THE GLORY OF CHRIST
Sermon delivered on the 28st May 2017 the Sunday after Ascension Day by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the Holy Eucharist of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Acts 1: 6-14 1 Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6-11 S. John 17: 1-11
S. John 17: 1 Jesus prayed, "Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee."
As human beings we live in a many-layered universe. For a marine creature, however, the sea is the universe, or so we might presume. If we were living in the sea and could get our oxygen from the water the way the fish do, perhaps we might ignore the world above the surface of the sea. We could find all we needed within the environment of the sea. We might not know that we too depended on the light that came into the sea from above. Yet, when I used to keep an aquarium, my fish were capable of having a better idea of things than that. When they saw me through the glass they swam up to the surface expecting to be fed, opening and shutting their mouths. So their universe actually did include a little bit of the world outside the body of water to which they were confined. They see it, they recognise a little bit of what happens in it, and it feeds them. They get their food via the interface between our world and theirs, the surface of the water.
I think the Church and the Scriptures teach us that our life on earth - our lifespan of threescore years and ten, 70 years, or perhaps 80 or 90 or more, is like the sea in which life goes on, often unaware of what goes on above the surface. Just as much (though not all) marine life depends on the light filtering down into various depths of the sea, so we too in our life on earth actually depend far more than we realise on what comes down into our world from a higher and greater one. And sometimes, like the fish in my aquarium, we can catch a glimpse of that greater universe and can respond to it appropriately.
The Old Testament Scriptures give us such glimpses of the greater universe. Remember Moses on the mountain catching a glimpse of the glory of God; or Elisha seeing his master Elijah separated from him by a chariot of fire and then getting taken off in a whirlwind; or Elisha making request of the Lord to open the eyes of his servant, so that he could see the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. Remember when Isaiah and Ezekiel are called to be the Lord's prophets, how they are each given a vision of the Lord in heaven. But upon Jesus, the heavens are opened and the angels of God ascend and descend upon Him. With Jesus we on earth do not have to be taking mere glimpses of the greater universe of heaven. In Jesus that universe actually came down into ours, and in Him we can begin to form a truly accurate picture of what heaven is about.
That truly accurate picture formed in the presence of Jesus includes the vanquishing of the powers of death, because Jesus, having died, rose from the dead. And we learn from the first chapter of the book of Acts that to the apostles he presented himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. Although occasions are recorded in which He ate with them, partly to show that He was not merely a spirit, the glorification of His human flesh had occurred, or at any rate had begun. As Christians we also declare our belief in the “resurrection of the body”, the raising of the body of human flesh. Finally, the powers of death will be vanquished for all who, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, are “saved to the uttermost”.
St. Luke records for us in two places, at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of his account of the Acts of the Apostles, the final departure of the risen Christ from the eyes of this world and its inhabitants. At the end of St. Luke’s Gospel, we read, “He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” S. Luke’s account in Acts is similar but more detailed. Here we see Him answering some disciples who would like to see the victory that they now see in Him in the old terms of a restoration of the earthly kingdom of Israel that had been lost ever since Israel and Judah had fallen to its enemies. The Lord does not bother to re-teach them. From now on that will be up to the guidance of the Spirit who will be sent to them. So He answers: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” Be guided by the Spirit from now on. He will show you how to interpret the victory that Christ has won. Then S. Luke records, “And when He had said this, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Whereas during the resurrection appearances, and some say on rare occasions before that, the arrival and departure of the Lord was rendered invisible, on this final occasion, the departure was made partly visible.
Our Lord in today's Gospel and St. Peter in the New Testament Lesson both speak of glory and the glorification of God and of Jesus. I believe the concept of glory is difficult for many in our age, because it has to do with the admission that neither we nor our own time are self-sustaining. When the glory of God is perceived, and now when His people, His troops, His Church glorify Him and declare His glory to one another and the world, life is sweetened. The light and electricity has penetrated into the depths of our earthly existence. So we read at the end of St. Luke's Gospel, that when Jesus parted from them and was carried up into heaven His disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. Not in the act of Ascension alone, but in the whole drama of the revelation of God in Christ to them, His ministry on earth, His Passion, His rising and His appearing to them in the days after the Resurrection, His glory had been revealed. They knew that the Father had invested the Son with all glory, and now He was being glorified in them as well. In spite of the physical withdrawal of His presence, life had become very sweet for them. The 180 degree change in direction that discipleship to the Lord had involved for them, was eternally vindicated.
I pray that within the life of St. Alban's, we will come to know more and more not only what it is to be a follower of Christ, but also what it is to glorify Him. I pray that more and more we will receive from beyond ourselves the sense of His incomparable greatness and grace, so that even if now we do not see Him we will in all aspects of our life here continually be, as it were, in the temple blessing God. God has glorified His Son and His Son has glorified His Father, and our task and our delight in even these days, is to be those vessels in which Christ is honoured, obeyed and, in sum, glorified - even in us.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. In what ways does the natural world teach us the idea of a greater universe on which it is dependent? Is this perception consistent with scientific theory?
2. The Biblical accounts of the Ascension (e.g. Luke 24: 50-end, Acts 1: 9-12) are frequently taught to be symbolic rather than literal ("Jesus was not a spaceman"). Is this consistent with the objectivity of Christ's Resurrection?
3. "They knew that the Father had invested the Son with all glory, and now He was being glorified in them as well. In spite of the physical withdrawal of His presence, life had become very sweet for them. The 180 degree change in direction that discipleship to the Lord had involved for them, was eternally vindicated." This seems inconsistent with the Forward! passage "From the Mount of Olives" for today. What is the biblical evidence for either picture? Can the two pictures both be right? What does this imply for our own life?