We continue tonight our five part sermon series entitled “A World Turned Upside-down” in which each week a different brother looks at the mystery of the resurrection through the lens of a single word or image and how that word, like the preaching of the apostle Paul and his companion Silas in Thessalonica has the effect of turning our own world upside down. But before I get there I want to do something else.
Over twenty five years ago when I took a preaching course in seminary, we were taught two cardinal rules of preaching. One was never, never, NEVER preach a sermon largely based on a text from scripture that has not been read aloud within the context of the liturgy. The other was never, never, NEVER, try to do two different things in a sermon. Well, tonight I am going to break one, but I hope not both, of those cardinal rules because I want to begin by saying something about the apostles Andronicus and Junia, whose feast we are keeping here at the monastery for the first time, at the request of diocesan Convention an experiment before it is proposed for inclusion in the calendar of the Church at the next General Convention.
The significance of this feast is what Paul calls Andronicus and Junia in his letter to the Romans where he says:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives, who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. [Romans 16:7]
The implication is that these two were not only believers before Paul, but that they were listed among the company of apostles, those sent out after the resurrection to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. What is significant about this is that Junia was a woman. (In some ancient version of the Epistle she is called Julia.) If this is the case, she is the only woman in the New Testament who is called an apostle. The churches of the East have long referred to Junia as both a woman and an apostle and keep this feast in May. However some scholars in the West have argued that Junia was a man. How could a woman, after all, be an apostle? Modern scholarship though more and more agrees with the Eastern churches that Junia was in fact both a woman AND an apostle.
As the Church continues to recover, and indeed uncover and honour, the ministry of women in our own age we do so following the example of the ancient Church where the ministry of women was often the backbone of the Church as it turned the world upside down in both its regard for women and its proclamation of the good news of the resurrection. One such woman was Junia whom we remember and honour today.
Since I have now done what I am never supposed to do, try to make two unrelated points in one sermon, I will now do what I am supposed to do, which brings me to my word for tonight: gaze.
As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going us and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.
[Acts 1: 9-11]
It was this very scene that I grew up with at St. Mary’s, Regina, for there over the altar is a depiction of the disciples gazing into heaven full of awe and wonder at the Ascension of the Lord. It was a scene that made sense in my life because during those same years that I looked up at that window over the altar I also gazed with excitement and expectation at the TV brought in by the school board and installed in the gym each time an Apollo spaceship was either launched into orbit or came splashing down at the end of its mission. I remember that July night in 1969, gazing up in wonder, excitement and even a touch of longing, at the moon as I contemplated what I had just seen on TV, Neil Armstrong taking that “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”.
When we gaze at something, whether it be a window or the moon, at the face of a loved one or a mystery not completely understood we do so filled with hope, with wonder, with expectation, with love. When we gaze at someone or something, anything is possible and we are drawn out of ourselves and into the mystery of what might be.
It is with that sense of wonder that I believe the disciples gazed up into heaven, as Jesus was taken from them for the last time. They gazed at the One whom they loved, remembering what had been, and filled with expectation and even hope for what might be.
Such I would imagine was John’s gaze that first Easter Day. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” [John 20: 8] There gazing into the Empty Tomb and seeing the linen wrappings lying there he believed that what he hoped to be true, was true indeed: that the One whom he loved, upon who he had gazed on the Cross just hours before was not dead, but truly risen.
When we gaze, whole new worlds open up for us: worlds of mystery, of awe, of love, of hope. How different to live in such a world than to live in a world where people glare at one another. For when we glare at one another we do so with hostility and hatred. When we glare possibilities and hope are shut down. When we glare our look becomes cold and our hearts become ice. How different it is to glare, than to gaze.
We all know what it is like to be glared at; to be frozen out and frozen shut by a hard cold glare from someone we know, or even someone we don’t. We can hear the doors into worlds of unknown or unspoken potential slam shut. We can feel our hearts shudder and our love freeze as those worlds of mystery, and awe, and love, and hope vanish like smoke with one cold, icy glare. We know too how our own hearts can harden when we glare at the object of our disdain freezing them out and shutting them down.
How different things would be had John approached the Tomb angry and bitter, and glared, rather than gazed at the place where the body of the Saviour had lain. How different things would be had the disciples glared into heaven, firmly resolved not to believe what they were seeing and hearing, and shutting out any possibility for mystery and awe and love and hope. How different things would be had they glared and not gazed. How different things are, indeed how different we are when we gaze with the eyes of love.
It was because of their willingness to see what no one else was prepared to see because they gazed at the world with hearts of love, that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down”. [Hymnal 1982, #506] It happened once. It can happen again.
Just as those early Christians managed to upset empires and over throw tyrants, just as they managed to live triumphantly in the face of death and martyrdom, just as they managed to change the face of the world and the course of human history so too can we when we like them gaze at the world with eyes of love, reveling in worlds of possibility and hope, mystery and awe.
By gazing with eyes of love those early Christians beheld life emerging from death and visions of glory bursting forth from despair and fear. By gazing at the world with eyes of love, those early Christians saw what no one else could see: a world redeemed and transformed by God. And so too can we. Like those early Christian when we gaze at our world with eyes of love we can behold life emerging from death and glory bursting forth from despair and in so doing turn our world upside down. When we see, not limitations but worlds of possibilities, we begin to see that same world redeemed and transformed by God where all things and anything is possible. But that requires us to gaze with love, and not glare with disdain, at the world, at one another, even at ourselves.
I well remember that night 40 years ago, when I stood alone on a dusty prairie lane in Saskatchewan gazing up at the moon totally awed by the fact that at that very moment there were men standing millions of miles away at that same moon gazing down at me. I remember being filled with awe and wonder, mystery and delight, hope and possibility. It seemed that as I gazed into the night sky, anything and everything was possible.
That, I think, is how John gazed into the Empty Tomb, seeing not only what had happened, but what now was possible. That, I think, is how the disciples gazed up into the heavens as Jesus was taken from them in the Ascension, seeing not what had happened, but what now was possible. That perhaps is how Andronicus and Junia gazed about them and saw a world for which Jesus died and to which they were sent to proclaim God’s love, knowing that all things were now possible for those who love God.
As Christians, we are invited to gaze upon the world and to see it through the eyes of joy and wonder where all things are possible. We are called to gaze upon the world in mystery and awe, in hope and love and to see whole worlds of possibility emerge where others only see death and darkness and despair. As Christians we are called to gaze upon the world and to see it full of possibility for the simple reason that God made it in love and for love. As Christians we are called to gaze upon the world with eyes of love and in so doing turn the whole world upside down, or perhaps more to the point, to gaze upon the world with eyes of love and to turn it at last right side up.
Questions for reflection
Recall occasions in your life which have inspired awe and wonder. Can you discern in them the presence of the risen Christ and the larger life he offers in resurrection?
Br. James makes a poignant distinction between glaring and gazing. Who in your life has gazed at you with love? How might the risen Lord have been present in that experience?
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