Called Out to Be Church – The Rev. Michelle Meech
May 21, 2023
Today marks the final Sunday of Easter. We are coming to the end of the 50 days of Easter. And today we are also celebrating the Ascension – the story that marks the end of Jesus’ walk amongst us.
It’s a “now what?” Kind of moment.
We’re not despondent like we were on Good Friday. We have seen the Resurrection. We know of God’s Love. So… now what?
Today’s text from Luke’s Gospel is a spotlight on Jesus’ final moments with his disciples. Not the final moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. Not the final moments on the cross. These final moments tell us that Jesus’ farewell isn’t one of sadness or anxiety. Instead, Jesus continues to open the scriptures to us: Telling us that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed to all nations. Telling us that we will be given the power to do this, because this is what God has promised.
These are Jesus’ final words. They aren’t about him. They are about us. Jesus is talking to the disciples, to us – giving us a command and telling us that we will have exactly what we need to do it.
The Ascension is, for me, as mysterious as the Resurrection. I’m quite sure that much ink has been spilled by many people who like to think a lot about things and explain in almost-excruciating detail exactly what they do think about the Ascension. By the way, we call these people theologians.
That is, admittedly, a bit of a snarky comment. But I do like to read theology. The problem I have with much of theology is that it’s prescriptive. Meaning that someone is writing out their beliefs and concepts and handing it to you and telling you that this is what you should believe. This is what you should think. It’s a prescription.
And while I think this is helpful, because, after all, these people have read a lot more than I have and thought a lot more about this than I have and have certainly written a lot more about this than I ever will, the truth is, when it comes to theology, what we have to remember is that we are all theologians because we all have a relationship with God.
We are all called to reflect on and consider that relationship for ourselves. Not in a vacuum, certainly. We do this in relationship with others. We read scripture. We read what other people have written about God. We allow what we read to form us and our thoughts and beliefs. We consider our experience. We examine ourselves and make of ourselves an offering to God. We listen to sermons and talk to our priest… maybe.
If we are spending any time reflecting on our relationship with God, we are theologians.
We do our theology in relationship with others, otherwise, we are just making God look a lot like we need Her to look. Or Him. And there it is. Do we need God to be female? Do we need God to be male? How do we imagine God when we picture God in our mind’s eye? That, of course, is just one example of how we do theology. And why it’s important to open this up and reflect on what it is we think about God, what it is we expect from God, and what we believe God expects from us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am sending you what my Father promised…” John talks about this in his Gospel too: “Very truly I tell you that the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
Jesus is giving his power, God’s power, to the disciples. To us. Because here’s the central teaching of Christianity. I know I talk about Love all the time. That death is not the final word, that Love is the final word. And yes… that’s what this is about. Love. Full stop.
But the central teaching of Christianity is that Jesus isn’t the worldly ruler. Jesus isn’t the worldly king or queen. The central teaching of Christianity is found in how Jesus is embodies for us the true use of power. Power that we all have, simply because we breathe. Power that we all have, simply because we are made of the same elements of this earth. Power that we are given by God to Love. To love fully and compassionately and with as much of ourselves as we can offer. To love God’s people into more Love.
And let’s talk about what that really means.
Yesterday, as most of you know, we consecrated Matt Heyd to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church, in our church. More specifically, Matt will become the next Bishop of the Diocese of New York. Many people from St. John’s were there and I hope that many of you watched through the Youtube channel at home. I was among the first to go into the cathedral in the procession. This means I was among the first to be shuffled to my seat. And, this means, I got to watch what seemed like a truly endless procession.
As I was standing there, viewing the procession, all of us surrounded by this absolutely enormous Gothic Cathedral, in the middle of the extremes of wealth and poverty in, arguably, the most powerful city on the planet, I realized this is what it must have felt like in Rome… during one of those tribute parades.
Lots of music accompanying all the important people as they come into the arena, the basilica. People were dressed up in our regalia. We carried banners. We were grouped in ways that made it clear who we were.
And then, as the bishop-elect, Matt, began to process, people started clapping. And as much as I love Matt, and I do, and as much as I am grateful for his ministry, and I am, I was confused. It was as if we were cheering on a conqueror. It reminded me of what we do on Palm Sunday. We cheer on Jesus only to turn around and shout crucify him when he becomes inconvenient.
What are we doing? I thought. Well, it’s a bit of the same thing. We’re cheering on Matt right now. And, eventually, he’s going to do something that will not make us as happy with him as we want to be. And while we may not shout crucify him, we will be disappointed.
And yet, I know Matt. I know him well enough to know that when he laid down on the floor of the cathedral yesterday, to prostrate himself before God and this church, he was doing so with the humblest of wills. And when he had occasion to talk to us, which wasn’t for long, not that day, Matt said, “Today is a day of community consecration.” In other words, it’s not just Matt who has been consecrated, but all of us have been consecrated together to become renewed in our ministry together.
“We have come through so much struggle. Three long years of the pandemic, the struggle to dismantle white supremacy, misogyny, our tangled history. There’s been so much struggle to come through. And… we are followers of Jesus Christ… we turn to God in hope and to serve is our joy. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, what could we do, you and I, if we weren’t afraid? What could we do if we knew God sanctified our struggles… [turned them into blessings for us]? What if we lived in hope and served together in joy? This is the good news of Jesus Christ in all seasons.
And… I don’t know how to be bishop yet. But we’re all created to be channels of God’s grace. And you brought me this far. I am completely confident that we can do this together. The world needs a gospel that is bright and bold and clear. The world needs us. In all of our communities. We build communities of love where we see everyone as children of God and we stand up and speak out against injustice. This is what we do. God’s story of us is the renewal of our church for the healing of the world.”
In Matt’s words, we hear the echo of the Gospel, as we should: Amidst the world and its pomp and circumstance, amidst the world and its pain – the stagging and despicable level of gun violence, the pandemic that took so much and so many from us, the transphobia that is raging out of hand as some kind of witch hunt, the wars, the abuse, the individual pain and hurt of our own lives – amidst all of this which is of the world…
We – you and I – are called out by God. We are called out to be in the world but not of it. We are called to be church together, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, to do the very things that Jesus did.
The original word for church in Greek is “ekklesia.” A word that means “those who are called out.” Those who are called out for the purpose of being the church in the world. Those who are called out to be continually renewed by the Holy Spirit, re-formed to become the church that the world needs. In this time. In this place.
We don’t know the end game. All we know – you and I – is that we are called out.
And while I welcome conversations and wonderings by all of us, as theologians, about what the Ascension is because we are all theologians, the biggest thing for me, right now, at this time is this: How do I humble myself and allow Jesus to ascend in my own heart. How do we, you and I, live into this renewal of joy together?
Because we are being renewed here at St. John’s. Don’t for one minute think that a reduction in the rector’s hours is inherently negative, as if it were a failure of some kind. It’s not. It is simply a time of renewal. We are being asked by God to live into a new life together.
And Bp. Matt’s challenge comes to us: What could we do if we weren’t afraid? Fear comes in many guises – cynicism, criticism, denial, anxiety – among others. He asks: What could we do if we weren’t afraid?
I suspect the disciples were afraid as they watched Jesus withdraw. That’s fine. We’re human. It’s natural.
And… what happens next? Because the Ascension is a “now what” kind of moment.
We have seen the Resurrection. We know that death is never the final word. We know that Love is always the final word.
So… now what?
Bp. Matt tells us the now what: The world needs a Gospel that is bright, bold, and clear.
We are called out – you and me – to bring the Gospel to a world in deep need of healing. That’s what the church is. That’s what the church does.
Let us – you and I – be church.
Let us be church.