This past Thursday we commemorated in the Church the Ascension of our Lord – 40 days after resurrecting from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven. According to the hymns of our church the Apostles were dismayed at the Lord’s departure, even despondent. Yet, as I mentioned in my sermon for the Ascension, Jesus had told us it was necessary for Him to leave us to prepare our place in the Kingdom (John 14). He said, if we love Him we will rejoice that He returns to His Father. The implication is if we feel despondent, feel like we are being orphaned, then we do not really love Him, rather we are more in love with ourselves.
We are to seek in the event of the Ascension that which allows to rejoice in Christ’s departure from us – the knowledge that Christ’s being with the Father is necessary for our salvation and more important than His being physically present as a human on earth. We think it is more important for Christ to be with us, Christ tells us we should rejoice that instead He is with the Father. This is the value of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:4).
In the Epistle reading today (Acts 20:16-36), St. Paul also makes a farewell speech to his friends and followers. That scene reminded me of the last chapter of Deuteronomy and the end of Moses’ life. I love Moses and his story. God calls him to lead Israel, Moses says no thanks, send someone else. God imposes on Moses that he is to lead Israel out of Egypt, to confront one of the greatest military powers on earth and to walk away from them. No slave rebellion, no war, just liberation – walk away from one of the greatest civilizations on earth and go into the desolate desert. Moses does all these things and the people show time and again that they don’t like Moses as their leader. But Moses persists and when God Himself gets disgusted with the people and tells Moses to step aside because He is going to destroy those rebellious people, Moses stands before God and intercedes for these iniquitous people, and tells God if you aren’t going to save them, then don’t save me either. Moses risks his eternal life and his relationship with God for the very people he didn’t want to lead in the first place and who don’t particularly like him. In the end, God gets angry at Moses and after Moses led the people for 40 years, God tells Moses that he will not be permitted to enter the promised land. All that work and sacrifice and Moses dies without reaching the promised land. But he did his best to be faithful to the commission given to him by God.
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” (Deut 34:1-4)
St Paul, reports in today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles that he has faithfully led the people, suffered for them and because of them, and now reached a point where he must say goodbye to them as God showed him that he must follow a path to his own martyrdom. He knows what lies ahead but also knows this is the path that God wants him on. So he says farewell to the people he worked so hard to form into a Christian community. St Paul is able to say that he faithfully did his task, and now he realizes his path leads him in a different direction, so he now has to entrust his congregation to God’s own spirit because He, Paul, will no longer be leading them. He trusts God to be guiding all things.
“You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.‘”
Thirty three years ago in June I came to Dayton to begin serving as the first priest of a mission. God has blessed this work and given it growth. I am following St. Paul’s lead to tell you that my time with you is also coming to an end. I will be retiring at the end of August. Like St Paul, I realize God has His own plan for me and it requires me to move in a new direction. I am not giving you my farewell speech since there are still a couple months that we will be together. Bishop Paul will soon announce on the Diocesan webpage that he is seeking a priest to come to our parish. It will be another time of growth for the parish. St. Paul’s own words come to mind:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:5-16)