St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, June 2, 2019
“The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.”
“And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.”
WHEN YOU come to the end of yourself, you come to the beginning of God. When you come to the end of your own abilities, your own reason, your own strength—and you find yourself without options, without solutions even to suggest, and you apprehend that only God can help you now, it’s as though you’ve just wakened from the dream of life to the actual reality of living, suddenly, and faced the way things really are. And it staggers you. All of the old, “I am captain of my own fate, master of my own destiny” stuff were the gossamer substance of a dream, a great and elaborate fake, the story you told yourself about yourself, a legend in your own mind. And now, waking to the real stark truth of just how little you are able to do, and how much greater the problem than what you can ever overcome, you find your need for a Savior, for a Great Giant Friend, for the One True and Only God set before you, and you have three choices: between denial or insanity or faith. The close of your former life has opened the one and only possibility for your real life to begin.
Eleven men, all of various ages and social strata, different training and former professions, found themselves looking up at a partly cloudy sky. They may have stood staring up for some time, finding no voice for the many feelings that stirred them, unsure whether staying or leaving was the next step. His final words had come in answer to the wrong question, an incessant quest for the timing of His glorious kingdom coming to overcome all evil powers in the world. He had responded, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” He had also said to them, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:18-20 His command was clearly for them to continue the mission He had begun, and His return was something that would come later. His promise of the Comforter somewhat baffled them, but knowing that all He ever said was truthful, they eagerly expected.
Still they looked up to the place where they’d last seen Him, ascending out of this world and finally hidden by the clouds. A voice jarred them and they looked down to find two strangers standing close by, clothed in spotless white, their faces bright with joy, that said, “You men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? The very same Jesus, who is taken up from you into heaven, shall also come in the same manner as you have seen him go into heaven.” The men looked at one another, questions more than answers in their faces, then looked back toward the strangers, but they were no longer there. A knowing kind of joy then overtook them and, hugging one another, clasping arm and arm, they began the short hike back to the city, where they took up continuous prayer and praise, awaiting that power.
The end of Jesus’ earthly appearance was not the end of His Incarnation: that remains forever. He is forever God and man. His departure didn’t mean the end of His mission to earth, but launched the next stage, the indwelling of His believers with the Holy Spirit, and their commission to give this light to the people of the entire world. The end of Christ’s sojourn on this planet was only the beginning of the story, the introduction of the Church. The Church is more than a human attempt at organization and dispensing of lessons for living a good life. The Church is God and people working jointly as Christ’s continuing Body on earth.
A century ago, Bishop Charles Grafton of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, wrote: “The Church is the end of God’s original design in creating. God designed the universe that now is, as a preliminary to creating the Church. He created the material universe and man, that He might eventually develop out of the existing order of things, a new organism. The Church is this new organism. It is the primary purpose and the ultimate object of the creative activity.” Lineage of the American Catholic Church, 1911 By saying The Church is the end of God’s design, he means it is the purpose, or final stroke of creation, the reason it all happened. In our poor experience, no church ever lived up to that lofty description, but Grafton raises our appreciation of what these Apostles were given and that we have received from them. The life of Christ, all He did, what He accomplished, what He left on earth are not 2,000-year-old news. The end was the beginning, and it goes on.
Many today are looking at a world in disorder, global power, rampant wickedness, the decline of the Church in the West, earthquakes and natural disasters, and Israel’s fulfillment of ancient prophecies as signs of the end of the biblical narrative, the end of this age. They look skyward again for the return of Jesus, coming with clouds and power to overturn worldly princes, to rule and reign at last over all mankind, as He told us He one day would. Some even foolishly predict a date. Christ’s imminent return is some churches’ literal doctrine. I’ve known fervent believers that sincerely believe they will not die before His Second Coming. May God reward their faith. I don’t know. The same Apostles who stood in that huddle on Mount Olivet believed for years that they would see His return. Christians have often thought their age was so wicked that He surely must come back soon. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium at the year 1000 AD, many believed it was time to sell all and pack for heaven. 150 years ago other great movements had people watching the skies, only to be disappointed. Not yet.
He will return. We have His word on that. But He left this world in order for us to do greatest things. Jesus told us, “I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” John 14:12 He means for us to be His hands and feet, for His words to come from our mouths, His healings to flow from our prayers, His truth to go into all the world from our Churches. His departure was the beginning of redeeming humanity throughout the globe. That end was truly a beginning, in a way the beginning of the creation as He had meant it to be. We don’t need to seek the way out of this world. This world is temporary, but the lives we encounter each day are eternal. Making every encounter impacting for the souls perishing around us is our blessed assignment, the end for which He created us and saved us.
It is important to hear what Jesus said about the end of the world. We are surely closer than they were to that day. Many will come claiming to be Messiah returned. And indeed, we have seen some in our day. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church of Korea, the “Moonies,” claimed to be Christ reincarnated. Wars and rumors of wars will upset us, but they will not be the end. Famines, diseases, earthquakes and deadly fires will begin an age of sorrow, He said. Then real persecution toward the Church will begin in earnest. It will be a crime to worship Jesus, and this has been true in many parts of the earth. Movements in our country to pull down crosses, remove Under God from the Pledge of Allegiance, and In God We Trust from our money, and declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional are the first hints at what’s coming. Someday we will be hated by all nations.
He says that many who were in the Church will leave it, offended by Him and too afraid to remain. There will be treachery, betrayal and a great apostasy. This has also begun, and the more the churches the emptier they all seem of people. False prophets will rise to tell lies, deceiving thousands. The true message of the Church will be lost in noise, and failing to preach against sin, the Church will lose its voice in the world. After this, a great lawlessness will prevail, and that also seems to have begun. Love of crime, vice and ugliness is rampant, vulgarity and sexual perversion unheard of in my childhood are today shouted in school corridors. We have no idea how bad this all will get, but it’s not yet bad enough for a powerfully wicked world ruler to arise and seem to answer the need for all people. When that day comes, run. Then start looking up. Not yet.
So we stand looking up. He left us here, and for what? We have the Gospel, and it’s not the bad news—the entire world has the bad news already. People act wickedly, and one thing or the other endangers life on earth. Got it. They all know that already, we don’t have to tell them. What’s the Gospel, but the good news? There is wonderful news and we know it, in fact, we are the good news. We are the church that was God’s purpose in creation, that cooperative new Kingdom where we act in concert with His will and no darkness can hide His love from us ever. We’re rescuing one person after another from drowning in the waters that surround us, and our safe country is the only sure footing left on the planet. We are what they all need. We have life here. It’s not a religion club. We not just obscure or elite members of a weird cultic throwback to an imagined time of peace. We are worshipping the true God and source of all being here in this sanctuary every Sunday and we welcome newcomers and help them enjoy what we have. And we can teach them, like ourselves, that there is no fear.
And there are others as well. Unlike us maybe in form or style, but one at heart and faith, who hold out their lanterns in this darkening world, with the common hope of finding a few more to pull from the storm into safe haven. You, not me, not just someone nice, not a missionary, but you are the answer that someone there in the world has to hear from. Your life fits their dilemma, and responds to just the right issue. Keep your ears and eyes open for them. Time is getting closer…
No Fear. As we live in Him—our beginning, and our end—let us forget about what we once knew, or thought we knew, about self-esteem, self-realization, self-accomplishment, talents, gifts, achievements, recognition, fame or fortune: fantasy. All we will ever be, in the end, are the servants of Jesus Christ or else clingers-on to a dying planet. Captains of fate, masters of destiny, your end is your beginning. Give it up, that old life.
Jesus is all. And He alone empowers your life to become part of His great battle, His army arrayed so unexpectedly in ordinary walks of life. Great generals are what seem to our eyes mere housewives. Heroes look just like children. Battalion leaders are arranging flowers for their church altars. Squadron leaders are on their knees in prayer.
The end of all things is at hand. Be ye therefore sober and watch in prayer. No Fear, not anymore, for all of the good news is good news.