God’s Bountiful Presence, a Sermon Preached on June 1st, 2014 at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, CA
Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, CA
Seventh Sunday of Easter June 1, 2014
Acts 1:6-14 Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 John 17:1-11
God’s Bountiful Presence
Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. That makes a week of Sundays and seven times seven days makes 49 with the fiftieth day becoming Pentecost, which means fifty in Greek. Pentekosta Hēmera means the fiftieth day the Jubilee of words and languages and gifts of the Holy Spirit. In terms of gifts, Pentecost fills us with them spiritually the way Christmas does often only materially. But material gifts and spiritual ones are both important.
Thursday, when I wrote this sermon, was Ascension Day and it is reflected in our first lesson, the Acts reading. Although we seldom celebrate it, Ascension Day is very important. When my father immigrated to this country, he noticed how the pastor of the local Lutheran church was mowing his lawn. Very much shocked he asked, “Do you know what day this is?” The pastor didn’t. My father said, “It’s Ascension Day!” The pastor hurried into his house to check his calendar.
Mostly, however, we do not regard Ascension Thursday. But it is the day that marks the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances by his ascending to the right hand of God, the Father, so that the words of the prayer come true: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
We used to always sing an Ascension song in German that I translated into English:
The Lord Christ Jesus rules from Heaven.
To him all power and glory are given.
The whole world is his footstool. (Repeat this line.)
Let all tongues on Earth confess him.
He comes to us with crowns of blessing.
His dominion he shall rule. (Repeat this line.)
The German is very close.
Jesus Christus herscht als König.
Alles ist ihm untertänig.
Alles legt ihm Gott zu Fuss. (Repeat this line.)
Alle Zungen soll’n bekennen.
Jesus sei der Herr zu nennen.
Den man Ehre geben muss. (Repeat this line.)
The way the disciples are gazing up at the ascendant Christ and the two white-robed angels say that you should not be gazing up there, but down here, means that we are to focus on the here and now. Bonhoeffer called us to be this-worldly Christians. You and I are being sent into the world, like the Father sent Jesus – so don’t become so other worldly that you can do no earthly good. Fill this world with the bountiful presence of God. (Like an actor with a powerful stage presence, touch everyone around you with the Holy Spirit.)
The way the disciples were facing the wrong way reminds me of a sitcom on TV. Have any of you ever seen that sitcom on TV called Mash, which has played for years and years? In the opening scene they are all looking out for the arrival of a helicopter and they are all facing the wrong way. Then they have to turn around because it lands behind them. We Christians often face the wrong way focusing on other-worldly spirituality, rather than bringing God’s bountiful presence into our relationships here and now.
My son told me about the old story of Orpheus going to a completely deserted place and playing his lyre so beautifully there that all the plants, bushes, and trees gathered around him to listen, thus changing an arid place into an oasis, into paradise.
The way his music changed a desert into an oasis is the way our knowing God turns a sorry place into one filled by the bountiful presence of God. The bountiful presence of God is brought about by our knowing God, the relational intimacy with the One that makes the beloved community that Christ is praying for come into existence. I myself have always yearned for close relationships because a deeper quality of existence emerges out of them, when Christ is in our hearts.
But the birth of a whole community also comes about by the knowledge of God, the intimate and caring knowledge of God. As a seminarian I wanted to be an inner-city pastor. My internship took place in Cincinnati, Ohio – in an area called Over the Rhine on Race Street, Elm, Walnut, Main Street – where the city had deteriorated. People were down and out for the count. Prostitution was rampant. They even stood soliciting from the front steps of the church. I could tell you all kinds of stories. One fellow in the park across the street from the church would call me “Rev, hey Rev!” making it sound like the dirtiest of all words.
We went to see one fellow, a community organizer, whose ministry was to intentionally foster relationships. He knew about the bountiful presence of God and the community that could come together because he knew about the intimate and loving relationship he had with God and the way others could win such relationships. He would sit down in a Deli of a really depressed area and begin relationships. “I notice that Mary across the street has put a flower pot on her window sill.” he would say, for example. He would get to know people’s names and start helping people notice and see each other and learn each others’ names in that bountiful presence until a community was reborn out of the relationships he instigated. When he had gotten the fire started and relationships began to take, meaning that people saw each other and began to feel the suffering and joy of their community once more, he would proceed to another arid place, where they need to hear the music of knowing God and God’s Words and gifts and the bountiful presence that makes us more than victorious, makes us more than conquerors.
That’s why the disciples’ questions is way off base for the One who showed us the way. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus did not mobilize an army and get a military campaign ready to take Ethiopia. No. He sent Philip to the Ethiopian with his bountiful presence and that official of Candace, overwhelmed by understanding the suffering, victorious servant foretold by Isaiah, asked to be baptized and went on his way rejoicing. The Coptic Church has fostered God’s presence ever since. The children in our Vacation Church School would sing
The Ethiopian was rejoicing,
The Ethiopian was rejoicing,
The Ethiopian was rejoicing
to hear the good news.
Philip caught up in the Holy Spirit, shared Christ, the bread of life, the living water, bringing that Ethiopian into the bountiful presence of God filled with the sorrow and suffering that becomes translated into glory.
The disciples also still wanted the old earthly kingdom that fills the world with bloodshed. They still did not understand the mission of Christ. They wanted a kingdom like the other worldly kingdoms, while the beloved community of Christ grows out of relationships, tiny ones, which start out like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great bush in whose branches all God’s birds can make their nests, sweetly singing birds. The disciples wanted the proud cedars of Lebanon, while Christ kingdom more resembles a humble mustard bush.
The proud cedars of Lebanon stand for earthly empires, while the humble mustard bush stands for the beloved community. But that is not the kind of empire that the disciples want and the way they want Jesus the Messiah to conquer it. They like Peter are still peering into the wrong direction for the bountiful presence of God and God’s beloved community. Jesus has to tell Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan. You do not have God’s things in mind, but those of humans.”
Wherever we are and in whatever place, we have the Father God, whom we know cares about us. We can cast all our anxieties on him, freeing us up to relate to others. Knowing in the Hebrew sense is not a detached and indifferent knowing. It is taking a commitment. It is getting involved. It is participation. (I have to remember that when everyone is dancing and I’m just sitting there.) It is feeling the power of God rising up, ascending in us – not for our own sake, but for our sending into that place without relationships to bring a new quality of relationships into existence. And where our relationships have become stagnant, we can deepen them with self-knowledge, derived from knowing God. In John’s definition, our deepening knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ whom God sent is eternal life.
Somehow I almost see a method here proceeding from suffering and sorrow that Jesus translates into glory. We need to follow Jesus, turn around and face the cross and that will be glory for you and glory for me.
We Lutherans can take an example from this new pope. He is inviting the president of Israel and Palestine, Abbas and Peres, to pray together with him. Now they represent a flagrant and stagnant enmity. Stop and consider. The Palestinians are Semitic too. Both the Jews and Palestinians are Semitic people and he is inviting them to pray together with him for peace. What a bountiful presence of God could come and replace that horrid wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a wall designed to break all relationships. So Christ is praying for us in this lesson. The words of this Gospel for today are Christ’s High Priestly Prayer for us. Christ is therefore also praying for Pope Francis and that attempt at bringing peace into the Middle East. You can tell that Christ is praying for the Catholic Church. How else could Pope Francis have been elected?
And Christ is also praying for you and for this congregation here, Resurrection Lutheran Church and in Swahili and English to be sure. With his prayer he is making us all into Christs for one another, like that community organizer in Cincinnati, like that Big Brother of ours, who died on the cross out there beside the walls of Jerusalem and makes the way straight for us into the beloved community of the bountiful presence of God.
Jesus made the Sea of Galilee into the Sea of Life, filled with all kinds of fish, 173 varieties, bringing completely diverse people into relationships, gently and lovingly learning to know each other whether Tanzanian or Anglo. The beloved community becomes a Sea of Galilee full of the bountiful presence of God. It is separated from the Dead Sea by the Jordan River, which we have to cross – through dying to ourselves and coming alive to God.
So after a little suffering, St. Peter says, “The God of Grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” as your suffering gets translated into joy, into glory, the glory of the One sent us by God, that glory that Christ had before the world existed, bringing new worlds, new communities, filled by God’s bountiful presence again and again into existence. Amen.