Sermon for 7th Easter (Ascension Sunday) - May 13 2018

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter / Ascension, Year B
May 13, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 1:15-17,21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

This part of the book of Acts falls between the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. 

Peter seemed to think it was a good idea to reconstitute the complete group of 12 in the inner circle.  He may have thought it was right to restore what had been lost.

I was reading a commentary the other day about the way they selected Matthias – and the author was arguing that because Matthias was never mentioned before or after this event, perhaps the disciples needed to wait longer for the Holy Spirit to speak, instead of just casting lots to identify a replacement for Judas. 

Maybe they could have spent more time considering the appropriate qualifications – since it obvious that God constantly takes our ideas of what is appropriate or needful or suitable and proper and tosses them out the window.  Maybe, said this writer, things would have been different for the early church if they had done a bit more discernment.[1] 

All that may be true, but as it is entirely speculative, the author’s point is more likely about how Christian communities make choices today.

If we kept our decisions narrow about who can do ministry in the church, like Peter, we might find that women could not serve, for example.  But – and I must say that I hope most of you would agree – that women in church leadership have enriched our understanding.  I hope most of you would agree that hearing a different point of view from a different perspective might be a valuable addition to our own spiritual growth and development.

Traditions are wonderful.  They provide a framework for how we live, and worship, and are built on years and generations and centuries of practical application, experience, and understanding.

But when traditions are frozen, and no change is admitted, they can be stultifying – they can limit our ability to adjust to a world in constant motion; they can discourage us from questioning and finding our own paths; they can lead to a withdrawal from the world around us – the very place most in need of God’s light, a light we perhaps cannot even see, if our traditions have effectively closed the door to the Spirit’s voice

And that’s why proper discernment is so very important.  But we also may need to learn to recognize when changes might be warranted, and to take time to really think them through.

But that’s not my focus right now.  Maybe another day for that.

Today, I want to talk about how changes often happen first gradually, and then suddenly.  Because, in a sense, that’s exactly what happened in the early church, and still can happen today.

It works like this – a few little signs appear, but nothing big happens.  There is a gradual development, but the older ways of thinking hang on, and then, one day, we wake up to find the world has changed.

Here are a couple examples:  For decades, people in the church advocated for the inclusion of women in ordained ministry, and there were several General Conventions – the ones that meet every three years – kept saying no, not now, not yet.  And then one year, the resolution was passed, and we were on our way.

Another example would be the #MeToo movement – we’ve heard about sexual harassment and sexual abuse for ever; and women have been complaining about it for ever; and suddenly even in the last few months, the whole issue has blown up, and powerful men are losing their jobs after years of using women.

Gradual – then sudden.

You could think of an avalanche or a rock slide as other examples – just the right slope, just the right amount of snow, the right looseness of rock and stone, and one day, without warning, the whole thing just lets go and boom.  Kiluaea starts rumbling, it goes on for weeks, even months, and then lava starts flowing, and geologists still think the mountain will explode any day now.

Gradual – then sudden.

It happens all the time.

And the church grew like that, too.  First one congregation, then another, and another, for over two centuries, the church writ large remained small and scattered.  And then one day, the emperor Constantine had a vision, and won a great battle, and boom, the church was now the official imperial religion. 

And the benefits and losses associated with that change are not to be sneezed at; the church had changed, and the world had changed.

Gradual, then sudden.  This sudden moment is called a “tipping point.”  It’s like a see-saw – just enough change in the balance, and the whole thing shifts, and the see-saw tips.

So maybe the author of that commentary was right – it can make a big difference what we discern as God’s will.  It can change the world.

Once you start looking around you, you can see tipping points all over!  In our lives, in the lives of those near and dear, in the life of our community, in the life of our country. 

How many pieces of straw do you think it takes to break a camel’s back, as the saying goes? How many pieces of straw did it take to motivate Kim Jong-Un to – apparently – seek peace with South Korea.  How many pieces of straw does it take for a person to become addicted to drugs, and how many for that same person to seek recovery?

Gradual, then sudden.

Here’s our question: how many pieces of straw, or in this case, assurances of God’s love and mercy, does it take for an outcast person, one that the church and society have rejected, to fully take on board, the good news that she, too, is healed and whole, and valued and loved?

Whether we define “the world” as “my life” or the entire cosmos, all of creation, the pattern is the same – first a little, then a little more, then everything.  Gradual, then sudden.

When a tipping point is reached, nothing can stop the change, whether for good or ill.

Today, the last Sunday of Easter, marks a tipping point, too, in the story of the faith.  40 days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, promising to send an advocate and guide – the Holy Spirit, so now the disciples are in a holding pattern, a place of tension, awaiting transformation, with a growing sense of excitement in the face of which the disciples felt the need to restore the twelve, likely not knowing what else to do.

The selection of Matthias was how the disciples chose to respond to Jesus’ promise.  Maybe he doesn’t seem to us to be the most important Apostle, maybe he didn’t seem so to Luke, either, who wrote the book, but maybe … just maybe … the disciples were right and Matthias was the final straw, the tipping point.

Because when the Holy Spirit came, everything changed.

Gradual, then sudden. 

What might be lurking behind the scenes now, that we don’t see?  What straws are being added to the load on the camel’s back?  What happens next?

Wait for it.   Are you ready?


[1] Noel Leo Erskine, Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Kindle 18434.

  July 2020  
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