The stereotype is true: Canadians are really friendly. I visited Toronto this week, and from start to finish, was greeted with a smile. From customs officials exclaiming, “Oh, Boston so beautiful!” to the men at the rental car pick-up station who refused to let me leave without detailed instructions to get to the retreat center, everyone was helpful. On my way to return my rental car, I stopped at gas station near airport. A man who was in the car ahead of me at the pumps asked me directions as he returned to his car carrying coffee. “I don’t know,” I yelled, – “I’m from Boston.” At this he set down his coffees, trotted over to my car and gave me a high five. “Welcome to Canada!” he exclaimed.
We “expect” Canadians to be friendly. What do people expect of Christians? What should they expect of Christians in a world of great challenges, complicated news, and unexpected jury decisions?
Maybe you’re already humming “They will know we are Christians by our love.” That’s fine, but not enough. I want to dig a little deeper. And I want to do so by focusing on where we are in the church year. We’re at the tail end of the Easter season, in what is sometimes called “Ascensiontide.” This is the short period after Christ ascends to the right hand of God, but before the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem. Our first reading today comes from the first Ascensiontide. Peter is speaking after the resurrected Lord ascended.
Ascension is the final movement in the work of salvation through Jesus: Jesus is incarnate (which we celebrate at Christmas), heals and witnesses (which we hard about through Epiphany & Lent), suffers and dies (Good Friday), and rises (Easter season). Finally, he ascends.
The Bible doesn’t say a lot about this “ascension” except that he was “taken up into the air as they watched.” Many churches ignore the Ascension. To our modern minds it sounds like hooey. But to be faithful, we must take it into our accounting of God’s work, as we do the rest of the story of Jesus. What matters is not the physics but the theology of the ascension: In it, Christ returns to the divine life of God from which he came– but he does so having lived as one of us. He takes with him our humanity; he restores us to the source of our being, to our own divine life. He lives in intimacy with God the Creator.
That’s nice but a little abstract. And so a lot of people leave it there, saying, “OK, maybe the Ascension gives us a vision of life with God after death.” But I believe it’s much more than that and much more relevant to the here and now: We are baptized into the body of Christ. So this restoration with God, this recovered intimacy with our maker, is happening now, in us. Through Christ’s ascension we are sanctified. In today’s gospel, Jesus is praying to the Father, “Sanctify them, Father,” make them one as you and I are one. That’s what the ascension makes possible. Baptized into the Trinity, ascended with Christ, we share in the divine life of God. …We are already glorified with Christ. (Br. James Koester, ssje).
What if we took this seriously? What if we believed that we are sanctified, and we share in the divine life of God? What would it look like to live that?
I think we would be not just Canadian-friendly, but outrageously hopeful and brave for love’s sake.
If we share in the divine life of God, then we see all of creation, and each human being, as God sees them. We see their beauty and uniqueness and dignity.
If we share in the divine life of God then we see each person we encounter, each person with whom we are at odds, each person from whom we are alienated as someone for whom God gave and gave and gave himself, someone for whom Christ is even now interceding.
In the prayer from which today’s gospel comes, Jesus uses the word give 17 times. “The Father gives Jesus authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom God has given him. He has given Jesus work to do, but most of all in the section under consideration this week, it is a question of those whom God has given Jesus from the world. They were first the Father’s own but are now Jesus’ own. Jesus has given them words and indeed the word (logos) that the Father gave to him. But the prayer is about them, the given ones.” (Meda Stamper, workingpreacher.org)
Christ gives to us and Christ sends us out to give, and give, and give again.
If we are sharing in the divine life of God as members of the ascended Christ, then we look like people who go the extra mile for others. We look like people who pray even when prayer seems hopeless, and people who offer our gifts not for the amassing of personal fortunes or reputations but for the good of the whole.
In the Episcopal Church (as in the Roman Catholic Church) our Ascension faith has led our bishops and conventions for generations to oppose the death penalty. This week, after the penalty for Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was announced, our diocesan bishops reaffirmed that in a public statement:
Our church’s teaching insists that institutionalized violence neither answers nor prevents other forms of violence, and that execution is an unjustified violation of the prohibition against taking a human life–even in a case such as this where the wanton disregard for life displayed by the Marathon bombing is repugnant and morally inexcusable.
As Episcopalians we are not required to agree with this teaching, but we are asked to hear and consider it. And regardless of where we stand on the death penalty, we are asked to wrestle deeply with what looks like to follow a Savior who would not give up hope for even criminals, who would not let Peter use his sword against those who came to arrest him, would not reject the thief on the cross, did not take revenge on Peter who denied him three times but rather asked him three times “Do you love me?” pulling him back into the life boat of salvation.
Sanctified in Christ, we are invited into an outrageous, courageous love in the face of what seems hopelessly depraved or threatening. God gave and gave and gave for us, even when we messed up or seemed hopeless. How do we do that here and now? We do what God does — dwell on life.
Yesterday, Kevin Cullen wrote eloquently in the Globe about what it has looked like in the days since the Marathon bombing:
To those of us who live in and around Boston, the Marathon bombings were never about death as much as about life. We were in awe of and paid homage to the lifesavers, including those Watertown cops who tried to save Tamerlan Tsarnaev even after he tried so desperately to kill them.
We don’t dwell on the way Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, Krystle Campbell, and MIT police Officer Sean Collier died. We remember how they lived: Sean, who let a homeless man sleep in a locked campus building on a cold winter’s night; Krystle, who wouldn’t let a day end without hugging her dad; Lingzi, who aimed for Wall Street to repay the parents who sacrificed so much so she could leave China to study in the United States; Martin, sweet Martin, holding that sign he made in school, “No More Hurting People.
Wherever the people of God have lived into their calling it has started with dwelling on life. This is not an escape from the hard stuff in life, but rather a deep dive into the midst of it, grounded in the knowledge that we participate in the divine life of Christ and so have nothing to fear.
It looks like 15 people from Good Shepherd joining 60 others from Watertown & others to walk side by side with those who’ve lost their children to violence. It looks like members of our parish helping students at Perkins School for the Blind who have been bullied find their voice and share their stories and become educators and mentors of others; it looks like two folks from CGS visiting a lonely man at Emerson Village, not because it’s their duty or “their turn” on the visitors’ rota, but because he is a child of God with prayers of his own that need hearing.
The news of this world can feel overwhelmingly discouraging. And each one of us holds relationships and dreams and cares that seem to be dead and buried. But we are an Ascension people, sent into the world as the Body of Christ, a sign of the divine life that courses through every vein of every body. Let the world see and know good news in us and through us as we give and give and give, together with one another and our God.
Like a Canadian running to high five a stranger and exclaim “Welcome to Canada”, let us run to embrace the least, the lost, and the last, exclaiming “Welcome to the reign of God.”
— The Rev. Amy McCreath