The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day (A)
May 25, 2020
O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 Peter 4:12-19
It took coronavirus and social distancing, rather than a lack of assistance, for the first time in my ministry to have preached every Sunday in Eastertide. It has been a real pleasure to work through these texts, mostly from Jesus’ farewell discourse from John’s Gospel, but venturing into John’s and Luke’s resurrection narratives. This selection of vignettes weaves together the themes that help us understand the power of the resurrection and what relationship with God in Christ brings.
And this is something that needs exploring, for it is easy to proclaim the resurrection. It is easy to say “Christ is risen!” that Jesus defeated death, triumphed over the forces of sin and evil, redeemed us, saved us, gave us new and everlasting life in him. Those are phrases both venerable and well-worn, most of which I have used myself. They roll off the tongue. They tell us little, however, about what it all really means.
The resurrection is a mystery. It is not attested in any ancient source outside the literature of the church, and the Christian sources differ on many counts. In fact, specific stories about the resurrection don’t start circulating until decades after the events in question. They were written to share the tale with a new generation of Jesus followers who were not there when it happened. As John says, the stories were told so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Resurrection narratives, however, don’t tell the whole story and the gospels are laced with hints, bits of information, vantage points into the significance of the resurrection. The Transfiguration, for example, shines forth as perhaps the most important sign post that helps us understand the resurrection, and the only vision of it we get in Mark’s Gospel. We must, therefore, rely on more than post-resurrection narratives to understand what the resurrection brings us, how it changes us, how we are now united with God in Christ in new and powerful ways that fundamentally change what it is for us to live in the world.
The stories that the church has chosen for us to hear in these weeks help dig deeply into the meaning of the “eternal life” we receive as members of the Body of the Risen Christ. They highlight themes and images that give us a picture of what this is all about and how if affects us. We started on that first Easter morning with Jesus calling Mary Magdalene by name and in that instant she recognises him. In a mere moment God breaks through our fog and calls us by name, we recognise God present with us, as God always is. The first quality of resurrection life, then, is that it is personal, characterised by mutual knowledge and recognition: God calls us each by name and we know God’s name. But we had learned about all that already from Jesus before his death. He told us that this is what Eternal Life looks like when he declared, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the father” (John 10:14-15a). Eternal life means being known, seen, and loved and constitutes being part of a real relationship.
Later we travelled with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and learnt that the risen Christ is not only specially present, but revealed in the breaking of bread. For Cleophas and his companion that was their “a-ha!” moment. Perhaps they were present also at that Last Supper at which, in Luke’s account Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks be broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Perhaps their memory of that event was like Mary being called by name, breaking down the wall of unseeing. But of course, Jesus had told them then that he would be known and present always in the breaking of bread and, at least according to John’s Gospel, announced that “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger; and who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Eternal life in the Resurrection, therefore, is one in which we are nourished spiritually as well as physically whenever we break bread together and Jesus is eternally present with us in those moments.
What we have learnt from the Resurrection narratives and their corollaries from earlier in Jesus’ ministry is that at the centre of all of this is interrelationship. We are bound with God in Christ through mutual knowledge and through the meals we share. We are interconnected because God’s very nature is dynamic interrelationship. This is at the heart of reality. This is at the heart of Eternal Life and this is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he told the disciples at that long last supper described by John, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” This is the meaning of the image of the true vine about which he spoke later at that same meal: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Eternal life is about being in everlasting relationship with God in Christ, intertwined in mutual self-knowledge, bound into the same purpose, producing the same fruits of love as the Kingdom of God unfolds. Applying this lesson to our lives, it becomes apparent that philosophies that value self-sufficiency, going it alone, rugged individualism are misguided and arrogant. Needing each other, being dependent on each other and on God, we find, is no weakness. It is inherent in the nature of God and of our relationship with the one who created us.
Today we hear Jesus’ prayer to God the Father. It is a summation of all he has shared with the disciples at this, John’s telling of the last supper. Before, Jesus was speaking to his friends, now he is addressing God, sharing his hopes and desires for his friends, opening himself up to his father. He prays: “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him.” Jesus knows that his earthly ministry is coming to an end, he knows that what is about to happen might be seen as shameful by secular standards, but that it will, ultimately, show forth the glory of God. He also knows that he has been given power to bring all flesh into relationship with him and that those in relationship with him may share in his glory and partake of everlasting life. And what, we may ask, is everlasting life? “That they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent;” “this is everlasting life.” By knowing Jesus, by being in relationship with him, bound to one another like a vine, called by name like the Good Shepherd, we can show forth Jesus’s works into the world and partake of eternal life.
Jesus is proclaiming to God the Father that his disciples, human and flawed as they are, have been faithful, that they ... we, “have kept thy word.” We have shared in Jesus’ ministry, witnessed his deeds, heard his words and we “have received them and know in truth that I came from thee; and they have believed that thou didst send me.” Jesus continues: “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them.” It is Jesus final wish that his “Holy Father keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Unified in relationship with each other and with God we are called to be ministers of that good news, of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, proclaiming by word and deed that the “Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; ...and from his fulness have we all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
The themes we have been exploring this Eastertide are not simply meant to help us understand the Resurrection as a singular event. In his farewell discourse, and throughout his ministry leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus wasn’t preparing his friends, or us, simply for the forty days of the Resurrection. He was giving us instructions for what would come after. He was preparing us for now: for the time when he would be gone, really gone, for a time when no one could grab hold of him like Mary Magdalene or put their finger in his side, feel and see his wounds like Thomas. He was preparing us for the time when he would not be able to break bread with them in that way, speaking at length, washing their feet. He was making sure that we were ready to understand his presence in new and different ways, ways about which he spoke when he was with us, both before and after the crucifixion. In short, Jesus was preparing us for the days after his ascension. Jesus wanted us to know that we remain connected to him to God the Father and to each other; that this is the meaning of the Resurrection in its fulness.
Jesus’ Ascension left his friends bewildered and frightened, much as had the crucifixion. The days following the Ascension and before Pentecost, which would come ten days later, were a time when the disciples were left to come to terms with what had happened, groping in the dark to understand what might be coming next. Those days were not unlike these days. God has shown us the Way, has given us all the tools, shown us that we are known and loved, that we may partake of Resurrection life, but not given us all the answers, and we are not sure what will come next. Just as the disciples trusted in their relationship with Jesus in the midst of things not fully understood or realised, so we too may trust in that relationship. This is the core of our faith and of the meaning of the Resurrection: that we know the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name and that he knows us; that Jesus will always be known and present to us whenever we break bread; that we can rest assured that we are bound to God and to each other for ever and always, that we have a community to support us. Each of these elements helps us find within ourselves, within our relationships the resilience to thrive in times like these and help God’s love shine forth.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Ascension Day, 21 May 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume