Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A
Ascension and eternal life
Sermons year A
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Today is the Sunday after Ascension and the Sunday before Pentecost.
The feast of the Ascension marks the end of three forty-day periods:
- the period from Christmas to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
- the period from Easter to Ascension.
During this last period of forty days, the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples and many others in his 'resurrection body'. He explained the meaning of his coming to earth, his dying and rising again; he commissioned the apostles to found his Church; and he prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Then he was taken from them; at the end of St. Luke's gospel we read, "He led them out to a place near Bethany; he lifted up his hands and blessed them; he left them and was taken up into heaven". There is a similar description in the book of Acts, which also tells that a cloud hid him from their sight; two angels appeared promising that he would return.
Ascension Day is a moment of completion: Christ came to earth, was born, being no less than the Son of God; he lived among humanity, sharing in our labours, our hopes and our fears, our suffering, and our death. By doing so he sanctified all that we do, and made it possible for us to grow closer to God through our lives. But of course he also reconciled a sinful humanity to God by dying on the cross, and bearing on his shoulders the consequences of the sin of the world, showing that God's intention is that all the world should know him, love him and have the possibility of eternal life.
But Ascension Day is also a moment of transition - from the period of just over 30 years during which Jesus was here on earth, among us, to the much longer period, including even now, that he is with us not in the flesh but through the third person of the Holy Trinity - the Holy Spirit. As he said to his disciples, "I am with you always, even to the end to time'. And next Sunday we celebrate this renewal of God's presence in the world through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In today's gospel, Jesus prepares the disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in person. It is a reading taken from his words at the Last Supper; Jesus prays for them and asks his heavenly Father to protect them; and prays for all those who will believe in him. But while he is praying for them, he utters one sentence which is of particular significance: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent".
Allow the full impact of those words to sink in ... they are of similar importance to the words of John 3.16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life". We could have a debate about the difference of emphasis between these two sentences - about the difference between the importance of knowing God and believing in him. But that isn't for today. It is enough to say that those two sentences should put everything in our life into perspective. All that we do: to earn money; improve our houses; care for those around us; provide for our future - is secondary to what really matters - which is our eternal destiny.
What Jesus is saying is that the purpose of our being here on earth is to know God. As St. Paul said to the men of Athens, God made is possible for us to seek him; to reach out and perhaps to find him - and that he is not far from us.
Today's message, then, is this, and it is very simple: The desire to find and know God should be at the heart of the life of each one of us: For this is eternal life - to know God and to know his Son, Jesus Christ.
How can we do this?
First: we can know God by learning about him; and so we should feed on the Scriptures, seeking a deeper knowledge of the life of Christ, who is the revelation of God the Father;
Second: we can know God by encountering him; through seeking him in the silence of our prayers and meditations, and through the beauty of the world;
And third: we can know him by taking risks for him in faith, trusting him and trying to pattern our lives on that of Christ; and by taking risks, by moving out of what is comfortable and secure, letting God show us who he really is and how we can understand his power in our lives.
But at the heart of it all, it is really a matter of priorities. Do we want eternal life, or don't we? If we do, are we ready to embark upon a journey that begins simply by trusting in God, but whose path is that of seeking to know God more fully, more deeply, and more enduringly: day by day.
Sermons year A
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