Homily for the Sunday After Ascension 2009
Acts 1:1-11 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Psalm 47 Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm. God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.
Ephesians 1:15-23 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 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, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Luke 24:44-53 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus 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, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
At Ascension, we complete the Easter season with a remembrance and celebration of the mystery of Christ assuming his place of oneness with God. At Easter, the men standing by the empty tomb asked the women: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). At Ascension it is essentially the same question, based on the same problem: “Why stand gazing up to heaven?” is the question they ask. It’s an appropriate question, because people often always seem to be looking for life where there isn’t any. The mysterious “men in white robes” point to a need to re-focus so we can see what God is doing NOW. In other words, “Don’t stand there staring at the empty spot where life used to be.” This scriptural witness is a call to be looking forward, not backward at what used to be – to be anticipating where the Spirit of Christ is going to show up next and to make sure we’re ready and willing to encounter that Spirit. I am going to reflect on the diocesan synod just completed, and it might be helpful to keep the strange men’s words in mind.
Friday and Saturday I attended our diocesan synod, along with our lay and clergy delegates, Amanda Mungal, Claire Prentice, Ann Adair Austin, Nigel Fung, Ann Anchor and Trudi Shaw. Clergy are required to attend Synod, lay delegates are elected by the parish at the Annual Vestry Meeting. Lizz Laurence was also there with EfM and Julie Ferguson was there as a photographer for Topic. I have to say, St. John’s was very faithfully represented. Synod is like the Church’s parliament, and admittedly, aspects of it are pretty boring. There are always times when it is literally hard to stay awake, but there were some real signs of life and some important wake-up calls for the future.
The first and maybe the best thing about a synod is that it reminds us that we are not alone, and that we are not just individual and isolated parishes. We are part of a diocese; we are part of the wider church. As such we have a mutual purpose, a larger purpose, than merely taking care of business in our own backyard. We were reminded several times that the Diocese of New Westminster is known all over the world. Some apparently believe we are too liberal and look upon us as a threat. Others look to us as a model of a new kind of church that is open and relevant and compassionate to all. In any case, as the Bible says, be something – be hot or be cold, but don’t just be lukewarm or indifferent (Revelation 3: 15,16). It seems to me that one of the good things about this diocese is that complacency is not really a viable option.
We began Synod with a magnificent act of corporate worship at our Cathedral (Christ Church), which I found very moving and compelling. The guest preacher was a tiny man named David Lai, Anglican Bishop of Taiwan, our companion diocese — a small man with a big message as it turned out. He told us of the work of the Anglican Church in Taiwan and reminded us of how hard Christians have to work in a minority situation and that we have to be very dedicated and disciplined, never complacent or lukewarm.
Bishop Michael Ingham, our bishop, offered excellent leadership throughout, and yesterday morning, in an excellent homily, reminded us that the Church is meant to be about Mission. One of our diocesan themes is “God’s Mission Has a Church,” which says that the Church is meant to be a vehicle, and by definition that means taking people somewhere, it means finding a sense of direction, and being on the move. Being a Mission Church means being an agent of transformation and healing, especially toward the poor and the oppressed, though of course to do so means also confronting oppressive and unjust attitudes and structures.
I would have liked to see more involvement by our aboriginal brothers and sisters in Christ. In previous dioceses, that has been an important, even essential dimension of our identity and expression of the faith in our part of the world.
Bishop Michael informed us, though, of many powerful efforts toward justice and reconciliation on the part of the Diocese: that Anglicans of this Diocese raised over $76,000 for the Anglican Hospital in Gaza that had been hit by Israeli rockets and overrun with thousands of wounded and dying Palestinians; that Anglicans from this Diocese have give over $8 million in recent years toward the PWRDF and over $1million toward reconciling the injustices of the Indian residential schools; and that we feed over 100,000 needy people a year in our parishes (and he wasn’t talking about parish potlucks).
He applauded Bishop Lai’s message to us and told us that Douglas Todd’s new book Cascadia reveals the people of this part of the world to be the most secular and anti-institutional-religion of anywhere in North America. He reminded us that as faithful Christians, we have a challenge to meet. He spoke of our venerable history in this part of the world, but also noted how drastically things have changed since our glory days, and he said “we are an old and venerable church but we have been slow to respond to massive changes in our [social/spiritual] environment.” He called us to creativity, to openness and flexibility (especially toward newcomers and seekers), and to a profound faith centered in truly knowing Christ, and he called clergy and laity alike to a leadership role for the future. He said we have to have the courage to ask and confront the relevant questions of a new day.
To meet the challenges of a new day, the Diocese has come up with a program called Strategic Plan 2018, which calls for a serious re-visioning of the Church in this Diocese. It is aimed at working more cohesively and comprehensively as a diocese rather than as individual parishes. It means agreeing to a unified sense of purpose and direction. One thing it means is that parishes are going to enter into a process of examination and accountability, based on qualifications like vitality and sustainability, to test whether or not they are still viable, and if not, it indicates there will be re-locations and re-deployments. There is something really exciting about such a faith-based approach to church life, but it can also seem pretty threatening, especially when you hear words like “re-deployment!”
We heard about our financial affairs, drastically affected by the economic slump, and what our financial leaders are doing to get things back on track. Bottom-line: the people in our pews need to make the difference. Certainly, we are being made aware that a number of parishes are struggling. Some will be facing possible closure or re-location. Every parish needs to be made aware that it comes to people making faith-based, generous contributions to the life of their local parish.
Saturday afternoon, we spent considerable time on a number of resolutions, particularly regarding same-sex blessings. After much debate (almost entirely by male delegates, I noted) we voted to stay the course and not move further on from where we stood several years ago. So there is a moratorium on allowing any more parishes to proceed in that direction. Like the early Christians, struggling with issues like whether to include Gentiles, etc., there was a sense of “how can we withhold God’s blessing from these people whom God has created and deeply loves?” On the other, there were voices which pointed toward what they would see as the “rule” of scripture, and the fact that we should not proceed when there is risk of further fracturing the Anglican Communion worldwide. Other voices reminded us that we need to be courageous leaders in going where we believe the Spirit has led us on this issue, and to send a message to the wider community about our care and concern and welcome of people of all sorts and conditions. In the end, the prevailing wisdom seemed to suggest that in order to be truly inclusive we need to continue hearing what the rest of the Church is saying about the issue, and cooperate toward resolving the issue together. The moratorium remains, as it does worldwide, and we agreed to look toward General Synod in 2010 for more definitive direction on this important and painful issue. I would welcome it if people would speak to me about this issue, and consider whether we need to have some conversations around the issue of homosexuality.
The importance of Youth ministry was brought before us and a decision to end the diocesan youth ministry coordinator’s job was met with a strong motion from synod telling the Diocesan Council to find a way to reinstate the position and to get us back on track with reaching young people. The young people at synod (including our own Nigel Fung) were an impressive bunch and they had some of the best things to say.
Many years ago the Bee Gees sang a song called “Stayin’ Alive” which implied that doing so is rather difficult – that remaining alive is a challenge, a choice. People need to be encouraged to choose life. So it is with the Anglican Church in our time. It’s a key moment, and the reality is, if many parishes don’t choose life, they may find themselves part of history and nothing more.
Today’s Psalm reading from Psalm 47, says: “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. God subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.” The other night I woke up from a powerful dream in which I was leading some kind of liturgical procession. The processional hymn was “Our God is an Awesome God” and I thrust my arm into the air and broke into a run (which is hard to do in a cassock!). Everyone followed; in fact, people went pouring by me in their enthusiasm. Every now and again we need to remember this: God is awesome! Believing this, the Spirit can take us forward by leaps and bounds beyond what we could do on our own.
The lesson from Ephesians today says: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . .” Again, we are concluding the Easter season, with its intense focus on the Resurrection and new life. When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life,” he’s not doing it for effect – he’s not bragging. He’s stating a fact. He is simply speaking about what he has become, and about who he is by virtue of his relationship with God, whom he referred to as his “Father” or “Abba.” His statement is not meant to inspire awe or to state his uniqueness, so much as to invite us into the same reality – into that same level of being – that he shares with God. In the next chapter of Ephesians (Ch. 2), just on from where we read this morning, the author speaks of how Christ has enabled us to be with Christ where God is – to be placed alongside Christ in the heavenly realm.
As the Sufi prophet Jelaluddin Rumi said, “Out beyond all our [typical] ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Beyond our conceptions, beyond the limits of our imaginations, beyond our sense of the meaning of life, even beyond the limits of this life, there is a Life, and it’s important to seek and find that Life. Rumi also said: “You were born with wings. Why would you prefer to crawl through life?” The Ascension reminds us that Jesus leads and lifts us through life’s obstacles (even death) to new levels of life, and new ways of being. His summons is to look forward in faith and hope, to persist in trusting him and following him, so that where he is, we may be also.
I came away from Synod inspired that we can do this. We can rise to this challenge of a new day. We can carry out the mission that is before us in our time. But we need to have faith, we need to surrender our limited and fearful perspectives, and trust in the awesome, inspiring power of God to take us forward to great things. God’s mission has a Church – and I am certain the Spirit of God can use the Diocese of New Westminster to work wonders in our time and place. I hope you believe it!