Sermon at Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2019

'He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.'

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 2nd June 2019 at 3.00 PM

What do you think the Church is?  Is it an association? A group? A gathering of like-minded people who find Jesus’s teaching helpful or life—changing? The Yale Biblical Scholar Paul Minear counted as many as 96 images for the Church in the New Testament. Some will be familiar – Body of Christ, New Creation, Bride of Christ – whilst others such as Fish, Loaf, Ark, may be less well known. How we imagine the Church will have an impact on many of our other conclusions about what it is to live a Christian life.

The letter to the Ephesians, from which we heard in today’s second lesson, is rich in imagery related to Christ and the Church. It offers clear evidence from within the New Testament period that the early Church understood herself to be intimately connected to the person of the ascended Christ, and dependent on the grace and power of the ascended Christ for her ministry. St Paul sketches out the shape of that ministry in a list of gifts – the marks of Christ’s body will be apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral and teaching. The Church is nothing apart from Christ – she is not principally an organisation, far less a straightforward institution, without this fundamental relatedness to the ascended and glorified Christ who has poured gifts onto his people, allowing them – us –  to share in his ministry. St Leo the Great, who was Pope in the middle of the fifth century famously preached that “what was visible in our Saviour has passed over into his mysteries.”[1] By “mysteries”, Leo meant “sacraments”, which is to say that what we experience in the Church’s ministry is Jesus’s own passionate proclamation of the Kingdom, his healings, his naming and casting out of evil, and his association with those whom the world would rather forget.

So, if the Church is not principally an institution, or a support-group – a kind of activist think tank for good ideas – what on earth is it? St Augustine, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, was greatly influence and inspired by the letters of St Paul. He wrote much about the Church, her identity, and relationship with wider society towards the close of antiquity. One of Augustine’s most important insights about the Church is that Christ’s followers actually participate in Christ himself, so much that Augustine speaks of Christ and the Church together being the “Totus Christus” or the “whole” Christ. He wrote,

“…let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church.” [2]

Why does all this matter today? During these days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, we are encouraged to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. This is an essential prayer, as Christ has promised the Church that he will not forsake his Body. However, we should avoid thinking that somehow, on the Sunday between these two feasts, we just mark a bit of a pause. The Ascension itself has much to teach us about the identity of the people of God. Through his ascension, Christ has included us in his mission in the most intimate way. As he descended to take our flesh, so in the Ascension our flesh directly becomes an agent of his Kingdom, through our being grafted into his life in the Church. Not an institution, but a communion of love, encouraged to “grow up in every way into him who is the head.”

The story of the Ascension reminds us that Christ’s gospel is to be preached “to all nations.” As we will be reminded next week, at Pentecost the good news is heard in many languages, and its universal nature is fundamental to the message. Therefore, the dispersed body which is the Church, in diverse places, times and cultures, is called to be united in proclamation and belief so that the Totus Christus might be known. Our humanity has been taken to the heart of Godhead by Christ, and this ascended Lord now fills all things with his life, so that people of every age and context might encounter the same ministry as was known on the shores of Galilee.

There are implications too for our own individual discipleship. Elsewhere, Augustine writes that every time we accept Christ’s divinity, the Ascension takes place in us again: “…He has ascended for us when we rightly understand Him. At that time He ascended only once, but now He ascends every day.”[3] We are “in Christ” by grace though our baptism, the members inseparable (to once again use the language of the Body of Christ) from our head. As our minds and hearts become more open to divine grace and divine light, the mysteries of Christ live in us more fully, and love is perfected in us. Christ’s ascension “in us” is a fruit of our faith; a gift of communion with God in Christ poured afresh into our hearts whenever we offer our own loving assent to the power of the resurrection.

But even when we think of personal sanctification, the Totus Christus principle never allows us to stray far from thinking of the Christian life as a corporate activity in which the love of Christ binds us together, and hones the whole body. Loving each other is – in part – how Christians love Christ. To imagine that we can love Christ without loving the Church (his body) is as impossible as loving the Son without loving the Father.[4] In a gloriously blunt and frank translation of one of his homilies on the first epistle of John, Augustine says, “Love can’t be divided into parts. Choose for yourself what you’ll love, and you get the others too.”[5] That is the delight – and serious challenge – of the Church.

This period between Ascension and Pentecost prompts us to ponder the radical continuity between the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the Church. But we must be honest: there is also a radical  discontinuity caused by our human sin and frailty, our selfishness and our tribalism. The abuse crises which have beset the Church in recent years are but one example of how our structures, habits, and social assumptions need to be purified again and again by the animating power of the Holy Spirit, whose gift is promised to the Body of Christ in every generation.

Confident in her ministry, the Church is constantly in a state of expectation, of longing for the completion promised by her Lord. When faithful to the ascended and glorified Christ, the Church is a sign and servant of the age which is to come. In that age, in ways we can barely perceive, all things shall be filled, and the vocation of the Church truly consummated.

[1] St. Leo the Great, Sermo. 74,2:PL 54,398.

[2] St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, In. Io. XXI.8)

[3] Sermon 246

[4] P. 198 Rowan Williams On Augustine

[5] John Leinenweber love One Another, My Friends, p. 102, quoted in Williams On Augustine