The 6th Sunday of Easter: A Sermon


If the resurrection of Jesus is a crisis for the world and its institutions—a theme that ran through last week’s readings—the ascension of Jesus is a crisis for the disciples. Since the Feast of the Ascension is this Thursday (Mass at 7 PM), it’s worth listening to what Jesus might have to say about this.

The Ascension is a crisis for the disciples and for us. We know where Jesus is: at the right hand of the Father. That’s the center; we’re not centerstsage. So how about us: how can we live, how should we live, in Jesus’ absence? (“Jesus went to heaven; all I got was this t-shirt”?) Doesn’t this leave us orphans, left to ourselves to figure out how to put our identity and calling into practice?

It’s precisely in the context of this fear, this terror of being abandoned, that Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth. The very breath of God, which gives life to all creation, which inspired the prophets, now will be the means by which the Father and the Son take up residence in the Church and in every believer. As Jesus says, “we will come to him and make our home with him.”

Now, of the three Persons of the Trinity, the Spirit is the One that often remains a sort of blur. It helps to go back to the Hebrew, where ruah, the word we translate as ‘spirit’ is used for both breath and wind. Few things more intimate than breath; few things more powerful than wind. Ruah, spanning everything from the softest breath to the strongest wind—that’s not a bad image to keep in mind when we speak the word ‘spirit’.

The Spirit, in the words of our Catechism (BCP 852), “leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.” That is, the Spirit enables us to receive the Word of God and the Sacraments, and transforms us over time into the image of Christ. The Spirit functions as a sort of catalyst in the chemical sense, not adding anything to the chemical reaction, but making it happen.

How am I supposed to recognize the presence of the Spirit in my life? Pentecostal and charismatic Christians emphasize the extraordinary gifts, such as speaking in unknown languages. We don’t discount these gifts, but we don’t demand to see them in order to recognize the Spirit’s presence. Again from the Catechism: “We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.”

That’s a useful answer because it makes clear that the Spirit enables not just my relationship to God, but a thick web of relationships that extend to all creation. As the ecologists remind us, everything is eventually connected to everything, and the Spirit is concerned with nothing less.

It’s also an answer that needs some unpacking, because confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and achieving harmony with ourselves and our neighbors don’t always converge in the short term. Paul’s witness in Athens (our first reading) is met with scoffing, and the backdrop of Peter’s letters (our second reading) is that faithful witness regularly meets with persecution. This doesn’t mean that we stop confessing Jesus. It does mean that because our desire is for harmony, there’s no place for arrogance in our witness. Recall Peter’s words from today’s reading: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

If we have been baptized, we have received this gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the confidence that we have as Christians: a loving Father before us, Jesus Christ our brother beside us, and the Holy Spirit among and within us, enabling us to respond with Jesus to the Father.

Let’s continue in the Catechism (BCP 853): “Q. How do we recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit? A. We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures.” The Spirit is not going to contradict the Scriptures. The Spirit is going to stretch our understanding of the Scriptures, show us the inadequacies of our current ways of reading Scripture—recall the Spirit drafting Peter into preaching to the Gentiles. Do I ever get to the point where the Spirit doesn’t need to stretch my understanding of the Scriptures? Probably not.

So far the Catechism. But what of personal experience, on which our culture puts a great deal of value? There doesn’t seem to be much about personal experience in these lines from the Catechism. Isn’t there more to say?

Well, yes. Recall the second lesson. Peter is talking about the Noah story and says: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” That phrase “an appeal to God” reminds us of the central role of desire in our Christian life. The Christian life is a life marked by desire.

My baptism is not simply something in my past, but equally the definition of my identity now: a desire to live, to live as a human being, to live as Jesus lived (three ways of saying the same thing).

We think of God as characteristically telling us what to do. But God equally characteristically asks us what we want, what we desire. A knitter will save a lot of effort if she decides at the start whether she’s knitting a scarf or a stocking cap, rather than figuring it out later. We save a lot of effort—God knows—if we decide what we want, who we want to be sooner rather than later—and stick to it.

Staying clear on this desire in this sense is easier said than done in our culture, which specializes in inciting in us unlimited contradictory desires. We periodically fall for it—so confession is a regular part of our worship. So we need to be in the habit of asking ourselves: are my decisions and patterns of life nurturing and protecting this desire, or letting the world sidetrack it?

Meanwhile, Jesus in the Gospel speaks of guarding his commandments or words. Do we desire to experience the Spirit working in our life? Obey Jesus. It’s a cycle: the Spirit enables us to obey Jesus; obedience opens us to the power of the Spirit. Is there a limit to the effects of this cycle? It would appear not. In last week’s Gospel reading we heard: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

This is one of the reasons why our tradition speaks so frequently of the importance of a daily encounter with Scripture. How are we supposed to guard Jesus’ words if we don’t know them? If I’ve got CNN on my Smartphone, I probably want the Daily Office there too.

A final observation. In our world, as in Athens in Paul’s time, there are plenty of philosophic and religious traditions about God. How to distinguish between the true and the false? Recall Jesus’ answer to this question. It’s not simply: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” but (from John 8) “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Follow Jesus’ teaching and see for yourself what happens. If the bumblebee started by trying to work out the aerodynamics of its flight, it’d never get off the ground. So in following Jesus: walking on the water doesn’t look like it’s going to work—until we’re doing it. And this is a lesson some of us have to learn over and over. And this is simply another way of saying what we’ve heard in today’s Gospel: guarding Jesus’ commandments, Jesus’ words, opens us to the life-giving and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

With Jesus’ ascension we are not left orphans. The ascended Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit. Keeping Jesus’ words, we open ourselves to that Spirit’s presence and power. Alleluia.

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