Fr. John Allison
1 Peter 3:13-22
May 14, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
Here we are on the sixth Sunday of the Easter season, the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus ever so gradually becoming more distant, fading from our rear-view mirror as we journey on toward Pentecost. Our Gospel reading today, the first part of which was read last Sunday, is a kind of flash-back to the evening of Jesus’ arrest, the night before his crucifixion. As Mother Kathleen explained last week this is known as the "Farewell Discourse," and Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He knows he is about the be arrested and crucified, and his words offer reassurance to the confusion and uncertainty his disciples must have been feeling. "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you," he promises them.
And while this return to the action of Holy Week may seem ill-timed as we continue in the revelry of the Resurrection, it is, indeed, strangely appropriate as we prepare for the Risen Jesus to leave us.
On Thursday this week, the fortieth day of Easter, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension, the day that recognizes Jesus' bodily Ascension into Heaven. These two Sundays preceding, this week and the last, then, become a kind of preparation for goodbye. Or, maybe not "goodbye," but "so long for now."
And so, what are we to do?
Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Notice that he doesn't say you SHOULD keep my commandments, or you OUGHT to keep my commandments, but "If." "If you love me, you WILL keep my commandments."
It may seem a very subtle distinction but that one word, that shift from the imperative of should's and ought's so often associated with religious piety says much about how Jesus' message is different. This is how we behave IF we accept the truth of Jesus' love for us. Our actions are our answer. This is what we do. And we don't follow the commandments to curry favor with God or to win points toward salvation. No. We follow the commandments because it is our response, our YES, to Jesus' invitation to us.
Ours is a faith of action and story. There are abstract concepts certainly—sin, redemption, atonement and such—and all of that is important commentary on one level but it all really comes down to what our actions say. Actions speak louder than words, to risk cliché.
Consider how Jesus responds elsewhere in the Gospels when asked about the commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." These injunctions are the barest distillation of the Ten Commandments. The first four are about our relationship to God; the last six about relationship to neighbor. Both are reconciled in Christ. "If you love me you will keep my commandments."
In Christ is the union of Heaven and Earth, Immanent and Transcendent. God and Human. We say yes to this union when we keep the Commandments. And if you’re thinking right now, that all sounds great but the Ten Commandments are all about what we shouldn't do—Thou shalt not—take a look at how the Commandments are translated in the catechism in our Prayer Book (pgs. 847-848). I won't go into them deeply here but they are written in the affirmative; they communicate what we DO in healthy relationship to God and neighbor. We are not a people defined by what we shouldn't do but by what we do—by our love.
In what now is a distant memory, we began the Church year with Advent and our preparation for the coming of Christ, for the Incarnation. In my sermon at Christmas I spoke of God coming to us, God descending to us. God becomes human, takes on fleshly form and changes everything.
When Jesus ascends, what I spoke of earlier as the Feast of the Ascension, human flesh, humanity ascends with him to heaven. This union of Heaven and Earth comes about in Jesus. No matter what you might think of the fantastic nature of the story, its point is that we, humanity, ascend to God in the person of Jesus.
Now, as I'm saying all this, it occurs to me that I've skipped ahead because we're not supposed to celebrate the Ascension until next Sunday—thou shalt not deviate from the lectionary—but as I contemplate Jesus' farewell I can't separate the two. In fact, what's been on my mind for the whole week as I've reflected on this scripture is a memory from years ago soon after I had joined the Church.
I was living in Kentucky and my parish was the Church of the Ascension. And as it was the Feast of Title, every year the church had a huge celebration on Ascension Thursday. There was a carry-in dinner at a family farm but what really made the day special was a hot-air ballon ride for a lucky person whose name was drawn out of a hat. One year that lucky person was the rector's 87 year-old mother. Her name was Betty and she was frail and blind in one eye but she had a spirit that belied all that—she said yes to most everything, which often got her into precarious situations. She was someone I was close to in the parish and for whom I had a great deal of affection. I remember the concern I had as she was helped into the gondola, concern but also joy because she had a smile on her face and she was clearly happy, even if a bit nervous.
Everyone had gathered around as Betty and the ballon pilot readied themselves to take off, to ascend. The pilot helped Betty put on a helmet and goggles and wrapped her in a jacket many sizes too big for her. The flame of the engine roared as the pilot made the final adjustments and then suddenly, more suddenly than I could have expected, the ballon began to rise. It was almost like that moment when as a child with a helium ballon you forget that it will fly away if you let go, and you grasp madly for the string that holds it before it gets away completely. That's what I felt as the ballon lifted, Betty with it, into the air. I had this brief and sudden impulse to grab the rope, to stop its ascent before it got away.
I imagine now, the disciples must have felt something like that when Jesus ascended. I imagine they had worry, uncertainty, over their beloved teacher as he told them he would be leaving them. And I imagine their impulse was to hold on, to say we can't do this without you. What can we do if you leave us?
But Jesus promises that he will not leave them, leave us, alone. "I will ask the Father," he says, "and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever." That's what keeps us grounded, with one eye to heaven and one to our neighbor—the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. That's what allows us to live lives that say yes to God's love for us.
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." We say yes to that invitation every Sunday in our taking of the Eucharist. We say yes when we live out the terms of our Baptismal Covenant. We say yes, every moment of every day in how we live our lives. That's not easy.
God loves each of us unconditionally, without reserve. It is incumbent on us to receive that love, to say yes in our words and deeds—in how we love God, in how we love our neighbor. Even in how we love the stranger—especially in how we love the stranger. It’s not easy, but we are not alone.
"I will not leave you orphaned," says Jesus. "I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, YOU also will live." That's God's promise.