, will send to us His Holy Spirit, that we might be sanctified in the truth, that is the Word of God, and be sent to into the world to suffer as His witnesses. Amen.