Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday after the Ascension

“This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

There is a very human temptation to think that the sufferings and afflictions of life are an exception or interruption of our true existence. If true life is found where there is no pain or sorrow, where does that leave the rest of us? What possibly could be said to the chronically ill, the poor or the bereaved? There are moments of joy and happiness in life—and these are unquestionably a gift of God—but there are also many more times of trial and difficulty; these too are in a way the gift of God as well. In my observation, the happy times of years-gone-by is often just a trick of our memory: we remember the good and forgot the bad, like a whitewashed wall or an over-exposed photo. In the present moment, it is all too easy to wallow in unhappiness as long as discomfort persists. But of course life is full of trials and difficulties. If you are going to wait to be joyful until life is free from complication and difficulty, you may have a very long wait. We can predict some of the trials we will face in this life; many of them we cannot. After one has lived for a while, it is easy to slip into the attitude that life is a prison. In this prison of life some will maintain the idle hope of escape; others will be more realistic as they endeavor to make prison life more comfortable by distraction and vain pursuits.

The lessons this morning remind us that life is decidedly not a prison. Suffering and trial are not accidents that have no purpose or meaning. There is a sober honesty in the opening words of the Epistle Lesson, Do not be surprised, writes St. Peter, at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you. . . as though something strange were happening to you. My friends, there is a reason why those times of calm and peace never come in life; it is not the nature of human existence to be without trial and difficulty. If you are expecting the chicken to lay golden eggs, you will be disappointed every time the hen lays another egg of yoke and white. Life does not lay golden eggs. Peter then proceeds to explain the Christian's attitude towards the trials of this life. He writes, “Humble yourselves. . . under the mighty hand of God. . . Cast your anxieties on him.” In other words, once we accepted that this is the nature of life, then we are exhorted to trust in God and surrender to him. Consider the temporal suffering of Mary, the embarrassment and shame that would accompany pregnancy out of wed-lock in a traditional society. Mary does not ask God to be hidden away for the duration of her pregnancy or to escape her present existence. Rather, her response to the angel is humble submission and surrender: be it unto me according to thy word. This attitude is also wonderfully exemplified in the so-called serenity prayer, penned by Reinhold Neibuhr over 80 years ago, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” In such an acceptance there is no room for self-pity or wallowing in misery, principally because when have surrendered to God, we become open to love, love for God and compassion for others.

But for Peter and for the Evangelist John, the most important aspect of the Christian attitude towards life is exemplified in the life of Jesus. His is a life as it should be. Jesus shows us the way God intended us to live. It is a life of total consecration and connectedness to God. On the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus concludes his farewell discourse to his disciples with the prayer found in chapter seventeen of John's Gospel. Our Lord says something astounding, “I have glorified thee on earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” He is definitely the only man who could ever honestly speak these words to God. So many die with some vital work let unfinished. As human beings, we feel this loss for the unfinished. God, however, perceives all the love and compassion that we failed to give as well. He sees just how unfinished all of work truly is. It is in the perfection of his human nature that Jesus can say, “I have finished the work.” Now it is time for him to go to the cross. It is there even in suffering, even in death, that his consecration and connectedness to God remains unbroken. He was not just consecrated to God on the shores of the sea of Galilee, in the innocent gaiety of the marriage-feast at Cana, or in his peaceful entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He will offer his life in love to the Father, even to the point of death. This complete and unbroken self-offering is our model.

The problem of course is that we so rarely practice this self-offering. Rather, we almost invariably think of my time, my day. What will I do with my day? Anything that threatens to make claims on my time easily becomes the object of aggressive either explicitly or passively. Let me be the first to say, your time is not your own. You are a creature. This sense of clinging to time as a possession is a mark of our fallen and sinful condition, and God uses every means at his disposal to wrest this notion from us. First there are the responsibilities of a vocation and work. Then there are the duties of marriage and, Lord-willing, children, all of which call for our self-offering, to lose the notion that our time is our own. Finally, there is the end of life. There is either the slow steady decline of physical and mental capabilities or the precipitous and sudden slide to death. The suffering pulls us away from the delusion that our time is our own. Death is the final sentence that our time and our existence is not our own. But there is another path that we can walk in this present life. We do not have to wait for death to realize that our life and our time is not our own. We can walk now the way of eternity. We can be citizens of heaven on earth. Through self-offering, through surrender, the temple of our bodies can become vessels for the love and compassion of God. In this way, we can become open to eternity, the eternity of God. Our temporal existence with all its anxieties and sorrows is met in the man Jesus Christ, who goes before us to prepare a place for us, a habitation in God for all eternity.

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