Sermon at Evensong, by C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian
It’s so wonderful to be here this evening, and share this beautiful service with you all. I want to think a little bit with you about the Ascension – for we are in the part of the year where confess and pray that Jesus’s cosmic reign has begun. Jesus is not just resurrected, he didn’t just head to heaven and join the ranks of the celestial company. He ascended. And we are told he sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning until he comes again in glory.
Well I don’t know about you, but some of this language is a bit abstract. This is all very hard to conceptualize. And for some of us, even harder to believe. Is this what it means to be a Christian, to believe in things like this, to know these facts about the world? I do think the doctrine of the Ascension is one of the harder doctrines, but not necessarily because of its metaphysical claims. I think the Ascension is a hard doctrine because of the claims it makes upon us – it is not making claims on our reason, so much as on our lives.
You may remember one of the earliest experiences of the Ascension. It’s the story of the first martyr Stephen. As you may remember, Stephen is killed because of his association with the Jesus movement. Stephen was one of those people whose life was shot through with God’s grace. And Acts tells us that he radiated a tremendous spiritual presence, and his wisdom and insightfulness were utterly contagious to the early Christian community. Stephen believed that Jesus changed everything. Well, as you may have guessed, this Jesus message landed Stephen in a lot of trouble. He was arrested and charged for sedition. Even on trial, the author of Acts tells us that everyone present “saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.” And with just a few minutes left on death row, Stephen gives one of the best sermons ever preached. All about God’s unconditional mercy and kindness in Jesus. But his hearers, sensibly enough, found this message threatening. And so, following the customs of Jewish law for punishing terrible offenders, they picked up their rocks to stone him. But before the first rock strikes his body, Stephen lifts his eyes to heaven and there he sees Jesus. And a few seconds later, literally as he is going down, he draws strength from the ascended Jesus and speaks a word of forgiveness over his torturers.
A word of forgiveness over his torturers.
The ascension of Jesus was reality for Stephen. It was not something Stephen argued about among religious folks, nor did he believe it because, well, that’s just what you believe. Stephen drew energy and life from the Ascension. The Ascended One, who went straight into the heart of darkness himself, empowered Stephen to stare the god-forsakenness of the world right in the eye. And to look at it, not in anger, but in outpouring gestures of love and forgiveness. Stephen lived and died the Ascension of Jesus.
But here we are, living in 21st century America. And lucky for us, dying for our faith isn’t something faced by most of us living on the east end of Pittsburgh. We go about our days and yes we may suffer some discomforts, but it is my hunch that may have very little to do with our faith. The “world”, whatever that is, seems quite alright with us being Christians. And honestly, as I have been writing this sermon, I am not sure how I feel about that. I can’t make up my mind – has the world become a better place or have Christians lost some of their punch? Because, if I am honest with you, as I read Jesus, I encounter a radical. I encounter someone whose passion for love and mercy and justice unsettled some folks. People thought he was off his rocker. They thought he had a demon.
Now, before you think I have gone off the deep end. Let me assure you, I am Episcopalian to the core. Fanatics of any kind make me nervous. I like poetry better than football, and anything less than high Anglican worship makes me think that we’ve cheapened our spiritual offering to God. I am Episcopalian. But as I read the story of Stephen, and how he lived the Ascension, I cannot help but miss the radical beauty of his gospel. The ways in which his life was soaked through with grace. The ways in which his love for Jesus challenged the world. Really upset people; not because he was divisive or argumentative, but because he was aflame with God’s love. They probably thought that he too had a demon.
So what might living the Ascension look like for us? Let me turn to one of my favorite poets, and one of the great Anglican imaginations of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. His poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” captures to my mind what living the Ascension means. And although he is talking about Yeats and other poets, it might not be bad to think of us Christians as poets in our own particular ways – but that’s another sermon. Here’s the last few stanzas: Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice/ With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse/Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress/ In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.
That’s got to be something of what living the Ascension means. Learning how to go into the inextinguishable pain of the world, and therein finding the words of praise. Going into the shadowy corners of earth’s night, and learning to see the light of Christ burning there. Or maybe we could say this: Christians are people who persuade others, while they persuade themselves, to rejoice. Whatever this rejoicing may look like, Auden suggests that it is a journey into some amount of darkness.
Maybe your journey is more interior, say you practice centering prayer. Maybe you journey out onto the dark and frightening territories of your own inner life, and you stay there (in the deserts of the heart) anchored as best as you can with a spiritual word. Or maybe you address the darkness in more outward forms: you go to a homeless shelter, and you find the beauty and dignity of Jesus there among people whom the world has written off as dirty and unclean. And it may not be as big and noticeable as either of these: maybe you are swallowed up in existential boredom and numbness, and the journey into the darkness for you is nothing more than allowing yourself to be loved. I cannot say what it means for you to live the Ascension.
But I can say that living the victory of Jesus frees us up to be vulnerable, and to meet others in their vulnerability. Jesus is alive, and your life is hidden with him, therefore take risks. For not even death can separate you from his boundless love. And so we should, as best as we know how, allow ourselves to relax our desperate control grips. It’s safe; as long as he lives, as long as his love and mercy reign, we are safe. Just as he was there with Stephen in the moments of greatest peril, so he’s there with you and me.
Please hear me. I am not telling you to leave here and go be a Jesus radical – whatever that means. But I am saying this: if we can manage to look to him, and slowly acclimatize to his security and hope, I suspect that our lives will be freed up in new ways for radical love. And as we do this, as we go from here and live the Ascension, we may just find that we radiate with the same love that carried Stephen through to the end.