A Sermon for
the Sunday After
"To live in Heaven"
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" (Acts 1.11, Epistle for Ascension Day)The Gospel lessons for the last three Sundays after Easter all of them from the sixteenth chapter of St. John prepare us to see and understand the meaning of our Lord's Ascension. Those lessons are all about his departure and return.
Now I go my way to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me, whither goest thou? But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. (John 16.5-7)
Thus, Jesus spoke to his disciples, and they did not understand:What is this that he saith unto us, A little while and ye shall not see me; and again a little while and ye shall see me; and, Because I go to the Father? They said therefore, what is this that he saith, A little while? We cannot tell what he saith. (John 16.5-7)Can't you taste the bewilderment, the pain and sad confusion in those words: "We cannot tell what he saith?" They did not see how they could do without the presence of their friend and leader. How could his departure be expedient for them? And what could he possibly mean by promising another "Comforter?" "We cannot tell what he saith."
And now, at his Ascension, they are still bewildered and confused, and stand gazing up into heaven. And, "behold, two men stood by them in white apparel" - two angelic messengers -- which also said, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1.10-1 1) This is departure and return, but only at Pentecost did they begin to understand the meaning of these things. Jesus had promised them,When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.Only then would all these things, the experience and God's presence with them, begin to make sense. And only then could they be witnesses, going out into all the world to preach the Gospel to every creature.
So it was with the disciples: "We cannot tell what he saith"; "and they stood bewildered and confused, gazing up into heaven." And how, I wonder, is it with us? Do we know "what he saith?" Departure and return, these great festivals of Ascension and Pentecost, what do they really mean to us? And what practical significance do they have for our life as Christians here and now? These festivals represent the most profound, and at the same time the most elementary lessons of Christian spiritual life; but can we even begin to grasp what they mean? Can we "tell what he saith," or must we stand gazing bewildered and confused - gazing up into heaven, looking towards some spiritual reality, some home of the spirit which can never be ours, and living our lives as though Ascension and Pentecost had never really happened for us?
What does the Ascension mean? Remember that incident in the Easter garden, when Mary Magdalene longs to embrace the risen Lord? And he says "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to the Father." (John 20.17) The point is this: those who follow him must be weaned from earthly hopes and expectations. The earthly, the fleshly, must be transformed, transfigured, so that we see its true reality as spiritual. In that sense, he must depart from us, and it is expedient that he go away. "The flesh profiteth nothing," he tells us, "the words I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." (John 6.63) In the travail of earthly life, we must give birth to faith, a faith which knows God as Spirit. And thus he returns to us in the power ofthe Spirit, and that is Pentecost.
I know that to speak of spiritual life, or life in the Spirit, sounds pretty obscure to many Christians. But if that is really so, what then is our religion all about? "We have not followed cunningly devised fables," says St. Peter. (2 Peter 1.16) We are risen with Christ; we are born anew of water and the spirit. We seek those things which are above, the life of Ascension and Pentecost being the fundamental reality of our life. We are to ascend with him"in heart and mind"and"with him continually to dwell."And that is not really so obscure. There is a fine picture of spiritual life set before us, for instance, in today's Epistle lesson, in terms which everyone can understand: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. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God: if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth; that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever."The end of all things is at hand." In Ascension and Pentecost, the end of all things, - the life of heaven, the meaning of all things - is indeed at hand. Therefore, be sober, be serious; don't just stand there gazing up into heaven. The spiritual life of God's Kingdom is yours. It is here in your midst, within your grasp, within you. Therefore watch unto prayer, and above all, have fervent charity among yourselves, for to do this is to live the spiritual life of heaven here on earth.
Dr. Pusey, a great 19th Century Anglican preacher puts it this way in his sermon for the Ascension,O choose ye then, on this Great Day, if ye have not yet chosen; if ye have, in the light of that Heaven which your Saviour this day opened for you, opens to you, pray ye Him to bind your choice by the bonds of His Everlasting Love. Let not this great sight fade from your eyes. Let not the tinsel of the world dazzle the eyes which were formed to "see the King in His Beauty." Let not the praise of men dull the ears, which were formed to hear the Blissful Words, "well done, good and faithful servant." Let not the cares, riches, pleasures of this world, choke the heart, which was formed to contain the love of God. Pray and all is thine. Thine is God Himself, who teacheth thee to pray for Himself. To pray is to go forth from earth, and to live in Heaven. Learn to commend thy daily acts to God, so shall the dry every-day duties of common life be steps to Heaven, and lift thy heart thither: commend thyself to God in moments of leisure, so shall thy rest be rest in God, and conduct thee to thine Everlasting Rest. He, thy Head, is Above; shall the heart be any more below?"Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" Heaven is yours; lay hold upon it. "Be sober, and watch unto prayer."
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