THE SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION
“The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). This past Thursday evening, we celebrated The Feast of the Ascension, with all of its beauty, triumph and import. We fixed our eyes upon heaven to worship the risen and ascended Lord, the King of Glory who has entered into the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And we also celebrated the beginning of the end of the world. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever thought about this aspect of the Lord’s Ascension and enthronement. And, if you have, it was most probably a distant thought and most certainly infrequent. The inauguration of the last days, or ‘the end of days’, is a vital and important component of any proper Ascension theology, for when we give voice to the faith through the Creeds of Holy Mother church we confess that on the third day [Christ] rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And, he will come again to judge both the quick and the dead. The received faith of the Apostle’s confesses that Jesus was lifted up, in his body, and received into the cloud, the shekinah glory of the Father. He could not be held by depths of death and he could not be withheld from the heights of heaven: seated at His rightful place with the Father. His ascension into heaven, taking his rightful place of authority and dominion, is the climax and completion of His Resurrection, the fulfillment of Psalm 110, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”
In the Creed we profess that On the third day Jesus rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. Now, I want to pause and reflect on these two beautiful truths about the Ascension of our Lord. First, Christ’s Ascension is a promise to all the faithful... that they will one day follow him where fallen and unredeemed man has no right to go. The Crucified-Risen One is alive and in him God's gates, the gates of eternal life, have been opened wide to humanity forever. Understand dear friends, that where he is, so too will the faithful one day go: perfected humanity entering into glory. Second, the enthroned Christ is ruling all things, wielding his authority and dominion according to his good pleasure AND he is doing so with Divine wisdom that sometimes we frankly do not understand for these are the things of eternal wisdom: the wisdom that has forever existed within the Triune God which that wisdom and as described by Solomon which was present when the world was made. The wise and good King, the True Solomon reigns. The almighty is capable of subduing even the raging seas, for the Lord who dwelleth on high, is mightier then any created thing. The Creed continues… and, from [heaven], he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead. Christ’s Ascension also promises the faithful that he will return just as he had left, in glory to judge the living and the dead. The one who departed on the cloud will return in the same way, for on that day they “shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And this Divine power will set every injustice of this world, which appear now to go uncorrected, he will set every one of them right on the Last Day.
Today, on this Sunday after the Ascension, nestled in between the Ascension of the Lord and the expectancy of Pentecost, with eyes looking to heaven, let us now contemplate the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, his second Advent. For according to the mind of Jesus, we his disciples are to consider His second coming as always close at hand, AND to be prepared for it. Preparation for the return of the King; this is what St. Peter desires to teach us this morning. The end of all things, says St. Peter, is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. The Apostle’s words are very much to the same effect that our Lord Himself spoke in one of His last discourses saying, Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to stand before the Son of Man. Sober and watchful prayer is necessary for all who will one day stand face to face with the King of the universe. St. Peter’s expression, be sober and watch, seems best explained by our Lord’s words on the same occasion: Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged, and not merely by excesses and drunkenness, but by the cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. Peter is choosing his verbs wisely, the words ‘sober’ and ‘watchful’ are nearly identical in the greek, but here are meant to convey two very distinct but complementary ideas.
To be ‘sober’ is to be fully within one’s mind, completely aware, dealing with reality as it is; not overly optimistic or too pessimistic; not distracted or inebriated with trivialities and earthly enticements. ‘Watch’ means to be on duty, to be about the labor of prayer (on guard so to speak), with diligence and intentionality. Peter would have been well acquainted with the Christians need to be sober and watchful; vigilant and alert. If you remember, the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed, took Peter, James, and John with him to the Mount of Olives to pray, and when they had come to that place, Jesus told them to Pray, that ye enter not into temptation. And here we must connect both the Lord’s and Peter’s exhortations to sober and watchful prayer and those difficult times of temptation and trial.
You see, Jesus knowing that the hour had come for the forces of evil to have a momentary and short-lived triumph at Calgary, was keenly aware of the Enemies presence. In those last hours, the Devil was prowling around like a roaring lion ready to devour both the Lord Jesus and his followers. The hour of great temptation had come to the eternal Son of God in Gethsemane and at the height of human temptation, a tempting which no other person has or will ever experience: He prayed. He prayed with every fiber of his being, even to the point of sweating blood. But when Jesus returned… he found Peter and the others sleeping. Could you not watch with me one hour? And within hours, St. Peter would betray our Lord not once, but three times! A lesson, it would appear, the blessed Apostle Peter never forgot. Be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. Today, the Apostle exhorts us the church that we should never forget the extreme importance of being a steadfast and prayerful people; most especially in these last days.
The discipline of daily prayer, the cultivating of the inner life- or the decluttering of the soul to make room for Jesus- and gathering in the Lord’s house every Sunday is the strong and sure foundation upon which the Christian life must be built. Upon these is a house of prayer built within the soul. The Liturgy we have inherited from our Fathers is a grace given to the Church. Think of The Book of Common Prayer, with its Daily Offices and Eucharistic Liturgy, as Scripture arranged for prayer. It is our ‘good guide’, informing devotion and guiding our common worship together ensuring that our service to God is as golden bowls of incense full of sweet aromas before His altar. And in our personal prayers, The Prayer Book provides language and thoughts which, over time, beautifully shapes the individual prayer life. And, on those occasions when we find our personal prayers wanting or bereft of words, familiarity with the Offices and the prayers of Holy Mother Church come to our aid: the set prayers of the church becoming the prayer of the heart as we ingest them; day by day; the Holy Spirit bringing to mind the Divine language of Liturgy.
Now there are many obstacles to a life of prayer, the greatest enemy of a disciplined prayer life being sloth. Discipline is hard. Order is often rejected as rigid and overbearing. We so readily shrug off the set prayers of the church as inauthentic, detached from emotion, and downright impersonal. And, if that weren’t enough, we are far too easily distracted by the things of this world. All of these struggles and temptations create a seedbed of fertile soil where weeds of dullness spring forth choking out Christian zeal. We become spiritually drowsy and fall asleep. But now, at the end of all things we must not slumber! The hour has come says St. Paul, for you to wake up from your slumber, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day has drawn near. For as history moves closer and closer to the imminent return of the Lord, the days will grow increasingly darker and darker; the battle gradually intensifying until the Great Day of the Lord, when Christ returns on the clouds to put everything to rights.
Beloved, we are fools if we do not believe the Enemy desires nothing but calamity and ill-will towards us. Even this little beautiful parish. Our daily and weekly proclamation of the Gospel, singing psalms and spiritual songs, the celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection in the breaking of bread and partaking of the cup is not beyond his purview. He knows that the prayer of just one righteous man availeth much! And he will attack… In the least likely places and at the worst times. As the Lord warned the disciples of the future persecution and suffering they would face at the hands of the Jews, so let us hear St. Peter’s warning to us today and commend ourselves to sober and watchful prayer. We must always remember that our Lord foresaw the suffering of his church and prayed for us, saying I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee… and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
In these last days The Lord has sent us (His church) into the world, to be His physical and corporeal manifestation on earth; that through the Apostolic ministry of the Church the world would might be reconciled back to the Father. And this is why He sent the Holy Spirit, the promised Paraclete, whom on this Sunday, we wait for with holy expectation! The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the power of our witness and he is the very presence of Christ promised to be with us through the end of the age. St. Paul tells us to pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition. To this end, stay alert with all perseverance in your prayers for all the saints. And there it is: the sober and watchful prayer of the church is prayed in the power of the Holy Spirit, guarding us from evil and advancing the kingdom of God.
Friends, today we are being put on watch; exhorted unto vigilance and soberness, to right preparation and readiness, fidelity in confession and a life of holiness. To walk in a manner worthy of our calling so that we might cast the bright beams which radiate from the approaching day of glory into those dark days and nights of suffering. Draw near to Christ through prayer and having found union with Him, run as fast as you can into His triumph over the sufferings of this present time. Now, as you come humbly to this altar, come with eyes open wide. Look steadfastly on Christ. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. And when you have been strengthened by partaking of this most holy sacrament be reassured of his great love towards you. And as you bask in the love of the Lord, hold fast to the promise of the heavenly inheritance which awaits you. The end of all things is at hand. Amen+