The following sermon was preached at St. Andrew's Church, Highland Park, on May 4, 2008, by the Very Rev. John H. Park, Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Lima, Peru. More about John and Susan Park and their ministry in Peru may be found in the entry immediately before this one.
VII EASTER A: SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Good morning. Susan and I are very happy to be with you all here at St Andrew’s this morning, and I thank Fr Bruce for the invitation to preach. And Bruce, you have set me a formidable task, to preach for 15 minutes. A while back, we had the retired Bishop of Kentucky and his wife as guests at our Cathedral one Sunday morning. After the service they were over at our house for coffee, and while we were talking, the bishop’s wife said to him, “Do you know what the sermon was about this morning? It was about seven minutes. I liked that!” As you can see, I am noted for my short sermons, but I shall endeavour to lengthen this one to what I have been asked.
Today is a rather different Sunday. Formerly it formed part of what was called Ascensiontide, because Eastertide ended with the Ascension, and the ten days beginning with the Ascension, which was last Thursday, were called Ascensiontide. In our current Prayer Book the Easter Season includes not only all of the former Eastertide, but the former Ascensiontide as well, so that the last day of Easter is next Sunday, Pentecost.
Before we went to Lima, Peru, Susan and I were missionaries in Honduras for eighteen years, and during the latter part of those years this was one of my busiest times. My principal assignment was to be Archdeacon of the diocese, but in my spare time I was also the vicar of four churches. And those four churches were La Ascensión, Santo Espíritu, Trinidad, and La Visitación de la Bendita Virgen María. In English those would be Ascension, Holy Spirit, Trinity and the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those of you who are familiar with the calendar will realize that the feasts of the Ascension, Pentecost (which is the feast of the Holy Spirit) and Trinity Sunday always fall within 17 days of each other, and generally the Visitation also falls within those 17 days. This year, because Easter is so early, the Visitation occurs two weeks after Trinity Sunday, but it is usually much closer.
Now in Honduras, the Patronal or Titular Feast of a church is very important, and a great deal more attention is attached to it than is attached to it in most places in the States. I was expected to celebrate a solemn high mass at each of the four churches on its feast day, and there would be other activities involved as well. What also complicated matters was that the closest of those four churches was an hour away from our house. The furthest was at least an hour and a half, first on a superhighway, then on paved streets, followed by dirt roads, and finally a mule ride the rest of the way up the mountain! That particular church, which was La Ascensión, first met in peoples’ homes, and then under a roof of palm fronds laid across a framework. The altar was a slab of wood nailed onto two heavy tree trunk sections that had been set into the earth. And there we would celebrate the Eucharist.
But enough of reminiscences. Let’s get back to today. Today is the Seventh Sunday Sunday of Easter, also called the Sunday after Ascension Day. We might also call it “Anticipation Sunday.” We could call it that because, together with the Disciples, we are anticipating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Last Thursday was Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection. As we heard last Thursday, and again in the Lesson from Acts this morning, 40 days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus took his disciples out to the Mount of Olives, where he was lifted up, “and a cloud received him out of their sight.”
But before he ascended, he promised to send the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit, to be with the disciples. And so the disciples returned to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, who came upon them ten days later on the Feast of Pentecost. In today’s Lesson St Luke tells us lists the names of the eleven apostles who remained and then tells us that “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” They were anticipating the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And this is the origin of the custom of novenas. The word novena means “nine,” and the disciples spent the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost in prayer. And so, imitating their practice, the Church still has novenas, especially in the Roman Catholic Church: nine days of prayer for some particular thing.
And together with those disciples, those of us who follow a liturgical calendar are also anticipating the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, or at least the commemoration of its coming, which we will celebrate next Sunday, on the feast of Pentecost. The disciples felt alone, comfortless, but they were anticipating the Comforter’s coming.
Today’s Collect refers exactly to this. It says, “O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before.” Together with the disciples, we are praying for the coming of the Comforter, that God not leave us “comfortless,” but that he send “the Holy Spirit to strengthen us,” and that is what the root meaning of the word comfort is, to strengthen.” Send “the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us” to where Christ has already gone.
Can’t you just imagine the roller coaster those first Christian disciples must have been on? They had travelled from Galilee up to Jerusalem with Jesus, and they must have had some foreboding of bad things that might happen. It was well known that the Jewish authorities wanted to get rid of him. Then he enters the city in a triumphal procession. Five days later, he is arrested, tried, convicted and executed. Then on the third day he rises again from the dead and spends 40 days appearing on and off to the disciples.
Then, on the 40th day after his resurrection, as St Luke tells us in today’s Lesson, he takes them out to the Mount of Olives. And the disciples ask him the question that has been on their minds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” You see, they still had a mistaken idea of who the Messiah was and what he would do. They were still expecting him to be a new King David, who would drive out the hated Romans and restore the Jewish kingdom. They still did not understand that his kingdom was not of this world, as he had told Pilate at his trial.
He gives them a mild rebuke, telling them that only the Father knew when the kingdom would be restored. He then tells them: “But 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.” He thus promises to send them the Holy Spirit and tells them that they will be his witnesses, not his foot soldiers, but his witnesses to the entire world. They then return to the city of Jerusalem and spend the next ten days in prayer, anticipating the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And today’s Gospel reflects this feeling of anticipation. It is the first part of what is often called the “High Priestly Prayer” or the “Great Intercession.” It is the only long prayer of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Jesus prayed it six weeks earlier than the day of his Ascension, on the very first Maundy Thursday. He and his disciples had just finished the Last Supper. They have just had a long conversation, parts of which we heard in the Gospel readings on the last couple of Sundays. Judas had left while they were still eating, and at this moment he is bringing the authorities to arrest Jesus. Jesus knows that his ministry here on earth is ending, and he begins to pray for his disciples, since he is about to leave them. And that is why we hear this Gospel today, because today is the Sunday between the Ascension, when Jesus left this earth, and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples.
In this prayer, Jesus says: “Father,…you have given [your son] authority…to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus came to give us eternal life, and we have this eternal life by believing in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. We who believe were given by the Father to his Son Jesus Christ, and through him we have eternal life.
There is no need for us to feel sorry or be worried because Jesus is not here on earth physically, because he also prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Even though Jesus is not here physically with us, as he had been with the disciples, God will take care of us. At that point in time, the disciples had only the promise of the Holy Spirit, but we have the fulfillment of that promise. Since that first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been with the Church to guide her and take care of her. And since we are a part of the Church, the Holy Spirit guides us and takes care of us and strengthens us in our eternal life.
And so, by believing in God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, we have eternal life. Jesus prayed to his Father, asking him to take care of us, and through the Holy Spirit we are guided and strengthened in this eternal life. Christ ascended to the Father. We are waiting his coming again with anticipation and joy, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
Let us pray. O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.