Almighty God, who on this day didst open the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of thy Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today we celebrate together a neglected and misunderstood moment in our Lord’s life and ministry. It is the Ascension, which concludes Jesus Christ’s work on earth. And we say we believe in the Ascension every time we recite the Nicene Creed, but I doubt whether we are always fully aware of what the Ascension entails.
Inasmuch as the Ascension is a conclusion, it looks backward; but it also looks forward, to the next great moment in the history of salvation: the coming of the Holy Spirit.
That the Ascension brings Jesus Christ’s work to a conclusion means that he goes back to the Father, as he himself says in verse 11 in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. John speaks frequently of Jesus coming from the Father, but he means by this something much more intimate than what it sounds at first.
We speak sometimes of someone sending us a letter. The letter has come from someone. But this is not what John is saying. Jesus comes from the Father more like in the sense that a child comes from her mother. Jesus is one with the Father, is with the Father from eternity, and as he says in verse 5 of John 17, he and the Father shared their glory “before the world was made.”
There is not an external relationship between the Father and the Son—as between a letter and its sender—but rather one of eternal and perfect unity.
So in the Ascension Jesus returns to that intimate fellowship that he has always had with the Father and always will have. He goes back to the Father from whom he has come and with whom he has always enjoyed perfect unity.
But this raises an interesting question, and that is how Jesus Christ can be present on earth, living a fully human life, and still enjoy perfect unity with his Father who is in heaven?
Thomas Aquinas has a thoughtful answer to this question; he describes the presence of the Son of God on earth as his being on a “mission.” And to be on a mission, Aquinas says, is to be present in a new way.
God is omnipresent, always everywhere and always has been everywhere and always will be everywhere. Similarly, the persons of the Holy Trinity are never divided from one another, certainly not by place.
But during the earthly mission of Jesus, the Son was present in a new way: present in time and space, living a full human life from conception in the womb of his Virgin Mother to his sacrificial death.
When he is raised to new life he is likewise raised in a new spiritual body, a body that while still present for 40 days in time and space also does not seem to be subject to time and space. During these 40 days, which we have just completed, the Son is present, making himself known as resurrected to his disciples, and giving them the final assurances and commands that he will have to teach them.
When he ascends then to the Father that in a way he never really left, he does so because his mission, his new way of being present, his mission has been in a word—accomplished.
But I said the Ascension looks forward as well, and so it does. Our reading from Acts tells us about one of Jesus’s most important final promises, the sending of the Holy Spirit.
It’s been pointed out to me that there must have been some suspense in the minds of the disciples in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. The shock of the crucifixion was dispelled by the joy of the resurrection, and now once more ambiguity descends: The Holy Spirit has been promised, but surely they cannot know what that means, how long they will have to wait, or what it will look like when the Holy Spirit does come.
This is why the Ascension also looks forward, to Pentecost. Because according to Aquinas, the Son is not the only person of the Holy Trinity to be on mission. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit embarks on a mission and therefore becomes present in a new way: present in the ongoing ministry of the church, present on thousands of altars around the world, present in the hearts of faithful believers of every race and place, of every language and nation.
There is one last thing that must be said for us to fully understand the Ascension.
When the mission of Jesus is accomplished and he ascends to his Father, he takes his perfect humanity with him. I said that the Son is present in the complete life of Jesus Christ, from birth to death to new life: It is vital that the Son live through all of human life because God intends to take all of human life into his own endless divine life.
In the Ascension, God assumes all of human life—with its suffering and pain and loss and death—and resurrects it all and brings it into the endless and unbreakable unity of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Having lived human life himself God eternally has lived it, and he now offers the promise and sure and certain hope of a deathless life he to all humanity.
Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons on the Ascension says it this way: “Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace.”
The Son was present in time and space, because we are present in time and space. Now however his mission takes on the universal scope it always had from the beginning: The Son is not somewhere at some time but is available to all people for all time.
Just as the Son has never the left the Father, so in a sense he never really left us.
It was a great blessing to pray this collect for the Ascension on Ascension Day itself, this past Thursday. “O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”
This collect captures the point I want to make very beautifully, and it seems especially appropriate to our moment.
Jesus Christ ascended that he might fill all things: He ascends because his mission is accomplished and the universal and eternal nature of his mission is now clear.
And now more than ever we need the faith to perceive that he remains with his church on earth, even to the end of the ages. Amen indeed.
O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter:
O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving thee in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect for Ascension Day:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son: if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.
It seems this declaration from Jesus to the apostles leaves them a wide open field to furrow and plant their prayers of petition. …if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. Really? Does this mean that if they ask anything, then the Lord will do anything for them or give anything to them? It reminds me of the petitions in the Janis Joplin song, O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? We cannot help but be in sympathy with the sentiment in the song. Why not ask? After all, Jesus does promise, Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it. The sky’s the limit, it seems to me. Try it sometime and see what happens. Ask for anything and see if it is done for you in the Name of Jesus.
No, there must be much more to Jesus’ instruction than granting a positive response to any petition offered by Thomas, Philip, or any of the other disciples. That cannot be what Jesus is teaching on prayer. If you don’t believe me, just think about whether or not God has answered all your prayers in the way you would like. I would like to offer possible alternative conclusions. One: this instruction from Jesus on prayer is not about imposing our wills and desires on God in the Name of Jesus but is about Jesus’ unity with God the Father and the Holy Ghost. Secondly, it is because of that unity in the Trinity that we have a distinct privilege when we pray, and the privilege is knowing and being closer to God the Father. Finally, we will be able to see the whole purpose of prayer and how our prayer lives actually have a good and ultimate goal.
It helps to first realize that the Gospel passage for this Fifth Sunday of Easter captures two instructions from Jesus to two disciples just before the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Both of the teachings drive home how Jesus is indeed the Christ of God. The first teaching is the well-known declaration of Jesus to Thomas, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me. Thomas asks to know the way Jesus is going so he and the other disciples can follow. Jesus gives him not only the Way, but also declares that He is the Truth and the Life and the way to God the Father. Similar instruction is given to Philip when he asks to see the Father. Again, Jesus lets the disciples know that if they have seen Jesus, then they have seen the Father. It is immediately after this that Jesus promises to send them the Holy Spirit, If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. After this revelation, that Jesus and the Father are one, he promises their petitions will be answered. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. The Father will grant anything if asked by the Son because He will send the Holy Spirit to have it done. The three are one so if the Holy Spirit is given, then the Father and the Son are doing the work too.
What does it take to ask something in the Name of Jesus so He will do it? It takes love. The love is that of a servant for his lord, the child for the father and mother, the love of the student for the teacher. We know what it is like when we are doing a task and it is something that we want to do because we truly want to please and love the person for whom we’re doing it. When the work is an act of love, it is not work at all. Ask the grandmother who prepares and serves the large Sunday dinners at her house. Her family all arrive and she is actually filled with joy at what she considers a privilege of having her family gather, enjoy the meal, and the unity of the gathered company. She may look exhausted and has probably spent hours in preparation, but the joy and excitement of having the union of her loved ones makes joy appear on her face from the joy she feels inwardly. It’s that kind of love and devotion that is part of the prayer offered out of love and is real prayer in Jesus’ name.
Prayer in Christ’s name has also to be prayer that is offered in obedience to the Father. All that the Father has given to us, we accept and obey when offering prayers in Jesus name. We are obedient to His Commandments of loving God and our neighbor. We love all the means He has taken to secure our salvation. If it is not offered out of love for the Father, then the prayer is simply the exercise of our will. We cannot be united to Jesus if we are only exercising our wills and therefore God’s love will not be given in return. The love of God is indeed given in return by prayer offered in Jesus’ name because the Holy Spirit, at the request of the Son, is sent to live in our hearts. That is prayer that is offered in Christ’s name. This is why Jesus can declare, if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. The prayer is actually part of the unity in the life of the Trinity.
The late Peter Toon, an Anglican priest and former seminary professor, in his book Genuine Godliness and True Piety, explains how worship and prayer operate in the life of the Trinity.
In the Bible we hear of God the Father creating the world, preserving the world, judging the world, and revealing Himself to the world, and always doing so through His only-begotten Son and by His Holy Spirit. From the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit is the descent of God into His creation. There is also an ascent to God from the creation presented in the Bible. Worship, prayer and sacrificial service rise to the Father, though the Son (the Mediator) and with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is revealed and known in the mission of God into and from His world in His great work of reconciling the world to Himself.
All of our petitions and praises in prayer go to God the Father through the name of His Son Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is practiced in praises we offer when we pray Morning and Evening Prayer. You will notice that the praises we offer from the Psalter are always offered in the name of the Trinity. We always conclude each Psalm with the Gloria Patri. Again, true prayer and praises are offered in Jesus’ name and is joined in the life of the Trinity.
How privileged we are to pray as Christians in the name of Jesus. As a result of this unity in the Trinity our prayers allow us some glimpse, some hope, some satisfaction, some sense of His presence, and maybe some instance of seeing the face of God. John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of our Oxford fathers and progenitors of the catholic revival in Anglicanism, knew what a privilege praying is for the Christian. He encouraged people who were not able to attend Church, not to see their lives in worship and prayer as a duty, but to see their lives of prayer as a privilege. He told them that he would see them in Church once they realized what a privilege they have when they are in Church or at prayer. He encouraged them, to realize to (themselves) that continual prayer and praise is a privilege; only feel in good earnest, what somehow the mass of Christians, after all, do not recognize, that ‘it is good to be here’ (like Peter, James, and John at the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration) –feel as the early Christians felt when persecution hindered them from meeting, –feel this and you will come if you can. Prayers offered because it is such a privilege to be in the presence of God will evoke in the Christian a need and desire to pray and the Christian will not be praying simply out of a sense of duty.
The end and purpose of our prayers is to see God. We should not try completing our prayers solely out of a sense of doing our duty. That act of determination may be good to get us started. It may be useful as a sense of discipline. If that’s all prayer is then it becomes simply a pushing forward with our will. If our prayer lives are to be, in the end, fruitful prayer lives, then they will have to show us the face of God. Our Anglican spiritual lives have a purpose and it is described most clearly and helpfully by the classical Anglican priest and theologian Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “Then we are happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God. There it is. The purpose and end of all prayer and devotion is the beatific vision. The same vision that the saints enjoy even now. It is only when we are perfectly united spiritually to God that we will love the way He wants us to love. We will have perfect knowledge of Him. We will see and know true joy just as all the saints of God see Him and know Him. It is prayer in the world that will help prepare our souls to see the beatific vision. That is why we pray. Satisfaction, comfort, holiness, union with the Father all await us and the journey begins now.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with thee and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I have not owned my own car for 23 years. We have been fortunate to live in places where you don’t need one. So I have done a lot of walking in my life. I like to walk.
But I have done a lot of walking these past few weeks—more even than I normally would. It gives you time to think, that’s for sure.
The best walks I find are with good friends, and I have fond memories of walking in company, but nowadays I walk alone.
Just yesterday I was approaching two people headed toward me who were walking at the edges of the sidewalk, as far apart as they could be, and I wondered why they were doing so until of course it occurred to me that they were deliberately staying as far apart from each other as they could.
So what was I supposed to do? Walk between them? Surely not. Too close.
It’s a sign of the extent to which we are now plunged into mutual hostility and suspicion that we cannot even walk together without being nagged by the thought that we should not do so too close to one another. What could be more natural, after all, than walking together with a friend or companion? And what better way to spend some time walking with a loved one than to converse about subjects that matter to the both of you?
Luke tells us about two followers of Jesus who are in just such a relaxed natural state, walking together, talking together, about everything they had experienced as they go together from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
Now we have never been able to establish where Emmaus might have been. It’s a matter of debate. No one knows. And there is something poetically satisfying about this ambiguity in my opinion.
Jesus has been executed by the Romans. Those who hoped in him are now desolate, scattered, alone. These two are together. On the road. They are moving from Jerusalem to somewhere, we know not where. They are in a between space, journeying, through uncertainty, from a place they know well to a place that no one knows.
And as they go, they are talking. Talking about what they have seen and experienced. Talking about their hopes most likely, how they have been dashed, and what they might do next.
And into this in between space, this journey from the known to the unknown, Jesus arrives. Or rather he does not just arrive, Luke says he “drew near and went with them.” He came close to them and resolved to journey with them, in a gesture so intimate that it would probably horrify anyone on the street in Boston today.
But he does something totally natural. He asks what they are talking about as they walk together.
And their response too is totally natural. They stop. And they look sad. They look sad because they are sad. And they wonder aloud how can you not know? How can you not know what is bothering the two of us? What is bothering all of us?
We are talking about “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”
That much everyone knows, or should know. That much is public gossip and scandal.
But there’s more to tell. And this part is a bit more exclusive. “Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”
It is of course Jesus who is hearing all this, though these two disciples do not recognize—perhaps cannot recognize—him for who he is.
Jesus has drawn near to them, and talked with them, as they go along the road. A road of trauma and despair and confusion. And having heard their strange report, he upbraids them for their lack of understanding and belief. This part is stunning, because the conversation is no ordinary one from here on out but an absolutely amazing one: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Now this is incredible because Luke tells us that to these two disciples Jesus explained everything there is to know about himself from the scriptures from Moses—from Moses!—through the prophets, everything there is to know about himself.
Wouldn’t you like to have been part of that conversation on the road? What could be more satisfying, informative, important to hear, than what Jesus himself has to say about himself from the Scriptures?
These two disciples, having heard this undoubtedly amazing discourse from Jesus about himself, urge him to stay with them on the road, and he consents.
But at dinner he blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to them, and at that moment, they recognize him for who he is, only to have him vanish from their sight.
What does this mean?
We are not told what Jesus says about himself to establish his identity from the scriptures, as interesting and important as that might be.
The reason this happens is because this task of interpreting who Jesus is from scripture, as meaningful and essential as that is, is in an even more meaningful and essential way caught up into a very different project, that of the Eucharist.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the last supper he shared with his disciples prior to his death. But the case could be made that the first actual Eucharist he celebrated was right here, on the road to Emmaus.
We do not need to hear what Jesus says about himself from the scripture because he will make that fully known to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Once the bread is blessed and broken and given, then the time for talking about who Jesus is, even Jesus’s own talking about himself, has come to an end.
We commemorate this ourselves in an ancient prayer that the priest often says before or during the crucial moments of the mass: “Be present, be present, Lord Jesus, as thou wast present to thy disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread.”
But we can I think guess at what Jesus might have said about himself from scripture, by paying attention to early apostolic preaching, the like of which we heard in the reading from Acts. Notice that Peter’s sermon makes no mention at all of what Jesus taught, only the death he endured and the resurrection he won by the grace of his father.
So here we find two of the great ministerial activities of the church.
Preaching is the act of expositing the word of God in such a way as to cause the hearts of our hearers to burn within themselves: to be inflamed with insight and inspiration.
As Jesus talks about himself from the scriptures, he sustains these two disciples with a very different kind of conversation. No longer do they speak out of confusion and disbelief, but instead they have the meaning of scripture revealed to them by the risen Christ who is the secret subject of all scripture.
By interpreting his own person and work, Jesus models the church’s work of proclaiming the scriptures and their witness to Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and what it all means.
The two disciples though only realize this retrospectively. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” They realize what it meant to be on the road with the Lord only after Jesus broke bread with them.
And that’s the second great ministerial activity of the church begun here—on the road. It is the administration of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion. All preaching, all interpretation of who Jesus is and what he has done, all talk about the scriptures, is a necessary companion to the Eucharist, which consummates all such talk and gathers it up within itself so to speak.
In the Eucharist we do not recite the truth of scripture; we enact it. The Eucharist dramatizes the truth of scripture, and once again it our Lord who is the instigator and presider over this activity as well. Having explained the truth of who he is, he now performs the truth of who he is.
And this is how the presence of Christ remains with us, every step of the way on the road. Until we reach the end of the road. He draws near to us even when we do not recognize him. He speaks the truth of who he is to us in the preaching of his church. He makes himself present to us in the breaking of the bread as he was present to his disciples.
We are still on a strange and winding road. But the church—your church and mine—goes on this same road. We are still preaching God’s word and celebrating the Eucharist each day. And that’s how we know that Christ is near to each and every one of us, every step of the way. Amen.