An Ascension Sermon
(please note Ed’s diagnosis and pray for him)
Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:15-16). Sometimes Paul is frustrated with the church. Sometimes he is exasperated with the church. Sometimes he is just plain mad at the church. But not always. When Paul prays for the little church in Ephesus he is filled with gratitude for a congregation that trusts its life to Jesus and, as a result, has an abundance of love for one another. I know what it is to be filled with gratitude for a congregation that trusts its life to Jesus and, so, is marked by love and affection for one another. Three weeks ago, when the doctors confirmed their suspicions and told me that I have multiple myeloma, I was shocked and sad and grateful.
The gratitude was, and is, threefold. I found myself realizing how thankful I am for a strong and beautiful family, for a wonderful country in which I am blessed with incredible medical care and for you, for all of you. I thought “I am so grateful that I am the minister at University Hill Congregation. I know how much faith and love there is in our life together. Everything is going to be all right.” Since then you have showered me with affection, concern, prayers and support. I am the recipient of an outpouring of love. This is the odd discovery of being told that you have incurable cancer. Wonderful news accompanies the terrible news. It turns out that the church is not a problem, not an anachronism, not out of touch. It turns out that the church is precious. It turns out that, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the kingdom of God is as close as hearing that life will end sooner rather than later. Faced with the news of our mortality we realize that being together today is a gift to be cherished and received with gratitude. “And for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Before continuing to pray with Paul let me catch you up on my current medical diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan. I have been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a chronic incurable cancer of the plasma cells. It was discovered inadvertently when I had a prostate biopsy in March that showed no prostate cancer but did reveal sticky proteins called amyloids which can be caused by multiple myeloma. Since the diagnosis was confirmed I have had numerous tests and medical appointments in order to determine the stage of the disease and the best course of treatment. This week I received the good news that I have stage one – early stage – multiple myeloma. This means that no apparent damage has yet been done to my bones or organs. It means that, given my age and good health, the prognosis for the future is of a manageable chronic condition for a number of years. I will have to be cautious about infections and illnesses due to a weakened immune system. I cannot carry heavy objects due to weakened bones. But I can live a relatively normal life and continue to be your minister. Along the way I will receive medical treatments to help to manage the disease. The first of those treatments is expected to be a stem cell transplant in which my own stem cells are harvested before chemotherapy is used to eradicate the myeloma from my body. Then my stem cells are given back to me in order to help my body rebuild its immune system. This procedure will most likely take place in August and will result in a three month period of recovery before returning to work. I should have more certainty about the scheduling of the treatment in three weeks time. During the month of June our Session, Stewards and Ministry and Personnel Committee will be putting a plan in place so that ministry will be provided when I am away receiving medical treatments. All things considered, the news today is good news.
We have been given a gift. We have been told that we don’t have forever. We can see that there is an end in sight. But we have also been told that the end is not yet here. We have been told that we have the gift of time together. And, looking around, we can see that we have the gift of one another. We can see that we don’t have to wait for the day when the church is finally all that we had hoped for and dreamed of. Today is that day. So is tomorrow. You have been asking me what you can do to help. You have offered to support me and to care for me in so many ways. When I think of how you can care for me and for my soul I find myself joining in Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:17-19). Looking ahead I find myself praying that this be a time in which we grow in wisdom and come to understand more fully the hope to which we have been called. Instead of being shadowed by darkness and despair I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened and that you may discover the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints and the immeasurable greatness of his power for those who trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. I do not believe that this diagnosis means that my life is coming to a sad and tragic conclusion. I intend that these next years be the culmination of my ministry, a time in which we taste the fruit of the patient cultivation of Christian community. I am filled with hope that God’s power will give us energy and courage for what is to come. When I think of what you can do to support and care for me I find myself praying that you will grow in your commitment to our life together and to one another. I am not the only person here who is mortal. I am not the only one with trouble – medical or otherwise. The only difference now is that it is evident to everyone that I, like you, have reason for ache and grief. It encourages me to know that I am not alone. My energy, my courage, my hope increases when you are here in worship and when you are present for one another in mutual care. That is what I pray for.
But on what basis can we pray like this? In the face of such trouble how can we offer prayers of deep gratitude and then boldly intercede with God for the power we need for the coming days? That is precisely the question that Paul proceeds to answer in this elongated prayer become sermon that spans nine verses in the letter to the Ephesians. In English these verses take up four sentences. One to offer a prayer of gratitude. One to say a prayer of intercession. And two sentences to say why we dare to pray in this way. But Paul writes in Greek and manages to keep on talking through one impossibly long sentence. He has so much to say that he just keeps saying it: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:20-23).
This is a theological mouthful: Jesus the crucified, rejected, down-trodden Jew now seated on high at God’s right hand; far above all rule, authority, power and dominion; his name now above every name ever known; all things under his feet; he – not the minister or the Moderator or the Pope – the head over all things in the church; the church which is his body and which is the fullness of him who fills all in all. This text is to be read in the church twice a year: once on Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday of the Christian Year – and once on the Feast of the Ascension which always lands on a Thursday, forty days after Easter. Yes, I know, today is neither of those days. For many years we did not mark the Feast of the Ascension. To be honest, it was convenient that the ascension does not fall on a Sunday because the ascension can be an embarrassment for the church in the modern world. There it is in Luke – the resurrected body of Jesus carried up into heaven (Lk. 24:44-53). When asked to explain the science behind such a physical ascension to a heaven that evidently exists somewhere above us the church has no equations that prove the physics. So we have tended to avoid mentioning the ascension. But avoidance is rarely a good strategy. Better that we host the testimony of the witnesses who say that the risen Jesus has ascended to God. We do not need to be able to make sense of it in order to receive this news. We need to receive the news and then wait until the ascension begins to make sense of our life together. Which is to say that the ascension of Jesus is not a matter of physics. After all, we are already talking about something that no one has ever seen before – a resurrected body. The ascension is not a matter of physics but of meta-physics. It is a theological ascension. The ascension is the way in which the church has come to understand the cosmic results of the resurrection.
Paul says that we dare to pray for “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” because “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” The resurrection and the ascension reveal that the God who came in weakness to suffer with the poor and lowly, to bring eternal life to the rejected and mortal is the God whose power is strong enough to overcome death and to place Jesus above every known and unknown power figure and power structure. There is not one ruler or authority or power or dominion who is higher up the cosmic ladder than this Jesus who was rejected by the powers that be. Paul uses the word “all” five times in these two sentences. He wants there to be no misunderstanding. Not some things or even many things but all things are under Jesus’ feet. The spiritual demons that bedevil you – the depression, the anxiety, the compulsions and addictions, the insecurity, the arrogance, the trauma and more are all less powerful than Jesus Christ. The social challenges that confront us and seem beyond our capacity to reform, redeem, rehabilitate – these, too, are weaker than the power revealed in Jesus. It is the reason that the civil rights marchers could sing “We shall overcome” with such confidence. They could not possibly have overcome the forces of segregation and racism on their own. It was not simply their collective will power that would overcome against impossible odds – against the police and the state, against the klan and the mobs. The freedom riders and marchers trusted that one day they would overcome because God has put all things under Jesus’ feet. In Jesus Christ God has already overcome.
Yes, God has already overcome. Overcome death and despair. Overcome denial and defeat and division. In Jesus God has overcome all things. Overcome multiple myeloma. Overcome the uncertainty of our future together. Overcome our confusion and shock and fear. Overcome the grief that will be a companion on this pilgrimage. We are the grateful recipients of this news and of God’s power. We do not face today or tomorrow on our own. Our life together draws its energy and vitality from the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. This spiritual strength bears fruit among us in a joyful faith, a living hope and a suffering love. We shall overcome whatever trials and tribulations we will face because of the God who in Jesus Christ daily supplies us with an extraordinary reservoir of faith, hope and love. “And for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Ed says that this “blog is the place where I will continue to scribble about life in ministry while living with multiple myeloma. If others are asking how I am doing or you are wondering I’ll try to keep things up to date there.”