“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when the Church remembers our Lord Jesus Christ’s exaltation into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection from the dead. At his ascension, Jesus told his disciples: “Remain in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” So they waited and prayed for 9 days, and then on the 10th, on the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them and empowered them to preach the good news to the ends of the earth.
That formative period of prayer, which the early disciples’ experienced, so caught the imagination of the Church that Christians down the centuries have marked the time between the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost by engaging in fervent prayer.
In imitation of the early disciples, we pray for power, for strength and comfort, for the coming of the Holy Spirit in our own time and in our own lives. The “global wave of prayer” instigated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Thy Kingdom Come, is an excellent modern example of that. We have provided some resources here at St Bene’t’s for our own prayers together, but you can find more on the main website of this ecumenical movement.
It’s sort of a curious thing, however. You may have noticed, if you’ve been in Church for some time, that we are constantly doing this, constantly recalling the events that happened to the first generation of Christ’s disciples and to Christ himself. They are set before our eyes again and again. This is why we read sections from the Acts of the Apostles throughout the season of Easter, it’s why we read and re-read the Gospels throughout the year. We are always looking carefully at what characterized that early community of Christ’s disciples. For we believe that the presence of Christ shaped and defined their experience in ways that remain definitive for the Church in every age.
It is as if we were all painters, looking intently at a model, object, or landscape. We trace every line with our eyes, we try to capture the colors and qualities of the original, its light and shade, its mood and spirit. We make notes and studies, perhaps many of them, and only then do we mark our canvas with brush stroke after brush stroke, mixing paint delicately or layering it vigorously like Picasso, as our study requires.
You might say that this is our primary task in the Church: to look to the original and paint well – to look at the Gospels, Acts and Epistles, and all the books of the Old Testament, and then paint, not on or with normal materials, but on the canvas of our life and with its materials (emotions, actions, habits, rituals, prayers). We look constantly to our subject, and we attend constantly to our selves, “our souls and bodies” – in the hope of creating a thing of beauty, based on the original model, but freshly expressed in the context of our own time and place. And, like all the great Masters, we only come to paint well by learning from the example of those who came before us, all the saints of ages past, and by working with each other and being disciplined by each other in the present.
For this reason, we can never approach a text of Scripture and say, “That’s about someone else, not me.” Rather, in the texts of the Bible, we encounter the voice of God ever addressing us, sometimes in words we do not fully understand, but often in words we grasp only too well, though we find ourselves frightened or hesitant to take this text or that as the rule and pattern of our life. As St Paul says in many places, “What was written down beforehand, was written down for our sake” (Rom 15:4; see also 1 Cor. 10:11).
And what was written down for us today, at this Eucharist? Many things, as usual, but among them:
- the example of Matthias, who faithfully took up the place and ministry of an apostle, in Acts 1:15-26;
- the pattern of the blessed, who meditate “day and night” on the law of the Lord, in Psalm 1;
- then, life, eternal life, held by those who bear the testimony of God in their hearts, in1 John 5:9-13;
- and finally the commissioning of the apostles, who kept Jesus’ word, and went out into the world, sanctified in the truth; in John 17.
We are presented with four scenes here, each with its own interesting or stunning details. But what I am struck by today is the relation between all of these readings, in the sense that they represent a sort of process. There is a movement from being gathered into the company of the apostles in the first reading, to dwelling with the Word of God in the second, to recognizing we bear the testimony of God and eternal life in the third, and then to being sent out into the world in the fourth.
If we really are like painters, how might we paint these scenes and their relation in our life together?
One way we might do so is, in one sense, by continuing to do what we’re already doing. This movement, this rhythm I’ve pointed out is like the dynamic of each Eucharist we celebrate here every Sunday. We are gathered together in the name of God, we meditate on Scripture, we strive to recognize what we received in Word and Sacrament, and then we go out. We are sent. As I will say at the end of this Eucharist,
Go in the peace of Christ, alleluia, alleluia.
I wonder whether you think about this dynamic on Sundays: the gathering, the meditating, and the sending. I mean, think about it: not one of you stays here after service and coffee hour. You all go home, or to lunch with family or friends, and then on Monday go to work or study or to take care of your family, among other things. You go, you are sent week by week, told to carry the peace of Christ into the world; this is the regular rhythm of our life together, this is the scene we already paint as a community.
But we might ask whether this our painting is as faithful to the original as it might be, whether the rhythm is wholly realized.
When Christ was sent, he went out into the world to bring in those whom God the Father had chosen, he was sent to hand over the words of the Father, he was sent to testify and to reveal the Father. And, after the Ascension, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, his early followers did the same.
As Christ was sent, so they were sent.
To bring it back to us, our life together is already characterized by a pattern of gathering and sending, but we might ask whether that pattern needs to be molded slowly into something more like the model of Christ and the apostles.
As we go and return, do we gather others, after the example of Christ and his apostles? Do we give them God’s Word? Do our lives testify to God?
I wouldn’t be surprised if you found it hard to answer some of these questions, or if you don’t even understand how you would go about beginning to articulate an answer. They are big questions.
How does my life testify to God?
If that is the case, if it is difficult, let me suggest that, as you go away this week, you spend some time thinking about these questions, and that you do so by beginning in a particular place. Perhaps start out by thinking first about what brought you here to this Church and what keeps you here. Really focus in on that question, consider everything it brings up for you.
You see, by looking at the circumstances of your own life, your own personal story of faith, and the way they are tangled up in this community, you can discover the activity of God himself, and even come to discover how your own story, faith, and reasons for coming here, might draw others as well. And so you might discover how you bear the testimony of God within yourself.
Yesterday, the PCC gathered at the church of All Saints, Hartford, to spend some time getting to know each other and also to spend some time praying and planning for the future of this parish. We sketched some outlines of future possibilities, taking our cure from various conversations and meetings we’ve had already here in church, including the APCM from a few weeks ago. A big part of that involved talking about what drew us each to St Bene’t’s and what keeps us here. And as we talked, something of a picture began to emerge of this community of faith, along with hints of its possible future. But that picture is only complete with your contributions as well. The way you have been gathered here, and are sent from here week by week is not incidental to the picture, but integral. You’ll hear more in the weeks to come about this, and we will have a meeting on Trinity Sunday to discuss the future of St Bene’t’s. What I have tried to do today is set the scene for some of those discussions and exercises, and provide a kind of theological and metaphorical framing for it.
“As the Father has sent me into the world, so have I sent you into the world.”
God gathers us and sends us that we might bear testimony to him. Together, in the coming days, let us try to come to know more deeply what that pattern looks like, and what that testimony is.