Sermon Given at Church of the Ascension, Knoxville
Seventh Sunday of Easter | June 2, 2019
This morning, quite deep into the season of Easter, we hear again a lesson from the Acts of Apostles. From the first day of Easter until the day of Pentecost, the Church invites us to read deeply from the Acts, to listen to the earliest stories of the infant Church. It might be wise, therefore, to pay attention to where the Church so consistently commends our eyes to see and our ears to hear.
We follow Paul and Silas today, free men, who encounter a slave woman, kept captive because she earns money for her masters by telling fortunes. Paul casts the evil spirit from her, setting her free from this demonic enslavement. For doing so, Paul and Silas are made prisoners.
In prison, however, Paul and Silas do not act like prisoners. They sing and pray, loud enough and long enough to cause an earthquake which breaks the prison and the chains of all those kept behind its walls.
That earthquake does not simply free the prisoners. Paul and Silas also set free the prison guard. None of the prisoners run. Instead, they stay and care for the guard. In return for this care, the guard gives Paul and Silas a place in his home. In his home, Paul and Silas baptize the guard and his family. At the end of the story there is no one left who is not free. No slave, no prisoner, only free people.
If you spend much time in the Acts of the Apostles, you learn how often early followers of Jesus end up in prison. Those prisons in Acts, however, are powerless in the face of the Spirit. If someone enters a prison cell in Acts, we come to expect that a prison break is not far behind. Angels enter in the middle of the night or earthquakes reduce prisons cells to rubble, leaving only newly freed prisoners standing.
Now the Resurrection sends us out into God’s new future, yet the Church invites us to stay close to the earliest witnesses, the earliest accounts of the newborn Church. Why is that? If we are heading into the future, why do we keep looking back?
I believe that the Church is being called to understand ourselves as both ancient and new. Like the wise teachers of prayer who speak of themselves as beginners, so the Church of the 21st century is also a beginner in the faith, still being called to attend to the simplest of lessons about following Jesus.
In the Acts, there are many stories were prisoners appear. In Jesus’ teaching, we are told to visit the prisoner. On the cross, Jesus dies between criminals. So, from the earliest days of the Christian tradition, you would assume that we are always to be found either in prison or visiting those who are. Our story of freedom is to abide closely with those who are not free. We are to be one with them.
Yet, how true is that about us? Has my faith or your faith ever gotten you in trouble? Has your life in Christ ever been so wildly free that the state believed you should be bound? Or have our prayers for the lonely and the sick ever taken us to prison? In prison the lonely and sick are found in large number.
This past Thursday, the Church throughout the world celebrated the Ascension of the Risen Christ. This parish bears the name of the Ascension and the story of the Ascension is found in the gospel of St. Luke and Acts, where Jesus, newly risen from the tomb, ascends in order to return to his Father, to be present to all and with all, across time and place. Jesus the Galilean is also the Christ who holds all things. The Ascension emphatically tells us this is so.
Yet, the story of the Ascension is all the more powerful when we consider the very depths to which this same Jesus descended. He came to be with us, in frail human flesh. He came to be numbered among those who often are not counted. He came to live out his ministry as a traveling preacher, dependent on others for shelter and support. He came to become friend to sinner and outcast, Gentile and child. He told us we will be with him when we are with the sick, the lonely, and imprisoned.
His descent went all the way to the prison cell, held between audiences with Herod and Pilate, to the cross, hanging between criminals. In his deepest descent, Jesus sets free the dying man, Dismas, who confessed to Jesus that he was guilty where Jesus was innocent. Even in his time of death, Jesus is able to turn to the prisoner.
Since even before becoming your bishop, I have been impressed by this parish, this sacred space, and the ministries situated here. During the week of the bishop walkabouts, I sat in your undercroft, near the columbarium, in order to pray in silence. It was easy to pray there because it was obvious to me many others had prayed there before me.
Since then, Susan and I have had many reasons to return here, to worship, for music, for fellowship, for community and diocesan offerings. Also, I have returned here to pray, alone and with others.
But of all the things that impress me about you, I want to note one in particular. It is what you say about yourselves. It is found in the bulletin. “Ascension Cares—No One Walks Alone.”
That is a bold statement to make. That is a radical hope to express. Do you all realize just how many people in our community, our world, are lonely? If you all are a people of care and you desire that no one walks alone, please know you have taken on a mission that will know no end.
In an age where we are incredibly connected by social media and instant communication, we are also a people dying of loneliness. Loneliness and isolation has become an invisible prison cell for many. Yet, you confess Ascension cares, no one walks alone.
What is the call for us now, the 21st century Church? The call is to return to the root, to set free those who are captive, imprisoned, alone. You all already have expressed the hope to be a place of caring where no one walks alone. I would only encourage you to practice such care, both intentionally amongst this parish family and widely amongst our lonely and imprisoned neighbors.
I know you all to be a people of prayer. I know you all to be a people who pray for others. Pray for the sick. Pray for the lonely. Pray for the prisoner. Pray for those on death row in our state. Pray for people, not bothering to ask if they are deserving of your prayers or not. Dismas told Jesus he had committed the crime for which he, Dismas, was being crucified. Jesus promised him that he would be with him always. Not even the cross of the Empire could separate them.
So, pray to be one with the very ones that the Empire or a divided Church would tell you are apart from you. Pray as if we are one because we are one. We are one because of God the Father and the Risen Christ and their perfect love. You and I are not made one by our actions. You and I are made one because of the divine and perfect love of the God we know through Christ Jesus.
This morning’s gospel, where we hear Jesus’ prayer for us, those who will follow him long after his prayer concludes, often trips us up. We read this gospel and we grieve how divided the Church is. However, Jesus is not praying this prayer with the hope that the Methodists and the Episcopalians will sign an accord. Jesus is not praying this prayer with the hope that the Western Church and the Eastern Church will bridge some historic chasm.
Jesus is praying to the Father, expressing a hope which can already be realized. We are one when we practice love. It is the love that is perfectly shared in the life of the Trinity.
It is also the love that causes Paul to turn and face the slave woman, who is annoying him with her constant confession that he is a witness from the God who liberates. In turning to her, he sets her free.
It is also the love that can give a song to Paul and Silas, sitting in the darkness of a prison. Such love can break open prisons. Such love can also be extended, not only to the prisoners, but to the prison guard. The love of God is not a love of us or them. It is a love that only knows us.
No one walks alone. Okay, so you and I have a mission. Remember the love of the Christ that has been poured into and made you One with the Reconciling Christ who holds all things. This oneness in you is not only true when you feel it. It is true even when you do not feel it, even in the midst of strife, you remain one. Wounded, yet one.
Share such love with the lonely. Open your eyes, listen with your heart, to consider who the lonely person closest to you is. Is it the sick? Is it the widow? Is it the prisoner? Is it the refugee? Or is it you?
There is a love in you, gifted to you by the God we know through Christ Jesus, that sets people free. Now is the time for us to look back, to the earliest accounts of our faith, and practice such loving freedom in our lonely world. You have told me that you care. I believe you. I believe that God has made us one people, from one baptism, with one mission, to practice a love that breaks down the walls that divide.