Ascension Day (A) – 2014

Why do you stand looking into heaven?

May 29, 2014

Acts 1:1-11Psalm 47 or Psalm 93Ephesians 1:15-23Luke 24:44-53

“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” ask two men dressed in white robes to the disciples staring up into space.

Indeed, why do we stand looking into heaven? And where should we be looking?

Whenever a comet flies by, whenever there is a total or partial eclipse, people in record number are out looking into heaven. Combined with a resurgence of UFO mania, the popularity of “The X-Files,” the Star Wars movies, photos from the space probe Galileo giving us hints of something like frozen chunks of water in space, breathtaking photos from the Hubble telescope viewing the very origins of the universe, people are looking into heaven more and more.

Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix must have been expressing the hopes of millions as they sang, “There must be some way out of here.”

“Here” seems to be an increasingly difficult, hard and lonesome place to be.

Out there must be some other place, any other place, better than this, we think on our bad days.

So it must have seemed to the disciples. Their leader and savior had just taken off, seemingly skyward. The military and political authorities seemed stronger and more dangerous than ever.

As Jesus leaves them, they are pleading with him to restore the Kingdom to Israel.

“It’s not for you to knowwwww … but the Spirit will come to you …”

And then he is gone. And like us, they are standing there looking up, searching the sky, wishing to see a sign that the time would be now. Or soon. Or at least certain to come.

Like Daniel or John the Revelator, they wished to see a dream or a vision. Like us, they would like to know what the plan is.

And like everyone, they would like an end to the loneliness.

To lose someone close is just plain difficult to bear. We all know what that feels like. It seems as if life cannot possibly go on. At least not at all like it had before they left us.

Yet, here, with Jesus, a promise is made.

The promise is: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. I send the promise of my father upon you until you are clothed with power from on high. Stay where you are. Stay in the city. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

“Stay where you are. It will come to you. God will come to you. God’s Kingdom will come to you.” This is not the message we want to hear.

We are people who are used to being on the move. We go where we wish, hope and desire. We are urged to go for all the gusto we can get. We are schooled that all you have to do is want it and work for it, and it shall be yours.

But Jesus says: “Stay where you are. Abide. Stop looking up. It will come to you right where you are. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

Does it help us to know that the concept of the Messiah and the Messianic Age or Kingdom was thought by Jesus and his contemporaries to take place right here – not somewhere else, not out there, not up in the sky, not some other time, not some future time, but now?

The Messianic Kingdom will come to us; to those of us who stay here in the city; to those of us who are joyful; to those of us who bless God; to those of us who know and love Jesus, his Kingdom is here and now.

We are not called to look for the Kingdom, to search the heavens for signs of its arrival, but to step into it here and now with all that we are, all that we have, all that we say and all that we do.

To those of us who stay here joyfully blessing God, it will come. Those who participate in this life with an attitude of Thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

6 Easter (A) – 2014

Paul: Appealing or appalling?

May 25, 2014

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Many Christians have mixed feelings about the apostle Paul. Paul can be challenging to deal with; some New Testament writings attributed to him express negative views of women and other minorities, and his tone can be pugnacious and argumentative. But if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, we have to come to terms with Paul. For one thing, even though the gospels appear before Paul’s letters in the New Testament, Paul’s writings came first. It is indisputable that Paul is our first Christian witness.

To borrow a phrase from biblical scholar Marcus Borg, sometimes Paul is appealing, and sometimes he’s appalling. Whether Paul is appealing or appalling can depend on which Paul you mean: Biblical scholars recognize that not all the letters in the New Testament that bear Paul’s name were actually written by him. These scholars distinguish between Paul’s genuine letters and the so-called pseudonymous letters attributed to Paul. First and Second Timothy and Titus bear Paul’s name but were not written by him, and they contain most of the sexist things Paul supposedly said. In fact, in Paul’s genuine letters, he argues for a radical equality of all believers, male and female, based on our adoption into the body of Christ through baptism. For example, in the letter to the Galatians Paul writes that, in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is a good example of the appealing Paul.

We also see the appealing side of Paul in our reading from the book of Acts today. In this reading, we encounter Paul preaching to the elite of Athens on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, the center of Athenian government. Notice how Paul tailors his message to connect with the Athenians in a way that they can hear the Good News he is trying to share. He is preaching to an entirely pagan audience, so he doesn’t rely on his usual references to the Law of Moses or the Old Testament prophets – what do these people know about Moses? Instead, Paul quotes a couple of Athenian poet philosophers. Paul compliments how religious the Athenians are, with their many idols, noting how this indicates the natural desire within everyone to seek after God, hoping to find meaning in the world.

Paul is concerned, however, that all these idols will prevent the Athenians from making a connection to the Living God he is telling them about. Our culture is no less littered with idols than Athens was in the first century, and I wonder what Paul would make of 21st century America, if he came to preach to us? Our idols are less literal than the statues Paul found in Athens, but they serve the same purpose. They are markers of our search for meaning, but all of them, in some way or other, fall short of this goal. An idol, by its very nature, stands in the place of God, occupying a place of ultimate concern in our hearts and preventing us from connecting with the true and living God. What is the ultimate concern in your life? Many of us spend our time worried about money, or appearance, or power, and we allow these worries to become idols, taking up all the space in our hearts and not giving God any room to live inside us.

Paul says to the Athenians that they are looking for God in the wrong places. God is not contained in little golden statues, or indeed in anything that springs from the “art and imagination of mortals.” Paul would say the same thing to us. God is not to be found in anxious worries about money and appearance and power.

Where should we look for God then? Paul tells the Athenians that the Unknown God they have been searching for is within them. This unknown God is the source and supporter of all, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” God is radically present to each and every one of us, and we find God in the communities and relationships we build with others, each person a bearer of the image of God.

Most of all, God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Paul’s final testimony to the Athenians about his embodied vision of God is to tell them about Jesus. God has given us “assurance” of God’s embodied presence among us “by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” Not just spiritually – Paul’s claim is that God restored Jesus’ earthly body.

This was a sticking point for the Athenians, as it is for us. Greek philosophy held that the physical body was inferior, impure – all of Greek philosophy pointed in the direction of escaping this dirty physical existence into a world of pure spirit. It was absurd to imagine a God who entered into human flesh, to live and die as one of us. It’s not surprising that many of the Athenians listening to Paul’s message scoffed; they simply couldn’t imagine a God like this, a God who would succumb to the dirt and sweat and suffering of this life, just so we could know him better.

And yet, this is the God Jesus reveals to us: a God willing to walk with us even when the road gets rough. A God yearning to be with us in the simple, ordinary things of life, in bread broken and wine poured. A God embodied in community that spills forth into the world in abundance and love.

If you are looking for God today, look at one another. God’s image is revealed in every face you see here today, and everyone you encounter outside of these doors. Like Paul, we are called to go into the world and share God’s Good News with everyone we encounter – and in language they can understand. Just as Paul adjusted his message so the Athenians could encounter God, we are called to talk about God’s love in today’s vernacular so that everyone can hear it.

In the gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. Jesus says that this Spirit will abide with us and live inside us. If we open our hearts and invite God’s Spirit in, no idols we make will be able to withstand the truth of God’s love. We think money will make us happy, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that happiness cannot be bought. We think that power and control are important, but the Spirit of truth teaches us that kindness and love are more important by far. And it is God’s Spirit living in us that inspires us to go into the world and share God’s love as widely as possible – even if it seems the world cannot or will not receive this message. The world may not know God’s Spirit of truth and love yet. But it will, if we allow God’s truth and love to live in us, and speak through us.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

5 Easter (A) – 2014

Building the Kingdom, stone by stone

May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

“I go to prepare a place for you. … I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

It sounds so wonderful. It sounds perhaps like what we imagine heaven to be. If that’s so, then it’s a future place, a place that we will “go to.”

That may be part of the promise Jesus was making to his disciples. The other part is in his answer to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Yes, we are promised eternal life, but we are also promised that we are already housed by God, fed by God, carried by God. We already have a foot in that place Jesus prepared for us if we but look around, look within and listen. But as nice as that sounds, doesn’t it often seem difficult to imagine that in this world, we should be seeing evidence of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life? If people truly believed that God is very much with us, wouldn’t “the world” be a different place?

Jesus often talked about the Kingdom of heaven being here already – it’s here and now – and that we must be in the process of building it. But we aren’t terribly far away from the kinds of things that happened when our church was still in its formative era.

Today’s reading from Acts shoves a dangerous and dark shadow into our Easter joy. Stephen, even though he was filled with the Holy Spirit and evidently giving witness to what a life lived in imitation of Jesus should look like, is stoned to death by an angry crowd. They covered their ears and shouted. Isn’t that a frightening image? A manic crowd, hostile to goodness. Why? They couldn’t imagine that God would become manifest in Jesus, live among human beings, die on the cross and rise. We might think to ourselves, “How sad. They had Jesus right in their midst and they missed him. We certainly wouldn’t have!”

Yet, look at what happens today. Groups of lay people, priests and sisters are brutally murdered by guerilla groups with machine guns or machetes because they are working for freedom or education or they belong to the wrong tribe. Where is this Kingdom of heaven? For that matter, where is Jesus? Has he gone to prepare a heavenly place for us and forgotten to come back?

Do our hearts become troubled? Yes, very often they do. We wonder how we can build our faith to the point where we can believe in a different world – where we can see God in the midst of hardship.

Look at Peter’s letter and believe that we can drink that pure, spiritual milk that God offers us. That’s where we can begin again, regardless of how old we’ve become in the church. We are offered that nourishment in many ways – through prayer, through the words and symbols of our liturgies, through the example of those who love us into loving ourselves because they believe in God’s love for us.

Perhaps the most powerful way of growing in the spirit is through sharing the Eucharist and believing that Jesus left this with us so we could touch him and know he is in us. There is the power. There is the mystery that explodes within us if we just open our hearts and minds to all God reveals to us. There is the well of power that helps us continue looking for ways to build that Kingdom of heaven here while we wait to take our place in the world to come.

Peter reminds us that we are chosen, we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God. Do you believe that? Do you really?

If not, how can we help you to begin to grasp the meaning of those words?

When people do begin to believe these words, they find themselves doing amazing things. We might first think of those people like Stephen who give their lives for what they believe. But then we must also think of ourselves who may be called to build the kingdom in different ways, through teaching, writing, through the example of our integrity, and genuineness.

Jesus never promised a safe and trouble-free life for those who followed him – far from it. He was always very honest about the fact that “the world” would most often cover its ears and shout, and sometimes throw stones. But if we try – if we believe that we are chosen, that there is truth in the saying that one candle brings light into the darkness – then we are building, piece by piece. We are adding stone upon stone, and we will feel the difference in ourselves.

We need to be careful, however, not to think we have to complete the building of the Kingdom either all by ourselves, or at least in our lifetime. Our human desire to be successful, complete, wholly satisfied, can be a stumbling block for us just as rejecting Jesus was a stumbling block according to Peter.

The Kingdom here will never be finished, it just continues to grow. We are a part, a critical and unique part, but not the whole. There is always more to learn and more to offer of ourselves to others. Evil will never cease trying to destroy the goodness of a holy place. And so the need to continue building ourselves up, but also to work together, pray together, become that holy nation, a holy community, right here with those sitting with and around you.

Each and every one of you is called. Each and every one of you is invited to follow Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life.

The Good News is that Jesus is with us. He has promised never to leave us. We are holy. We are chosen. We are God’s beloved.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

4 Easter (A) – 2014

Baptism into the fold

May 11, 2014

Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10

In her retirement, some years ago, a woman lived in the English countryside. And from her living-room window, she could see a large hill, at the top of which was the ancient parish church. One of the bell-ringers who helped summon people to worship was a shepherd. In lambing season, his flashlight could be seen at all times of the night, seeking out newborn lambs, making sure they were safely delivered and that the mothers were safe and fine. The young lambs were suitable prey for the foxes that lived in the surrounding woods.

The shepherd’s job was to feed, guard and care for all the sheep who lived within the enclosure of the field. In the gospel today we see a similar imagery. The Jewish shepherd brought his lambs into a enclosure, surrounded by a wall of stones, into which there was a single entrance. Because the flock constituted the wealth of the owner, his available property, the job of the shepherd was so guard the flock, if necessary, with his life.

Jesus takes this familiar imagery and applies it to teach about his relationship with his church. This section of John’s gospel is chosen during the Easter season because it points to the Easter themes. In the early church, converts were brought to baptism on Easter eve. Eastertide was, for them, a time when they began to enjoy a new life, a new identity and a new purpose. The new converts had spent up to three years leaning about the Faith. During that period they were not permitted to join the Christian community around the altar. They couldn’t receive communion. They were at the gate to the fold, but not yet inside it.

One may imagine their thrill and joy once they were brought through the gate, as they were baptized into and through Jesus and assumed the name “Christian.” or “the Savior’s People.” Of course, the step they had taken involved danger. Many lost the support of family and friends, lost their jobs, and in times of persecution, faced danger and death.

It’s important for us to grasp the fact that these new Christians had been led by the Risen Lord into a fellowship.  Today we have become used to what might be termed “personal religion”: “Jesus saved me,” and “I’m going to go to Heaven when I die.”  At first glance, that is what Jesus seems to be saying: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The people who first heard John’s gospel would have heard something quite different. They did not come from our culture of individualism. We need to listen with their ears. The words “enters by me” meant to the first Christians – and should mean to us – baptism. We don’t baptize ourselves. We are baptized in church, on a Sunday, surrounded by Christians. From that moment on, we have pasture, we may be fed at the Lord’s Table, by the Lord’s bounty. We become part of those who have been “enclosed” in the communion of the church.

To the first Christians, “coming in and going out” happened in the context of the church’s growth and the church’s danger. The people doing the growing were those who had been “saved,” rescued, taken out of a hostile world. As they shared their new faith and brought others to the door to the fold, the church grew by leaps and bounds. Someone said of them, “See these are they who turn the world upside down.”  Because of their success, they threatened the power of the Roman Empire, whose “thieves” sought to invade and destroy the fold, the church.

Yes, this new community, the church looked forward eagerly to the final result of salvation, when God would rescue the world, the universe he made and loves and restores his people to the Garden from which they were expelled in the Genesis story. Do note that when we talk about the Genesis story, we aren’t talking about history, but we are talking about truth. When we seek to envision the New Heaven and Earth, we struggle for adequate words, as did the John who wrote the last mysterious book in the Bible, Revelation. Yet what is expressed is the truth-in-hope the Christians of St. John’s time had embraced.

We, too, have entered into the fold through our baptism. We share a common essential identity as Christians. We gather in the fold of the local church to have fellowship, to be taught, to be fed. We go out to make disciples, to work for the Kingdom, to love justice and mercy, to care for the poor and the outcast.

Such a corporate calling is exciting and demanding and continues to cost. Today, somewhere in the world, Christians are losing their lives simply because they are Christians. They may live in distant land, but in the fold of the church, they are our sisters and brothers. The words Peter wrote, that we heard this morning, hit hard with our persecuted friends:

“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

We are safe from such suffering. However, we are called to sacrifice much if we are to gain more. Grasping these truths challenges us to live a much more extraordinary life than merely believing that somehow by attending church we are validating a ticket to Heaven.

Our Lord offers us “abundant life” now.  We are called to build Christ’s church and to suffer for those who are the victims in our society, the poor, the sick and the lonely. We embraced this calling in baptism.

This morning, as we gather around the Table to be “strengthened for service,” we commit ourselves afresh to living out our faith, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “not only with our lips, but in our lives by giving ourselves in Your service.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

3 Easter (A) – 2014

Recalling the Resurrected Jesus

 May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

It is hard to understand how two faithful disciples of Jesus could have traveled with him, side by side, without recognizing him. Maybe disappointment blinded their eyes and their hearts to the truth. In Jerusalem, they had learned the devastating news about Jesus’ death. Despite having heard about the women and other disciples reporting that Jesus was still alive, they continued to focus on his death. They had hoped he was the one to bring redemption to the oppressed and subjugated people of Israel. But Cleopas and his friend concluded that he was not the one. They did not understand how he could be alive or how the transformation of life Jesus had begun could continue. For them it was still Good Friday, and they left for home.

But their experience along the road and at dinner in Emmaus changed their disappointment to joy and hope. When the disciples heard Jesus blessing the bread for the meal and saw him break it and give it to them, they suddenly began to understand. They recalled the glory of Jesus in his last days. And they remembered how they had begun to gain new insight on the road, when Jesus had recalled for them the great stories of Israel’s past and compared them with himself. These actions provided a telling insight into the reality they had missed.

Though Jesus disappeared from them, they now knew they had experienced the presence of the resurrected Jesus. The context of living out their disappointments while somehow remaining open to what seemed impossible, allowed them to discover for themselves that what the women at the tomb had witnessed was true after all.

St. Luke’s story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus is very instructive for us. Like the disciples in this account, we, too, can miss the resurrected Jesus in our midst. But also like them, we can use our experience in recalling the deeper truths of scripture to transform our lives.

Our experiences on Sunday mornings and at other times in worship, for example, help us repeat again and again the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We recall the scriptures and place them in the extraordinary context of Jesus, our Christ. And we recall his powerful moment at the Last Supper, when he gave his closest followers bread and wine, his body and blood, to provide nourishment and meaning and direction for having a fulfilled life.

For us, in so recalling, we are there on the road with Cleopas and his friend. In so recalling, we are there with the disciples at the Last Supper. Such experience is a kind of reverse post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of trauma, though, we recall and relive the most glorious reality of knowing the resurrected Jesus and feeling that we are as much in the presence of God as were the disciples of old.

In worship, we experience both examples from today’s gospel account of reliving the resurrected Jesus. Both are critically important – word and sacrament – as we recall who and what we are as followers of Christ no less than the two men on the road to Emmaus. The church recognizes this in setting the Holy Eucharist into two equal parts in the prayer book: “The Word of God” and “The Holy Communion.” The font size for each of those two titles is the same in the Book of Common Prayer, revealing the fact that each is equally important and equally necessary for our spiritual health. We hear the scriptures and experience them interpreted for us. This sets a specific, weekly context for the communion in which we recall Jesus instituting the special meal, meant for each of us.

With the word of God still resonating in our minds, drawing out the meaningful contexts of our lives, we reach the altar rail and literally experience the reality of love and grace and the one-ness we have with God and each another. Everything is focused on the love that is God – that is the resurrected Jesus in our presence. Everything is as it should be as we recall in peace the moment that expresses all the values of God.

This experience regularly re-empowers us to walk with the resurrected Jesus throughout the rest of the week, at work and home, at school and play. On our journeys of faith, we find truth in action, in living out the daily reality of re-calling Jesus to our presence.

Again and again, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can overcome our discouragement, our sense of being lost, and go to where the re-birthed action lies. The resurrected Jesus can show us that the forces of evil and destruction will not prevail against the power of love.

Again and again, we recall that we are the body of Christ – and so in our lives, in our actions and in our words, we can reach others, helping them understand the presence of the resurrected Jesus. As Jesus did with the bread and wine, making it his body and blood, God in our midst empowers us to discover in the ordinary what is truly holy.

The encounter of two disciples with the resurrected Jesus came in the commonest, most familiar of ways. They came to know him walking and talking on a road, and sitting down with him to eat and pray. We encounter him, too, in common, familiar ways. The resurrected Jesus is with us, available to us, within us – always, as we live our daily lives.

When Cleopas and his companion began to realize that they had experienced the resurrected Jesus, they recognized that their hearts had been burning as he taught them on the road. They responded to their experience by going to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Can we, too, recognize the resurrected Jesus in the experiences of our lives? Will we, too, feel our hearts burning? Or will we miss the opportunity, ignoring it as minor indigestion? Can we open our hearts and our minds, the action of our lives; to the challenge of the resurrected Jesus in order to live out in our time what he lived and died to prove? Can we open ourselves to the possibility of using the life-giving force of renewal and newness – or will we just wonder what has upset us so?

When we encounter the resurrected Jesus in our midst, will we respond in joy and faith and commitment, as did the two men on the road to Emmaus? Will we respond by moving from where we are, renewed by the resurrected Jesus and ready to meet the world head on, ready to face the risk and change that his presence allows? Or will we do nothing and just add to the heap of escapism and apathy and negativity that characterize what Peter in today’s epistle called “a corrupt generation”?

The disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus that Jesus could be, and was, alive again, that God’s work begun in him could go on among his followers. Can we become like them? Will our hearts, too, burn with the desire to use the power of the resurrected Jesus? Will we use this burning as a light to recognize that God loves us? Will we use this burning to empower us to reveal God’s love to others, continuing his ministry through our acts of compassion and caring to help heal a broken world?

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

2 Easter (A) – 2014

Jesus of the Scars

April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

We live in an age of scoffing; the people in today’s lessons lived in an age of belief. Of course, Jerusalem was filled with believers; however inadequate, that was the proper way to be for the Jews of the first century. Among them, in that multicultural city, there were many other believers, and gods abounded. But this god, the one who visits the disciples in the locked room, the one to whom they later testify with such eagerness, this was the only god with scars. And that is the huge difference.

It’s the evening of the first day. The disciples are afraid and confused. They are behind closed doors. They have just lived through the most horrific three days of their lives, having lost their best friend and teacher to the most terrible of slow deaths.

But on this day, the first day, they have received startling news. And though they are not sophisticated people, they are Jews who observe the Law, and they have avoided superstition. But one of their friends, the smart and loyal Mary of Magdala, has told them a story that has shaken them. “I have seen the Lord,” she had announced to them early in the morning, and they are not quite sure what to make of it. They are smart enough to know that after that awful death by crucifixion, reserved for the worst of criminals by the Romans, they themselves are suspect and what they say and do from now on will be taken by the enemies of Jesus as an excuse to discount his reality and his message. So they are together, waiting, confused, trying to decide.

And then Jesus comes. Jesus came to them when they needed him the most, and he offered them his peace. It seems that they didn’t immediately recognize him. The last time they had seen this body and this face they were torn, deformed and bleeding, not a pleasing sight for those who loved him. But this body before them is wholeness itself. After his greeting, Jesus shows them his scars. And now they know him. We can only guess at their joy.

What happens next is the beginning of the church as the body of Christ. He breathes on them as he says, Receive holy “breath” or  “spirit.” It is important to note that in Greek the word pneuma means both breath and spirit, and also important to note that in its original use, it does not have the definitive article in front of spirit. In the Greek, the noun comes before the adjective here. It should be read: “Receive breath that is holy.”

Jesus breathes on all of them, the community of them, and to this community he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The baptism in Spirit, as John the Baptist had predicted, has arrived.

This is a dramatic story in two parts. One of the remaining 11 apostles is missing, and he will not be left out. We can imagine his friends seeing him after the first Sunday and crying out, “We have seen the Lord!” And we can imagine Thomas saying, “Unless I see and touch the scars in his hands and plunge my own hand in that hole on his side, I will not believe it.” We know Thomas. We are like him. We are creatures who demand proof, the proof of three of our senses, most especially: seeing, touching, hearing. For the dogs that love us, the sense of smell is enough, but we need more, much more in order to recognize, understand and believe. We need to dissect, analyze, compare. And in this age, when we have abandoned mystery, it becomes harder and harder to believe.

The resurrected Christ, ever mindful of those he has chosen and loved, grants Thomas his wish. A week later, they are all together again, Thomas among them, and Jesus appears as before to offer them his peace. He has come for Thomas, and he turns to him immediately. “Bring your finger here and see my hands; bring your hand and plunge it in my side.”

Thomas, without needing to touch, cries out the one declaration of belief that matters: “My Lord and my God.” He is confronted not by the familiar Jesus, but by the Christ of God. He doesn’t need to touch to know. He sees before him his beloved teacher who now bears the scars of human suffering unto eternity. We also, who have not seen, are blessed at this moment: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The disciples are beginning to comprehend the Incarnation, and they are ready to change the world, even though they don’t know it yet. The energy of God, the Holy Spirit, has been breathed into them. But they do understand that now they are to do the work that Christ has asked them to do: to bear witness to Christ by proclaiming the good news. They lived in a world where belief in a god was a given. Jerusalem, a multicultural city, was filled with Jews from other lands who worshiped the One God, and with pagans worshiping many gods. In that environment, Peter stands up to proclaim a particular incarnate god, crucified and resurrected.

In this season of Easter, we, too, need to be reassured and energized by the presence of Christ. We are surrounded by scoffers. And our ease of communication today makes us aware of the suffering of people we will never see or know. We want to experience the joy of resurrection, not just for ourselves, but for the world.

A century ago, the First World War created unimaginable death and suffering. Poets examined that suffering in their writings, longing to believe in a God who would allow such horrors among people who were supposed to be civilized. One of those poets, a Christian by the name of Edward Shillito, found the only answer that made sense to him:

“He showed them His hands and His side.”

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

We give thanks for this Jesus of the Scars, the resurrected Christ who has breathed new life into us.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

Easter Day (A) – 2014

Already and not yet

April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Grace and peace to you this Easter morning when Christ the morning star is risen indeed.

Christ is risen, come back to us, but is not yet here. Already and not yet.

How can that be? Already and not yet? We proclaim Christ crucified and risen. We proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This morning we proclaim the end of one story and the beginning of another, and the years roll on. How many Easters have you been here? Every year it is the same – the same joyous shout, “I have seen the Lord. Christ is risen!”

And yet, each year we know the story is not finished. Our alleluias get drowned out by other shouts, shouts of war or hate, of fear, of pain or confusion. People still lose their jobs. Relationships, be they between parents and children, or between spouses or friends, relationships still founder and break. People still die. We still get anxious. We still worry. Our hearts still get sick, whether from physical ailments or from the burdens of the world. Dictators still rise and fall, and new ones rise up to take their place. Wars and violence still stalk us.

Yet every year by that ancient formula of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, Easter arrives, we come and we stand here, and we joyously proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Every year we declare our intention to go on living despite the reality around us because of the greater reality of this day. We go on living and loving, learning and yearning, and Christ is right beside us because of this day.

And Christ will come again. It’s that mysterious feeling of already and not yet. The poet Mary Oliver knows what this cycle is about. Here’s a portion of her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

“Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

Think of Mary Magdalene there in the garden. Three days ago her beloved friend and teacher was torn from her life by a violent mob. She stood on Calvary and watched her teacher die a hideous and shameful death. She had loved him in great measure because of the way he’d loved her. She had held tight to this seemingly mortal man and then she had to let him go. The only saving grace, it seemed, was that his death didn’t take very long. He was probably weak from the beating he had received the night before.

Then there was the desolation of the time after they had rolled that stone in front of the entrance to the borrowed tomb. The finality of that thud was still echoing in her mind as she came to the garden that morning.

Even after she finds the tomb empty and even as she confesses her confusion to the angels, her grief blinds her. Even as Jesus appears, her grief blinds her, and she can’t recognize him. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she understands that he’s done what he promised.

He had planted in her a once-fiery hope, the hope that she could change, the hope that here in this small community around her, she was not an outcast. When she went to the garden that morning, that fiery hope was a small dying ember, but at the sound of him saying her name, what had been smoldering burst back into flame.

What joy in that moment! How it banished forever the sound of that thudding stone!

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Life seemed to have suddenly returned to normal in that moment. But it had not, for the next thing Jesus says to her tells her everything had changed. “Do not hold on to me,” he says. In effect: I cannot stay here with you, but I will still be with you.

If she’d looked more closely at him, she might have seen that he had changed. He bore the marks of his ordeal on his body. We know he showed Thomas the nail marks on his hands and feet. We know that Thomas could put his hand in the jagged wound in Christ’s side.

Life is different now. Her teacher had come back, but he bears the physical memory of his treatment at the hands of his beloved creatures. He bears the memory of all that his creatures are capable of, and still he has returned and will soon promise to always be here, although his presence will not be the same flesh-and-blood presence as the sight of him that early morning in the garden.

Life is different now. Christ cannot erase the past. Christ cannot erase pain and suffering because to do that would be to erase us, his creatures. We often cause much of the pain and suffering around us. My friends, this is true and we can’t sugar-coat it. As an Episcopal priest once put it, “We may be Easter people, but we are not the darned Easter Bunny.”

Life is different now. The world seems to be destabilizing before our eyes. We wonder about the future.

Life is different now, but still we must love what is mortal. When we do that, we imitate God.

And we must be Easter people. Another poet, Jack Gilbert, wrote in 2005 what he called “A Brief for the Defense” in which he declared, in part:

“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

And when it comes time to let it go, we must let it go, trusting that the resurrection is on-going. We must search with each other for the post-resurrection Jesus, the Christ, and serve him in whomever we meet. We must listen for him to call our name and then we must do the work he has given us to do – all the while proclaiming our Easter reality:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Easter Vigil (A) – 2014

Now what?

April 19, 2014

Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Matthew 28:1-10

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

OK. Now what? This is the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does “resurrection” mean? If I were to ask you to define it, how would you?

Humorist David Sedaris ran into this dilemma while living in France and attending a language class with other immigrants. In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” he writes:

“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’ ‘He make the good things and on Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.’”

Part of the problem was a lack of vocabulary, Sedaris noted. Words like “cross” and “resurrection” were not available to them, and the nuances of theology in the face of limited vocabulary were frustrating. And so Sedaris writes:

“Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”

Part of what makes resurrection so hard to talk about is that it is an experience that transcends all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t come out of tombs. Do they?

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection do not document the actual moment when it happened. We don’t have an eyewitness account of Jesus sitting up, removing the burial shroud, stretching, taking a look around, pushing the stone away and walking out. Even in Matthew’s account, where the angel rolls the stone away, Jesus’ body is already gone! All the gospels tell us is that the women come and find an empty tomb.

We cannot really know exactly what happened. Resurrection is not the revivification of a corpse – it is not the zombie apocalypse. It is an experience of the death of one way of life and the birth of something completely new – a complete game changer.

What we can say is that the early Christians who experienced the risen Christ were so transformed by it that their lives completely changed. Paul, who went from persecuting the Christians around him to being a champion for Christ, is just one example. Those who experience resurrected life are swept up by this profound and loving experience so much so that their whole world turns upside down in a way that brings life rather than death.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the men at the tomb, “He is not here.” The same question is true for us: “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” We, by our nature, have a hole in our soul. This hole is a longing and desire for the transcendent God who lifts us out of our finite mortal bodily existence – this tomb, if you will, that we live in – and brings us into a greater life of love and light. We ache for this with every fiber of our being. But as humans, we try desperately to fill the hole in our soul by seeking holy transcendence in many ways that are nothing more than lies and dead ends. It is false transcendence that seeks the living among the dead.

We seek the living among the dead in our frantic rush to wealth and material comfort – the lure of consumerism. “How much money is enough?” someone once asked billionaire John D. Rockefeller. “Just a little bit more,” he replied, with a smile.

That “just a little bit more” is the bane of our lives. We keep imagining – if our income is rising – that the next plateau of income will be the place where we’re truly happy, but no sooner do we achieve it than we’re looking upward to the next rung on the ladder.

Conversely, if our income is going down, we’re often driven to despair, imagining all sorts of dire consequences – when the reality is, most of us have as much as we truly need to live, and then some. We falsely believe our possessions or our economic security will transcend and lift us out of our mortality, but it is a lie, a dead end.

Another place where we seek false transcendence is in the addictive pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, drugs, obsessive sexuality – even the more socially acceptable addictions of overeating or obsessive dieting – all of these ultimately lead away from communion with God and condemn us to death. Psychologist Gerald May has written extensively on addictive behaviors from the standpoint of religious faith and spirituality. In his book “Addiction and Grace,” he writes: “Addiction is the most powerful psychic enemy of humanity’s desire for God.”

Seeking transcendence through the addictive pursuit of pleasure robs us of our humanity and our spiritual freedom. It is the vain attempt to substitute pleasure for joy. It is a parasite attaching itself to our native desire for inner, spiritual fulfillment – for experience of the real transcendent communion with God – and if there’s no intervention, in the end it will destroy us. Why do we seek the living among the dead?

But there is another way: “He is not here, he is risen.” Christ’s experience of resurrection is not just his own; it is ours too, for resurrection is an invitation to new life. But the difficult and painful thing is, resurrection begins with death. To know it, you must die.

To know resurrection before your physical death, something in you has to die and likely what needs to die is how you have been seeking the living among the dead. Maybe it’s the death of the false security of your career that crashes down around you in a downsizing. Maybe it’s the loss of your physical health that you had hoped would go on forever. Maybe it’s the realization that your addiction has destroyed your humanity and robbed you of life. Maybe it’s the death of a dream or someone you hold dear. To know resurrection, you have to experience this death and deal with the loneliness of failure and grief, the humiliation of defeat, the soul-shattering reality of all you cannot control. You have to let go of any illusion that life as you once knew it is possible. And this isn’t something we want or wish for anyone, because the initial cost is so high.

But on the other side of death, Christ is there with an invitation and a promise: There is a path to a new and different life. On this side of death, the promise of a different life is no consolation. It’s too frightening and certainly not worth the crossing over of suffering to attain. But once you’re there facing death and there is no turning back, resurrection makes living possible again by forging a path of life given by God who is the author of Life itself.

There are a few things you need to remember about resurrection. First, it is an invitation. Resurrection cannot be forced upon you. Christ bids you come, but you must make the choice to say “Yes!” to his invitation. Resurrection will require you to do something. What that is, no one else can tell you, as it will be as unique as you are. But listen for that invitation, and dare to say “yes,” and you will begin the journey to a new life.

Second, resurrection begins tentatively and with great ambiguity. We experience it as disorienting and confusing – just as the women at the tomb experienced it. We don’t really know what to make of it because life has changed so dramatically that we aren’t sure about anything. We may not even want the resurrected life initially because we don’t know how to live it yet and this new life can feel a little intimidating. That’s OK; trust it anyway.

Finally, resurrection is incremental – it is a process, not an event. It takes time! Life returns one breath at a time, and it does not erase the wounds of our past – it lives alongside them. The resurrected Christ still bore the nail marks, and so will you, whatever your particular nail marks are. Resurrection invites you to release death instead of holding onto it. We may never feel ready for resurrection, but the living Christ is not content to be locked in the tombs of our misery.

Christ is alive, and he is inviting you to a resurrected life. Language will always fail to capture what this means; the experience of resurrection is so much more than mere words. But the experience is what makes joy, life, serenity and peace possible in an anxious and uncertain world.

The risen Christ is with us – always. And if you are experiencing death and feel you are in the darkness of the tomb right now, Jesus promises that there will be life on the other side for you and for all of us.

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

7 Easter (C) – 2013

An in-between place

May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The Seventh Sunday of Easter always seems to be a sort of in-between place; the Feast of the Ascension was celebrated just a few days ago, and Pentecost is still another week off. Like the disciples, we seem to stand metaphorically staring into the heavens, awaiting the next chapter of our story to unfold.

The lessons for the day appear to have run out of resurrection appearances, and instead we get a delightfully odd grouping of texts, ranging from the curious tales of Paul and Silas in Philippi involving a slave-girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortunetelling,” an earthquake, and prisoners who do not escape; to the Apocalyptic visions of St. John the Divine; with a prayer from Jesus for all disciples in all times everywhere.

The Bible’s apocalyptic literature always strikes modern and even post-modern ears as strange. Interpreted literally, it has been used as the foundation of strange, scary and even dangerous Christian cult and fringe groups, many of whom like the Millerites of the 19th century, predict when the world will end and the day of the Lord begin. So we tend to shy away from these rich metaphorical verses, divorcing ourselves from the comfort and assurance they mean to offer people who live in frightening and uncertain times.

And who among us would deny that the times have become all too often frightening and uncertain? Spontaneous and even planned disasters and tragedies of horrific proportions seem to mar the landscape of our common life with greater frequency and untold damage to our individual and collective psyche. I am reminded of standing in one of Israel’s ancient cities looking down on the ruins of a Dionysian temple that had been toppled like so many pick-up sticks, massive columns scattered all about, by an ancient earthquake, and wondering out loud what sort of impression that must have made on the ancient inhabitants; what must have seemed like a structure that should last for centuries was scattered in pieces in just a few moments of earth-shaking horror.

This is something like we see in our portion from the Acts of the Apostles today. The slave girl with powers of divination is announcing to all who will listen that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” We are told that this annoys Paul, despite the fact that this is exactly what they are in Philippi to do! Perhaps Paul feels he does not need the services of a public relations campaign. At any rate, he performs an exorcism that silences the girl and frees her from demonic possession. Her owners realize they are going to lose a sure source of income, and have Paul and Silas imprisoned. Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The woman is restored to wholeness, free to live a life of freedom from slavery to her owners and the demon, and all anyone cares about is money. With stories like this in the New Testament canon, one wonders how it is that Christian charlatans throughout the ages justify taking money for performing exorcisms under revival tents or on television.

Despite being jailed, Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns into the night, when all of a sudden an earthquake opens the prison doors. The jailer is about to take his own life, believing the prisoners must have all fled, when Paul stops him from harming himself, saying, “Look! We are all still here!” Suddenly the horror of the earthquake gives way to the miracle that these Christians are truly out to save him, and before you know it, the jailer and his family are added to the thousands recorded in the Book of Acts that turn to Jesus.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus is praying. It is Maundy Thursday, the night before his execution. He knows he has been betrayed. He knows he faces capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire. Yet, thinking not at all about what lies ahead of him, he takes time out to pray for his disciples. And not just his disciples, but as he says, “also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. … So that they may be one, as we are one.”

That is, he is looking far, far ahead. He is praying for us. He is praying for you and for me, and for all Christians everywhere.

Do we ever stop to consider just how disappointed he must be? We see his last act of devotion is directed to us so that we might be one, united with him, in him, with Jesus and the Father, as one people, one body, through one baptism. And here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, at a time in history when our profligate misuse of God’s creation is eliminating one species of creature daily, while at the same time we further splinter the body of Christ into more and more denominations and groups.

How is it that we conspire to contribute to the body of evidence that prayer is utterly ineffective by spending so much time, energy and resources – yes, money – asserting that our puny little corner of Christianity is the “true church”? People must say to themselves, “Why can’t these Christians spend more time trying to live into their Lord’s prayer for unity with one another, themselves and with God?” To borrow from Joe Hickerson and Peter Seeger, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?”

Which brings us to today’s reading from Revelation, the last book in the Bible. The final words of Holy Scripture are “Come, Lord Jesus!” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift come. Come, Lord Jesus!

Are we among those who hear? Are we thirsty enough to come? Are we willing to let “anyone who wishes” to take the water of life as a gift? How long can we pretend to hold people – faithful, seeking people – at arm’s length with all sorts of conditions, rules, rituals and behaviors, from the waters of life? Are we to be gatekeepers or those people who open the floodgates of God’s unconditional love and mercy?

Are we really prepared to cry out with one voice, like John the Revelator, imploring Jesus to come?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Year C poses some very serious questions to those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that some congregations opt to celebrate the Ascension today rather than wrestle with all that today’s lessons have to challenge us with?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter offers us these odd stories in an attempt to shake us open, just as the earthquake opened the doors of the prison in Philippi, and loosed the chains on all those in the prison. The world is looking to us to live into our Lord’s most devout moment of prayer. The world looks to us to be unbound so that we might be those people who make the waters of life, the waters of God’s unconditional love and mercy, truly and honestly available to all persons.

Yet, we find it so hard to believe that we can do this.

It should be no wonder that the last words in the Bible are “Come, Lord Jesus!” If ever we need him to come into our lives, it is here and now, in this time and in this place.

The Good News is that he promises he is with us to the end of the age!

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and International Baccalaureate (IB) English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Ascension Day (C) – 2013

Opening our minds to the Ascension

May 9, 2013

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The commemoration of the Ascension passes us by in this country. In places where the Eastern Church is prevalent it’s an important feast day, up there in importance with Christmas and Pentecost. In many places, it’s a work holiday. Always falling on a Thursday, the word “Ascension” passes through lips casually, but it is doubtful that those who speak it contemplate its meaning. In our church it is celebrated but on a minor key; we have to admit that the Ascension is a difficult image to create in our minds and it’s difficult to make sense of it. Coming 40 days after Easter Day, it is mostly ignored since it falls on a Thursday.

On feast days, it’s interesting to look at some of the remaining customs of ancient people, because even under the veneer of superstition and legend, a core of truth may be found. In many parts of Greece where the Orthodox observe the day with great joy, village people stay up on the night of Ascension staring at the skies. Legend tells us that those “who are pure in heart” see a light ascending to the heavens. For some reason, in Greek villages the day is associated with shepherds, so milk features greatly in the recipes set aside for just this day. And the water of the sea becomes symbolic also: This is the first day of the year when people enter the sea either to swim or to wade, and then to carry some of the water home to ward off evil.

The first custom, that of looking at the skies, reminds us of the unquenchable longing of the early Christians for the Lord’s return. There is a poignant scene in Lloyd Douglass’ book, “The Robe,” where Christians are pictured as always looking to the distance as if waiting for someone, longing for someone, so convinced were they of Jesus’ imminent return.

Luke is the only one of the evangelists who gives a particular image to this event, starting with the end of his gospel and continuing it in the Acts of the Apostles. Fascinated by his words, countless great artists and iconographers have painted their interpretation of Jesus’ Ascension. In these paintings, icons, and frescoes, Jesus is literally ascending, his feet no longer touching the earth, sometimes surrounded by angels, a cloud above ready to hide him from human eyes. And thus it is that many of us probably imagine the Ascension.

There is nothing specifically right or wrong in this image. We are visual thinkers. Words help us create images that we remember even though we have seen them only in art or in our own minds. This is not the place to inquire in what form Jesus returned to the Father. Some hints are given throughout the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: He enters a room suddenly, without using a door; he appears next to couple walking together on the road to Emmaus; he cooks breakfast for Peter and his friends by the shore. But he disappears just as suddenly as he appears. So the hints tell us that though the resurrected body is visible, the qualities it demonstrates are different from the body that was crucified. This is enough for us.

Two details are surprising in this final story in Luke’s gospel. One is found in verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” There is something liberating in this statement. Our minds must be open to understand, not closed. We see so much evidence today of minds that refuse to understand the truth of the scriptures, preferring to stay closed and limited by what they think they understand. Reading the Bible with open minds, open because Christ has done the opening, reveals something new each time we read a passage.

The other detail is that even though Jesus disappeared from their midst, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” These are the same people who, with great fear and grief, had hidden during the crucifixion and burial. Why are they joyful now? Their dearest friend has disappeared from their eyes. They will not see him again and this time apparently they know that he will not be making another post-resurrection appearance. Why are they joyful now? Is it that now, finally, they truly understand him and believe him?

The opening of their minds to understand the scriptures has much to do with this joy. “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells them. What a powerful word this is: “witnesses.” They have witnessed a new creation, and they know it. They have witnessed love in action. They are now witnesses to the resurrection.

The fear of death has been replaced by the joy of knowing life. They believe in his promises. The Paraclete, the Advocate shall come. They will stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Above all, they have been given a job to do. Their life has a purpose and this fills them with joy. In our reading from Acts, Jesus tells his disciples: “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.”

We are included in that last phrase, “the ends of the earth.” The disciples fulfilled their mission. They did the work. Now it’s up to us to continue it.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Around a Greek Table” (Lyons Press, 2012). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.