May 29, 2022

Easter 7 - Ascension

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/713128129837744

 

The sermon, preached by Rev. Karen Siegfriedt, begins about 24 minutes into the video.

 

Click here for the Service Booklet for Eastertide through June 12.

 

See text of the sermon below or click here for a pdf of the sermon.

 

Bring Him Back!    Readings:  Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11    Feast of the Ascension; 5/29/22
By the Rev. Karen Faye Siegfriedt; St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, San Luis Obispo, CA

 

     Where did Jesus go???  The gospel of Luke tells us that “while Jesus was blessing his disciples, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Lk. 24)  The Book of Acts says, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”(Acts1)  How strange the biblical story is!  Jesus comes.  Jesus dies.  Jesus rises from the dead.  Then he appears to his disciples in some very concrete ways.  Now Jesus is leaving town for good, passing on the baton to his disciples!  What do we make of this story of the Ascension and what message does it have for us today?  This is the subject of today’s sermon.
     The Ascension of Jesus is the Christian teaching that Jesus physically departed from this earth in the presence of eleven of his apostles. It is a movement from a physical presence on earth to a spiritual presence over the entire cosmos. The cloud mentioned in our text is not a heavenly elevator where Jesus is suspended 500 miles above the earth looking down at us.  Rather the cloud is an image or a sign depicting God’s living presence.  The stage is now set for the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
     According to the Book of Acts, the Ascension occurred on the fortieth day after the resurrection.  The disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem and are told to remain there until they receive “power from on high.” It is only after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit that they are to go out into the world and witness to all that Jesus had taught them. The Ascension initiates a new era in this religious movement when Jesus is no longer present in the flesh but has passed along the leadership to his disciples.  They are the ones who are now responsible to build up communities of faithful people who will be committed to compassion, peace, generosity, inclusivity, justice, forgiveness, and repentance.  
     So how successful has this missionary effort been since the departure of Jesus some 2000 years ago?  In the first 300 years, things went fairly well although there were several bumps and bruises along the way.  Being a persecuted and misunderstood minority, there were many Christians who were martyred for their faith.  Others became quite heroic, risking their lives to look after the sick and sacrificing their own standard of living to take care of the poor. Its followers were serious about the formation process of becoming firmly rooted in Christ.  Baptism was not simply a family event where a baby was dressed up in a pretty white outfit followed by a festive party.  Instead, baptism was a serious decision where families and candidates vowed to live a transformed life in a hostile world, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving their neighbors as themselves.
     Initially, the Christian faith grew as a nonviolent spiritual movement, promoting peace and good will, embracing the mind of Christ rather than the ways of the world. “This commitment to nonviolence rapidly eroded in the early fourth century when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the empire. This led to an acceptance of violence and domination against the empire’s enemies, but also perceived “enemies” from within. What the empire wanted to do, the Church generally blessed.”(Brian McLaren)  Today, most governments (including our own as well as Putin’s Russia) can basically count on mainstream Christianity “to bless its successes, pardon its failures, and pacify & unify its masses.”
     Just take a look at last year’s national budget which included 800 billion dollars in military spending.  We are a nation that has committed numerous war crimes ourselves, including using nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians at the end of WWII.  We maintain one of the largest stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the world.  Gun violence in America continues to increase, evidenced by yet another mass killing of innocent children in our schools.  Although we have less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume over 25% of the world’s natural resources while putting out a third of the world’s global warming gasses.  Are we really a Christian nation?  
     To be frank, Christianity has a bad name today.  It is seen as irrelevant by some, toxic by others.  Many of our young people consider it judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, and ineffective.  Suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness still abound after 2000 years. In more recent times, a significant percentage of American Christians have transformed Jesus Christ from a humble servant of the abject poor to a symbol that stands for gun rights, prosperity theology, anti-science, a limited government that neglects the destitute, and fierce nationalism.  This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. In summary, Christians have dropped the baton and Jesus seems to have disappeared from our sight.  What are we to do?  
     Celebrating the Feast of the Ascension is a wake-up call to bring Jesus back into our religious sphere by picking up the baton and rebuilding the Church of which Jesus laid the foundation some 2000 years ago.  It is a wake-up call to bring Jesus back into our life styles through personal sacrifice and extravagant love.  It is a wake-up call for us to publicly denounce the powers and institutions in our world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  So how do we begin to bring Jesus back?  Let’s take a closer look at today’s readings for insight.

 

     Formation:  In his final words to his disciples, Jesus said: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk. 24)  The disciples then returned to the room where they were staying in Jerusalem and constantly devoted themselves to prayer as a community.  Prayer is part and parcel of a strong formation process that can provide the fortitude and courage necessary for a person of faith to face the challenges of a dysfunctional world.  While many Christians are earnestly trying to be disciples, few have been trained to be disciples. This is especially true today when families are scattered rather than gathered; busy rather than intentional; isolated rather than connected.  As a culture, there is so much individualism going on and not enough community that true formation is hard to come by.
     As a result, many Christians often reflect the values of their culture rather than rise above it and plug into the mind of Christ.  This becomes apparent in the voting booth as people choose what is best for themselves (or their political party) rather than consider what is best for the good of the commonwealth.  It is time for us to strengthen our spiritual muscles by gathering together in authentic communities and practicing the spiritual disciplines of Prayer, Forgiveness, Repentance, Meditation, Fasting, Study, Simplicity of life, Solitude, Submission, Worship, Guidance, Celebration, and Service to others.
 
     Holy Spirit:  Jesus said: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  (Acts1)  It is only after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit that the disciples have the courage to go out into the world to spread the good news. There is no doubt that the disciples needed something stronger than their ego-strength alone to carry out their ministry of healing and preaching.  The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth that enables us to grow into the likeness of Christ.” The truth is hard to come by these days, isn’t it?  When it comes to seeking the truth, we have not always been vigilant.  In fact, most Americans expect deceit in their daily lives and are not shocked when they have been confronted with falsehood.  In our culture, lies are no longer labeled "lies" but simply someone else's spin on reality. Deception is so pervasive today that it can be difficult to discern the truth.  Above the many voices that vie for our attention (e.g. partisan voices, angry voices, greedy voices, powerful voices, deceptive voices), the voice of the Holy Spirit echoes a timeless truth and endless vision.  How do we know when it is the Holy Spirit speaking?  It is a voice that leads us “into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, & with all creation.” (BCP 852)  

 

     Witness:  Jesus said to his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts1)  Once Christians make the choice to embrace the power of the Holy Spirit and be led by its truth, they will once again regain the courage to witness to the good news by exposing those institutions in our society that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  They will speak out against the multinational corporations subject to no laws, tax codes benefiting the wealthy, and the NRA who gives millions of dollars in election campaigns to those politicians who support their agenda. They will fight tirelessly for accessible healthcare while challenging the pharmaceutical establishments to provide affordable medicines.  They will expose the private prison industry that seeks to keep those prison cells filled rather than rehabilitate its inmates.  The world needs our voices to stand up for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being.  Now is the time for each of us to pick up the baton and bring back the authentic Jesus of compassion into our lives, into our culture, and “to the ends of the earth.”

 

     “Lord, make us instruments of your peace: where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O grant that we may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  Amen.

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