Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – The Feast of the Ascension (transferred) – June 5, 2011
Every week, as we gather around the altar, in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, we stop and say as a community the Memorial Acclamation, “ Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It is easy to overlook because it is a simple statement and we do not bow, make the sign of the cross, or punctuate it with incense as we say it. Yet, the Memorial Acclamation points to one of the profound realities of the Eucharist—when we participate in the Eucharist, we participate in the past, in the present, and in the promise of the future. The Memorial Acclamation reminds us that the Eucharist exists in sacred time, when what was, what is, and what will be come together.
But this is not a sermon about the mysteries of the Eucharist. Though it is central to our worship, the reality is that we do not spend most of our lives gathered here around God’s table, the reality is that we spend most of our lives out in the world with family and friends, in community with others, in meetings at night and Saturday mornings here at the church, discussing grocery lists, household chores, local politics, and the church budget. We spend most of our lives somewhere between the second and third points of the memorial acclamation, between “Christ is risen,” and, “Christ will come again.”
Today, on the Feast of the Ascension, the scriptures firmly locate the early Christians in this transition between “Christ is risen,” and, “Christ will come again.” There they were, the disciples of Jesus, standing around talking with him, when all of a sudden, Jesus begins to float up into the air and is swept from their sight in a cloud. Can you imagine their shock and awe that they felt as they watched their teacher and leader, the one whom they had witnessed die and then rise again, rising one more time into the sky? I suspect, however, that even more than shock and amazement running through their minds as they stared into the sky, was the question, “What now?”
The words of the two mysterious, white-clad messengers seem to confirm this, for their words are not, “Do not be afraid,” but instead an answer to the question, “What now?” “Christ will come again,” is their response to the collective bewilderment of the disciples. But Christ has not yet returned, and we are stuck, just as these disciples, in the uncertainty that falls between the certainty of Christ walking among us, and the promise of things to come. It is not an uncertainty of whether or not the promise will come true, but the uncertainty of a promise not yet fulfilled, the uncertainty of what happens until that promise comes true, the uncertainty of “What now?”
So what did the disciples do? The scripture tells us that these women and men who had followed Christ went back and began to pray together, worship together, after Jesus rose into the sky, after they first asked the question, “What now?” What today’s reading does not share, but the scriptures do contain, is that not long after, these women and men had the first committee meetings of the church as they tried to figure out what to do next, who was going to do it, and how they were going to pay for it.
We know that Acts contains an accurate depiction of the early church, because shortly after the ascension it tells the story of the first budget meeting. And although scripture does not record it, I strongly suspect that it was at one of these committee meetings that the phrase, “We’ve never done it that way,” was uttered for the first time.
It is a matter of academic debate as to when the early followers of Christ first became the Church, but I would venture to offer that it was when the community of the faithful was first forced to ask the question that forms one of the core dilemmas of our faith, “What now?” We are a community in transition, somewhere between the reality that Christ is risen and the promise that Christ will come again; the transition between the certainty of what was and the promise of what will be.
If this is starting to sound familiar, it should, because it is in many ways similar to the questions we are facing here at St. Paul’s. Or perhaps, more accurately, the questions we are facing at St. Paul’s are similar to the questions facing the early church, for the dilemma we face is a facet, a reflection, of the dilemma of the Church across the ages. Here at St. Paul’s we are asking ourselves our own piece of the great question, “What now?”
Now you’re probably thinking that I’m talking about the budget, and the truth is that the budget is a part of the question we are facing as a community, but only a part. The Holy Spirit never seems to be content with what is comfortable and certain, and so a long time ago, the Holy Spirit began to trouble the waters and whisper in your ears, “Oh my children, I yet have a vision for you.” And so this community found itself partaking in the great dilemma of our Church, asking, “What now?” as we found ourselves in that transition between the certainty of what was and the vision of what the Holy Spirit has in store for this community.
So this community came together to try and answer the question, and set out on the work of radical welcome, so that all people would come to know the message of God’s radical love. Again this community had to ask itself, “What now?” and we came together and set out to create the music program that we have, so that all may have the opportunity to participate in the transcendence of worship. By then, this community was really starting to grow, and so we once again had to ask, “What now?” Again, coming together as a community, we set out to make more space, reclaiming the Warner Center and adding a third service to our Sunday mornings.
Now almost a year has passed and we have continued to grow. We find that our way of community is in transition as we can no longer rely on seeing everyone when we come to a worship service on Sunday, and we are having to come together to figure out what to do next, who is going to do it, and how we’re going to pay for it.
To figure it out, we look to our ancestors in the church, those women and men who first stared up into the sky and asked, “What now?” Following their lead, we keep coming together in prayer and fellowship. In this time of transition, we dig deeply in to the life of our parish, the life of our community, and all that it entails: our worship, choir practice, formation, parish picnics, committee meetings, our care for the sick and homebound, our outreach within the larger community, coffee hour, book groups, and even budget meetings. We are asking as a community the right question, the authentic question, “What now?” And in doing so we are participating with the whole of Christian history that has come before us, as we face the questions of what is now, in the anticipation of the promise of what will be.