Sermon, 5/22/22: A Christly Valediction

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6 Easter

Psalm 67; Acts 16:9 – 15; Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5; John 14:23 – 29

Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears. John 14:27

On Thursday of this week, we observe the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which, according to our Book of Records, the Risen Christ, God’s Messiah, returns to his place with the eternal Godhead. And this is pictured as a physical ascension of the risen Christ.

What is it about this pending Ascension Day 2022 that causes in the core of my being both an uneasiness and a feeling of consolation? After all, given my Anglo-Catholic background and a personal history with this Holy Day, Ascension Day is not an unknown quantity, so to speak. Ascension Day is one of many such days in the Church’s liturgical calendar which we observe as High Holy Days, There are those holy days like Christmas, Holy Name, and even Good Friday which can be explained and understood, more or less, in that they mirror the human experience. Christmas is easy to explain and to accept, for we all understand the birth of a baby. Holy Name follows logically, for we understand that need to give a child a name. Even Good Friday, with its grim outcome, is understandable and can be explained, for we know about executions.

However, then there are those Holy Days like Easter and Ascension which fall into a highly problematic category. Easter and Ascension defy nature, as we know it. These Holy Days require a leap of faith. Aside from Lazarus and the daughter of the centurion, who else has come back from his or her earthly death? Ascension brings its own unique question of faith, for who has known anyone to ascend bodily into heaven? Yet, our Book of Records teaches us that something of this sort happened to Jesus after his resurrection. And so, if we were to lay aside the science vs. religion debate for a season, what is it that confronts us as Ascension? I have concluded, the story of the Ascension is fundamentally a human-interest story. Ascension addresses the issue of how we confront our fear and anxiety of separation, and an uncertain future.

In literature courses, we ask ourselves and our students always, as we try to understand an author’s intent, the following questions: What prompts the scene? What is the author attempting to address? When I impose these questions on the Book of Revelations, and particularly on the lectionary for the Sixth Sunday in Easter, the answer comes back to me in the form of a further question or two. Is the author writing in code, and if so, what is it, that he has concealed?

If we do not forget that this book of the Bible was written after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, when the fledgling Christian community was beginning to feel the animosity of established religious and secular authorities, we would appreciate the author’s need to reassure the faithful in their belief. The writer of Revelations, anticipating or responding to the chaos of further persecution because of their faith, was reassuring the faithful of the rightness of their belief. The New Jerusalem was their hope.

If I were to translate that sense of foreboding, of uncertainty, of possible chaos to our own condition, I am reminded that we, like the ancients, are no less comfortable with chaos. Although we may not be persecuted because of our religious beliefs, at least not to the point of being stoned or beheaded, as was the case even into the Late Middle Ages, our own lives have been made unsure because of Covid-19, political insurrection in our own land and international acts of war that threaten our very being. We are uncomfortable with chaos, because it symbolizes darkness, and without light, we have disorder, we sense danger, we lose control over our existence. Even a temporary power failure of several days is not without consequences.

When faced with darkness, hours stretch into eternity and memories seem to languish in what might have been. Physical darkness feeds the fear that the possibility of chaos might rule not only the night, but the day as well. Thus, to the fledgling new believers, John’s Revelation offers assurance of a new city, a heavenly city in which the Lamb of God is enthroned, where “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22.5) Yet, what better consolation could be offered than that by the Teacher himself? “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Poetry, prose, literature, and empirical historical record, from ancient times to today, are rife with reference to that word “peace.” So then, both life and Holy Writ teach us of the experience and power of peace.

If we people of faith are alert to the message of Jesus, we know that to achieve that condition of peace, that longed-for condition of harmonious living, we must begin by looking inwardly, before looking outwardly. There is a peace described by outward circumstances, but also a peace based on our inward thoughts, and that the two are interrelated. Jesus reminded those whom he was leaving behind: Inner chaos, fear, and uncertainty are not the soil for growth of God’s kingdom on earth. Those same words resonate with us today. Even at the time of a pending departure, but especially at the moment of departure, Jesus taught that the soil for the growth of God’s will is to be found among persons and communities. However, but this growth requires the properly fertilized soil, and that is none other than an understanding oneself.

If, as the late Speaker of the US House of Representative Tip O’Neil maintained, ‘all politics is local,’ so is it consonant that the words which we heard attributed to Jesus should carry a personal, intimate tonal quality. These words of peace were, after all, directed to his merry band of men, who were not so merry upon hearing, rather extremely anxious and frightened. Just the first assertion itself is unsettling, “Peace I leave with you,” for they bespoke of departure.

It does not escape me that for many in our nation, this is the season of valedictory speeches, and so it is for me that what the disciples received was precisely that. And as with all valedictory speeches, there are those moments of recognition that four years of close friendships and relationships are coming to an end. A world that had become familiar and navigational, was about to change. At the same time, after years of benefiting from words of dedicated teachers, anxious hearts, minds, eyes are alert to possible challenges of a different nature. Supported, however, now by the assurances of a time of growth and exploration, there emerges a sense of readiness to set forth into a different environment. A peace settles into our hearts, and it is that peace which Jesus gives to all who have chosen to believe in his words.

In the unknown future for those disciples were lurking the persecutions for the witnessing the faith, just as there were for their leader, God’s Messiah. Surely this is why the promise of peace is spoken with such urgency. Still, I cannot but believe that there is a certain portability of Christ’s peace to you and to me. While the testimony of faith varies with circumstances, there is no litmus test for receiving the peace of Christ. In my reflections on today’s lessons, what I discover in all of this is that Christ’s image or definition of peace offers a quiet serenity, when our faith is directly challenged. And this serenity is there, because nothing which we will ever face will be as momentous as the crucifixion which Christ endured, but which he accepted and proclaimed as a peace offering. This is a peace which the world can neither give nor take away.

I propose further to you that Christ may be telling us that the purest experience of his peace is most strongly felt when we are being tested. What we learn is that there is a connection between the discipline of personal devotion and corporate worship, and the peace of Christ at work in our hearts. The darkness and chaos that was the fear of the ancients need no longer be our fear. We do not have to depend on primitive fires to beat back the darkness of chaos. Rather, we do need the enlightenment which the gospel of Christ offers us, as we seek means of dislodging mistrust and antagonistic behavior among peoples. And to guide us to that peace, the words of the psalmist become our prayer: May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us, … May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him. Amen