Sermon for 7th Sunday of Easter Sunday 20 May 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning at High Mass on the Sunday after Ascension Day, 20 May 2012.
John 17:17 Jesus said: Father, Consecrate them in the truth.
Thursday was Ascension Day. From the triumphant liturgy, the hymns and the prayers, it sounds like mission accomplished, Jesus ascending to the right hand of the Father. But or us it is just the beginning. It is the beginning of a mature faith. Sooner or later God invites each of us to put aside the immature faith to which we are clinging, and accept a new relationship with a God whom we cannot see, a God who has disappeared out of our sight, a God who is either nowhere or he is everywhere. Now we are half way towards this mature faith, because the Christ we worship here in our liturgy is the Ascended Lord. And yet, it’s so easy, isn’t it, to slip away from all this, and from all we’ve been taught, when we are of two minds, divided within. Our faith says one thing; our intelligence and reason tell a different story. We’re committed to God, but also turning away from Him. Living a double life. That’s a brutal place to find ourselves in, and it doesn’t get any easier as we get older. Actually, as we age, it just gets more urgent to find an answer, to be of one mind within ourselves, serene, consecrated, dedicated to the truth. In the end, it’s all there is to aim for, a mature faith, and being of one mind. The Gospels show us the way to go. Those strange post-Resurrection stories of Jesus are about presence and absence; he’s here but not here; do not cling to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father. After the Resurrection, the apostles thought God had abandoned them. They were sad and frightened, even when Jesus walked among them and ate with them. But at the Ascension, according to Luke, when Jesus was leaving them, and putting a distance between himself and this world, the apostles were full of joy. The final appearance of Christ, if we can call it that, was one of blessing from a distance. Christ’s hands are raised in blessing. So it is all right to feel God’s absence. This is the beginning of a deeper union with Christ. Just because we can’t see God any more, can’t quite figure him out, doesn’t take him out of our lives. Indeed, to those who suffer, those who doubt, Christ always comes closer, because he remains human, wounds and all, humanity glorified, and he understands suffering.
We live in such strange times. It is possible in this country to go from birth to death without singing a sacred song, without learning a sacred prayer, without entering a sacred place, and without any encouragement to discover for ourselves what holiness and the sacred could possibly mean. Generations are growing up with no conception of what it can mean for a human being to be holy, consecrated in the truth, sanctified, as St John puts it today. And we sit here ruminating about how the Ascension might be true for us today. Let’s include everybody, including those deprived of any knowledge of religion at all. Otherwise the Ascension makes no sense. The hands of blessing, the hands of the Ascended Christ, are over all the world. Christ didn’t ascend to a distant star; he is to be found at the heart of creation, and God’s creation is still in progress, in us and in all things. “Nothing that is not against nature is against Christ” (Clement of Alexandria) God is everywhere, and the work of the Christian, our calling, is to recognise Christ, the Son of God, in everything that happens and in all people. This is the start of a mature faith, a practical experience and acting out of Christian faith, hope and love. Christian love is not romantic love, it is in no way sentimental, quite the opposite, Christian love is the deep, joyful and sometimes painful knowledge of the interconnectedness of God and all things and all people, no matter what happens. Christian hope is written in the triumph of the Ascension liturgy, in the belief that creation is already being glorified. Christian faith is the belief that Christ’s return to the Father has a purpose for us, the release of the Holy Spirit among us, bringing into this world and into our lives, the fruits of the Spirit. The curious thing is that when we bypass our own little worries and doubts, and immerse ourselves in such mysteries as the Ascended Christ, eternal life, which we thought we’d lost, comes into view again. It’s as if we have to die a bit, in order to live the risen ascended life.
Jesus said: Father, Consecrate them in the truth. Sanctify them in the truth. That’s to be us: Consecrated, set aside for a purpose, dedicated to God. That means being changed. The consecrated elements at Mass, the bread and the wine, are changed elements. They become sacred. You and I are to become sacred, consecrated, dedicated. We become sacred when our God is truly sacred. Jesus says, For their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth. The part time God retires; in the new God we live, move and have our being. Lead Thou me on. Consecrate us in the truth. You might be thinking, well I’ve spent fifty or sixty years working out who God is, and now I’m being told to start again. Maybe. In the life of the Spirit, we start again every day. At the Ascension, we see Jesus at the right hand of God. At the Ascension we ascend with him, to see the face of a new God, who is closer to us than any God we imagined. Christ is all, and in all [Colossians 3.1]. Here is the face of unlimited love, the face of unlimited joy and suffering, and this new God is to be found not just in beauty and the service of others, but in injustice, and in unspeakable evil, and in unexplained suffering, and in the lives of those who will never sing a sacred song, and those who will never say a prayer, and in your life and in mine, in our living and in our dying, and in every created thing, now united, all transformed and consecrated in the truth by His Real Presence of light and love and forgiveness and glory
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning