Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I find historical shifts and counter-intuitive anomalies in the church calendar particularly interesting. We find ourselves today smack-dab in one of those peculiar periods of the liturgical year in which we may find some topical and tonal confusion. Historically today was called “the Sunday after the Ascension” part of the ten day season of Ascensiontide and the lessons would have more explicitly gestured toward that peculiar period between when Christ left the earth and when the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles on Pentecost.

The contemporary approach, chosen by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Revised Common Lectionary, have suppressed this “mini-season” in order to emphasize the unity of the fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. No longer are we supposed to snuff the paschal candle after the Gospel on Ascension Thursday. No longer is our Gospel reading for today an explicit reminder of the coming of the Holy Spirit after the Lord has slipped the surly bonds of earth. Even the name of the day has been changed, from “The Sunday after the Ascension” to “The Seventh Sunday of Easter.” You’ll note that our hymns this week and even the bulletin cover art have a distinctly Ascension theme, but that because your rector gets to choose those things as opposed to what is set out by authority in the prayerbook.

This is all fine, and not worth getting bent out of shape over, but I think it’s worth highlighting because the sense of transition and liminality of the old season of Ascensiontide tracks so well with what we so often experience in this life and particularly in this moment of our common life as we transition slowly but surely to something more like normality after the strangest (and, for some, most difficult) fourteen months of our lives. The modern suppression of a fulsome Ascensiontide notwithstanding, we find ourselves is one of those periods in the church year where we wait and watch for what comes next, like the season of Advent or Holy Saturday.

I wonder if the Apostless feelings during the ten days between Christ’s Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost might be a bit like what we are experiencing these days. We remember what life was like before and we know something new is on the horizon which will be fundamentally different, but we can’t quite imagine yet what that will be like. The apostles muddled through; they even managed to replace their fallen member, with some confidence that things were going to get better but without the pudding’s proof having yet been tested. (As an aside, I don’t know about their internal politics, but I hope those dioceses that managed to go through the process of electing a bishop during the pandemic took some lessons and gained some confidence and hope by looking at the story of the calling of Matthias, which we heard this morning).

In any event, there is some remarkably Good News for us, for the church, and for the world in this “in-between time.” The point of Christ’s ascent into heaven is not that we are left down here to carry on without the benefit of his presence and just work it out amongst ourselves as best we can. I’ve seen some remarkably bad “hot takes” on social media this week suggesting that to be the point, and they always lean into this sort of semi-pelagian, “work it out for yourself now” message. Aside from being biblically and theologically false, I think just looking at human history shows that what happens when we put all our trust in man’s goodness and ingenuity is usually pretty disastrous.

The point is not that Christ has abandoned us to work it out for ourselves. The point is that Christ has been glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father. No longer limited to a single place and time, no longer wandering ancient Palestine, he has deposed the rulers of this old world: death and sin and the devil. He now rules over all. He is, as the prayer I say privately after every celebration of the Eucharist, alive and reigning from his throne of glory in heaven, on tens of thousands of altars, and in the hearts of hundreds of millions of faithful Christians throughout the world.

We await the Spirit to come and comfort us, but in the meantime, we have an advocate who is always with us and is Lord of all. Thanks be to God that he has given us the victory and will come again to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.