Seventh Sunday of Easter
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, May 21, 2023
Before I entered the discernment process, I had no understanding of what it entailed. Growing up Roman Catholic, I’d hear that a guy was going to the seminary to become a priest. I might see him occasionally at church, but it mostly seemed like he went away for a few years and came back a priest – like when I went to law school.
I applied, got accepted, took tests, and then graduated. There weren’t committees that decided my path unless I was to fall below the measure, or I applied for a special program or role. I pretty much charted my course and decided what classes to take and where to apply for positions. To say that discernment required an adjustment in my usual way of understanding the control I have over my life is an understatement.
Don’t get me wrong – for every struggle I have had - be it writing my spiritual autobiography or a paper on the writings of a certain challenging German theologian, I have received tenfold back from my cohort, my peers at BKSM and my time among you all here at St. Mary’s. This process has been a blessing. And while I am way better about ‘trusting in the process’ than when I started, I really hate waiting for decisions to be made about my future, waiting for my graduation, and (God willing and the people consenting) waiting for the bishop to lay hands on my head. Sometimes it feels like all I do is wait and pray.
Maybe that is why when I was preparing to write this sermon, one thing I kept thinking about was how the apostles must have felt after they were sent back to Jerusalem. In some ways I wonder if they felt a lot like my cohort and I feel right now.
We are all waiting and praying to know and understand what is next - HOW are we called to serve God? All we know is that one of our charges during ordination will be ”to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship”. What that will look like once we are ordained and start our diaconal ministries, isn’t for us to know - yet.
This morning, our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is the culmination of Jesus’s time on earth. Jesus is still teaching and preparing his disciples. Granted, the apostles have experienced a lot in the last 50 or so days that would be hard to wrap your head around. They saw their leader, who they believed would bring about the return of Israel, surrender and let himself be sacrificed in the most humiliating way. Then suddenly, he returns 3 days later with the expected wounds, but otherwise the same – except that he can now appear out of thin air.
So, in today’s reading when they ask Jesus is if it is time for him to restore the kingdom of Israel, they were asking a perfectly logical question. If Jesus could rise from the dead and appear at will, what couldn’t he accomplish? As observant Jews, they were familiar with the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel foretold in the Old Testament. Their minds weren’t focused on the creation of an ethereal kingdom. They were thinking in concrete terms – a powerful kingdom returning in a measurable, earthbound period of time.
After all their time with Jesus they didn’t understand that he was never talking about a physical resurgence of the nation of Israel, but instead of a spiritual reawakening and return if its people, of God’s people, to their covenant with God.
That is why Jesus said “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Essentially – “you aren’t understanding. I am trying to get you prepared to be my witnesses. You are supposed to continue my work and proclaim God’s word “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.
He is preparing them to understand what the Holy Spirit will bring to them – God’s Kingdom isn’t just where I, Jesus, am going. It’s here on earth too, and it is your call to tell everyone that the kingdom of God is real, is based on love, and everyone who believes can enter.
This is the shift that the disciples didn’t grasp. Jesus’s focus had changed. He was no longer preparing them for his death and resurrection, for HIS actions. Instead he is preparing them for THEIR next steps and the restoration of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
One example of this change is when they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?” After answering their immediate question, he changes the focus – “…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…”. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would act and then the disciples would become his witnesses. Jesus’s role in their ministry is soon to be that of a former teacher who has imparted all of his wisdom and set his students off on their own path.
We see this change again in today’s Gospel from John. It is another perspective of Jesus’s ascension and his words immediately preceding it. Together with the Apostles, we are privy to a conversation between Jesus and God. In what has been called Jesus’s Farewell Prayer’ we hear Jesus intervening with his Father to “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Jesus tells God that he has taught the apostles everything. They just need to be brought into Jesus’s and God’s relationship – to be god-filled. It is clear that the way forward isn’t about Jesus acting anymore “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you”. Jesus has handed off his ministry on earth to his disciples, and to all of his disciples across the ages.
One thing I have learned in my discernment process is that in the eyes of God once we are baptized, we are all preparing to be God’s witnesses. Just like the disciples, Jesus is trying to teach us the way of love. We are learning, growing, and training to be his witnesses in the world. We are all to go to the uttermost parts of the world to proclaim his love – but most importantly to show his love to those who need it most – the outcast, the hungry, the ill, the poor. It is all of our calling to go forth as witnesses of God’s love and the hope of the resurrection.
But it is also about timing. About listening, praying, and waiting, because we are on God’s time, not ours. Like the apostles, we will all have our times of waiting. Of praying, and not knowing what is next. The key is that we are ready and listening for God’s call when it comes. If we do this, we will live into the promise of Jesus’s Ascension.
As one commentator said, “Ascension Sunday, is a day to celebrate the ongoing work of the Risen Christ, to pray without ceasing that the Spirit will empower us for witness, and then to actually go out into the world and bear witness to the Risen Christ, so that the Kingdom may come in all its glory. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!