A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 13, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be sober and watchful in your prayers (from the epistle, 1 Peter 4:7).
I. The end or telos of all things.
I remember a seminary professor who said that if you use Greek or Hebrew in a sermon, all you are doing is trying to show people how much you know. Often, when the preacher says that a word means this or that in the original Greek, it turns out that it means the same thing in the English word as well.
However, some English words miss an aspect of the original meaning or convey a meaning to us that is foreign to the Greek or Hebrew word. Today’s epistle is a case in point. When St. Peter says that “the end of all things is at hand,” it sounds to us like a message of doom. Oh no, the end is coming! With this sense, we will be motivated by fear. You never know when God is going to come and destroy everything, so you better make sure you are doing what you are supposed to do!
The Greek word for end in this passage is “telos.” Interestingly, telos has also become an English word. It is used in philosophy to refer to “an ultimate object or aim.” This is its meaning in this passage. St Peter is saying, “The ultimate object or aim of all things is at hand.” With this sense, the motivation is not fear, but expectation. God will soon complete his work of New Creation. Stay focused in your prayers because your prayers will soon be answered.
II. Telos in John 19 and Matthew 5
A form of telos is used two other passages that can highlight its meaing. The last words of Jesus on the cross were, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word finished is a verbal form of telos. When St. Peter refers to the telos of all things, he means that the work Jesus finished on the cross will be applied to the whole created order. As Romans 8:21 says, “The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Jesus will finish his work of New Creation.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word perfect in this passage is an adjective form of telos. “Perfect” conveys to us a sense of unattainable or insufferable flawlessness. However, Jesus is saying something a little different. “Be therefore complete,” be “whole,” attain the end toward which you were made.
We are being recreated in Christ through the Spirit. Telos conveys a sense of the completion of this creative process—the positive end toward which we are moving. Now we strive, by grace, against the testing influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We stumble and on occasion fall. This is part of the messy creative process by which God is bringing his order and beauty out of the chaos of human sin. The end is not gloom and doom. The end is wholeness, completion, resurrection.
III. The Ascension
The Ascension of our Lord marked a new stage in the process of the New Creation. The first stage was all the Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation through the Resurrection. In the Incarnation, God who exists in eternity, who fills all things everywhere, became human. He entered the limitations of time and space. He who exists outside of time was born at a moment in time, died at a moment in time, and rose from the dead at a moment in time. Through his work in time, Jesus fulfilled the covenant, conquered sin, Satan and death, and established a new form of humanity in the Resurrection.
In the Ascension, the Risen Christ left the dimension of time and space and reentered the dimension of eternity. The effect of the Ascension is to make the victory Christ won in one temporal moment, at one earthly place, applicable and accessible to all moments and all places. As Ephesians says, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The Risen and Ascended Christ exists in eternity. He can intercede for us at all moments of our time, wherever we may pray. He can rule over our heart always and everywhere.
The Eucharist is a bridge between time and eternity. We ascend in the Spirit, with Christ, from time into eternity. The Risen and Ascended Christ comes from eternity to meet us right now at this moment, in this place. We experience again our union with him as we grow towards our true end, our telos.
IV. Our gifts
The New Testament teaches us that the current age, the age of the Spirit, is the Last Days. Jesus completed the work of the New Creation on the cross when he said, “It is finished.” The Spirit was sent on Pentecost to do the work of New Creation within us. All that remains is for Jesus to appear again in person and finish the New Creation—to bring the life has planted in us to its completed form in the Resurrection. This is what we are waiting for in the life of faith. At the Second Coming of Jesus, time will be swallowed up into eternity. This temporary, disordered, and decaying world will become the eternal and holy kingdom of God.
This helps us to make sense of judgment. Our possession of the baptismal gift of the Spirit makes us eternal beings, whose telos is in the coming kingdom of God—whose true end is in the New Creation. But only that which is eternal can enter the eternal kingdom. Judgement will not be an arbitrary sentence. It will reveal each person’s interior reality.
Because the telos is near, the epistle exhorts us to use our spiritual gifts. “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). The Bible teaches us that each believer has been given at least one spiritual gift or “charisma” with which to serve others in the Body of Christ and bear witness to Christ in the world. This is our work in time, in this world, as we wait for the telos of all things.
During the season of Ascension, from last Thursday until Pentecost next Sunday, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come. Of course, the Holy Spirit came on the first Christian Pentecost and was given to us in Baptism and Confirmation. However, as we experience again the story of our redemption in the church year, we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to come to us in new ways. As our collect says, “Leave us not comfortless, but send to us Thine Holy Ghost to Comfort us and exalt us” (BCP 179).
Thus, let us prepare for the celebration of Pentecost next Sunday by praying that God will send the Holy Spirit to us in new ways. Let us pray that the Spirit will come to renew our experience of grace and union with God. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to renew our spiritual gifts and give us new zeal for worshiping God and serving others. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to further the work of New Creation in us. “For telos of all things is near.”