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Sunday May 12, 2002
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Acts 1:1-14
John 17:1-11

The Ascension: Christ Fills All Things

And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Saint John the Evangelist consistently refers to the glory and the glorification of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, being the eternal Son and Word of God, is co-equal with the Father in his glory before time was created. He reveals this glory in his ministry, by changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana; by bestowing sight to a man born blind; by raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

But all this glory reaches an intense, paradoxical focus in Jesus’ crucifixion. His cross is pre-eminently his glorification, because it is there, as Christ Crucified, that he is able to cry, “It is finished,” in his battle with evil and darkness. The Man of Sorrows, nailed up as the Victim of the sin of the world, hanging in Godforsaken defeat, is Christus Victor, Christ the Victor, who, through his suffering and death, has destroyed the works of the devil and opened the gate of everlasting life. This is his finest hour, his glorification, wherein Christ the Victim is Christ our Priest: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.”

Now, in Ascensiontide, we see God’s verdict upon Christ’s redemptive suffering on Calvary. For forty days, as Saint Luke tells us in the first lesson from Acts, “he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” Now, on Mount Olivet, having promised that the disciples would receive power from on high to bear witness to him, Jesus is taken up into heaven as a cloud receives him out of their sight. This cloud is the shekinah, the cloud of glory involved in divine manifestations from Mount Sinai to the Mount of Transfiguration.

So the death of Christ, his descent among the dead, his resurrection on the third day, and his glorious ascension into heaven are all one event. We call it the Paschal Mystery. It is cosmic, which means that Christ has taken his glory to every corner of the universe. There is nothing in all creation that is beyond or outside his saving embrace.

The great Dante Alighieri encountered this Paschal Mystery in the extraordinary midlife experience that resulted in his Divine Comedy, his epic pilgrimage through the spiritual realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. One of the central messages of that greatest of all epic poems is that by virtue of dying, descending to the departed spirits, rising from death and ascending into heaven, Jesus has offered to all souls the possibility of redemption. In the words of the Elizabethan poet John Donne, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, “Salvation to all that will is nigh.”¹ It is not necessary, except by the refusal of grace, that any soul anywhere should not enter the kingdom of heaven. That is why Dante called his epic a comedy. It means the glory of God in Christ has the last word. “Salvation to all that will is nigh.” God’s purpose is a happy ending, a divine comedy.

When Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself,” he was referring to his being lifted up on his cross. But in the Ascension, God accepts, confirms and ratifies that Holy Sacrifice as the Lamb of God foreordained before the foundation of the world. (I Peter 1:19-20) God shows that his greatest glory is love, self-sacrificing love, the love that will go to all lengths on behalf of the beloved. And who is the beloved? We are the beloved. That is the astonishing truth of the Gospel, the Good News that is so good that, when you receive it, you cannot contain it but simply have to share it.

Christianity is faith in a God whose glory is both transcendent and imminent, both far and near. His glory calls into being universes of unimaginable magnitude where light takes billions of years to go from one “end” to the other; and universes of microcosms whose infinitesimal profundity is as great as are the light years of the stars’ distance. But even more, Christianity is faith in a God who, at the same time, took our nature upon himself and was incarnate in the one true Man Jesus Christ.

The nineteenth century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said that when our faith embraces the paradox of Infinite, Eternal God becoming a Human Being, it is like throwing “oil on the fire”² of our faith. Yet there is still more. God has become Man and has gone to the cross out of love for the world. This means that everywhere, from the galaxies to the atomic particles, from the deepest regions of hell to the highest heaven, the glory that is God’s mercy has filled and penetrated everything. Heaven and earth are full of this glory of his.

It is Jesus’ will that we receive our due portion of this glory by means of our faith. This is not forced on us. It is possible, and some choose, to refuse it. We must be open to grace in order to receive it. What Kierkegaard described as the “oil on the fire” of our faith comes true every Sunday when the Bread and Wine which becomes the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us. The mystery is at our very lips to be tasted and seen.

In the light of what I have just said, let me finish by returning to Christ’s prayer in today’s Gospel of John. It is called Jesus’s “high priestly prayer,” given just before his passion. I will read it carefully; let us try to take it in.

“This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, who thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now Father, glorify thou me with the glory which I had with thee before the world was. I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. Now they have know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me: and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are…And now I come to thee; and these things I speak in the world that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”

Let this glory be seen and this joy be fulfilled here.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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¹John Donne, “Annunciation,” in The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, Oxford, 1934.
²See Soren Kierkegaard, A Concluding Unscientific Postscript. I wish to register my gratitude to the late Professor Paul Holmer of Yale Divinity School for his instruction on this point.