Tuesday, September 26, 2017
This sermon is for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which we have transferred from September 29 to today. To read the lessons for this feast, click here. To listen to the sermon, click here.
If Jesus is the way back to heaven, how are you going to get there?
When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I played the role of Jacob in a community theater production of the play Jacob's Ladder. As far as I remember, it had nothing to do with the Old Testament lesson appointed for today. Instead, the ladder upon which my character found himself represented the divide between my father and my mother, who were going through a divorce. I don't really remember a lot about the play, but I do remember one scene in which the script called for my father to carry me up a short ladder into the loft where I slept. I had fallen asleep on the couch while my parents were arguing, and, as things began to get heated, I was to be carried off stage into my bed.
Unfortunately, I have always been a big kid, and, by that, I don't mean childish. I mean husky. (Is there any more demeaning word for a kid than "husky?") The people who built our set placed the loft at the top of an eight-foot wooden ladder, and, during rehearsals, the man who played my father took one look at me and one look at the ladder and said to the director, "He's going to have to climb up there himself." I did, of course, pretending to be halfway asleep. He carried me to the ladder, pointed me up to bed, and I climbed up there by myself.
When it comes to getting to heaven, we know that Jesus is the link between us and the Father. We know that Jesus is the path, the way, the ladder that connects us back to the place where we need to go. He comes and bridges the divide between our fallen human nature and the divine nature that has the power to restore us to our unfallen state. But how do we get there? How do we make it from here to where we are supposed to be? Jesus is the way, but what carries us across the divide?
Angels. I don't give a lot of thought to angels. They make for good stories, like the one we read in Revelation today. I've heard a few people tell me of moments when angels intervened in their lives, and I do not doubt them. I do believe that there are moments when angels show up and help God's people in dramatic, even life-saving ways. But I have never had a moment like that. Unless you've seen one, angels seem pretty hard to get one's mind around. What are they, really? They aren't human beings, but they aren't God either. Their name "angel" literally means "messenger," but their place in our piety seems more substantial than that. People put statues of them throughout their houses. Sewanee people like to pretend that they have a special guardian angel who follows them around except when they are back at Sewanee, when their angel can take a break. It's stories like that that make me want to turn the page on angels altogether. But I wonder whether I am dismissing too quickly something that I cannot see and do not understand.
Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him and remarks, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathaniel is surprised at how this stranger can judge him simply by seeing him, so he asks Jesus how he managed to gain this insight into his character. Jesus remarks that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree even before his friend Philip called him. If that snap judgment was amazing, even more so is Nathaniel's immediate identification of Jesus as "the Son of God...the King of Israel." Now, both are seeing things that ordinary human beings couldn't see. And, to cap it all off, Jesus invites Nathaniel to remain with him long enough to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." In other words, if Nathaniel will pursue a life spent following Jesus, he will discover within him the link--the path--between heaven and earth and will, like Jacob, see the angels ascending and descending along that spiritual superhighway.
Although I think we overstate the cuteness and availability of angels, I think we underestimate their importance in getting us back to God. In a conversation I had with Warren Swenson, our seminarian from Sewanee, we discussed the role of angels in our faith. He's also preaching on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels and, like me, wanted to make a case for the importance of angels without falling victim to the overly sentimental way in which they are portrayed in our pseudo-Christian culture. In that conversation, I mused that Jesus shows us that the way back to the Father is through himself, but perhaps we've become so accustomed to our own ability to get where we need to go that we've forgotten what it means to depend on God's help to finish the journey. In other words, we've become overly dependent on our own ability to transport ourselves from here to there that, once we've discovered that Jesus is the way back to the Father, we've forgotten that we always need God's help to get there.
Angels show up in ways we can perceive only when we need them most--those critical moments of need in our lives--but, in fact, maybe we should imagine they are with us all the time, escorting us further and further up the ladder that leads back to God. Faith is the means by which we commit ourselves to the path of restoration that is Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith in Jesus as the one who brings us to the Father is our part in the equation of salvation, but grace is God's part. Jesus is the way. Faith is our recognition of the way--our plugging the destination into a GPS of sorts. But grace is the means by which we get there--a means that isn't up to us but is up to God.
Might that way be angels? Maybe. Maybe not. The Bible doesn't describe the journey to heaven quite like that. But the Bible does make it clear that we can't get to heaven on our own--that we can't choose our way back to God and then get there without God's constant intervention. Early theologians like Origen and Evagrius described angels as the not-so-fallen creatures who intervene on our behalf, pulling us upward in ways that help us overcome the downward pull of demons. I don't know if I believe that. But I do believe that I cannot get to heaven on my own--even if I want to, even if I choose it, even if I believe it. Perhaps angels are a beautiful way of saying that we need God's help in ways we cannot even perceive. Maybe angels are important because they remind us that, even if we know and believe that Jesus is the way to the Father, we need God's help getting there. Those of us who follow Jesus long enough will see that he is the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven, and, if we look with the eyes of faith and not pride, we will see that there are angels carrying us along the way.