Ascension, Abandonment and Intercession

It was a gift to be able to preach and serve at both services at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto this past Sunday. Here is the text of my sermon.

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This past Wednesday, I enjoyed spending some time with the Society of Mary, talking with them about the place of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. And I, as all public speakers do these days, tried to sell some books afterwards. Since we were on the threshold of Ascensiontide, one of the books I brought with me was a little devotional my brother Aaron and I wrote about this wonderful event. One of the listeners picked up the book and asked me, “Will this book make me like the Ascension?”  What a great question! Well, it prompted one of my own. “Why don’t you like the Ascension?” I asked. “It leaves me feeling abandoned.”

I get that. There are times in our lives as disciples of Jesus when we might feel profoundly alone, wishing, if this is not too crass, that we had a cellphone number. Direct encounters with Jesus, at least before the kingdom comes in its fullness, are the unique provenance of mystics and saints. I don’t know about you, but I am not a mystic. And while I am, I pray, on my way to sanctification, I have never been “caught up into the third heaven,” as St. Paul was.

So I get the feeling of abandonment that my new friend spoke of. Do you, too? And like her, that loneliness is sharpest for me in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.

On the threshold of his departure from the world, the Lord Jesus knew that feelings of loneliness and abandonment would be a returning trope in the lives of his disciples. Not just the twelve or the extended company who travelled with them, but all those whom the Father had given him, as he describes the people for whom he prays in our Gospel lesson. All of them.  All includes my friend. All includes me. All includes, well, all of us. The Lord Jesus himself, in his humanity, prayed for us on the verge of his departure. He continues, in that now ascended humanity, to pray for us before the throne of his Father. And that is good news. Let’s explore it further.

What does Jesus pray for us who live between the already of his ascension into heaven and the not yet of the final transformation of ourselves and all creation?

He prays, first of all, that the Father protect his disciples that they may be one even as he and his father are one.  His words call to mind the powerful image that was developed in our Gospel lessons for the previous two weeks: that of the true vine. You remember the image, which accentuates how the life of discipleship is an organic union with Jesus such that the divine life flows through him—the vine—into us—the branches. In this way, we participate, we share in God’s own life, we are deified. And through our sharing in that life, we are fruitful and we are “pruned” to become more fruitful. And the fruitfulness Jesus describes here is the fruitfulness of a faithful disciple.

When Jesus prays for us that we be protected, and that in that protection we might be one, he prays that his disciples would remain united to him, and in that union, we remain united to each other.  Jesus prays this way because, he says, he is leaving the world and his disciples are not, or at least not yet. And in his absence, if the joy of the disciples is to be complete, if the disciples are to rest in the protection of God, if they would continue the mission of bringing the life of God to the world, they will need to be protection.

This is not the only request the Son makes to the Father for us. Here is the second. I ask that you not take them out of the world, I ask that you protect them from the evil one. The protection that is continuing in the life of God that comes to us through the Lord Jesus is protection from the evil one. We are not accustomed to thinking or speaking in this way. This parish church lives on a lovely street in a city noted around the world for its, well, dullness. Very little bad happens in Toronto. And so it is that we might regard Jesus’ words here with a little confusion. For so many of us the world is basically a good place. Oh we have our challenges, but we would not cast them as attacks from the enemy of our souls.

Is that true for you? It is for me. But here’s the thing: it is not true for the majority of the followers of the Lord Jesus around the world today. It is truly tragic that most of our media sources leave the global persecution of our brothers and sisters underreported. Some, worse, sensationalize it. But there are a few that tell the truth. (If I may commend a book here, the title is Christianophobia and the author is Rupert Shortt, the biographer of the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams). If Jesus prays for his disciples that they be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world, it is because they need such prayers.

Here’s the nugget—if we are united to God, and through that union to each other, and if in that union we bring the life of God to the world, we will need to be protected from the hostility provoked. And so we add our prayers today to the prayer of the Lord Jesus for those of our brethren who, so much more than us, need his protection from the evil one today.

To the two requests for protection, Jesus adds a third: that his followers be made holy by the truth of the Father’s Word. The notion of holiness here is not some mystical quality, but simply means separateness or otherness. Jesus prays that by the truth of the word, his followers would be kept separate from the world. Of course, the connection to the previous requests is clear isn’t it? And there is a deeper one.  Who is the Father’s Word in the Gospel of John? None other than the Lord Jesus who spke of himself as the truth. Jesus prays that, by his own life flowing in us, we would be drawn into the truth, we would be protected from the world, we would be made holy.

It is hard not to work our way through this part of Jesus’s prayer for us and not feel a sense of dislocation, otherness from the world. And so we are wise to remember that the world which the Lord Jesus left in his Ascension, the world in which we remain, the world which is acknowledged by the Lord as a place of hostility both for himself and those who would follow him, is also the world that the Father loves, the world to which the Son was sent, the world to which we who are in the Son are also sent.

Have we been abandoned? It may well seem like it in this time between the times, in the tension between the already victory of Jesus and the not yet consummation of his kingdom. But we remain united to him who even now prays for our protection and sanctification, who lives his life through us, and who calls us out into the world that he loves. And in that mission, we are never alone.

 

May Festival Sermon, May 16, 2015.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to be the preacher at the May Festival Mass held at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto. I am grateful to Fr. Rob for his invitation and to Fr Mark and the people of St. Thomas’s for their kindness. Here is the text of my sermon.

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She was present when the hour was not yet. Perhaps knowing that her Son could fix the problem, perhaps expressing an embarrassed desire that he and his little band of followers leave, the mother of Jesus came and told him, “They have no wine.” And to that ambiguous statement came the even more ambiguous answer, “What to you and to me, woman? My hour is not yet.” She was present, but The hour was not yet.

The first disciples too were present when the wine at the wedding banquet ran short, when the mother of Jesus boldly instructed the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it!” perhaps they overheard and began to watch. Whatever prompted them to pay attention, the disciples saw when the water pots were filled to the brim, and tasted when those same pots produced the very best wine. In this way, ends the story of Jesus’s first miracle at Cana, he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. They were also present, but the hour was not yet.

What was the glory revealed at the wedding? The glory disclosed when the water changed to wine? Was it some sort of profane appropriation of a pagan miracle story of the God Dionysus? Some rather red-faced scholars have worried so. But no, their fears are misplaced. This is not some feeble syncretism. The glory disclosed at the Cana wedding was the glory of the end-time banquet when, out of God’s inexhaustible plenty, the new wine would be poured out. This is the language of the latter chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah, not an appropriation of Greek mythology. The miracle heralded the hour when  God would be joined to creation in a nuptial union to which every human marriage bears often-all-too-feeble witness, and all would be well. But the hour was not yet. The glory was glimpsed, but it was not yet there.

When our Gospel for this festival day opens, however, the hour has arrived. The hour of the glory. The hour of banquet. The hour of end-time joy. We know because she is present. The mother of Jesus again is there. We know because the disciples are there. Present in Mary of Clopas, Mary the Magdalene, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. And yet, this is no day of glory. All the disciples but these four scattered as blood, not wine, was spilled. This was no nuptial day, no day of union, no day of joy. This was a day of death. A day of rending.  A day of grief.

But John bids us look more closely. At this very hour, the mother of Jesus is present. Her presence calls to mind the wedding and its promise, its glimpse of glory. Her presence calls us to see the full disclosure of the glory of God’s one and only son, who was with God, who was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made.  Here at the cross, the glory which was the Son’s from all eternity is seen. This was the glory to which the writer testified when he wrote, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” The wedding pointed to it. But the cross, there on the cross, is the glory of the one and only Son. She was present when the hour was not yet. She was present when the hour came.

The disciples were present too, present in the three Marys and especially in the person of the disciple whom Jesus loved. They too, who with Mary glimpsed the glory in the beginning, were beholding the awful glory at the end. They were present when the hour was not yet. They were present when the hour came.

How do we know this horrific scene is at the very same time a day of glory? How do we know that this day of death brings life, this day of rending brings union? Listen.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing with her, he said to his mother, ‘Here is your son.’ Then he said to his disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

It is very tempting to sentimentalize those words. Here is Jesus, whether because the only Son of the Father was also the only Son of Mary, or because his brothers rejected him and his mother for following him (both readings are found in Christian history), here is Jesus doing what every good Jewish boy should. His dying act was to care for his mother. He effected an adoption of sorts by which the mother of Jesus would be cared for by his faithful beloved disciple. It is a tissues-and-Hallmark moment,

But is that all this is? As with every element of the fourth Gospel, there is much more going on. After all, are we not told, “And from that hour the disciple too her into his home?” The hour. The hour for which the Son of Man came (John 12) is accomplished in this dying act of entrustment.  The hour of glory was not yet at the wedding. The hour of glory came when the Son of Man was lifted up upon the cross. And from that hour a new family was created.

This is no mere recording of history (though it is that). The evangelist is showing us in his story that the glory is not simply the death of Jesus, but that in his death a new family—a family made up of his mother and disciple—is created. The cross is the place where the church is born. And so in death we do have life, in the rending of body and soul, we have the union of God with creation and the reunion of the fellowship of humanity, in grief we have great joy. For the end-time banquet is indeed about to begin. The new wine is about to be drunk. Soon, all will be well.

And, to underscore the point, John tells us, “After this, when Jesus knew ALL WAS NOW FINISHED, he said, ‘I thirst.’” From that hour, all was now finished. At the adoption effected by the cross, the glory of the one and only Son was disclosed in the creation of a new community, the community in and through which the reunion of God and the cosmos would take place.

So it is, at this festival Mass, that we are wise to remember our Marian days are not really about Mary. For Mary always and ever directs our gaze away from her to her Son and reminds us that it is in his cross, and in the adoption it effects, we are gathered together. It is in the cross on which he died that we have life. It is from the cross that he bids us take his mother into our homes, so that in loving her we may come more fully to love him. It is to the cross that she directs our gaze and says, “See the glory of my one and only, your Saviour and mine.”

Amen.

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