On June 10, 2018, we celebrated the retirement of our pastor, Fr. William Hale, in a joint service with our cluster parish, Christ the King, Taylor, MI, followed by a picnic. Father Bill and his wife, Arlene, have retired and relocated to California to be closer to family.
Suddenly, there was the beginning of the “helicopter” days. Just when Michigan had finally broken into its first 80° day, the maple trees on our street started to let loose their little winged seedlings. Ever since I was a kid, the two seeds linked together and floating down on the wind looked like some sort of feathered messengers as they rode on the wind and floated everywhere up and down the street. Wherever the wind carried them, the little winged seeds circled and circled, moving in their gyrating ways down and over, and down again, until they hit the earth.
As I watch them now, I cannot help but think of the parable of the sower:
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (Mark 4: 3-8)
I don’t need to explicate the parable that Jesus tells. It is often given as the first of his parables and it’s recorded in all three synoptic Gospels. It is even explained by him to his questioning disciples about its meaning (Mark 4: 13-20). But on this May day, when the maples on this block were showering forth wave after wave of their seedlings, all that would come to mind was the image of that bountiful sower casting forth his seed here, there, and everywhere.
Now, I have always taken that parable as an expression of how God will not stop at anything to get the Word out. Like the sower constantly thrusting his hand into the bag of seed, these maples–at the right time–cast forth their seed packets to fly with the wind and reach into all corners of the surrounding area; so is God’s presence and call. By late afternoon, there were not hundreds, but thousands and thousands of little helicopter pairs covering the street, the sidewalk, people’s lawns, our roof, the neighbor’s roof, falling into the strangest places–cluttering up and clogging gutters at the eaves, lying thick even upon the top of my car. The prodigal display of sending forth of seedlings went on all day and much of the next. I would not have thought that the nearest maple tree could have held nearly so many of these as I saw scattered around me! And like the seed of the sower, while much of it hits the pavement, or blows down a gutter, or gets trampled underfoot by the kids as they played in the street, I knew that some precious few of the seedlings would land on a spot of grass or some exposed earth – and put down roots. Looking forward in my mind a decade or so, I imagined a small maple sapling here or there, and perhaps, in time, another mighty maple added to our stock of trees in the neighborhood.
The meaning behind maple seeds or that of the Sower is the same: that God’s grace is abundant continuous. Seeds or maple seeds scattered here, there, and everywhere, with most not finding good soil take root in. But it is for the sake of the possibility of that implanting that the Sower keeps on sowing. We may respond negatively to God’s call, but God does not accept our “no” as the final answer.
Our two churches have each had decades to put down roots of faith and to provide good soil in which the seed of the Spirit can take root. That is one of the purposes of being a church community: to strengthen one another in ways that support the faith, to propagate the faith by telling God’s story over and over again. What we have received—individually and as a congregation—we need not only to preserve, but to proclaim. This will involve dedication to strengthening our own faith and exploring the fullness of our life in Christ. We do this by Sunday School, by Christian education, by Bible study, by sermons, by personal testimony and a host of other ways. There are many ways to proclaim the Gospel, but the constant in all our endeavors is to help the Sower spread the seed, that is the Word.
We know that the means to approach God and to be born in the Spirit are always readily available. God is forever offering the grace to have new life. But while with God this is a constant, the variable is the ground upon which the seed falls. For the individual and for us collectively, we must cultivate the “good soil” the Spirit-seed needs. When we harden ourselves, we cannot bear fruit. When we give up before difficulties, we give that seed no nourishment. When we resist to the call of God, or when we feel the need to soften the call of God so that it is comforting to our current lifestyle rather than transformative by helping us to leave our old self and take on the new–then we frustrate the work of God within us. As a result, we cannot bear fruit because we only offer rocks, or old well-trodden paths deadly as thorns and other barren patches. A large part of the work of the Church is to receive what God has given us, to prepare strips of good land, sections of “good soil,” which are hearts and minds that are open to receive God’s Spirit and to let it transform us so we may transform the world.
The Spirit is with you—be faithful and fruitful!
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
March ended with Holy Week, including the one of the most significant days for Christians: Good Friday. The article for that month explored our understanding of Christ’s redeeming death for us on the Cross. Since April 1st was Easter Sunday, I devoted the April newsletter to the larger topic of Christ’s Resurrection. Following this pattern, because May includes the celebration of Ascension Day, this article this article links to the others to make clear that. in the scheme of salvation, Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension are individual parts which taken together form a single redemptive whole.
Comprehending Christ’s ascension into heaven involves special problems beyond those of his death and resurrection. Any adult should be able to comprehend physical death– even when it is a cruel execution and by no means a natural event. What is significant about the Crucifixion is its import and meaning for Christians: we see it as a self-sacrifice of the man Jesus, as well as the redemptive act of the Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That he was resurrected on the third day and returned to life is a mystery, to be sure, but one that is attested by his disciples who experienced the risen Christ in person. Their testimony forms the basis of the proclamation of the gospel. Because they encountered the risen Christ, they were able to move from hiding and passive discipleship into the active role of apostles to the world.
But the Ascension of Christ cannot be easily comprehended by modern minds. Struggling as everyone does to find words to match or describe the event, we realize how difficult is the task of explicating what the Ascension is or what it means. We do not live in a three-tier world where one stands on the ground and looks up into heaven as a place to which we can be transported if only we had the right elevator. Instead, we need to come to terms with an event which the disciples reportedly witnessed, but which is inexplicable in purely physical terms. That Christ rose from the dead is essential to our understanding of ourselves as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) Thus, Paul links the lives of the faithful to Christ’s own death and resurrection.
But the same resurrected Jesus does not walk the earth in bodily form today, nor is he found in any sepulcher or other burial place; instead, we affirm that he lives and has returned with his mortal body to that place or state where he dwelt prior to the Incarnation. Before his death, Jesus predicted that he would be exalted into heaven after his Resurrection. For example, speaking to and of the Father, Jesus says,
I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that
I had in your presence before the world existed. (John 17: 4-5)
For Christ was not resurrected in order to live and move in a limited locality such as Galilee or Judea. Nor was he given life in order to die again – his humanity was made complete in his suffering and Crucifixion. Christ has proven his full mortal status. As Paul writes,
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin,
once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Romans 6: 9-10)
By this point, the work he began with his Incarnation and birth has been completed, and the risen Christ needs to return to be with the Creator. There Christ can attain to the full glory of his heavenly being and be proclaimed King of all creation by angels and archangels and all those who worship him. This was affirmed early on in the ancient Church hymn which Paul quotes:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
The other truth of Jesus’ departure in his Ascension is that it sets the stage for the coming of the Holy Spirit to be the new guide for the apostles. Jesus’ last promises to his disciples include notice that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete to stay with the disciples in his place.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away,
for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;
but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16: 7)
His words indicate that it is necessary for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit may descend and dwell with us in his place. His removal from them – classically designated his Ascension to heaven – is both historically and theologically necessary. If Christ does not complete his return to the heavenly places, the Holy Spirit cannot begin its work by being present, nor can this age proceed to its appointed end when Christ will return as promised.
This is what the Church from earliest times has proclaimed. Christ has completed the cycle from heavenly being entirely part of the Godhead, to incarnate Word of God dwelling among us as one of us, to the Crucified One who actually died and was buried, to resurrected Christ bearing the signs of his passion and death as he returns to dwell with the Father. There he is enthroned “at the right hand of God.” From this exalted state, Christ lives and is the object of our prayers. But he is not removed from us. Though apparently absent from this world, the enduring Christ lives in all of us who have committed ourselves to him, even as he has transformed the gathering of his followers into the body of Christ on earth.
It is helpful if we see the whole process of Good Friday through Easter, usually referred to as the Triduum, as one integrated whole. The Church affirms that the death of Jesus is not separable from his Resurrection, nor is it possible to consider the Resurrection unless it’s in the context of his death by crucifixion. To appreciate this, we have to change our perspective away from the human perspective focused on the human drama of the human Christ. That drama is set against the competing political forces that serve as the backdrop of the narrative moving from Palm Sunday through his death and entombment, and then reversed on Easter morning with the empty tomb. The Church has always used this human perspective on events to flesh out the liturgies of Holy Week. We embrace this rich human perspective on these highly emotionally charged events for they put us in touch with the humanity of Jesus. His human nature is also carried over into his Resurrection, where it is not just a spirit that walks among his followers but the bodily presence of Christ as well.
As an alternative, however, I’m suggesting here is to take a “cosmic” perspective, such as that expressed by this New Testament author:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
How can the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth possible fit the eternal nature the author of Hebrews presents?
First, we can try to understand afresh the mighty works of this Jesus–allowing himself to be betrayed and taken prisoner, accepting suffering at the hands of the Romans, and offering up his life willingly to the cruelest form of physical death on the Cross. These all constitute one movement, the final culmination of Jesus’ Incarnation. His willing acts of self-offering unite his conception, his birth, and his earthly life and ministry—all bearing fruit in his death. The same Jesus who died is then raised by the Father as a sign of triumph over death and the forces of destruction. In Jesus’ Resurrection, God manifests the essence of God is found in life and the promise of eternal life. Jesus is restored to life so that his disciples and followers may be witnesses of God’s work, and that ultimately Christ may return freely to that heavenly place whence he came as the final seal of his authority and eternal nature.
We need to understand the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem in 29 or 30 CE are not simply historical developments that came about by a series of human processes, but that they must have been part of a divine plan. Neither the opposition of the Pharisees, nor the plotting of the Temple hierarchy, nor even the Roman power of execution actually brought about Jesus’ death. The Gospels tell us of these movements, but they are only the immediate, “efficient” reasons for Christ’s death. Seen as the ultimate act of God’s plan of salvation for us, the road to the Cross has a much longer course. If not from the beginning of our human history, the impetus toward Christ’s death came at least from the time when the Godhead knew humanity had become estranged and sought to return it to wholeness and life. In a word, God’s plan of salvation for our species represents the ancient desire of God to reconcile us. That is why John’s Gospel begins,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:1-4)
Within that timeless, cosmic framework, the purpose of God takes a definite form, leading to the Incarnation:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The divine theological perspective declares the willingness of the Son to become human preceded the actual act of the Incarnation pronunciation to Mary. Before the Gospels were composed, Paul quoted what appears to be even to him an ancient hymn declaring how God was working through the “emptying” of the Son:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a Cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
From this perspective, all that Jesus does on the earth is working towards God’s agenda and his task of redemption. God’s love is the ultimate sign of union with human beings, and God is the ultimate mover behind the Passion and Crucifixion. Only through the ultimate resignation of all the glory of being God can Jesus become our Savior. The crowning glory of being God’s Anointed and King over us is found in the miserable Cross. But we know that is not the end of the story, for God raised Christ, and in the mystery of the Resurrection, concepts of human agency fail. Both in his humanity (such as showing the marks of the nails to Thomas) and in the spiritual nature of his Resurrection (entering through lock doors and appearing in various places in some supernatural way), Christ finally reveals to those who follow him who it is they have been following all along.
The last word of the story is not the disappearance of Christ but seeing his ascension as the seal of the ever-presence of Christ. Hence our proclamation of faith:
Christ has died (past tense in the realm of history);
Christ is risen (continuing present tense having put off death forever);
Christ will come again (future tense)
We put our hope and trust in that last phrase and measure our own lives in the light of the risen Christ. From the “cosmic” perspective of understanding his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, we can best understand who Jesus Christ is and his central role in all of human history. He represents the continual will of the Eternal One, ever seeking to reconcile us to God by his most precious acts of self-giving love.
At the end of this month, we observe Holy Week, with all the drama of Christ’s betrayal, trial, suffering, and death presented within the services. Not only is this the most moving time of the Church year, but it always reveals for me new possibilities of how I (and perhaps you as well) can see myself in the various personae who comprise this drama. While we are aware that behind the scenes, God is directing all actions toward the ultimate act of love in Jesus’ Crucifixion, nevertheless, the action is also accomplished by each human player’s personal choices and actions, whether faithful or not. The God of history works with and through human beings and we can never escape responsibility for our freedom to choose and to act.
To illustrate this, focus upon Pontius Pilate, who is neither Jew nor disciple of Jesus, and who, among all the characters, appears to have the most earthly power at his disposal and should therefore be able to act freely to his own ends. There are many explication and comments that should be made when reading John’s Gospel as a whole, and particularly with reference to his treatments of “the Jews,” but right now let’s accept the drama as the gospel presents it to us as part of the Passion Gospel which we read every Good Friday during the service.1 Within this extended reading, we can focus on Pilate and learn from him.
The historical Pontius Pilate was anything but merciful or tenderhearted; in the end, the Emperor removed him from his position as prefect (or governor) in Judea because of notorious cruelty and constant uprisings by the people which resulted from his actions. But John depicts Pilate as a man intrigued with Jesus and his plight. Instead of condemning Jesus outright – which is all the priests and temple leadership want him to do – the Roman governor asked Jesus himself to explain what he is guilty of. The problem is that he cannot hear or understand the answers he is given.
As a representative of the power of Rome, Pilate asks the reasonable question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus answered:
My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (Jn 18:36)
Unclear what of what to make of this answer, Pilate presses Jesus, but unfortunately, the answer he receives is not in the terms of the power/powerless distinction Pilate can understand. Jesus instead answers,
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (Jn 18:37)
Rather than trying to learn more and thereby understand who Jesus believed himself to be, Pilate takes the tone of a cocky sophomore and dismisses Jesus and his message by offering the rhetorical rejoinder, “What is truth?”
Not only does Pilate not understand Truth, he also does not understand authority. He publicly declares Jesus innocent of guilt, but sends him to be flogged in the hands of his sadistic soldiers. After his exhibiting of the prisoner before the crowd, their cries to crucify Jesus further confuse Pilate. Hearing them repeat the claim that Jesus claimed he was the Son of God (Jn 19:7), the fearful Pilate turns to Jesus again for answers—answers which the power-minded prefect cannot comprehend. Jesus remains silent in response to the Roman’s questions, having in his own mind moved beyond this moment with the prefect and on to his ultimate exultation on the Cross.
Pilate’s world is crumbling fast. Though armed with the authority of his office and the military power of Rome, he does not seem able to intimidate or win over the angry crowds outside his palace. Now even his prisoner, brought back within his chamber, refuses to speak to Pilate. Enraged and threatened because his power is not avail him, the prefect threatens as a bully would:
Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10)
Jesus’ response to this threat of violence defeats his prosecutor:
Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above… (Jn 1911)
Ultimately, the deflated Pilate abdicates his opposition and allows the crowd to crucify his prisoner.
As Roman prefect over the whole province, Pontius Pilate should have been the most powerful figure in this drama. But Jesus’ fearless words shattered the illusion of his power as they affirmed the ultimate authority of God over all rulers and earthly systems. Equally true is the fact that Pilate failed to recognize the truth when it was presented to him. He allowed events happening around him and considerations of power – whether exercised, threatened, or dictated by others – to cloud his judgment and to lead to his damnable retreat from true authority.
Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”
They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?”
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (Jn 14-16)
Pilate believed himself in the end to be overmatched in this conflict, but the deciding factor in his tragedy is that he did not exercise his own freedom and judgment. He had the power of life and death over Jesus, but by ignoring what his heart warned him about exercising that authority, he abdicated to the events and their inexorable power. He stepped back from decision-making when the moment called for a decision, and thereby allowed himself to become an accomplice to the wrong he halfheartedly wanted to avoid.
Accepting John’s account of this drama at face value, we can learn some valuable lessons. First, that the events of Good Friday were but the final act of the plan which God has set in motion from the time of Jesus his Incarnation. The will of God was done with a great deal of irony concerning all the players. Peter swears ultimate fidelity, but denies Jesus because of his weakness and fear. The chief priests of Israel do not recognize their king, and thereby give him his “exaltation” – on the Cross! Caiaphas plots Jesus death so that “one man should die for the people” to save the nation, unaware that after the Resurrection, Christians would affirm exactly that. The inscription over the Cross, intending to announce the reason for his execution, ironically proclaims him, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And Pilate, who senses that an injustice is being done before him, cannot make effective use of the authority which he has been granted—and that failure of his use of power enables the reality of the Crucifixion to follow its divine trajectory to God’s appointed end.
See you at services between Palm Sunday and Easter!
1All references are to the Gospel John, using the New Revised Standard Version.