What good is a resurrected body? Why Easter needs the Ascension.

In my Father’s house are many rooms… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3

Today we celebrate one of the most central teachings of our faith; an idea equal with the messages of Christmas and Easter, and one that we confess every time a faithful follower of Jesus says the Creed: Jesus ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In the official teachings of the Church – found in those essential beliefs laid out in the Prayer Book for us to read, learn, and share with the world around us – a lot hinges on the Ascension.  Yet, this major celebration and its message became largely ignored; not least because it was one of those celebrations, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday that traditionally fell in the middle of the week on a Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, and as busy work schedules took over, it was lost in the mix.

The problem, though, is that Jesus’ ascension into heaven is absolutely central to understanding our faith.  No kidding: skipping Ascension is as if we decided that Christmas just didn’t matter anymore, or if we decided to skip preaching about Easter for a couple generations. 

Seriously: Christmas tells us that Jesus, God’s Son, was born and raised to share our humanity; Easter tells us that Jesus experienced death in a human body, and did what we couldn’t do for ourselves – conquering the grave, and making human flesh incorruptible, making it able to last forever.  And the Ascension tells us how that matters for you and me.

Think about it: Every time we gather to worship, we confess Christ’s resurrection.  But how does Jesus coming out of a tomb long ago and far away have any impact on your physical body?  If the resurrection isn’t just about spiritual thoughts and warm, happy feelings about a fuzzy afterlife – and it isn’t! – then how, exactly, does his body, raised to new life, have any impact on what happens to you, so that you and I no longer fear the grave?

These are essential questions that make your faith make sense… and, it’s the Ascension, the return of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, that holds it all together.

The Plan:

We all believe, one way or another, that God the Father created us so that we could share in the overflowing life and love of the Trinity: a relationship so profound that it creates and invites the creation to join in their endless life of joy.

And, we all believe, one way or another, that for love to be real, it has to be freely given and freely chosen; so God invited us to love him and become infused with his eternal life and the fire of eternal love, knowing full well that giving us that option to love him freely includes the possibility that we could reject that offer instead.  As humankind decided to trust itself and seek our own glory, we went the way of all things that trust in themselves: we found darkness and the grave, as the spark of life given at our creation became something that grows cold and flickers out, like a candle left unattended that hollows out the middle until the very flame that gave it purpose causes it to collapse and snuff itself out under the weight of the heavy walls it has built.

But, God, knowing that darkness and the grave was our choice to make, built a solution into the system.  This is the message of Christmas: God’s plan was to build a bridge, a ladder even. If Creator and creation, God and humankind, are separated by a chasm, by the steep walls built as our flame burned inward rather than sharing light with the world, then the solution could only be one who was fully God and fully man: one who could enter the deepest, godless pits of despair built by humanity, and yet, being God, had within himself the very flame and source of life that cannot be extinguished, even when the heavy walls of the grave collapsed in.

And that is the message of Easter: as those heavy, waxy walls of darkness and the grave closed in, they found not a weak, flickering flame as they always had before; they found a mighty, blazing torch, unending life itself, and the more the walls of death closed in, the more they were consumed and melted away.

Jesus rose from the grave, blasting a hole in the gates of death, and emerged from the tomb with our flesh, but now as it was meant to be when that choice was first given: our flesh no longer attempting to be self-sufficient inside the walls we have built; our flesh transformed into forever flesh, connected intimately to the source of life itself, now able to accept the invitation to share in that everlasting relationship of the God who created us for eternal life in an everlasting creation; an eternity without pain or grief, without tears and sadness, without wars or disease, where the lion and the lamb can lie together with satisfied appetites because they’re connected to the source of all that is.

So Jesus rose, but what impact can that have on me?

Well, that’s where the Ascension comes in. 

As we see even in Jesus, there’s not much use for “forever flesh” in a world that is still full of death and decay.  And, truly, in spite of our attempts to put off aging – expensive creams and gallons of hair dye – there comes a point when we must admit: who would want to live forever in a world based on self-isolation behind walls of greed?

Yes, we absolutely believe that God will restore creation; that, in his time – and it’s not for us to concern ourselves with the time or date – the time of God inviting the flickering flames of human life will one day come to an end, and whether it’s the opposite of a big bang as scientists speculate, or some other spectacular mystery as prophets have attempted to put into words, there comes a time when time stops – and then all is made new, but this time, without the possibility of the universal pain and regret: this time of making choices (and the painful consequences of making them) has ended.

Christ the Forerunner

And so, 40 days after Easter, Christ, showing us the first glimpses of what humanity will be like when the deadly walls we’ve built no longer have dominion over us, then takes that glorified, forever flesh out of a decaying world.  He returns to the right hand of the Father, to that original life-giving relationship of the Trinity, but, bringing our flesh, he has a mission:  “do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, believe also in me”, he says.  “My Father’s house has many dwelling places… and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that where I am, you may be also.”  And, he adds, “you know the way to the place where I am going”.[1]

He, having brought our humanity into the presence of God, is preparing a place for us to be with him until that final day – guest rooms where we may wait in the palace of the King; not our eternal resting place, but where we will rest in peace and be satisfied until that time when all is made new, when our forever flesh finds a home in the kingdom that shall last forever.

And we know the way: when the walls of death close in, there’s the well-trodden path of stubbornly holding out until the weight of our own choices leads to destruction; or, knowing where to look, we see the way, the truth, and the life: Jesus reaching out and leading us through the hole that he blasted; a steep and narrow path, one that requires full reliance on the one who has walked it before, but one that leads to a peaceful rest, to the words “well done” being spoken over us as the door swings open, and the Father sees not the flickering flame of a weary life, but hears the Son saying “this is my brother; this is my sister, who now shares my flesh and blood”, as the Spirit clothes us and ushers us into the feast.

Think about it, every time you say the Creed.  He ascended into heaven: not to leave us, but to blaze a path and prepare a place for us.  And, even now, he’s at the Father’s right hand, waiting; and when I die, when you die, he reaches out, leads us in, presents us as his friends, and leads us to our rest, as we, too, await his coming in glory, that day when finally, clothed in his righteousness alone, our forever flesh meets our forever home, standing faultless before his throne.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.


[1] John 14:1-4

In the world for the sake of the world.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done – in Fort Smith – as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Last week we looked at those first lines of the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on what it means to pray that God’s will would be done here and now, not just “on earth”, but in our midst, as we are called to be Christ’s body in the world.

It’s not as though God’s will for how our world should be is a total mystery.  Yes, while there are many things that are beyond what we can ask or even imagine, God’s will for how he would have us live is no mystery at all: St. Peter summarized it all so well as we read last week: “as He who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct, because it is written: be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

The lessons assigned by the Church for the next couple of weeks take us through the rest of Peter’s letter, where he writes to teach Christians what “be holy” means.  It’s one thing to talk about holiness, about living as citizens of the Kingdom of God, doing His will right here in Fort Smith just as it is done in heaven.  But, let’s not pretend that this is an easy, or even a straight-forward task.

Comfortable as we are in our own communities, with friends and neighbours that we have come to know and love over the years, and many of us with vital roles to play as, by God’s grace, we’ve left our mark on the lives of those around us, leaving the world a little bit of a better place, it’s still no accident that scripture refers to us as foreigners, aliens, and even exiles in the world.   It’s not so much that we’re not at home in the world. Rather, as citizens of God’s Kingdom by baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves as dual citizens. 

We’re called to be holy – to live as we will in the Kingdom of Heaven – while we find ourselves in a world that, deep down, is anything but holy.  In a real way, if we’re living as God expects – if we’re striving for holiness, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to hit the target and hear that “well done, my good and faithful servant – then we find ourselves sharing that real tension shared by immigrants who find themselves in a foreign land.

Dual Citizens & Culture Shock

If you ask someone who has done any on-the-ground international travelling – not tourist resorts, but being out-and-about in the streets of a foreign land – they would tell you that it takes a little while to get your bearings.  Yes, the food is different and the language is different, but it goes much deeper than that: the culture, the expectations that people share for how they interact, how they show respect, how they live their lives, are very different too. 

And, it’s one thing to be a visitor, but to move in and live and contribute to the community as a foreigner is, universally, a difficult task.  Beyond learning the language and customs and expectations of your new home, you also have the difficult questions of figuring out how much of your own culture you want to retain. 

On the day you move in, do you stake your home country’s flag in the centre of your lawn?  Do you wear the clothes of your home country, or do you try to blend in?  Do you keep on celebrating the holidays of your homeland, do you give them up for Canada Day and Remembrance Day, or do you combine the holidays of your new and old countries together as best you can? 

And, of course, those are the easy questions. When the time comes to raise a family, do you teach them the expectations of respect and manners as they were in your homeland, or do you teach them to blend in with the expectations here.

These are very real questions.

And, St. Peter teaches us, if we’re serious about what it means to be a Christian, then these are the questions we face as well.  “Beloved”, he writes after declaring that we are a holy nation set apart to proclaim the light of God’s truth in the darkness of the world, “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims… to conduct yourselves honourably among the non-believers, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may glorify God by your good works which they observe.”  (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Finally – this is where we see this lofty idea of ‘holiness’ put into real, everyday practice.

Your job, my job; as a member of Christ’s Body, and as a member of this church, is to live in such a way that, when somebody wants to throw insults or slander us, they have no words; to live so that, when somebody speaks about us, all they have to go on are the good works that we have done in God’s name. 

Imagine that – imagine if we, each of us as individual members, lived lives like that.  Imagine if, every time someone drove by and noticed the church, every time someone saw “St. John’s Anglican Church” in the Facebook community group, every time a neighbour saw you – a member of the Church, the only words on their lips, all the evidence in our lives, pointed to God’s good works.  No matter how different their beliefs, no matter how different their priorities or the way they live their lives, imagine if we all lived such that they were speechless, except to list off the good works that they observe, and then, without even knowing it, they’re glorifying God for the work He’s done at our hands.

That would be holiness.  Just imagine.

A poor track record…

Unfortunately, though, churches don’t have the best track record.  Yes, sin and pride are part of the problem, but too often, it comes down to how we’ve chosen to live as dual citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the world around us, how we’ve chosen to live as foreigners and exiles on pilgrimage in the world.

Some Christians live as those who fly the flag of the foreign Kingdom proudly, as those who stick out as not belonging in the world, having nothing to do with the sinful world around them.  Unfortunately, the same thing happens for Christians who live that way as happens in many immigrant communities – they become cut off from the wider culture, and they only hang out amongst themselves. Not that it’s a bad thing to be proud of your identity, but if Christians are supposed to be on a mission to draw in those around us, and give no evidence except our good works, then Christians who cut themselves off from the world are going to have a hard time carrying out that mission.

And, on the other hand, there are those who have assimilated so well into the world around them, that it’s impossible to tell that they are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  This is the temptation that many churches have faced since the 1700s, especially us Anglicans.  If the Church has no different message than the world, then the mission also fails. There’s no point inviting someone in to something that looks exactly like the world around it, and, in the eyes of those outside, produces none of that fruit of good works that leaves them speechless.

No, we’re to live as those on a mission.  We’re in the world, for the sake of the world.

Now, that’s not always easy. 

Is it Persecution, or are we jerks?

As we read this morning, Peter warns the Church in every age that there will be suffering – something we already know from the lips of Jesus himself. 

But, even in the early Church, it seems people were quick to claim they were suffering for righteousness, when really they were just getting what they deserved; they were quick to say they were being persecuted, when really they were just being jerks.

“It is commendable”, Peter writes, “if you endure suffering for the sake of conscience toward God”. Yes, certainly. If we suffer for doing good, we are to follow Christ’s example. If someone robs from you, if someone slanders you, you don’t seek revenge.  No, you live your life so that the only thing people can say about you is about your good works that glorify your Father in Heaven.  As St. Paul says in Romans, even if your worst enemy is hungry or thirsty, go give him food and drink, so in the end even your enemy can’t say anything bad against you. (Romans 12:20, cf. Proverbs 25:21-22). When the world around us causes us to suffer for the sake of conscience, to suffer for what is right, then we trust fully in our Good Shepherd, and follow boldly, knowing that even the valley of the shadow of death if not a place to fear if we’re following where he guides.

But are we being persecuted when we’ve brought suffering on ourselves?  No, not at all.  “For what credit is it if, when you are punished for your faults, you take it patiently?” 

No, as dual-citizens, we’re to submit to those with authority over us, even when our leaders make decisions that anger and upset us – and certainly, this time in our history highlights that, no matter where you are on issues of the economy and public health and gun control, everyone’s got an opinion on what our leaders are doing.  Of course, it’s our duty to participate in politics – but, we are to do so while submitting to authority.  Why?  So that, no matter what, when people see us Citizens of the Kingdom of God, they are speechless except to give God glory for the good works done through us.

“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15).

This is where Christians have so often shot ourselves in the foot.

Turn on the American news today, and what do you see?  People claiming – in the name of  Christ – to be persecuted by public health orders to stay home; Christians making headlines as pastors are ticketed and fined for endangering the lives of the vulnerable, many of whom don’t even have access to proper healthcare. 

Just imagine.

If we were serious – if we were serious about being holy as God is holy, if we were serious about God’s will being done on earth as it is in Heaven – then, if the world wanted to find a story about Christians, there would be nothing to report except God’s good works: churches reaching out to communities; churches delivering necessities; churches partnering with governments and shelters and community organizations to meet people’s needs; churches finding new and creative ways to reach out to seniors and those who are isolated, so that even at a time like this, we bear one another’s burdens and spread God’s light in the world around us.

Thy will be done. 

Just imagine what our church – just imagine what our community – would be like if, every single time someone drove or walked past this building, every time they saw the church posting on Facebook, every time they saw our posters in the stores, if every time they saw you, as a member of the Church, the only words they could find to say would be to praise God for his good works done through us.

That can happen.  God can do it.  And it would change this church forever as God drew people in to the light of his Word.  That’s God’s will.  And, for his will to be done in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven, we need to be willing… to be holy, as He is holy.

Thy will be done… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

How often do we stop to think about what those words mean?

For so many of us, the Lord’s Prayer was one of the first things we learned as children (and for good reason, too: they’re the very words that our Lord gave us in his lesson on prayer!).  Those words are a part of every worship gathering of our churches, when we raise our voices as one to claim God as Our Father because we have been adopted as sons and daughters in baptism.  They’re comforting words – words we can turn to, words Jesus gave us, for every situation, and especially those times when we just can’t find the words to say.

But how often do we stop to think about what those words mean?

Over the next few weeks, our Sunday readings bring us through St. Peter’s first epistle, a letter in which he instructs Christians on how we should live in the world around us.  Far from simply calling us to “be good” and “do unto others…”, what we find there is much more profound; a much higher calling.  We’re called not just be ‘good’.  No, we’re to be holy.  Why?  Well, precisely because we are those who call God our Father; every time we say those words we are boldly claiming that we – you and me – have been made members of that royal family, and if God is our Father, than we are claiming to be nothing short of heirs of the eternal kingdom of God.  A kingdom built not on kindness and good manners, but holiness; “holy”, meaning that which is set apart from worldly use.

For St. Peter, and for the Church reading God’s Word in this season of Resurrection, this is where our faith comes down to brass tacks, this is where the rubber meets the road. If we say Christ is risen, if we say we’re sons and daughters of God, if we say Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us until his kingdom is revealed, then we have to put our money where our mouth is and live as those who are holy, as those preparing for that future glory as we learn by imitation to follow in our Lord’s steps.

Living as Citizens of the Kingdom

First and foremost, we must realize that, for all the good things in the world around us: for the beauty of the earth; for family, friends, and neighbours; for all the progress we have made in the past centuries towards a society built on freedom and justice, as proud as we should be for the ways that we help each other out, carry each other’s burdens, and make the world a little bit better by our efforts, we must realize that human effort will never be good enough to make the world as it ought to be; as we said on Easter Day, if there was any other way to restore our relationship with God and one another, then the Death and Resurrection of Jesus is completely unnecessary.  But there is no other way for that which is perishable – for bodies that cripple and wrinkle and seize up, and for minds that store up guilt, shame, and regret – to be re-made for eternal life.  No human effort can do that.

As we said last week, with doubting Thomas reaching into our Lord’s side, as we said at our Bible Class on Tuesday, the Gospel writers go to great lengths to make the point that Jesus rose in his body, that this is no spiritual experience or philosophy, but that Christ is the first fruits of a new crop; a crop that is imperishable.

And that’s important.  No amount of happy thoughts, positivity, or wishful thinking can turn that which is perishable into something non-perishable. 

A Food Bank analogy…

And, to be clear, this isn’t a lofty religious idea.  Here’s an example a bit more down-to-earth:

I can be the most generous person alive, the most giving; I can want with all my mind to make the world around me a better place… but, very practically, no amount of positive thinking makes bananas or fresh, ripe tomatoes good gifts for the food bank.  No amount of good will or generosity or positive thinking can change the perishable into non-perishable. 

No, what it takes is a complete change. 

Take a tomato, for example.

Tomatoes are great.  They’re versatile.  They’re full of great nutrients.  But, they’re perishable.  They bruise, then they rot, then they decay. 

And in spite of how great they are when they’re fresh, not only is a tomato a bad food bank gift… it’s actually harmful.  It rots, it spreads that decay to whatever is around it, and then it spawns mold that spreads.

If only there were a way to make tomatoes imperishable…

What’s required is for the very nature of the thing to change.  And, as a start, for the tomato to last, the first thing that happens is that it is cut down; it dies.  But in that dying, as the tomato is buried in the darkness of a pot and meets the source of heat and energy, the fresh tomato is transformed, and suddenly, put into a can, you have one of the best non-perishable foods you can buy: suddenly, that tomato is made into something that can last, not just a week in your fridge, but it is something that can be stored until, at the right time, it shares health and life with those around it.

And, of course, we don’t want to push our tomato analogy too far, but for us mortal, perishable people to share eternity, it requires us to be changed, to be made imperishable, a process which begins as we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism.

But that process doesn’t end there.  That process requires us to be set apart, to be holy. 

Now, holiness is an idea that often gets skewed.  It seems every few generations someone starts a new “holiness movement”, which, all too often, turns into a competition to see how good you are at keeping a law: whether it’s being a teetotaler, or in the old days, not dancing or chewing tobacco, or, perhaps in our own day, when it becomes about mindfulness and healthy living – none of which are bad, in and of themselves.

But, when Peter writes of holiness, he has a bigger idea in mind.

For Peter, holiness is about living here and now as those who know will share in the eternal life of God.  Or, as we read today, do not be conformed to the ways of the perishing world, but be set apart.  We’ve been picked up out of the spreading rot and decay of the perishable world, and washed clean, and are now called to live as the sons and daughters we are.

So Peter tells us, “live in reverent fear during this time of exile”.  Not fear as in being afraid, but the reverent fear of respecting the one in authority and knowing that actions have consequences; the reverent fear of longing to hear “well done, my good and faithful servant”.

St. Peter tells the Church to live now as we will live in Heaven.

Big Ideas

…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith as it is in Heaven.

In those familiar words, given to us my Jesus, we’re taught two big, bold ideas right in that one line. 

Thy Kingdom come.  The Kingdom of God isn’t here – yet.  But, with Jesus, we’re to long for that day when our faith will be sight.  Our faith is not in some far-off land of bliss, but as the Bible teaches, our faith is that God will restore that which has been broken, and those who trust in Him will share his imperishable life in a world where rot and rust and decay are done away, where sighing and tears are no more. 

That’s what we pray God will do.

But, bigger yet, we pray that, in the meantime, thy will be done, here, as it is in glory. 

That God’s will would be done here, where we are.

Of course, if God is who we believe him to be, we don’t have to wonder about his will as it is in Heaven: he’s revealed it for us in scripture, in great detail, about what the world will be like when his gracious, loving will, rather than our selfish wills are in charge. 

But, think about it: if he’s our Father, if we’re the heirs to his Kingdom, and our Lord taught us to pray that God’s will – the way of life in the Kingdom – would be found here and now, then what are we asking for? 

Are we asking for God to do something?

Or, are we really asking for God to assist us as we live as sons and daughters, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, even while we’re here, right now.  God’s will is being done in Heaven… for Our Father’s will to be done here, we’re asking for us to have the grace to be willing to live as those being prepared for eternity, and to live that way starting now.

Over the next 4 weeks, our lessons being us to explore this idea: how does St. Peter envision us being holy, as those already on the path to eternal life through baptism and the life of faith.  How do we let God’s will be done on earth, in a world where we’re subject to governments and employers, in a world whose economy and priorities doesn’t share God’s values, and in an age where it can cost us dearly when those Kingdom values don’t line up with whatever ideas are trending in our world this week.

Thy will be done… right here, as it is in heaven.

Well, what’s the first step? 
Be holy, as Our Father is holy.  Amen.