God’s Grandeur – Br. James Koester

John 17:20–26

It is easy to get lost these days, and in many ways all of us are lost. We are lost in fear, worry, concern, and anxiety. We are lost in sorry, sadness, and anger. We are afraid of the future and worried about the present. We are concerned about those we love, and anxious about ourselves.

All of these are normal and natural feelings, and I do not for a minute want to suggest that there is something wrong with you because you feel one or other, or all, or more of these things. Finding ourselves still in the midst of a pandemic after more than two years, watching the news from Buffalo, and Uvalde, and seeing our leaders incapable of doing anything that looks remotely like gun reform legislation is enough to make anyone’s stomach clench in knots in grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Seeing the images from Ukraine or the effects of the climate emergency overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

All of us no doubt, are actually sadder, angrier, and feel more helpless than we often care to admit. I know I do. That is the reality of life at the moment and the disorientation of this season is profound.

For many, the lens through which they look at life now, is through this lens of loss, of fear, of worry, of concern, of anxiety, of grief. But the promise of Easter for the Christian is that there is another lens through which to look at life, even in seasons such as now. That lens is the lens of glory, and it is where we find ourselves today as we celebrate the Sunday after the Ascension.

For many, the Ascension makes no sense other than some first century lunar liftoff, where Jesus is seen, not as the risen and glorified Lord, but as some sort of a first century astronaut. But we are not talking about a moonshot today. We are talking about poetry.

Now I am not a poet, but I do know the importance of poetic language. Poetry is not so much about rhyme schemes, as it is about language. The poet is not only using rhyme or meter to express an idea, the poet is also attempting the impossible: to express in words that which is impossible to express in words.

And that is where we find ourselves today, in the middle of a poem.

It is not that Luke, or Peter or John sat down with pen and parchment to create something that rhymes, rather, they attempted to put into words something that is beyond words. They used the symbol of language, as a way to convey a concept far beyond language.

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.[1]

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.[2]

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.[3]

The language of the Ascension, indeed the language of Scripture, is the language of poetry, because the language of Scripture is not the language of fact, but of mystery, myth, and metaphor, because God is beyond all words.

Now do not get me wrong. Scripture IS full of facts, but it is not a newspaper or a history text. The purpose of Scripture is not to convey facts or even history. Although it does both of those things. The purpose of Scripture is not to convey history, but mystery, and to invite people into the mystery that is God.

When we reduce Scripture to history and facts, it becomes a theme park, an historical site, a museum where the re-enactors try to convince you that the world of long ago still exists. When we reduce Scripture to fact, think of some theme park like Plimoth Plantation. That is when we representations of the Ascension that show Jesus’ feet, complete with nail holes, sticking out of the ceiling, swathed in cotton batting clouds. But when Scripture attempts to convey the mystery that is God, we enter the world of poetry, mystery, myth, and metaphor. That does not make Scripture unreal. That it makes it true.

So, what is true about the Ascension?

Father Benson, the Founder of SSJE, reminds us that the Ascension is not just about Jesus’ destiny, but about our present reality. He writes:  Jesus is not glorified in His own Person only. His Apostles had fed upon Him, had His body within them, by virtue of the Holy Eucharist… Now, upon His Ascension, His body in them is glorified instantaneously with the glorifying of His body at the right hand of God. Like an electric flash the glory of the Spirit shines out in the fires of Pentecost. The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh … cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell upon the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as members of the glorified body of Christ.[4]

If the truth about Jesus, to use the poetic language of the Creeds, is that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father[5]the reality is that we do as well. Our present condition is that we dwell, not only here on earth, looking forward to the happiness of heaven, but as members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven[6], by right of our baptisms into Christ, but that we dwell eternally in glory even now.

It is impossible to speak of the glory, not that one day WILL be ours, but IS ours even now without using the language of poetry, the language of mystery, myth, and metaphor.

Father Benson invites us to look to the glory, not as one would look to a foreign country that is unknown and unfamiliar. He invites us to look to the glory because this is where we dwell even now. As Second Corinthians reminds us: and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[7]

As Christians we live in a poetic world because it is the only way we know how to express the mystery and majesty, not only of the reality of God, but of ourselves as well. Today, during this Ascensiontide, we behold the glory and grandeur of God, not by gazing at feet dangling out of clouds but by pondering the very heart of mystery and see that we too are clothed in glory, even here, even now.

It is impossible to speak of the glory that is ours at this very moment, unless we first become poets.

Right now, so many of us are preoccupied by a sense of loss. Our lives have been upended, and so much is gone forever. Some things will never again be the same. We will need time to grieve, to rage, to mourn, but that does not mean as Christians, our lives are not filled with glory even now, for the Ascension is not about what will one day be. The Ascension is about what is today, even now. We may be experiencing the cold reality of loss and sorrow at this very moment, but through poetry and mystery, metaphor, and myth, we can also experience the glory that is ours, right now.

The promise of God, and the hope of Easter, is not a life lost in loss and grief, but of glory, which is ours, today, even now, even while our life bears the signs and scars and wounds of a crucified world. The promise of God, and the hope of Easter, and the gift of Ascension is that God has taken our sadness and is redeeming it with glory. We may not see it this morning, but in an instant, in a flash, when we least expect it, from the corner of our eyes streaming with tears, we will catch a glimpse of the crushed and crucified world as God is redeeming it, and we will know that the world, this world, our world is charged with the grandeur of God… [that] will flame out, liking shining from shook foil.[8] Then we will see the world, and our own lives, through the lens of the Ascension, and we will whisper, we will sing, we will shout, Alleluia!

Lectionary Year and Proper: The Seventh Sunday of Easter, The Sunday of the Ascension, Year C

[1] Acts 1: 9

[2] 1 Peter 5: 10

[3] John 17: 22 – 23

[4] Benson, Richard Meux, Further Letters, page 268 – 269

[5] BCP 1979, page 96

[6] BCP 1959, page 544

[7] 2 Corinthians 3: 18

[8] Hopkins SJ, Gerard Manley, God’s Grandeur, lines 1 and 2

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  1. Bruce H. Johnson on May 22, 2023 at 15:13

    Brother James,

    Thank you for your excellent Ascension Sunday homily. As we listened, Emily and I were blessed (spoken to) by your thoughts. We are now in our mid-eighties and living in a “retirement community” called Riderwood in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. We moved here last summer.

    I was recalling with Emily how the first time I visited the monastery, more than forty years ago, you came to door to let me in. It was late in the evening. We sat in the lounge and talked for almost an hour and then you carried my suitcase and led me up the stairs to my room. Such hospitality! I have never forgotten it.

    And so we remember you and the brothers fondly. Especially brother Paul who became my Father in Christ.

    Peace, Bruce & Emily Johnson

  2. George on May 22, 2023 at 12:38

    Beautiful! Thank you Brother James

  3. Elizabeth Peters on May 22, 2023 at 08:40

    Thank you,! Your messages are so helpful as we begin a new day!

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