On the Sunday after the Ascension

by Fr. Antony Hughes

Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 23, 2004

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

It is easy to get distracted these days. The world is changing before our eyes. Sometimes it is difficult to find solid ground, to find something firm to hold on to, something sure, something unchangeable, and something solid, something safe. Society is in upheaval and there is much anxiety. I feel it and I am sure most if not all are touched by it in some way. We must not lose our focus.

I can imagine that the Lord felt much as we do now as he faced the agony in Gethsemane and the long road to Golgotha. The Gospel reading for today comes from the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer before the Passion as he readied himself for what His enemies were plotting, Judas was betraying, the disciples were sleeping, the whole world it seemed was turning against him and yet in the midst of all this he prayed these words, “Father, glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you.”

Jesus knew there was only one solid and safe place to go. He also knew that in the end his Father and he would triumph over the darkness to the benefit of all humanity. He did not lose his focus.

The world around us is troubled. People are longing for freedom, solace, peace, and justice and that in itself is a good thing. There is much suffering out there. We often hear these times spoken of as “post-Christian”, which means that the influence of Christianity no longer predominates where it once did. Really, I do not believe there has ever been a Christian empire or era, for Christ did not come to set up empires, kingdoms, governments or social systems. The Gospel is not of this world any more than the kingdom of heaven is. The Gospel is radically opposed to the very things that are foundational to earthly power. The essential battles cannot be fought and won in State houses and Supreme Courts. What Christ came to teach and to offer us cannot be legislated. The real battleground is the human heart. The Fathers and others of the Church have said so over and over again. It has always been so and will always be so.

I do not know why we should expect society to listen to us. When it looks at the Christian churches what does it see? Real estate squabbles between the Orthodox in the old country and jurisdictional nonsense in America, sexual scandals in Rome, chaos and theological poverty among the Protestants. And comparing how we conduct ourselves with the example of the Savior is no better for sure. The Lord, who had no place to lay his head, has been replaced by power-hungry Bishops in Episcopal palaces. He who taught that to feed the hungry is the epitome of discipleship has followers who are too busy gorging themselves and building bigger barns to notice the poor man at the gate. Our cathedrals are glittering and gilded, but the true temples of the Living God, the women and men who are hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned and dying, are left in ruins outside our doors. Of course I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Why should we be surprised when society does not hold to our cherished traditional Christian values? So much of what we call the Christian life makes no sense at all if you try and apply it outside of a living experience of Christ himself. St. Paul wrote, “that if there is no resurrection from the dead, then we Christians are the most miserable of people.” Obedience without love is slavery. “If you love me,” Christ said, “keep my commandments.” We must always remember that even those who follow a Christian lifestyle do not adore a set of values, an ethical system, or a moral program; Christ alone is worthy of adoration.

The Lord Jesus could have given himself over to despair in the face of Gethsemane and the Cross, but he did not. Yes, he wept and suffered and pleaded with God, but in the end his faith was stronger than fear. In the end faith in his Father bore fruit that brought him through “the valley of the shadow of death” into the glorious light of the Resurrection. And so it will for us, if we keep our focus. With our hearts and minds set on the beauty, the love, the grace, the power of the living God there is not one reason to fear even if the entire world should turn against us. In fact, the Church prospers when She is persecuted. This is when we must respond to all challenges with extreme humility and even martyrdom, with blessings on our lips and never curses. This, my friends, is the time for extreme humility, for removing the logs from our eyes, for deep and gut-wrenching repentance, for God-like acts of compassion, for the courage to give our lives for the sake of our neighbors.

I firmly believe, my sisters and brothers in Christ, that the Lord is at work all around us. His ways are mysterious, but his intentions are well known. There is not one human being he does not love. There is no one for whom he did not die. There is no place he is not, no one he does not at every moment embrace, no event that he has not foreseen and nothing that can change his love to wrath. We must have faith in him, not in our own understandings nor in our own senses. We must trust that he will never forsake us, or this world. We must believe that the light can never be overtaken by night. We must know that no matter what happens around us God remains Who and What he is. And for this reason and this reason alone despair can have no place in us.

In the light of the Resurrection, the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit we have every reason to celebrate! Christ is in our midst!