Sermon - Easter 7 Year A (Sunday after Ascension; Christian Unity) - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
When this Sunday is Mothers Day, an alternative sermon could be considered.
One in the Spirit
[This week is observed in Australia as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This sermon is based on the Ascension reading from Acts as essential to the understanding of the gospel theme of Christian Unity. Direct treatment of the unity themes from John 17 may be found in the sermons for Years B (Unity in Christ) and C (That they all may be one); note however, that different sections of the chapter are taken each year and that in year A our Lord's prayer is first for himself and then follows the first part of his prayer for his disciples which includes a reference to his ascension and his unity with the Father which is the foundation of the unity in which he prays they will share. In this sermon we look to the Acts passage as link the between the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit which bears the fruit of unity. See also Born from above.]
It is easy enough for most people, I suppose, to see that Christian unity has something, indeed a great deal, to do with the presence of the Spirit of God. When we share in the same spirit we have unity with one another. Such unity was a lively and continuing concern in the early church. Second Peter, a letter representing the late New Testament period, when the strain of the long haul of Christian discipleship was beginning to show, reveals in its blessing the need for constant attention to the need for unity in the spirit:
Paul too, in many ways, called upon Christians to love one another in the unity of the Spirit:
And he went on to emphasise the basis of that unity of the one body, through the one Spirit, in the unity of God.
That is the same unity that John recalls in the high priestly prayer of Jesus for his disciples, his last wish for them before he went to his death:
That they may be one, as we are one. The kind of unity Jesus asked for his disciples was nothing less than the unity he had with God the Father. Here we begin to enter into the deep mystery of unity in communion given to us through Christ, in which we share in the communion that is within the very being of God. So the unity of the disciples of Jesus is to come from sharing in the presence of God in the world, through Christ. He is the same Lord who is above all and through all and in all. So we can see it makes sense that unity should not only come from God but come to the disciples through his presence in the world.
But what do those words of Jesus mean about being no longer in the world? It is one of the tricks that John plays in his way of talking about the coming of the Kingdom of God to represent what Jesus did as if what is promised has already happened, so Jesus prays while he is still in the world 'I am no longer in the world', in contrast to the disciples who are still in the world, but meaning who will be left in the world, when, as he adds in a more straight forward way in his prayer to God the Father, 'I am coming to you.' So Jesus going to the Father has something to do with what he is asking for his disciples, that they all may be one, but that is related to the gift of the Spirit and so we ask what has Jesus going to the Father to do with the gift of unity in the Spirit? In other words it is not so difficult to understand the relationship of Christian unity to Pentecost when the promised gift of the Spirit was poured out in abundance, but how is it related to the Ascension, to Jesus going the Father?
The Ascension of our Lord to be with God the Father, might seem to the modern mind a peculiar thing, and it is. It even seems to belong to a view of the world that is no longer acceptable: of heaven above and earth below and the shadowy depths below that were where the dead may sleep, or so they believed at the time when Jesus taught in Galilee and Jerusalem. Modern people looking back call that sort undersanding of cosmology, somehat disparaginly, the three-decker universe. Jesus was believed to have "gone up" from the level where we are to the higher level above. Yet, although it might seem quaint, traditionally, Ascension Day, which was last Thursday, is one of the major festivals of the Christian year. It is still a public holiday in some European countries, though I remember that when I was in Sweden one Ascension Day people had difficulty in explaining what the holiday was for, and yet there it was, and there were special services in the cathedral; and another year I happened to be Paris on Ascension Day and found the shops closed and an impressive service under way in Notre Dame. Of course, it is still recognized in major church centres everywhere, but often I think it is as distant from normal Western thinking as the old three-decker universe is from modern science. So what, for us, has the Ascension of Jesus to do with the unity we seek today and which is Christ's will for his people?
We need to go back a step and take in a little more of what is said in the epistles and gospels about unity in the Spirit. Looking further ahead in the same chapter 4 of Ephesians as we quoted before we find Paul speaking of believers being built up in unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God through the gifts of the Spirit in the church:
How great a gift this is! Even ordinary followers of Jesus can be built up to a mature unity of faith and knowledge that can be compared with the fullness of it that was in Christ himself. There again is that unity that John tells us about in the high priestly prayer of Jesus for his disciples, to share in the unity and mutual knowledge that he had with God the Father. And see how in Paul's understanding it is to be brought about by the action of the Spirit of God in human affairs - through the work of human agents such as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, whose presence is a gift of God to equip God's people for ministry in building up the body of Christ. The unity then that is God's gift is to be seen in visible human terms through the actions of people inspired by God to act in the world. That is more than a merely spiritual unity, invisible to us; it is open to view in the world at large. And it is more a mere institutional unity in a combined organisation. It is both spiritual and material, and in every respect it comes as a gift of God that can never be reached through human striving alone.
One thing that clearly follows, and something that is not easy for many of us to accept, is that we are not free in the church to organise things however we like, if we are to see the unity for which Jesus prayed. We are called to discern the gifts that come from God for the purpose of building up that unity. While the Spirit is not constrained by our historical or present day conceptions of ministry, we can expect that in one way or another unity will be offered to us through some form of apostolic ministry, that is, from the ministry of those sent by God. There is certainly no basis for that self-serving individualism in which people seek their own truth and refuse the ministry of those whom God has called and commissioned to build up his people. Theologically, you cannot have Christian unity without catholicity based in the apostolic witness of people equipped by God for the purpose. Remember at the same time, lest any of his ministers should be proud, that the Spirit blows where it wills and you cannot say where it comes from or where it will go [John 3:8].
Yes, but what has it to do with the Ascension of Jesus to be with his Father? If we go back again to Ephesians chapter 4, we find between the passage about unity in the Spirit with which we began and the promise of unity through the gifts of apostles etc, some strange words about ascending and descending. First note the context, what was Paul saying before he introduced the Ascension?
See how the diverse gifts in which we all share are called to mind in regard to the unity that in the one body and the one Spirit. The apostolic gifts are given within the unity of the whole body in which we are each given grace "according to the measure of Christ's gift". Then Paul goes on to speak of "Christ's gift" and how it came about.
"He made captivity itself a captive". To see it as it would have been understood in the Roman Empire in the first century you need to imagine a conquering hero, perhaps the Emperor himself coming in a triumphal procession into the city, returning from a victorious campaign. His loyal followers would be parading with him. There would be banners and symbols of Empire, and perhaps special archways too for them to pass through decorated with signs of loyalty and success. And following behind would be a line of captives and servants bearing treasures looted from the conquered lands. His train of captives who would be enslaved would probably include kings who had surrendered to him and loyal followers would look to the captive treasure taken from them as a resource in which they hoped to share. Now we have, in Paul's image of the Ascension, the great victor Christ returning home with treasure and captives from the victory he has won. From that great treasure he is to give out bountiful gifts. And look what he has captured, "captivity" itself. "Captivity" has been captured. What can that mean but freedom, redemption, liberation from those powers which had held humanity captive! It was out of his victory over the powers of evil, over sin and death, the enemies of humanity, that he was able to give gifts to his people.
"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." The Ascension then is the triumph of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, God's anointed one, who inaugurated the new Kingdom, the rule of God, where the enemies of humankind and of God had previously held sway. The gifts of the Spirit to those who would share in the Kingdom he came to establish came out of that victory. You might put it another way. You might not think in terms of Jesus being lifted up above the clouds; but somewhere, somehow, in your understanding of Christ there must be that vision of triumph over the powers which had held people captive. Then the great outpouring of gifts can be celebrated.
The victory from which the gifts come is the very ground of our salvation; for the one who ascended is the one came down from heaven and shared our common life and there did great deeds for us, even offering his life for ours in the final fight with the powers of death: remember again the exchange with Nicodemus after Jesus had spoken of the Spirit blowing like the wind:
Christ was lifted up in two ways: sacrificially on the Cross and triumphantly in the Ascension, so that we could share the treasure of redemption or liberation when captivity itself was shown to have been captured. That was why they were told to wait in Jerusalem to receive gifts when he was parted from them as we read in Acts 1 today: it follows his resurrection appearances.
They had some idea that it could be related to his victory over their enemies, for they asked, half comprehending about whether now he would establish the kingdom:
We now know that his work was done, and however you imagine it, it was "accomplished" as he said on the cross, it was completed, the goal was reached, the victory was won, and he could return in triumph leaving us free now in the Spirit to share in his victory, his saving grace, his gifts of salvation, his gifts of unity and peace, no longer dependent upon his physical presence, except in the communion of his body.
So we can see why he said to the disciples that last night when he prayed for their unity,
His going away is directly related to the gift of the Spirit, indeed it was necessary. If I do not go away, he will not come. But when he does come, then we have the gifts from which unity comes. Another way to put it is to say that the unity which is God's gift depends upon the Lordship of Christ. His victory, rule, authority and power must be appreciated before we can apprehend the gift of unity.
In conclusion then, we go back to the high priestly prayer: see how it made sense that he prayed first for himself and his place with God before he asked for unity of and with his disciples:
Then he brings forward his faithful followers who are to be his apostolic gifts in unity for the building up of his body:
Amen. Glory be to him. So may it be for us. Amen.
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