A Sermon preached at St. Augustine's Cghurch, Wiesbaden on Sunda June1 (Easter VII and Sunday after the Ascension)
Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
This Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension here at St. Augustine’s. I told that small and select group that celebrated on your behalf, as your vicars or deputies, because that’s what vicar means in fact, that my image of the Ascension is not of Jesus vanishing up into a cloud. I don’t think of heaven as being up or of God as being above us. We’ve been up and out there, we’ve left our planet both with manned and unmanned spacecraft and God was not sitting out there on a cloud waiting for us. In some way, God is everywhere, so that is where Jesus, who ascended to the Father must be too. What Ascension does mean however is that Jesus was and is no longer present on earth as a living, breathing, human being, not even in his changed post-Resurrection form.
This must have been a huge disappointment for the disciples, perhaps not as great as the first disappointment of Jesus’ death. But they had only recently rejoiced in his resurrection and had just got used to having him back. So as Jesus was taken from their sight, they must also have been asking themselves, why? Why couldn’t he have stayed? Why does he have to leave us again?
Just before he was lifted up and taken out of their sight, Jesus tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them (Acts 1:7) and that they will be his witnesses until the ends of the earth. (1:8) These are two reasons why. In John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples again and again that in some way he must first leave them to make room for God’s Spirit. And with Christ’s departure we take on the role of witnessing to him and to the Father. At the very moment of Jesus’ Ascension and departure, at least from our physical plane, he commissions the disciples to act on his behalf, to be his body, his voice, his hands, to be his presence in all the world.
We find the same pattern in the Gospel passage. First Jesus celebrates the fact that his work on earth has been done. Then he prays to the Father that he will be exalted, glorified and lifted up to the position with his Father that has been his from the beginning of time. Finally he commissions the disciples whom he is sending into the world to act on his and the Father’s behalf. Their work, and ours, is far from done you see. He prays for their sanctification, that they be set apart for God’s work, and for their protection. He gives thanks that they were given to him, that they have received the Good News, that they believe that Jesus came from God, that they will remain in the world to witness to this truth, and he prays for unity, that they will be one, as Jesus is one with the Father.
So it is entirely appropriate that we are celebrating a Baptism today on this Sunday after the Ascension. On the one hand Baptism is a celebration of initiation and of membership. We will welcome Marshall into Christ’s body, the Church. But it is also a ceremony of commissioning, not just for Marshall, but for all of us when we renew our Baptismal vows, the promises we made when we were first commissioned as the successors of the first followers of Christ, those men and, as the reading from Acts reminds us, women!
We will sanctify Marshall: we will set him apart for God. We will pray for his safety and protection; and especially for his preservation from Satan and from the evil powers of this world. On his behalf his parents and godparents will promise to do all that they can to ensure that he turns to Jesus Christ, to whom like the disciples he has already been given, that he trusts in him, and that the follows and obey him. And then we will do the same when we renew our Baptismal Covenant.
In Jesus’ prayer he tells the Father that “the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you.” (John 17:8) Having received these words and knowing that Jesus is from God, it is our calling, as we will promise in a moment, to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
The disciples know that everything Jesus is and does is from and of God, that Jesus has been sent by God, and that he has unveiled God’s character and purpose, which is love. Our promise based on this knowledge will be to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to meet an engage them in love.
As Jesus will no longer be in the world as a living, breathing human being, he sends his disciples to assume the place in the world that he had held. And so in the disciples’ place we too promise to go into the world bringing God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s peace.
In a moment Marshall will be baptized, first with water, which is the symbol of the new life in Christ that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) Water is also a symbol of cleansing, though it is Jesus’ words and teaching that do the real work of cleansing: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3)
Then Marshall will be sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, fulfilling Christ’s promise made just before his Ascension that his disciples “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5) The Spirit stands for unity, unity with God and with one another in Christ’s body
And Jesus finishes his prayer to the Father with a prayer for unity:”Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11) . He puts this last because unity is so essential for our mission. As long as we are divided, our witness to the One God, to the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is impaired. That is the motivation behind the ecumenical movement and in just under a week, on Saturday June 7th, we will join with our brothers and sisters in Christ in celebrating our unity in diversity at the Geist-reich Ecumenical festival.
The sacrament of Baptism is something that unites us across denominations, even when the sacrament of the Eucharist still, sadly, divides us and cannot always be shared: though please know that all baptized Christians are welcome to share in the bread and wine made holy at this table. During my time as one of the chairs of the Council of Anglican Episcopal Churches in Germany we signed an agreement of mutual recognition of Baptism with most of the churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, represented in Germany.
But of course unity is not just a matter for denominations. Unity is also essential within a church or congregation. Despite differences of opinion there can be no boundaries between us, nothing that stops is being united in faith, in love, and in devotion. Division is a sin, but like all sins it can be forgiven. All it takes (which is a lot I know) is the willingness to be reconciled and to forgive. So as we come together to baptize Marshall and to welcome him into the one Church of Christ, let him and his Baptism be both a symbol and a call to our unity.