Published by Ronald Steed,
Ascension | Salvation | Julian of Norwich
Sermon: We are SO Saved
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹. Taken from Acts 1:6–14 ²
Sometimes we are left looking at the clouds | Photo by Ron Steed
Something left undone?
As Christ is about to depart the Earth, the work here being complete, his gathered disciples have one final question; "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
Now this might seem like a little question, but it’s not… a LOT hangs on the answer. It’s actually a question that is rich in meaning and emotion, and it gives us a little insight into the mindset of his disciples; a mindset that seems to say:
"Jesus we’re sorry to see you go, but looking over our todo list, there seems to be something you’ve not crossed off. Maybe you forgot about it, or perhaps, you got too absorbed with all that crucifixion drama to get it done, so we just wanted to remind you that it still needs doing. Have you forgotten that you were supposed to leave Israel in charge of things? Aren’t you supposed to fix that for us?"
A ribbon snake that sent me jumping when first encountered… wish that could be fixed | Photo by Ron Steed
We might imagine that the disciples are feeling a little exasperated with Jesus. This was, after all, what everybody said that the Messiah was supposed to do, and here we are at the end, and there’s no Kingdom of Israel in sight.
And, you might get the sense that the disciples are a little impatient as well, because, they have really, really important work to do on those Romans and Gentiles that will never get done if Jesus does not leave Israel in charge of things, with Earthly power and weapons. I’ve said all along in my sermons that the disciples never seem to understand what Jesus is about, and this is another case of that, even after crucifixion and resurrection.
Is it Christ’s Job to FIX Us?
Many Christians and non-Christians today don’t get Jesus either, and the Church has missed the mark a lot of the time. And really, isn’t this OUR question for Jesus as well? "Jesus, is this the time you are going to fix racism in America, or fix gun violence, or fix the war in Ukraine… Jesus, when are you going to FIX us?" It is as though the work of Salvation has not been completed, there are still things left for Jesus to do, and we’re left looking up into the sky.
Poison ivy, another thing I wish Jesus had fixed for us | Photo by Ron Steed
After all, the big deal about Jesus’ Ascension is that his work is DONE; COMPLETE… nothing more needed on Earth. But when we look at the paper on any day, or watch cable news, it is abundantly clear that the Kingdom of God does NOT seem to be in charge. Surely FIXING that is part of the work of salvation, isn’t it?
Maybe not. Maybe the work of salvation does NOT include fixing us in the way Jesus’ disciples, both ancient and modern, have imagined. Maybe, the work of salvation is about something else, and that Jesus had in fact, completely finished the Earthly work of salvation before he ascended into heaven.
Three Parts of Salvation
What then IS the work of salvation?³
I think Christ’s work of salvation has three parts.
First, the work of salvation is about our past. It is about transfiguring our past shames and failures, our violence and missing the mark, sometimes horrificly and always tragicly, into sources of deep, deep wisdom and insight. It’s about removing the impediment of our past from our relationship with God.
Our past is forgiven | Photo by Ron Steed of Castlequein in County Kerry Ireland | Photo by Ron Steed
And second, the work of salvation is about our future. It is about transfiguring our future from one that is focused on the fear of death and non-existance, into a future of life, and unimaginable joy and glory. It’s about removing death as an impediment to our relationship with God.
That transfiguration of the past is the "forgiveness of sins", and that transfiguration of the future is "eternal life". And those are two of the gifts that Christ gave us free of charge. And not just to those who call themselves Christians, but they are given as gifts to everyone, everywhere.
In your life, whether long or short, you have never looked into the eyes of someone who did not possess these gifts, whether they knew it or not, and whether they believed it or not. The resurrected Christ took the entirety of humanity into himself; all of us, past present and future.
The Depth of Desire
How do we know this? We know it because that is the whole purpose of creation in the first place. We worship a creator-God who wants nothing more than to BE WITH the cosmos that God created, and who will not let our sins or our deaths stand in the way of that desire. In a very real sense, the Trinity decided our salvation long before there was a cosmos that existed to save.
The one desire of God is to be with us | Photo by Ron Steed
The depth of this desire to be with us, no matter what, was demonstrated on the cross. The depth of this desire to be with us was demonstrated in the resurrection, showing us that not even death could stand between us and God. This is pure love. The revelation of this love… SHOWING us just how far God was willing to go to be with us, was completed by Jesus Christ in full so that he could return to heaven.
Salvation in the Present
Between our past and our future lies the present, and this is where the third work of salvation operates. And THAT is the work of healing and reconciliation with one another. We HAVE been saved by the forgiveness of sin; we are BEING saved by our continuous healing and reconciliation; we WILL be saved into eternal life.
Why do we need this healing?
Even though our sins are forgiven, the damage of sin remains. More than that, all of us carry the trauma of our ancestors… the ones who received or gave violence, the ones who suffered or inflicted wars and oppressions. Some of the very practices and emotions that you unconsciously carry in your family started in times like Reconstruction or during the Great Depression. You might have no idea why you do them or feel them. Intergenerational trauma might be the reason.
Sin might be forgiven, but the intergenerational damage remains to be healed | Steed family photo
And, although we anticipate the joy and glory of eternal life, sometimes we need to bring some of that joy and glory into the present as a healing as well. We need an advanced payment on eternal life to sustain the world.
It’s the salvation work of healing that continues here on Earth, and for THAT, Christ works THROUGH every human heart. Christ has equipped all of humanity with the Holy Spirit to help us in that work, and we will celebrate Pentecost next week to hallow the day when that became apparent to us.
For Christians, Jesus left an additional assignment just before his ascension; to bear witness to Jesus’ work of salvation everywhere. And we we have the Holy Spirit as a powerful helper. You know, it is really only when the disciples got the power of the Spirit and LISTENED to that Spirit, that they began to get it what Jesus was about. Jesus was never there to FIX Israel in the sense that its people imagined, but rather to do something far greater THROUGH the people of Israel; to save all of humanity. He was there to save our past and our future so that we could fulfill our destiny; to be with God no matter what. And Christ continues to heal us and reconcile us, all along the way.
How do we DO this work of healing and reconciliation? Jesus told us how in the sermon on the mount; it’s to practice the beatitudes, which he went on powerfully to demonstrate over the next three years of his life. It is to come alongside the suffering ones; to BE WITH those who are poor, those who mourn, and those who are oppressed. It is here that we find God most palpably present. It is to hunger and thirst for the RIGHT things… God’s things, in our actions and in our hearts. It is to practice mercy, and peacemaking, and sometimes to endure oppression ourselves, even when we are doing the right thing. We are blessed in all of this; blessings that flow from our hearts to other hearts.
Blessings flow | Photo by Ron Steed
And it is the flow of blessing that is perhaps, our most compelling witness to others about Jesus… Holy Sprit to Holy Spirit through human hearts. To practice these beatitudes in the power of the Spirit IS to bring healing and reconciliation and witness to the world. In other words, it is exactly the way WE are to BE WITH one another, just as the Trinity is with themselves and with us.
So, does Christ FIX us? Well, if by fix we mean that we are all destined for eternal oneness with God, then yes! Christ did that! Our past sins don’t stand in the way, and not even death prevents our future with God.
If by fixed, do we mean that we are given a powerful ally in the Spirit to guide us and a roadmap in the beatitudes to help us heal the world as we seek to be one with one another, then yes again, we’ve been given everything we need!
But if by fixing us, you mean does Christ gives us the weapons and the power to force the rest of humanity to conform to our wishes? Is NOW the time that God is going to restore the Kingdom of Israel, or the United States, or any other nation? No… that does not seem to be how salvation works.
A Mystical Experience
This can leave us feeling a little ambivalent about Christ. How is it, with all this good news about salvation, that we still have so much trauma, and violence, and sickness in the world?
The Mystics have much to say to us | Photo by Ron Steed at Coarha Beg, Valentia Island Ireland
Julian of Norwich, who lived in 14th century England in the time of the Black Plague, had the same question. At 30, she got sick, and while hovering near death, she had a mystical vision of Christ who gave her sixteen "showings". She survived her illness, and was so profoundly affected by her vision, that she spend the rest of her life writing and re-writing about her experience. What was left to us was an incredibly positive, hopeful, and optimistic account of the work of salvation.
In it, she asks the same question we have on our own hearts; why did God, in God’s forseeing wisdom, not stop sin from being? Christ does not answer her fully, but rather tells her that sin was necessary, without saying why or what role it plays.
Then, Christ goes on to say to her, one of the most hopeful and comforting things I think has ever been said about the completed, and the continuing work of humanity’s salvation; "ALL shall be well, and all SHALL be well, and all manner of thing shall be WELL." We are SO saved.
¹ This sermon was delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT, on The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension, May 21, 2023
² Acts 1:6–14 (NRSV):
When the apostles had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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."
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
³ Many of the themes of this sermon are drawn from:
Wells, S. (2015). A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God. John Wiley & Sons.
Wells, S. (2022). Humbler Faith, Bigger God: Finding a Story to Live By. CANTERBURY PRESS NORWICH.
The Rev. Ron Steed is an Episcopal Deacon in Southeast Connecticut and has served the New London Homeless Hospitality Center in a variety of ways. He writes haiku and lyrical prose that he hopes will help others put the head and heart in right-relation.
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