Saturday, May 11, 2013

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Sermon for the San Francisco Deanery Convocation

Today’s readings were selected so that we might reflect on the “Great Commission” that concludes Matthew’s Gospel.  It is appropriate to do so because we find ourselves in that brief ellipsis in liturgical time between Jesus’ ascension and the giving of his Spirit at Pentecost.   When Jesus remarks, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me . . . And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,”[1] he is alluding to the ascension.  Jesus’ ascension into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, is the symbol of his divine authority at all times and in all places.  Our Lord’s ascension is not, therefore, an absence, but a new and more complete form of presence such that the transformative encounter with the Risen Lord experienced by the eleven is made available in principle to absolutely everybody.

What Jesus makes clear in Matthew’s account is that the Ascension is in service to God’s mission.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,”[2] or as Jesus says to the disciples in the Book of Acts prior to his ascension, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[3]  Jesus’ ascension into heaven, into a dimension of reality distinct from, but co-extensive with, our earthly experience, is correlated with the mission of the disciples to bear witness to his healing power.  The disciples make disciples so that we may learn to perceive and experience the salvation of the Risen Lord.

From the perspective of the disciples, we might say that the ascension is the symbol of their having internalized their relationship with Jesus such that they now receive their identity from him.   He is no longer merely “out there” but also “in here.” St. Paul speaks of perceiving Jesus with “the eyes of your heart enlightened”[4] and is even so bold as to declare, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[5] 

St. Paul is speaking of the death of the ego, the identity we receive from “the Law” – the social other that is massively anterior to us and from which we internalize our identity.  Making disciples means initiating people into the process of letting go of the false identity we acquire so that we may receive our true identity from God.  We humans, who are imitative creatures par excellence, discover our true identity, the imago dei, as we learn to imitate Jesus.  Salvation is this coming to know ourselves as God’s beloved through Jesus.   We might say the ascension of Jesus into heaven is in the service of his descent into our hearts.  As the angels said to the slack-jawed disciples staring into the sky, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into 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.”[6]  What goes up must come down.

Of course, if we are called to make disciples of Jesus, we must first bear witness to the transforming power of Jesus in our own lives.  It is our attention to the process of conversion in ourselves, our willingness to submit to the slow, hidden work of Jesus in us, that is the most profound witness to God’s reality and love that we can offer others. The work of Jesus in us is a gentle invitation to accept our gifts and limitations, a movement of self-acceptance and a willingness to reach beyond what we are now, consonant with our desire for God. We cannot convert ourselves, much less others. But we can accept Jesus’ invitation to love and learn to patiently receive our identity from him.  In this way, Christ comes to life in us.

The ascension of Jesus representing “the fullness of him who fills all in all” at the macrocosmic level corresponds with “the Christ who lives in me” at the microcosmic level.  As Mark Perry observes,
There is an analogy between the soul and the universe whereby the soul is, mysteriously and symbolically, an image of the whole cosmos in virtue of the laws of reciprocity governing the macrocosm and the microcosm.  This analogy says that whatever is of spiritual benefit to the soul is of equal benefit to the whole universe, including all of mankind.  Thus, a kind of “holy egoism” requires that charity begin at home, with oneself – whence the paradoxical advice of a St. Isaac the Syrian that it is better to “build one’s own soul” than to “convert whole multitudes . . .”  In this way, a hermit like St. Anthony of Egypt could, from the solitary retreat of his cell become, as St. Athanasius put it, “a physician to all of Egypt.”  Holiness, and nothing else – not feeding, not clothing, not consoling – is the only permanent cure for all worldly affliction.  To forget that is to forget God.[7]
Which is why a spiritual director once told me, “There is nothing wrong with being holy for other people.”  Or, as they say in AA, “See that your own spiritual house is in order.  You can’t share what you haven’t got.”

Remember that even St. Anthony was baptized and embraced the call to holiness in response to a sermon.  He sought out spiritual guides.  He spent twenty years in the desert in prayer before he became the physician of all Egypt.  It takes a disciple to make a disciple.  In fact, it takes a community of disciples.  The set of directions for becoming Christ includes a warning label:  Do not try this at home alone.  Being a hermit is the end of the arc of formation; not the beginning.

Discipleship is an initiation into, and a practice of, a way of life that requires us to acquire certain skills and master a language through which we can give a coherent account of that way of life:  practices such as prayer, meditation, worship, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice, and the grammar of faith that expresses their meaning and purpose.  We have to internalize a tradition of transformation.

Stanley Hauerwas describes this process as akin to that of making oneself an apprentice to a master of a craft such as bricklaying:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it; you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar. In order to lay brick you must hour after hour, day after day, lay brick. 

Of course, learning to lay brick involves learning not only myriad skills, but also a language that forms, and is formed by those skills. Thus, for example, you have to become familiar with what a trowel is and how it is to be used, as well as mortar, which bricklayers usually call "mud."

Thus "frogging mud" means creating a trench in the mortar so that when the brick is placed in the mortar, a vacuum is created that almost makes the brick lay itself. Such language is not just incidental to becoming a bricklayer but is intrinsic to the practice. You cannot learn to lay brick without learning to talk "right."

The language embodies the history of the craft of bricklaying. So when you learn to be a bricklayer you are not learning a craft de novo but rather being initiated into a history. For example, bricks have different names--klinkers, etc.---to denote different qualities that make a difference about how one lays them. These differences are often discovered by apprentices being confronted with new challenges, making mistakes, and then being taught how to do the work by the more experienced. 
All of this indicates that to lay brick you must be initiated into the craft of bricklaying by a master craftsman.[8]

Making disciples requires a master craftsman, a St. Isaac or a St. Anthony who can teach us the imitation of Christ whereby we realize the image of God in our souls.   I marvel at the discipline of people in 12-step recovery programs who willingly submit to the authority of a sponsor, someone who has been transformed by working the steps herself, so that they can be transformed themselves.  Making disciples requires a teacher and it requires a discipline. 

Accepting the discipline of a community and the authority of a teacher is about the last thing anyone seems to want to do.   In our society, at least, people generally aren’t willing until they’ve hit bottom, until they realize that “my way” doesn’t work and wake up to their desire for God.  And when they do, they don’t come to church looking for social services, much less social events.  They want someone to help them become a disciple, to become no longer “I”, but Christ. 

The number of people who are hungry for the bread of life in this way isn’t great.  They will not make a dent in your average Sunday attendance.  Jesus said the gate is narrow and few are they who pass through it.  But everything hinges on our capacity to respond to their need if we are serious about God’s mission to reconcile the world to Himself. 

Make disciples.  Baptize them in the name of the Blessed Trinity.  Teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded us.  What goes up must come down.  The one who ascends into heaven descends into the soul.  Those who have the eye of their heart enlightened perceive this, and know this, and delight in this, and become whom they love.  As in the soul, so in the universe: by their witness the whole world is being made new.  When we change, everything gets better.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 28:18, 20.
[2] Matthew 28:19-20.
[3] Acts 1:8.
[4] Ephesians 1:18.
[5] Galatians 2:19b-20.
[6] Acts 1:11.
[7] Mark Perry, On Awakening & Remembering (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2000), p. 366.
[8] Stanley Hauerwas, “Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community” at

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