“Faith of My Father” (May 24, 2015–The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”—John 16.7[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

From the age of 5 until shortly after my 12th birthday, my father and I were estranged. The foundation for our estrangement was the intense bitterness had for my father by my maternal grandmother, who deeply resented him for not doing “the honorable thing” by marrying my mother and providing her and myself with a stable home in the months following his first wife’s death.[2] But the immediate cause of our estrangement was that after years of making arrangements for me to go with him, my step-mother, and my half/step-brothers and sisters on family vacations and repeatedly having them canceled at the last minute by my mother, my father had had enough. He was tired of the fighting and continually having his hopes up that he and I would get to spend time with each other, only to see them get squashed. So in the summer of 1990, after having yet again experienced his hope of me traveling and spending time with him and my paternal family squashed, my father made a choice. He chose to completely step away, ceasing for a time all contact with me, leaving it up to me when I got older to decide whether I wanted to have a relationship with him or not. My step-mother recalled to me some years ago that after my father made this decision, he immediately prayed to God, begging Him to make a way for us to someday have a true father-son relationship.

In February 1997, after seven years of staying away, my father took a risk and reached out to my mother. He wrote that during the course of that next year, he was going to turn 65 and retire from his position as Superintendent of the Mississippi School for the Blind and that, in retirement, he wanted to spend time with all his children and grandchildren, including me. In the letter, he asked my mother to “please, let me be with my son.” My mother agreed and during Spring Break one month later, on the campus of the Mississippi School for the Blind in Jackson, the prayer that my father made to God seven years earlier and the hopes from my longing to be with my father all came to pass. I got off the bus, saw my father in the distance, and ran in excitement, him hugging me and I him for a considerable length of time. My father, who once went away, was now back with me and the time of separation in between God used to help heal hearts and bring about the beginning of reconciliation between two families who both loved their 12-year-old son, grandson, and brother very, very much. Because of the work that God did during that 7-year meantime, I have been blessed and very fortunate to have a real relationship with my father that has now lasted 18 years and as he is now at the age and state of health in which he draws closer to the nearer presence of Jesus, I will meet that day giving thanks to God for the relationship that my father and I have been able to have.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, oftentimes called the “Birthday of the Church,” the day in which the Church commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other first followers of Christ, bringing to fulfillment Jesus’ promise that “before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”[3] But in order to understand the significance of this day for the Church, we must first go back 10 days earlier to Ascension Day—this parish’s feast of title—the day in which the Church commemorates the ascension of Christ into Heaven, with fullness of body and divinity. It is in today’s Gospel, particularly the portion from John 16, in which we see the connection between these two important feasts, getting a foreshadowing of both Ascension Day and Pentecost. In John 16, we hear Jesus say that “it is to your advantage that I go away…” Why does Jesus say that He must go away and that it will be advantageous for us? 51 days ago, on Good Friday, when we saw Jesus hang on a tree, die, and buried in a rock-hewn tomb, we thought that all hope was lost and that Jesus was gone forever. Then on Easter Sunday, with the news that “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified…has risen…He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you,”[4] our deep grief turned into great joy, for Jesus came back and was, once again, walking and talking with us, we being able to be physically present with Him. But come 40 days later, after just having come back to us, Jesus left us again, withdrawing from us, being carried up into Heaven.[5] So why did Jesus go away? What good did it do for us? The answer is simple, yet very important—the Incarnation.

With the ascension of Jesus into Heaven, we saw the conclusion of the “Incarnational Phase” of the Plan of Redemption, by which our humanity, humbly taken on by Christ and through which He made the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice required on our behalf, now, in the Person of Christ, dwells at God’s right hand. Saint John says that “if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[6] Yes, how great it was to have Jesus come back from the grave and be physically present with us, but if He had remained on Earth physically and not ascended, then He would have remained accessible only to a few and not to all. By remaining on Earth physically and not taking up our human form to God’s right side, with the marks of the nails through His hands and feet and the pierced mark in His side, then all of humanity’s full reconciliation with God would have remained incomplete. Again, “Jesus Christ…is the expiation for our sins…for the sins of the whole world.” Therefore, in order for Him to fully accomplish His purpose—to be the expiation of sin for all humanity, being accessible to all people—Jesus had to physically go away. Our advantage in Jesus’ physical departure is that by His taking up our humanity with Him into Heaven, our access to God is restored and can never again be broken, for Jesus is our one Mediator between God and humanity.[7]

Jesus says, in full, in John 16 that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” So now, 10 days later, with Jesus’ physical body having ascended into Heaven and now dwelling at God’s right hand, the Holy Spirit, our Counselor, the Advocate, Christ’s continued presence at work in the world, has come, dwelling within and amongst the People of God. On today, the Day of Pentecost, we see Christ’s body, first made visible to Our Lady and Saint Joseph, then to the Apostles, then physically taken away, transformed into a mystical Body—the Church. The Holy Spirit’s coming has caused Christ’s body to be reborn among and within a variegated group of people that confess Him as Savior and Lord, being brought into love and harmony with God. Because of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, no longer physically visible to us, has been seen by way of a plethora of local Christian communities throughout the world, made one by way of a common creed—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again—starting from that first Pentecost day, continuing throughout the centuries and into this time right now.

At the very heart of Jesus’ physical departure and mystical return in the Person of the Holy Spirit is His desire for relationship. Saint Luke, in Acts 2, goes to great lengths to emphasize this point, naming every group of people present at that first Pentecost day—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians[8]—and highlighting Saint Peter’s sermon in which he quotes the prophet Joel: “And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[9] By physically ascending and the Holy Spirit descending, Jesus expanded His relational reach from just a few to the whole world. It was all done for the sake of His relationship with us and by doing what He did, our relationship with Jesus has become stronger, wider in reach, and open to all the peoples of the earth. In the Person of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has kept His promise: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”[10] In the Person of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has left no one—Jew nor Gentile, rich nor poor, whatever nor whatever—desolate. He had to physically leave the few in the meantime in order to be mystically present with all in the here and now. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, has come and is here among us.

One of the most frequent comments I heard from my upperclass students this past school year was that, for many of them, believing in Christianity was hard, due to there not being any tangible or physical evidence available to back up its claims. If Jesus was still physically present on Earth, allowing us an opportunity to live with and listen to Him and feel His healing hand comforting us, then being a Christian in the 21st century would, no doubt, be a little easier than it is. But the simple fact of the matter is that Jesus, although alive, is not here physically. This leaves all of us who have not physically seen, physically heard, or physically touched Jesus to rely strongly on faith. Relying on faith reminds me of what Jesus said to Saint Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”[11] For me, I believe in Jesus because of the Holy Spirit. By being open to the possibility of God’s realness and that by loving me so much He became human in order to save me, I have felt the claims of Christianity become real, being drawn closer into it by the Holy Spirit. By this drawing of the Spirit, I have seen Jesus while in fellowship with my fellow Christians, heard Him in the reading and meditation of the Holy Scriptures and the witness of the early Church Fathers, and felt His comforting presence in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Because of my openness to the Spirit, I have been drawn to the love of God and say with the greatest of conviction that He is real, His love is everlasting, and His Word is true: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.[12] Because of the Holy Spirit, I am in love with Jesus and have felt loved by Him.

“Holy Spirit, ever living

As the Church’s very life;

Holy Spirit, ever striving

Through us in a ceaseless strife;

Holy Spirit, ever forming

In the Church the mind of Christ;

You we praise with endless worship

For your fruits and gifts unpriced.”[13]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] My father and his first wife were married for 27 years, from which union came four children (with one, a girl, having been stillborn). Although my father loved his wife, he became increasingly unhappy with the state of their marriage during its latter years, which caused him to stray away and engage in a five-year on again, off again affair with my mother, 23 years his junior and whose fondness for him he was well aware. Unfortunately, in May 1985, four months after my birth and on the evening immediately preceding my eldest half-sister’s graduation from high school, my father’s first wife died due to a long-standing health condition. The story that I have been told is that after the passing of several months, my late maternal grandmother approached my father to ask what his intentions were regarding my mother and myself. In reply, in regards to me, he stated that it was his intention to be an involved father in my life and that he was prepared to do whatever was needed for my care, but in regards to my mother, although he loved her, he was not in love with her, therefore was not going to marry her. My father’s response incited within my grandmother the thought that if he was not going to do the “honorable thing”—marry my mother and provide both her and myself with a stable home—then he didn’t need to be involved in my life at all. The negative emotional consequences that were a result of this meeting went on to have a deep effect upon all parties involved and would not be ultimately resolved until February 2, 2003—the date of my confirmation in The Episcopal Church.

[3] Acts 1.5

[4] Mark 16.6-7

[5] Luke 24.51 (NRSV)

[6] I John 2.1-2

[7] I Timothy 2.5

[8] Acts 2.9-11

[9] Acts 2.21 (cf. Joel 2.32)

[10] John 14.18

[11] John 20.28

[12] John 14.8

[13] “Holy Spirit, Ever Living,” written by Timothy Rees (1874-1939), sung to the hymn tunes In Babilone (Dutch Traditional Melody, 1710), Abbot’s Leigh (composed by Cyril Vincent Taylor (1907-1991)), and Nettleton (composed by Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844)).

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