The Rev. Peter J. Gomes: “A Great and Glorious Business”
This is a sermon with two texts, which does not mean that it will be twice as long. The first comes from that remarkable account of the Lord’s ascension that we heard in the first lesson, where the angels say to the men of Galilee: “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? He will come even as you saw him go.” The second text is from the Holy Gospel that we just heard: “Now I am no longer in the world but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one.”
I rejoice in the opportunity given to me to preach this morning to help you celebrate the Cathedral centennial. It is a great anniversary, a great task that you have undertaken these months. You have presumed to call this ‘A Series of Great Preachers,’ and I am mindful of that wonderful chorus in Handel’s Messiah: ‘Great was the company of the preachers.’ I am also reminded of a question I was asked in my teaching of preaching course at Duke, where I have been this last Term. My students came to me and asked, “Will you make us great preachers?” and I answered, “Oh, no; my job is to make bad preachers better.” So, I stand before you as a bad preacher who aspires to be better, and who is made so by the great company in which I stand, and by this great and glorious place. You’ve also brought me here on the Sunday on which we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, which, if anything, reminds us of work that remains to be done, for the Ascension is both an episode of completion and a tremendous episode of unfinished business.
When I was a young man, many years ago, I was invited to preach at Groton School, a very grand place as you might imagine, almost as grand as this. I was invited to preach on Ascension Day, a Thursday, because no one at Groton School wished to speak on the subject of the Ascension. Knowing no better, I accepted the invitation with alacrity. I had one clever device, the only clever device to which I can really lay claim, which is that I asked the School Minister to place at the entrance to the chancel a great stepladder, which he duly did. My view was that if the boys had no interest in what I had to say on Ascension Day, they might be mildly curious about the stepladder.
I did not think to propose such a device here in this great cathedral of yours today, for fear you would fire the sexton or think that somebody had simply forgotten to clear up before divine service. The stepladder on Ascension Day, and Ascension Sunday, however, is a wonderful thing, leading somewhere, and you look up, unsure of what is going on, and that is the whole principle of Ascension Day. You look up, you don’t see anything, but you know something important is happening. That is probably why so few of you were here on Ascension Thursday, it is why Holy Mother Church in her great wisdom has always re-celebrated Ascension Thursday on the Sunday following Ascension, and it is why you are all here today.
The medieval artists loved to paint pictures of Jesus’s ankles disappearing into a cloud. That’s all they painted, the very well-turned ankles of our Lord going up into a cloud, and we know where the image comes from, but it is a curious sight to see only Jesus’s ankles, with no body, no head, no crown, just somebody obviously on the way out, disappearing, and not making an entrance but an exit. We are meant to understand on Ascension Day that Jesus is gone, disappeared, out of here, out of sight. Jesus is gone, and there is no ‘Rabbits’-foot-Jesus, my personal Lord and Saviour in my pocket,’ no Jesus on a little leash or a little chain. Jesus is gone, he’s done what he was here to do and now he’s gone, and you and I are left to do his unfinished work. That is the burden of Ascension Day, not ‘How did they do it?’ or ‘Where has he gone?’ and certainly not ‘When is he coming back?’ a subject that seems to obsess many Christians. That is not the question; the question is, ‘Now that he is gone, what remains for us to do?’ There is unfinished business for God’s faithful people on earth.
We discovered in reading the gospel for today that the apostles were told to wait, that they would be empowered and able to take up the necessary work. Jesus’s work is never done; it remains unfinished, and for us to do.
Many years ago, I had the great privilege of preaching at Winchester Cathedral, England, a place larger than this in the old capital of England. I had been there several years before, when the west front was covered in scaffolding and the service in which I was preaching was in celebration of the completion of the restoration of the west front. Needless to say, I was surprised when I arrived on my next visit to find new scaffolding, this time on the south front of the cathedral. I, eager American that I was, said to the dean, “I thought you had finished all this stuff?” and he replied, “A cathedral’s work is never done. We retain permanent scaffolding, we just move it from one side to the other.”
I suspect that that might be a tale not too far removed from the life of this cathedral, and even though you are celebrating the completion of a century’s good work, your work is by no means done. This is not a finished house, although it is completed; it is not finished because a cathedral’s work is never done as long as one child goes hungry, the name of Jesus remains foreign to one person, one soul remains unsaved, this city remains as it is and not as it could be, or this nation and this world remain in captivity to the nether forces as opposed to the higher forces. Until then, the work of this cathedral is not done, and surely there is a part of this physical place that is constantly undergoing work. I remember my first encounter with this cathedral, when I was a young man watching on television the Christmas Eve service from Washington Cathedral, in which Dean Sayre and Bishop Dun took their parts. I was shocked to discover that the broadcast services from the 1950s were from an unfinished cathedral; this place apparently didn’t go beyond the crossing in those days, and those remarkable services, the glorious music, good preaching, and splendid liturgy were performed in the incomplete, unfinished Washington Cathedral. The work of a cathedral is never done, and will never be done until Jesus comes.
That is what we are told, and it is a call for joy! It will give us all something to do, somewhere to turn up on Sunday mornings, and something for all those countless thousands of people to look forward to who knit the little kneelers. The work of a cathedral is never done until Jesus comes.
Ascension reminds us of that, and the words of our text tell us that we are not supposed to spend our time gazing up into the skies and speculating on what part of Texas Jesus will show up. That is just a waste of our time, as the gospel tells us, St. Paul tells us, St. Augustine tells us, and any responsible Christian tells us. The gospel also tells us, “Now I am no longer in the world, but they”—meaning we —“are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them” —us—“in your name that you have given me, so that they”—we—“may be one as we are one.” That is a great task, a great challenge, and it strikes me that we should be asking the question daily of how we should carry out this great commission that has been given to us now that Jesus is neither here to do the work or to distract us from doing the work.
Often I have said to my congregation, “If you have had problems with Easter, I can’t wait to tell you about the problems of the Ascension. People will sit around speculating as to the mechanics of it, the physics of it, and how it could be, when the real burden of the Ascension is how we now do Jesus’s work.” At Pentecost we will celebrate the empowering of the church to do that very work by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I will not anticipate what the preachers of that day will say. I will say that we have a task to perform, we have an opportunity to perform it, and we are required to perform those tasks in the name of Jesus Christ, whose commission to us as he leaves us is to do the work his father has given him to do: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, wage peace and not war, love our enemy, take care of those who are on the margins and fringes, be salt in the world, be light in the darkness. Because we have heard it all before doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, and because we have heard it preached from this and thousands of other pulpits does not mean that it is not still good news. It means that these are our responsibilities, and that now that Jesus has left this world, all that remains of Jesus in this world is us. What an awesome responsibility, that we are meant to be the Christ-bearers in this world! We are not meant only to own his name, to pray to him, to be objects of devotion. We are meant to be Jesus in the world, not simply performing tricks or doing good works. People who have never seen Jesus Christ are to see him in us. What a responsibility! What a frightening task! What a glorious opportunity! I would say that we are meant to be Jehovah’s witnesses.
That might scare some of you, for you have encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses, I know, and you’ve had nothing to say to them. Never argue with a Jehovah’s Witness, for you can’t win. The only way to deal with them is to say, “I too am one of Jehovah’s witnesses, I too bear Christ in the world, and let me tell you about my Saviour…” What an extraordinary thing it would be if, when a Jehovah’s Witness knocked at the door of an Episcopalian the Episcopalian witnessed to the Jehovah’s Witness—the Witnesses would never come back to that house, I can assure you! Everybody would be saved by such an enterprise.
A friend once asked me, “If the Christian faith were an indictable offense, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Think about that. If all the world were to learn about Jesus Christ through us, what would they know? Ascension is the time when we cannot rely upon Jesus to represent himself in the world; we have to represent him. We are his feet, his hands, his heart, and if we are a Christian people, a Christian nation, if we wish to witness to the gospel of the Christian faith, we become Jesus in the world now that he has withdrawn from it.
Perhaps we would be like those early apostles, and say, “You’re just getting going; why are you leaving now? Why are you leaving it to us; don’t you know we can’t handle it?” Yet there must be some divine conviction that we can handle it, that we are meant to handle it. God is not careless, God doesn’t leave things to chance, God doesn’t make mistakes, so it must be that you and I are able to do what we have been commissioned to do. We are meant to be the witness of God’s presence in the world, through Jesus Christ.
So, if anyone ever asks you what the Ascension is about, it’s not about the mysterious disappearance of Jesus into the heavens, ankles and all; it is about the evolving of responsibility upon us for being Jesus in the world. We are Christ-bearers in the world, and insofar as it is in within us we are to bear him faithfully, fully, truly, and gently. That is the Ascension.
Many of you have the same wonderful experience I have, when you fly into Washington via USAir and you look out the window, and the most glorious thing you see is the profile of this great cathedral church on the horizon. What a wonderful sight that is, and far more important than the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Monument, the White House, or the Capitol, for far more important is the profile of this cathedral on the horizon, as it suggests Christ in the world. This cathedral is never completed, however, for there is always something to be done here, as it is a living place, a work in progress, and the heart of this place is found not in the magnificent soaring arches or beautiful glass but in you, all of you who bear Christ in the world. That is the symbol of unfinished business that bears the mark of the Redeemer. We must let no one forget that our business is Christ’s unfinished business in the world. There is so much to be done, so many needs to be met, so many opportunities to be seized; there is enough for everybody here, and the work of this cathedral will never be done until Jesus comes.
That is good news, for not only does it mean that we will always have something to do, but we will always have something worth the doing. So, don’t stand gazing up into heaven, wondering when and how it’s all going to happen, and don’t mourn the departure of Jesus into the skies. Let us take on the work he has given us and make it our own, and let us carry on bravely, gloriously, full of joy, for that is what Jesus has bequeathed to us by his very departure from this world. He has not left us a grim inheritance, he has left us a second creation, a new opportunity, a fresh adventure, and by God’s grace we will continue at it until Jesus comes. As one of the greatest hymns in your book says, ‘Go, labor on, while it is day…/Speed, speed thy work, cast sloth away!’ I would have chosen that hymn this morning, it’s a great hymn, and it tells us to get on with it.
Ascension Day is not a day of mourning but a day of activity. Jesus is not retreating, he is leading the advance, and forward we go into that great day that is his, which will celebrate the completion of his work when he comes again. For that we give thanks to God.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we give you thanks and praise for the promise you have given us of power and strength in this world to do your work. May we represent you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all of the needs and necessities of this place and this time, and may we rejoice in our unfinished business until the day when you shall come again to claim it, and us, as your own. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.