Friday, January 15, 2010


EASTER VII — May 28, 2006
Grace Church, Utica

Life is busy with entrances and exits. People come go; they arrive and they depart; people are born and people die. In most societies both the time of birth as well as the time of death are marked with rites and ceremonies. Births and deaths are registered because they affect other people and have public importance. New arrivals are greeted and fussed over; new departures are prayed for and mourned.

When people depart this life, we no longer have direct contact with them. If they were close friends or loved ones, we mourn their loss. This was where the disciples found themselves following the crucifixion of Jesus; it’s why they felt so shattered and forsaken. His death was a literal hell for them because it seemed to give them a future without hope. But then death did not have the final word. Their faith was renewed and their hope reborn when they experienced the Lord’s resurrected presence. That renewal was important because those appearances would last only a short time. Eventually Jesus would return to the Father, the God from whom he had come. Ascension Day marks that time of the Lord’s return.

When we consider the Lord’s Ascension, the first thing we need to be clear about is that this is something that has to do with God. It is not about gravity, or the physical location of heaven, or any of that. It is about God. In fact, even though it comes toward the end of the Easter season, the meaning and significance of the Ascension is more closely aligned with Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation--- the Christian belief that in the person of Jesus, God assumed human flesh and lived among us. At the Ascension it all comes full circle. To use the words of the Creed, the one who ‘for us and our salvation came down from heaven,’ now returns to his place of honor with the Father.

At Christmas everything that is divine became fully human in the person of Jesus. At the Ascension, everything that is human, became, for all eternity, a part of the divine--- a part of who God is. You see, it was not the spirit of Jesus, or the essence of Jesus, it wasn’t the invisible part or the idea of Jesus, that ascended to the Father. It was the resurrected body of Jesus: a body that the disciples had touched, a body that ate and drank with them, a real, physical, but gloriously restored body, bearing the marks of nails and a spear. This is what ascended, and what is, now and forever, a living, participating part of God. In fact, we can say as a matter of faith that the Ascension changed who God is.

It is important to really take to heart what the Ascension says about being human. Sometimes we’re uncertain about the value of our humanity and what it means to be human. We’re sometimes unsure about our bodies, about our human passions and inclinations. We don’t like to accept our limitations, or the fact that someday we’re going to die. We don’t know what to make of the pain we go through in our interpersonal relationships, or the struggles, joys, and setbacks that always seem to be a part of our search for God. We are often baffled by the power that our feelings and emotions seem to have over us. All of these parts of being human, and so many others, we frequently treat as less than holy, as somehow separated from our spiritual and religious lives.

Taken together, the Incarnation and the Ascension remind us that being human is a good thing. It is an important thing, a wonderful and yes, even a holy thing to be a human being. It’s so important and wonderful and holy that God did it. Even more, the fullness of God now includes that humanity. The experience, the reality, and the stuff of being a person is so valuable that it became a permanent part of God's life.

This is not to say that everything about us or everything we human beings do is wonderful and holy. But it is very clear that in the eyes of God it is a wonderful and holy thing to be a human being. This is one reason we should treat ourselves, and each other, with care and with respect. The Ascension, the fact that God has brought into himself one who is fully human, stands as a reminder that human beings are sacred, and must not be taken lightly or abused.

The Ascension also means that God knows what it’s like to be a person in a very different way than God knows what it’s like to be anything else in creation. God knows what it is like to be a human being because God remembers--- and I don’t know any better way to express it. God remembers.

When we approach God, when we try to share our lives with God, it is important for us to know that we are dealing with one who knows and who remembers what human life is like, one who knows and remembers in a very personal way. God remembers what it’s like to hurt and to laugh, to pray and to hunger, to be lost and afraid, to celebrate and to mourn; God remembers what it’s like to live and what it’s like to die. God knows this in the only way that really matters as far as relationship is concerned. God knows because God has been there.

So we can approach God with both confidence and joy. When we turn toward God, we are not only dealing with the Creator of the universe and the ruler of all time and of eternity; we are also drawing near to the one who lived our life and shared our fate. We are coming near to one who knows us and who cares.

There’s an ancient story about God’s original problem: where to place his most precious possession--- his own image. He called three wise counselors, to listen to their suggestions. The first advised God to put his image on the top of the highest mountain on earth; but God declined. The second proposed that God should put his image in the depths of the deepest sea; but again God declined. The third suggested the far side of the moon; but God smiled to himself and said that even there human beings could reach it. Then God came to his own idea: “I will place my image where people will never think of
looking. I will put it into their hearts. There, it will never be discovered.”

The image of God, the light of God, is in the place where we rarely look: in our own heart. God’s presence is within us, not as a hiding place, but that we might discover him in the closest possible place. And so it was that St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “He withdrew from our eyes that we might return to our own heart to find him.”

You don’t need to search the heavens to find God. God’s presence and God’s kingdom are as close as your own breath. Indeed as Jesus told us himself, God’s presence and God’s kingdom are within you.

© James M. Jensen


CHRIST THE KING - November 25, 2007
Grace Church, Utica

Among the ways that people try to understand life and the world, and their own place in it, some have occasionally seen it as a continuing series of actions and reactions. For example, a young man asks a young woman for a date. Then he waits for her response: will she say “yes” or “no?” A politician campaigns for public office. How will the voters respond? Will he win or lose?

In reading the Gospels, we find that the reaction to Jesus, the response of people to his preaching and teaching, was always mixed: some positive, and some negative. On the positive side were the crowds, the common folk who were inspired by his words and often spellbound by his miracles. On the negative side were many of the religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their own prestige and authority. They tried to publicly discredit Jesus with trick questions about the scriptures. Failing in that effort, they turned to a level of hatred and violence that resulted in the Lord’s crucifixion.

Right up to the very end, even in the Passion narratives, we have a story of mixed reaction. Pilate’s wife is apprehensive and fearful. She has a dream about Jesus and urges her husband to have nothing to do with these efforts to have him executed. Pilate’s own reaction is that of a coward. He listens to all the evidence and then washes his hands of the whole thing in an effort to absolved himself of any guilt. He believes that Jesus is the victim of jealousy and trumped-up charges, but he’s afraid of the Temple leaders and their ability to cause him trouble.

On that hill called Golgotha, the reaction continues to be mixed. Some people are just curious— they’ve come to watch what’s going on. Others make fun of Jesus and mock him. According to his followers he’s supposed to be a king. But what kind of king looks like such a failure? And if he really is a king, then why doesn’t he use some of his royal power? If he’s God’s son, then why doesn’t God do something?

One of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus is just plain angry. If Jesus is the Savior, then why doesn’t he save all three of them from this inhumane death? It’s quite different with the second thief; he responds with that plea of faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Times really haven’t changed very much. Human responses to the life and ministry of Jesus are still mixed. Some respond with fear and apprehension, some with cowardice, and some with anger and cynicism. Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what you believe about Jesus— or if you believe anything at all.

There are still those who mock, because they think faith in anything or anyone is silly. And the anger can be very real too. If Jesus is the Savior he claims to be, then why doesn’t he save us— save us from cancer and heart attacks, from poverty and prejudice? Why doesn’t Jesus do something about the mess that the world is in? How can he be aware of it and not act?

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus was confronted with temptation. Following his baptism he went off alone, into the wilderness, to grapple with the temptation to use his power and authority in ways that would give him huge crowds and notoriety, but which did not represent the Father’s plan or will for his life. That temptation returns, with the force of a thousand demons, in those taunts from soldiers, echoed by that first thief: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself [and us as well]”

But the kingship of Jesus is not reflected in grandstand plays and the flexing of muscle. It is reflected in his willingness to share and experience human life in all its fullness— the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus’ kingship is shown in taking upon himself all the evil, humiliation and suffering of this world, and then, by his resurrection, destroying their power. In the end his regal pronouncements are words of mercy and compassion: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

It was this compassion that was seen and felt by the repentant thief. There was no jeering or railing from this man, only a simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Think about that request: Jesus, remember me. If Jesus's death was to be just that— his death, the end of everything— then it would have been pointless to ask him to remember anything. Dead men have short memories. But the repentant thief caught a glimpse of this king. He could see the divine nature of Jesus reflected in those words of mercy and compassion— a prayer uttered on behalf of all those responsible for his agony. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And that same divine love and mercy are extended to this repentant thief, as Jesus says to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“You will be with me”— words spoken originally to a condemned man minutes before his death, but words that convey the promise intended for all who would become Jesus’ followers. It’s a promise that can bring hope to situations in our own lives that might otherwise seem hopeless. “You will be with me.” How can Jesus make such a promise?

In this morning’s second lesson from the letter to the Colossians, St. Paul wrote:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.... He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven....

Jesus is not just a good man and a great teacher. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who can save because he is the embodiment of God’s very being. And that means he is both Lord and King. He guarantees that no evil can have any ultimate power over us; his promise is that we will always be with him— today, tomorrow, and for eternity. That promise is renewed each and every time we come to this altar to receive him under the sacramental forms of Bread and Wine.

Leave your uncertainties and suspicions behind, and come to the King’s table. Receive in your hands the Bread of Life; and touch the Cup of Salvation to your lips. Live in confidence and in peace, knowing that his reign has only just begun, and that we will be with him and he with us— today, tomorrow, and for ever.

© James M. Jensen