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Homily

Ascension Day, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 1, 2014

Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 28:16-20

‘A triple charge’

The Easter season is almost at an end. For the past six weeks the readings have proclaimed: Jesus is alive, he has conquered death, go and tell everyone. They have witnessed to the new insights the early Christian community had to Jesus’ words in the light of his resurrection. Now they are to witness to the risen Christ in a world of political and religious arrogance, of indifference to the poor and powerless of increasing inequality. God be with you ...

The Ascension is not about Jesus going up into outer space. The ascension is not an event as such, but a celebration of the passing of the baton from Jesus to us. The risen Christ is now present in God’s people, and each of today’s readings stresses the mission of the Church to carry on the work of Jesus. Does the resurrection of Jesus make any difference to the way we live our lives? Where is the good news we are called to preach to the poor and powerless? What political and religious arrogance are we called on to confront today?

The most striking thing about Matthew’s account (as opposed to Luke’s accounts) is that Jesus does not go anywhere. He remains: “And know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world!” So concludes the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus’ limited physical presence among his disciples is transformed into an all-pervading presence (through the resurrection) to all peoples, in every age. (Our artwork by Albert Tucker expresses very well the expansive presence of the risen Christ in the land “the fullness of the One who fills all of creation” as St Paul says.)

Attending more closely to the text, the risen Christ leaves the Eleven with a triple charge. Firstly, he reiterates his own authority as God’s Own, and he authorises those who believe in him to bond others with themselves in a belief in him. He tells them and he tells us to keep in touch with him, and with one another, and with those among whom we live and move (Peter Steele SJ). We might summarise the triple charge as having to do with prayer, with inter-church and church “fellowship”, and with social justice (good works).

A professor of psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, has revised his thinking on happiness. A narrow focus on moods, he has come to think, produces misleading data with regard to wellbeing. Seligman’s recent book is called Flourish. What’s crucial to wellbeing is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of what economist Arthur Brooks calls “earned success” the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives. Finding joy in accomplishments, in other words, may be the secret to real contentment.

Seligman’s “five crucial elements for wellbeing” are as follows: Positive emotion: experiencing joy and pleasure; Engagement: being consciously involved in activities; Relationships: having enjoyable interactions; Meaning: a purposeful narrative about our lives; Accomplishment: achieving goals and following core values.

Helpful stuff, no doubt.

Our gospel can be read/heard as an evangelical call/invitation to wellbeing more concise and more social/political than Seligman’s psychological “wisdom”.

The Ascension teaches the present-absence of Jesus (I’m aware that seems obscure but the texts demand some such term). The Ascension teaches the present-absence of Jesus as a paradoxical mode of wellbeing. As one commentator says: “As he leaves them he promises to be with them always” (John Speekman). He promises to be with them by means of the triple charge: in and through prayer, in and through inter-church and church “fellowship”, in and through commitments to social justice (good works). Disciples are charged with responsibilities. Disciples are charged for prayer, charged for fellowship (or friendship), for justice-making and peace-making.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more of those charges; perhaps one more than the others. Prayer. Friendship. Peace-making. To pick up on Seligman’s wisdom again, these are joyful, engaging, enriching, meaningful, satisfying pursuits. They are life-giving and healthy/healing. When do you feel most charged for prayer, friendship and peace-making?

It may not be in conventional or stereotypical ways. I know how important it is for me to make time and space for meditating on the Scriptures, and I’m pretty sure there’s something prayerful, for me, in songwriting joyful, engaging, enriching, meaningful, satisfying something I still don’t really understand that has a connecting and expansive power in my life, an integrating power.

The hours spent, recently, making music with Julia and others at the Woolpack hotel have been crucial hours. As are the hours spent in early-morning and late-night conversation, sometimes over coffee, sometimes jogging/running, with ministers (ordained and lay) … conversations about family members and about the churches, and about this neighbourhood and its people. I’m pretty sure there’s something prayerful, for me, in gardening (mostly composting), in cooking (making the most of the sandwich-maker), in relating to the cats with whom I share a home. That I feel a little exposed and foolish/vulnerable in confessing such things only serves to strengthen a sense of prayerfulness about them. Seligman is right. Wellbeing is not reducible to mood. It’s about more than mood.

The triple charge is also more than psychological. My friend, Adam Hill, an Aboriginal visual artist whose most recent work is showing at Damien Minton gallery, as part of the Frontier Wars exhibition, argues that “social justice and sensitivity are not at the forefront of the dominant psyche” in Australia. “The problem with attempts at reparation is they are always patronising. The white fella means well and wants to find the best way forward, but what’s the black version? Reconciliation is a fictitious thing. I think we need a more substantial term: we haven’t done anything wrong …”

“There are issues of social justice,” he says, “such as lower life expectancy and the high incarceration rates. In education, there’s been a failure to have a two-way process. We start a foundation for literacy, but [in] the Northern Territory ... students must speak English for the first four hours and ‘then’ the native language. I performed on the yidaki [didgeridoo] at New Zealand’s Waitangi festival, and they spoke Maori first, then English. It’s abysmal that we don’t have the same approach here, or a response to the haka.”

Hill is talking about a national wellbeing. There’s something electric in his words an undeniable charge.

The risen Christ leaves the Eleven with a triple charge. Firstly, he reiterates his own authority as God’s Own, and he authorises those who believe in him to bond others with themselves in a belief in him. He tells them and he tells us to keep in touch with him, and with one another, and with all those among whom we live and move …

Let’s complete the homily together. When do you feel most charged, most energised for prayer, friendship and peace-making?

... In the name of God Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver Amen.