May 16, 2021

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So What’s Next?

The function of imagination is to construct meaning out of events that are not directly observable to the human eye – and yet – events that nonetheless can be life changing.

It’s normally not possible to directly apprehend God, yet we experience the presence of the divine in our lives and in the events of the world around us.  Religious imagination builds pictures that identify core values by which we live  and bring into sharp focus choices to be made and directions of action to be followed or avoided, as the case may be.

There’s a problem, however. Traditional religious imagination is difficult for the modern mind. So conditioned are we by the tendency to assess truth claims only on the basis of observable and measurable data. Theology – that is the study of our experience of God in the world – privileges inferences felt but not seen. Between inference and experience – imagination builds a bridge.

With the Ascension the pivotal transition point is reached – when the ministry of Jesus becomes the work of the Christians community. It’s Luke who gives us the most explicit picture of Jesus’ ascension – painting the ascension as an event in the chronological sequence of events – from Jesus’ birth, through his death and resurrection to the inflating of the community of his followers with his Spirit at Pentecost.

We are presented with an image of Jesus ascending heavenwards. Jesus leaves the stage of the world of time and space to make way for what’s next in God’s ongoing work of creation.

So back to religious imagination. In the second book of the Kings, we have the story of the prophet Elijah’s ascension in a chariot of fire. To what extent this colored the way Luke imagined Jesus‘ ascension can only be conjecture. Yet there are two elements in the Elijah story that Luke also emphasizes.

The first and obvious likeness between the two stories is the image of ascending – though Elijah’s ascension out blockbusters that of Jesus by a factor of ten. The second likeness concerns what next. Elisha, Elijah’s disciple is given a double measure of Elijah’s spirit – symbolized by Elijah’s mantle falling upon his shoulders. Elisha can now continue his master’s prophetic ministry in Israel.  Luke pictures Jesus instructing his disciples to go back to the city and wait to be – like Elisha – clothed from on high.

Luke’s real concern in his imagining of Jesus Ascension is -so what’s next?

Religious imagination offers multiple possibilities. For instance, when we look at the collects for the Ascension, we find there are two, not one set of images offered – each picturing a divergent priority for Christian action.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his
promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end
of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory
everlasting. Amen.


Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your
only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended
into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend,
and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

These collects pose opposite directions for what’s next.

The first collect stresses that after his ascension Jesus now filling all things will continue to abide with his people in this world. Whereas the emphasis in the second collect is on our pining for an unrequited longing to follow Jesus into the heavens where with him to dwell. The contrast is between the Spirit of Jesus living on and equipping the community of the church collaborate in God’s divine plan for salvation – and – a frantic plea to beam us up Scotty and to hell with this fallen world.

Reference to beam me up Scotty  aside – in our contemporary religious imaginations the spatial images of up and down are more successfully replaced by those of side by side. Heaven and earth are replaced by a notion of God-Space and Our-Space as parallel dimensions side by side and crucially – occupying the same place and location. Our modern imaginations are more shaped by quantum theory science fiction imaginings.  The untenable imagery of the Middle Ages  of Jesus floating up into the clouds is replaced for us by an image of side by side dimensions – an image that paradoxically brings us closer to how the writers of the New Testament understood the relationship between heaven and earth – not as heaven up there and earth down below – but as heaven alongside earth. For the early Christians God was everywhere and nowhere. An encounter with the energy of the divine was to be expected as an everyday occurrence in time and space.

Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ ascension can be thought of as a movement between parallel dimensions of Our-Space and God-Space – not distanced but occupying the same location. Heaven is right now, right here – not an up there of future hope. The physical Jesus crosses over into God-Space from Our-Space as the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit moves back in the opposite direction.

This interdimensional movement of Jesus has another important result. In the birth of Jesus, the Creator came to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the ascension of Jesus – now pictured as an interdimensional movement, God embraces the fullness of our humanity within the divine community. Jesus’ humanity is not jettisoned as he passes through the dimensional boundary. God does not only receive back Jesus’ divine spirit. God crucially embraces to the fullest extent Jesus humanity – incorporating it into the heart of the divine community. The human now comes to dwell within the community of the divine.

Of course, this now has profound implications for our role in what’s next in God’s work of renewing the creation.

Jay Sidebotham, whom many of you may remember from his time as curate at St Martin’s during Dan Burke’s rectorship – in his most recent weekly Monday Matters piece entitled What Next wrote:

As we navigate emergence from COVID:

  • How can we stay together in community, counting on each other for support? What community can you count on these days (even if it’s still on zoom)?
  • How can we hold prayer at the center of our forward movement, recognizing our need for God’s gracious help? What will be your prayer? What will you ask for?
  • How can we express our trust in the living Lord who promises that we will not be left alone? What promise from Jesus sustains you?

Somewhat tongue in cheek – he concludes:

If we can do these things in this unusual season, maybe we can celebrate Ascension Day by saying that things are looking up.



The Rev. Linda Mackie Grigg


In the ups and downs of my spiritual journey the Spirit has taught me that the wisest response to God, no matter what, is trust, which is easier said than done, but worth the struggle. Because the Spirit in Her wisdom knows where She is leading us, even if we don’t.

Acts 10:44-48        John 15:9-17

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” 

The Holy Spirit fell. In last week’s reading, we heard that the Holy Spirit snatched. 

Fell. Snatched. Such vivid and unexpected words to describe divine presence. And this is why these few weeks at the end of Easter leading into Pentecost are my favorite time of the Church year. Because this is when the Holy Spirit is on the move.

Generally we think of Pentecost as the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Jewish community gathered in Jerusalem– the so-called birthday of the Church– which we will observe two Sundays from now. But if you notice the readings in the Lectionary during the weeks prior to the Feast of Pentecost, and even before Easter, you find that there is plenty going on with the Spirit in advance of that single dramatic episode. The Spirit descends upon Jesus at his Baptism. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples in the upper room right after his resurrection. In last week’s reading from Acts the Spirit snatched Phillip away after his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.  That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit—She will not be confined; She will not be corralled by a single feast day. No matter what the church calendar says, the Spirit—generally acknowledged in scripture as feminine– will find a way to elbow Her way in wherever and whenever She chooses.

This seeming lack of discipline and decorum is not appealing to everyone. Yet it is this persistent, unpredictable, disturbing, creative, and awe-inspiring combination of qualities that I find not only confounding but energizing about this Third Person of the Trinity, and it has often mirrored my own experience of the Divine. The Spirit exemplifies a God who cannot be quantified, caged, defined, or even adequately described, much less controlled. In the ups and downs of my spiritual journey the Spirit has taught me that the wisest response to God, no matter what, is trust, which is easier said than done, but worth the struggle. Because the Spirit in Her wisdom knows where She is leading us, even if we don’t.

Our passage from Acts is a perfect example. This snippet of a story is part of a larger pair of episodes involving Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile of deep faith who lived in Caesarea. An angel had come to him in a vision and told him to send to Joppa, about a day’s journey away, for Peter, who was staying with a tanner named Simon. So he did. Meanwhile, Peter had a vision of his own, in which a great sheet was lowered down, sort of like a big hammock, filled with all kinds of animals: “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” And a voice said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter, a faithful Jew who followed all the dietary laws, saw that these animals were unclean, that is, not kosher to eat, and refused. But the voice persisted, saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And the vision ended, leaving Peter perplexed. (And hungry.)

Enter the messengers from Caesarea.

“While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them. “

(I said the Spirit could be pushy.)

So, long story short, Peter went to Caesarea, which was a major seat of Gentile/Roman power, and suddenly realized the purpose of his vision; his task was to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. So he commenced to preach with his customary eloquence and enthusiasm: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Thanks to the Spirit’s prompting/nudging/shoving, Peter, by crossing the threshold of Cornelius’ house, made a world-transforming decision to cross not only physical and political but spiritual and theological boundaries. God’s Dream of salvation and redemption was thus extended to all of God’s children.

But the Spirit wasn’t finished yet. Just as Peter was getting on a roll with his sermon—“while he was still speaking”—the Spirit fell upon Cornelius, his family and friends; an epic Gentile Pentecost moment that put Peter in his place and let him know who was really in charge. The Holy Spirit fell–this is the first time in Acts that we see the Spirit not waiting for the water of Baptism to come first—the Spirit just fell upon them all without regard for liturgical propriety. 

At the Jewish Pentecost the Spirit came as wind and flame.  In this Gentile Pentecost She fell head over heels like someone in love, leaving everyone smitten with the glory of God.

Willie James Jennings describes the baptism that followed as a “joining of Jew and Gentile…in the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time… occurred…that will open up endless new possibilities of life with others.”

Possibilities of a world transformed by new relationships, nudged/prodded/bonded together by the Spirit who makes clear that Pentecost is not a day, but a process.

“Then they invited [Peter] to stay for several days.” This final statement is really significant, because after all the drama and excitement came the real work; that of building meaningful relationships. Yes, the Spirit can instigate visions, speaking in tongues, and songs of praise, but the Spirit also calls us to sit down, shut up, and take time to listen. Listen to God, listen to one another, and listen beyond our own boundaries.

Jesus called his disciples friends; the Greek word, philoi, connotes mutuality, equality, collegiality. Ponder that for a second; Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, saying to humanity, we are friends, equals. It blows the mind, just a teeny bit. The Holy Spirit at Cornelius’ home invited Jews and Gentiles into an unfolding vision of community that Jesus called forth with these words, you are my friends; I chose you. Our only possible response to this, as we discern through the Spirit our path forward as a community and as part of the wider world, needs to be one of openness, trust, and joy. How can we not respond with joy to the One who has chosen us as co-workers in realizing God’s Dream? How can we not respond with joy to the One who has fallen head-over-heels into our midst? She is calling us to put our core spiritual values into concrete practice, to cross boundaries, and to build new relationships. The day of Pentecost may be two weeks away, but the Spirit, true to form, has already begun Her work within and among us. Amen.


Vine and Branches

John 15

The Rev. Mark R. Sutherland

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

I am the vine; you are the branches!

There is an old African saying:

If you want to go fast – go alone; if you want to go far – go together.

In these weeks following Easter we have opened again for in-person worship alongside our continued livestream. We are all experiencing the joy of moving tentatively, yet assuredly forward together – moving into a time when not everything is defined solely by the pandemic. Despite our in-person worship still having some restriction – the biggest of which is still no congregational singing – everyone who has the experience of returning says how good it is to be back!

The experience of pandemic restrictions on our church and social lives has paradoxically expanded our sense of virtual connection. This alone will not be enough. We must rise to the increasing challenge to give an account for why we exist. In a world increasingly moving away from institutional church affiliation this is the most important question of all and will dictate the contours of our future.

As more and more of us return to in-person presence in worship – our livestream worship becomes an additional long range arrow in our quiver. Virtual worship enables participation from those among us who for reasons of age or infirmity, temporary sickness, or other reasons – cannot be physically present in worship.  What it is not, is a permission to stay away from in-person worship!

I see our livestream worship as an outreach channel connecting us with the spiritually curious – whose curiosity about faith might be encouraged through their exposure to our online worship – those who might one day risk the counter cultural action of walking through our red doors for an in-person experience on Sunday morning.

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

Jesus focused on relationships not religion. He certainly had little interest in forming a new religion with an institutional product. Jesus projected his experience of being in relationship with God into the relationships he built with his followers. By extension he taught them how to make their connection to him into relationships with one another.

In the 1st letter of John, Jesus says:

No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.

This is a later echo of Jesus Great Commandment recorded in John’s gospel:

Love one another – by this the world will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

His teaching points to a way of life that seems simple enough! Well at least clear enough though not necessarily simple to live.

Elsewhere, Jesus paints word pictures of what relationship with God looks like through the use of arresting metaphors that draw their power from being taken from every day and the familiar aspects of life. Last week’s gospel portion from John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the good shepherd whose love for the flock has a very intimate and self-sacrificing intensity. In today’s gospel – He continues in John 15 with another powerful metaphor – that of the vine and its branches. This is a metaphor that speaks of the organic life of relationship.

It seems to me that the future of the church in our own century lies in a return to Christian communities defined as vision movements putting core spiritual values into concrete practice. This will require letting go of our investment in church as an institution. I don’t mean we should abandon the institution but allow the nature of our identity and sense of purpose to shift with and not fight against institutional decline. In other words, to take advantage of institutional decline to be freed and renewed by the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

Such a shift in orientation will go to the heart of our evangelism. Is our evangelism aimed at shoring up the flagging membership of the institution, or is our evangelism focused on winning hearts and changing lives? Do we want to revive our flagging enculturated institution – or will we take a new opportunity to put into practice Christ’s counter-cultural message of love – and in the words of St Paul –  give a good account of the faith that is within us?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

Through cracks in the institution of the church –  a new vision movement emerges – inevitably setting in motion the cycle from movement- to institution – to decline in motion once more.

Historically, we find ourselves in the scary but also exciting institutional decline stage of the cycle. As we contemplate the overall cycle of larger decline – at local levels we continue to celebrate signs of vitality. For instance we are moving to celebrate the success of our recent capital campaign. For some, this is a sign of the revival of the institutional St Martin’s fondly remembered. For most of us, we are not so sure. We grope our way forward – somehow sensing that our recent campaign success must be used to transition us into a different kind of future – the contours of which have yet to fully emerge.

I’m a member of a small parish working party that is currently participating in a five-week stewardship seminar series involving a wide range of attendees from across the Episcopal Church. The first question we have been asked to address  why we exist?

Simon Sinek in a video called Getting to the Why, addresses the question: why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, they have proved themselves more innovative than the competition yet like their competitors, they are just computer company, operating in the same business climate and conditions as every other computer company.

Sinek drawing three concentric circles on the board wrote why in the center of the three circles – then how in the middle circle, and finally what in the outermost circle. He noted that every single person in an organization will know what the organization does. Some will know how the organization achieves what it does. But he claims very few will know why the organization does what it does.

By the why – Sinek is referring to purpose not product. What is the cause or belief that explains not only why an organization exists but the paramount question – why should anyone else care? Most organizations begin at the outer circle and move inwards. They will tell us what they do and maybe how they do it but are silent on why they do it. Making a profit or a product is not a why – it’s a result or a goal. In contrast, innovative and inspired organizations move from the center circle outwards – telling us why they exist before moving onto what they do and how they do it.

Sticking with Apple he gives an example. (If you click on the link here or above – listen from 2:17- 4:02.)

Following Sinek’s approach compare the following two pitches:

We have a beautiful church and an active community. We marry progressive theology to traditional worship. We have fun and do good– want to join us?


Everything we do strives to give an account of the faith within us to become better equipped for the purpose God has for us. We are a community on a journey together in the belief that if you want to go fast journey alone but if you want to go far journey together. We will be greatly strengthened by your presence with us. Will you join us?

Jesus said

I am the vine; my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes and makes it bear more fruit. … I am the vine; you are the branches … because apart from me you can do nothing.