Thursday, May 30, 2019

30 May 2019 -- Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 30 May 2019
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Acts 1:1-11  |  Psalm 93  |  Ephesians 1:15-23  |  Luke 24:44-53

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.  [Ephesians 1:20-21]

In the Nicene Creed, which we shall say in a few minutes, we profess:  “On the third day [Christ] rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and in seated at the right hand of the Father.”  It’s not clear how strictly literally we are to take that.  “The right hand of the Father” is clearly metaphorical.  (God the Father does not literally have a right hand.  Or a left, either!)  

But that the risen Christ now reigns in heaven with God – well, even there we are flirting with the boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical.  (I was recently reading a piece by our old friend and former fellow-parishioner, Professor/Father Thomas Williams, in which he talks about our God-language as often metaphorical, and literal only by way of analogy.)

But, however we understand it, that the risen Christ now reigns in heaven with God is a core belief that runs throughout the New Testament.  (“Risen,” “reigns,” “heaven,” and even “God” are all words that we could spend all afternoon unpacking.  But, as Arya says, “Not today.”)  In his final discourse to his disciples in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells them that he is going to his Father to prepare a place for them, and in his meeting with Mary Magdalen on Easter morning he tells her that he must ascend to the Father.  St. Paul tells the Romans, “It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” [8:34]  In the letter to the Philippians Paul quotes from an early hymn:  “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”  [2:9]  In the letter to the Colossians we hear – and will hear again in a few minutes if I remember! – the Easter summons, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the thinks that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  [3:1]  The First Letter of Peter speaks of Jesus Christ, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”  [3:22]  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ, who “when he had made purification for sins…sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” [1:3]  He goes on to write about how Christ “entered into heaven itself, now to appear before the presence of God on our behalf.”  [9:24]  And of course a few minutes ago we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” [1:20] 

What we refer to as “The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ” is obviously central to our Christian faith right from the first generation of believers in the first century.  And yet this fundamental reality is recounted as an event only once in the New Testament.  Well, twice.  But by the same writer,  (St. Luke.)  And you will have noticed in the readings today (I hope!), Luke doesn’t tell it quite the same way.  And, we might note, he is writing two to three generations later, for whatever that’s worth.

So what are we to make of that?  Well, I’m not really sure.  I hope when I get to heaven I can look up St. Luke and ask him, “Hey, what’s this with these two narratives – narrative stories which nobody else tells?  And they’re not the same!  What’s with that?”  To which Luke may respond, “I am so tired of everybody asking me this question!  I should just post something on Facebook!”  I could go on at length about what Luke may be up to with his use of the literary forms of “gospel” and “Hellenistic historiography.”  But, again, as Arya says, “Not today.”

The meaning of Ascension Day is best summed up, I think, in the Collect for today:  “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:  Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”  Jesus had to leave 1st-century Judea so that he might be present in 21st-century Iowa – and everywhere and everywhen else – now!  Or, as Jesus himself says to his disciples at the conclusion of St. Matthew’s Gospel:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [28:18-20]

Friday, April 19, 2019

19 April 2019 - Good Friday

Good Friday  — 19 April 2019
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Isaiah 52:13-53:12  |  Psalm 22  |  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9  |  John 18:1-19:42

Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor."  [John 19:15b]

As you may be aware, especially if you have been wandering around in the Books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings (and haven’t we all?!), Israel always had a problem with kings.  In the first generations after the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land, there was no central rule among the Israelite tribes.  Sometimes a charismatic leader would arise to repel outside oppression, but that was not a long-term solution, and eventually there arose a desire for a single national king.  The prophet Samuel said, “That’s a bad idea – the Lord God is your king.”  The people said, “Yeah, but we want one anyway, like all the other nations,” and so God and Samuel relented and gave them a king, Saul.  Well, that didn’t work out very well.  So they tried again, this time with David, and that worked out a little better, though probably not as well as they recalled it in retrospect.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who was remembered for being very wise, for reasons not very well supported by actual history.  And then the kingdom split up into two, each with their own king, a few of whom were pretty good but most of whom were not (you remember Ahab and his queen, Jezebel.  Lovely couple!).  And then first the Assyrians, and subsequently the Babylonians, put an end to the whole Israelite King business.  Eventually the Jews put together a kingdom of sorts following the successful revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek empire, but that really didn’t work out very well, and ended up with the sort-of-Jewish Herod (“Herod the Great,” at least that’s what it said on his baseball caps), installed by the Romans as “King of the Jews.”  And we know how that worked out.

For people of faith, God is King.  Period.  The prophet Samuel tried to tell us three thousand years ago, and we didn’t believe him then.  We still don’t.

Actually, I think Pontius Pilate rather enjoyed the notion of this Jesus of Nazareth being King of the Jews.  (“Shall I crucify your King?  You bet – just watch me!”)  He had a sign made for Jesus’ cross, and according to St. John’s Gospel it was in three languages, to make sure that nobody would miss the point.  The high priests whined to him, “Don’t say that!  Say ‘This guy claimed to be King of the Jews’!”  To which Pilate replied, “Yeah, well, get over it.  This is what Rome thinks of your ‘King of the Jews’.”

“We have no king but Caesar.”  (That’s what the text actually says; it refers to “the Roman emperor” of course, but Tiberius was a member of ol’ Julius Caesar’s extended family, the stepson and adopted son of Octavius Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius still used the family cognomen.  But by the end of the century when John’s Gospel was being written, Julius’ family dynasty was long gone and “Caesar” had become an imperial title, no longer a familial proper name.)

“We have no king but Caesar.”  This wasn’t just about the high priests.  It’s about us.  We still have a problem with it.  The Church has had a problem with it through most of our history, and we still do today, as you will have noted if you have read a newspaper or watched the TV lately.  We are confronted with the same choice, the ultimate choice – a choice we must make, a choice we are making every day of our lives:  Who is to be our King?  Caesar, or Jesus?  our own world, or the kingdom of God?  Wealth and power, or justice and love?  Death, or life?

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

6 March 2019 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 6 March 2019
Trinity – 12:15 PM
Joel 2:1-2,12-17   or Isaiah 58:1-12  |  Psalm 103:8-14  | 
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”  [Matthew 6:16]

A couple or three or five or whatever years ago, at this Ash Wednesday service, I observed that we hear Jesus saying this in the Gospel, and then a few minutes later we go and do exactly the opposite!

Well, I think, not really!  As with reading any text, context is all!  Jesus is referring to those – maybe some of them were Pharisees, but it wouldn’t be the case with all Pharisees – who make a big public deal of how religious they are.  And there’s still plenty of that going around.  Sometimes it may be us.
When I was a boy – many many years ago! – the issue came up on Ash Wednesday as to whether we had to leave our ashes on our foreheads when we went to school.  (In those days the Ash Wednesday service was always early in the morning.  We didn’t celebrate the Eucharist in the evening.)  And we were told, yes, you should wear your ashes to school, because that way you are bearing witness!  I’m not sure we understood exactly what “bearing witness” was.  We may have thought it was “I went to church this morning, nyah nyah nyah!”  Well, that of course is exactly was Jesus is talking about!

So what kind of witness do we bear with our ashes, if we choose to do so?  Well, as the liturgy will remind us in a few minutes, we bear witness to ourselves and to such of the world as we may contact, one, that we are sinners, and two, that we are mortal.  Not an insignificant witness to bear, in a society that is in serious denial about both sin and mortality.  But that’s not all.  We also bear witness to the grace of God – the God who forgives and heals our sinfulness and who calls us to eternal life.  And the dirty cross on my forehead, and on your foreheads, bears witness that God loves me; and furthermore, God loves you.

In St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, a chapter or so before the part that we read just now today, Paul writes:  “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” [2 Cor. 4:6-7].  Our ashes remind us, and the world, that we are indeed clay jars – “earthen vessels,” as another rendering puts it – yet God works in us and through us.  As St. Paul says elsewhere, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain….though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me [1 Cor. 15:10]. 

Among the many things that the season of Lent is, as we prepare for the Easter celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection (and ultimately of our own Resurrection), is the invitation and opportunity to focus our attention and reflection and prayer on who we really are, and who by God’s grace we are called to be.