St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Redding California
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, May 16, 2021
“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. At the end of your own abilities, your ideas, your own power—you find yourself with no options, with no solutions: only God can help you now. You’ve woken from a dream of life to actual real life, facing the way things truly are. And it staggers you. All the old, “I’m captain of my fate, master of my destiny” stuff dissolves: the gossamer substance of a mirage, just an elaborate lie, a story you told yourself about yourself. You wake to just how little you can do, how large the problem is: you’ll never overcome it, by yourself. You need a Savior, a Great Giant Friend, the True and Only God. So, three roads lead out from this point where you’re standing: it’s denial or insanity or blind faith. That paper tiger you once called your life has died, and so opened the only possibility for your real life to begin.
Eleven men, all of various ages and social strata, different training and diverse professions, found themselves on a hill, staring up at a cloud. They stood just staring for some time, finding no voice for a hundred feelings that stirred in them, unsure whether to stay or leave. His final words had come in answer to the wrong question, what hour His kingdom would come. “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’d also said, “Go and make disciples of all people, 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 very end.” Matt 28:18-20 His command was clear: to continue the mission He’d begun. The promised Comforter baffled them, but all Jesus had ever said was true, so they eagerly expected developments.
They stared up to where they’d last seen Him, ascending, hidden by clouds. A voice jarred them. They found two strangers standing by, clothed in spotless white, faces bright with joy, who said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up? Jesus, who is taken up from you into heaven, shall also come in the same manner as you have seen him go into heaven.” They looked at one another, questions more than answers in their faces, then looked back for the strangers, who were no longer there. A kind of joy overtook them and, hugging one another, clasping arm and arm, they took the short hike back to the city where they continuously prayed and praised, 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 light to the people of the whole world. The end of Christ’s sojourn on this planet was only the beginning of a story, the introduction of His Church. His Church is more than a human attempt at organization and dispensing lessons for good living. The Church is God in people working jointly as Christ’s continuing Body on earth.
A century ago, Charles Grafton, Bishop 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 The Church as the end of God’s design means The Church is His purpose, the final stroke of all Creation, the reason it all happened. In our poor experience, no church ever lived up to that lofty description, but Grafton raises our assessment of the deposit the Apostles were given, and that we have received from them. The life and lessons of Christ are not 2,000-year-old news. It was a beginning, and it goes on.
Many see a world in disorder, global power, rampant wickedness, the decline of the Western Church, earthquakes and natural disasters: the end of an age. We 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 foolishly predict dates. Christ’s imminent return is some churches’ literal doctrine. The Apostles who stood in that huddle on Mount Olivet believed for years that they would see His return themselves. Christians often think their age is so wicked that He has to come back soon. Right in the first century, and at the year 1,000 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 great 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 out from our Church. His departure began redeeming humanity across the globe. That end was a beginning, in a way the beginning of the creation as He had meant it to be. This world is temporary, but lives we encounter each day are eternal. Making every encounter impacting for souls perishing around us is our assignment, the end for which He created us.
It’s important to hear what Jesus said about the end of the world. We’re surely closer than they were then. Many will come claiming to be Messiah returned. And indeed, we have seen some in our day. Sun Myung Moon of Korea, of the “Moonies,” claimed to be Christ reincarnated. Wars will upset us, but they will not be the end. Famines, plagues, earthquakes and deadly fires will begin an age of sorrow, He told us. Then a real persecution of the Church. It will be a crime to worship Jesus, and this is true in many parts of the earth. Movements in our land to pull down crosses, strike Under God from the Pledge of Allegiance, In God We Trust from our money, and declare the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional are the early hints at what’s coming. Someday we will be hated by all nations.
He says that many in the Church will leave it, offended by Him and afraid to stay. There’ll be treachery and a great apostasy. This has also begun, and the more churches there are the emptier they all seem of people. False prophets will rise to tell lies, deceiving millions. The true message of the Church will be lost in noise. Failing to preach against sin, the Church will lose its voice in the world. After this, a great lawlessness will prevail. That seems to have begun. Love of crime, vice and ugliness is rampant, vulgarity and sexual dysphoria are today shouted in school corridors. No idea how bad this will get, but it’s not yet where a powerfully wicked world ruler arises and seems to answer the need for all people. When that day comes, run. Then look up.
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. People act wickedly, and one thing, then another, endangers life on earth. They know that already, we don’t have to tell them. The Gospel is 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, a 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’re what they all need. We have life here: not a religion club. We’re not 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 in the battle, too. Unlike us in form or style, but one in 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, 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 issues. Keep your ears and eyes open for them. Time grows closer…
No Fear. As we live in Him—who is our beginning, and our end—let us forget about what we once knew, or thought we knew, of self-esteem, self-realization, self-accomplishment, talents, gifts, achievements, recognition, fame or fortune: fantasy. All we ever will be, in the end, are either servants of Jesus Christ or else clingers-on to a dying planet. Captains of fate, masters of destiny, your end is now. 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 unexpected in ordinary walks of life. Great generals we discover are actually housewives. Heroes look just like children. Battalion leaders are arranging flowers on 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 the Good News is truly good news.