Because He Ascended, So Too May We Ascend...
“St. Philip’s was built when people thought that the more stairs you had to climb, the close you’d get to God”. We looked up from the sidewalk surrounding the old stone church, to the red doors cheerfully situated at the top of 20 some odd stone steps. It was a warm autumn day, and I was getting a tour of one of the churches I would be serving as a youth outreach worker--the church which hosted the offices for the four yoked congregations we served.
To get into the sanctuary at St. Philip’s you had three choices--all of which involved multiple stairs. There was the aforementioned entrance on Denison Avenue, 20 steps up; then the entrance on West 33rd, maybe 6 steps; and then, if you came in through the parish offices, a long, dimly lit hallway, steps down to a gym, and a narrow flight up to the sanctuary.
It was hard to get into St. Philip’s. Up was the only way in. And, while the original architects may have imagined the place to be akin to that heavenly city on a hill, a beacon , visible to the whole neighborhood--the reality was that St. Philip’s felt more like a fortified building, imposing and slightly forbidding. The sidewalk like a moat, and the steps the closed drawbridge--people walked past, but they rarely walked in.
And, it was as I considered the appointed texts for the Feast of the Ascension, that I remembered St. Philip’s and the stone steps that posed a barrier to the remnants of the church’s aging congregation. St Philip's, where the more stairs you had to climb the closer you were to God. St. Philip’s, where so few could climb those steps that no one could get close to God...
And, one by one, people stopped trying to get in.
And, the church closed.
This week has been a week of reckoning for the Church. The Pew Research Center’s Study on Religion in America found a 7.8% decrease in the number of people who identify themselves as Christians. And, more specific to our denomination, the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, charged with the task of submitting an accurate picture of “the Episcopal Church” has just published their findings.
And, those findings aren’t exactly surprising, given national trends amongst ALL denominations. In the Episcopal church, average Sunday attendance now averages 61 people; the Episcopal church, nationally, loses about 16,000 members a year as deaths outpace births; the average age of ordained clergy is now 48.
It causes me to wonder, how many stairs have we asked people to climb to get closer to God? Assuming, of course, that it is our particular staircase that leads to the vaulted heights of the heavens...
and, so we look up, for that doorway through the clouds, for some sort of terrestrial terra firma--as if by standing still and craning our necks we might find ourselves gazing upwards at the wounded feet of the ascended Christ.
As if the answer is held by our view of the sky. And, the angels inquire, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?"
So, if the answer is not up, where is it?
From the portion of the letter to the Ephesians appointed for today, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
The eyes of the heart. It is with our hearts, that we can find that for which we seek. These last few weeks have found us exploring the promise of God to abide with us, to be in our midst, to be with us in all we are and all we do. And, so it is with and within and without...that we find ourselves in encounter with the divine love which transcends all barriers--even tall stone steps.
There are no stairs to climb to ascend to the right hand of God.
Because, if we are the body of Christ we are the body of Christ ascended. If he has ascended, then so too have we ascended. And, it is the journey of the heart to ascend to that place where we are with God. Our liturgy takes us on that journey of the heart every week...
Lift up your hearts, we lift them up to the Lord.
This is the Sursum Corda...the lifting up of the hearts. And, in our recital of this ancient dialogue each week, we state our yearning for that place we have been. Ascended. There is a Syriac Orthodox version of the Sursum, the Eucharistic Prayer of St. James, that invites us to see this ascension of self more clearly,
(The celebrant, placing his left hand on the altar, turns toward the people and blesses them, saying:) The love of God the Father +, the grace of the Only-begotten Son + and the fellowship and descent of the Holy Spirit + be with you all, my brethren, forever.
People: Amen. And with your spirit.
(The celebrant, extending and elevating his hands, says aloud:) Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father, let our thoughts, minds and hearts be at this hour.
People: They are with the LORD God.
Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the LORD in awe.
People: It is meet and right.
It is good, and it is holy, and we are here--here where we are invited to focus our thoughts, minds and hearts on the invitation of the God with whom we eternally abide.
Now, back to the supposedly bad news proffered by the parochial reports and Pew Study...
But, this time read through the lens of abundance,
These reports tells us that people are being thoughtful and intentional about religion; it tells us that our church is full of people who really want to be here, not out of obligation or expectation, but out of a place of intentionality and engagement. These numbers put us into a context more akin to that of the early Church--Jesus didn’t ascend so that we may ascend to power, but so that our hearts could ascend to God.
As the Rev. Alissa Newton in the Diocese of Olympia writes, “We were born as a counter-cultural community of visionary rebels seeking God through community, acts of compassion, and radical hospitality. Perhaps the Spirit is calling us back to our roots.”
In short, a smaller church is a healthier and more authentic church. We are called: to love, not to count; to witness, not to report; to use the power from on high as a means of transformation in the world.
The Spirit, the power from on high, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
You will be my witnesses, in Minnesota, in St. Paul, in the Old Rondo Neighborhood, on Grand Avenue...witnesses to the journey of the heart. Witnesses to what has already happened but not yet been fulfilled. In the words of St. Augustine...
“Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: “If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.” For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies...We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
Sermon for the Lord's Ascension