One for the Lonely:
A Sermon for the Sunday After Ascension
Anthony G. Cirilla
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we stand between the commemoration of two important occasions, Ascension Day this past Thursday and Memorial Day tomorrow, both of which in my view involve loneliness as a major factor. Although Memorial Day can be a lot of fun for families, who go on BBQs or picnics, for many it is a crushing reminder of those they have lost who laid down their lives for this country, who for their fellow man went into fatal danger to exhibit the love of John 15:13. Everyone admires the young soldiers who sign up to serve, but as they stand there, handsome, beautiful, and brave, their families know there’s a chance they won’t return. Spouses, children, parents, and others face a fearful loneliness, and those for whom that fear came true spend Memorial Day with an acute pain that is hard to fathom if it hasn’t been experienced. I’d go so far as to say that even those who have experienced it still cannot fathom it.
I have never served in the military, not being cut from that sort of cloth. But I do know something about loneliness, though it is not associated with such honorable commitments. My relationship with loneliness is much more common. Today I have a beautiful and caring wife, a warm and welcoming church, good friends, and a great community among my colleagues at work. But feelings of loneliness still visit me on occasion, and sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on why. I remember, though, times in my life where it was much worse. I have gone through times when the loneliness was so deep, so bitter, so overwhelming, I thought it would just swallow me up. I remember times when I would try to find an isolated place because being around others actually made me feel more lonely.
This sermon is one for the lonely, because I know, too, that all of you struggle with loneliness of different kinds. Perhaps it is Memorial Day loneliness – someone you lost through their patriotic service. Or you lost someone through illness or other kinds of tragedy. Maybe you’re suffering the fear of a different kind of loss – the fracturing of a relationship that once meant so much to you, but trauma and tension has made that relationship difficult. Or perhaps you’re suffering the loneliness of an outlook on life others around you just don’t seem to understand. I know, when I was at a secular college, I often felt lonely as a Christian surrounded by atheists and agnostics who openly sneered at my faith. Once a classmate said she thought Christians should be burned at the stake like witches. To say I felt lonely when others laughed at her comment really hardly captures how frightfully isolated that comment made me feel. Maybe you are the only Christian in your place of work, or maybe it’s even other Christians who make you feel lonely by not listening to your different opinions or taking an active enough interest in your life. Maybe sometimes, the loneliness just can’t even be explained – it just comes over you sometimes, and you don’t know why.
By no means do I mean to assert that this is the only or even the most important aspect of today’s Epistle and Gospel lessons. But as I read today’s readings and thought about the meaning of Ascension Day and the specific association between the Ascension of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, I pondered how this passage is a powerful response to the problems of loneliness we all face. To put it in perspective, remember that 40 days prior to the ascension of Christ was the Day of his resurrection. The day prior to that was Holy Saturday, the day when Christ lay dead in the tomb. It is actually before his Crucifixion that Christ speaks these words of comfort concerning the Holy Spirit. I have often thought about the devastating, traumatic loneliness the disciples must have felt on that day. Can you imagine having the Savior there with you in the flesh, to teach your mind with his words, to soothe your spirit with his truth, to touch you with his comforting and loving hands – and then he is gone, dead, after a brutal execution? The 12 Apostles and Christ’s other disciples on that day went from walking and talking with God in the Flesh to having him sealed away through the greatest isolating force in human existence – death itself. The relief of seeing Him returned from the dead was in a sense almost as traumatic. It reminds me a bit, though the mood is very different, of “The Story of an Hour,” where Kate Chopin tells the tale of a woman who believed her husband dead, and when she sees him alive again it’s so startling she dies from a heart attack. So the disciples had to go through the heartbreaking trauma of losing Christ, and then the heart-stopping joy of having him back again – and for forty days no less, just enough time to get used to having him back, maybe even to start to take it for granted. And now, having gone through all of that, they discover that He is to leave again! Certainly there is joy – he goes to prepare a place for them, and that’s exciting. But it also means they won’t have him there until he returns on the last, triumphant day.
I think it would be fair to assume this was something of an emotional rollercoaster for the disciples. When I left for Buffalo only a couple of weeks ago, Camarie was not happy. And I was glad about that – to think we’ve been married three and a half years and see each other virtually every day, and she still misses me even when I go to work for the day, nevermind going to Buffalo for a week. What a blessing! It’s such a privilege to be loved that way, and a gift to have someone to love that way. But the absence, whether temporary or lasting, is all the more difficult to bear when the bond is strong. Christ knew the hearts of his followers, and he knew the grief of loneliness that would be left behind when He ascended to the Father’s right hand. Among other things, I think that is one reason He assured them of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ knew that His disciples, and the Christians they would convert, would struggle with the cold pain of emotional, physical, and spiritual isolation. Today’s Gospel ends at John 16:4, but in 6 and 7 he goes on to say: “6 But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” To ease the sorrowful burden of their Lord and Savior’s absence, He assured them that they would not be alone – the Holy Spirit would be present with his followers as a companion, a comforter, and a guide.
Before considering how exactly the Holy Spirit offers comfort in loneliness, we must define who He is. Often when we think of God, I think our attention tends to fix on God the Father and God the Son – we desire atonement with the Father, and we gaze with adoration upon what Christ has done to make that atonement possible. But we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is by no means the third wheel of the Trinity. First, the Holy Spirit is fully God, and second, the Holy Spirit is a Person distinct from the Father and the Son. We can see both of these truths in the third chapter of Hebrews, where in verse 10 the Holy Spirit says of the disobedient Israelites who committed idolatry while Moses received the 10 Commandments, “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.” Notice that in His own words here the Holy Spirit identifies Himself with God – they have not known His ways, and so they were rejected from entering the promised land. The fact that the Holy Spirit speaks these words testifies that He is a Person and that He is God. But He cannot be the same person as Christ, because Jesus has clearly told us that the Comforter cannot come unless he leaves. He also is not the same Person as the Father, because His duty is to testify of the Father. And so, although He is as God fully one with the Father and the Son in terms of his divinity, He is also a unique Person with a particular mission, as the great theologian St. Augustine put it, towards us as believers.
I believe that an element of this mission is to see us through the painful period of loneliness which began when Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father until He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead. See, I think loneliness really stems from one of three things: a sense of separation from God, a sense of separation from our neighbor, and a sense of purposelessness that leaves us feeling adrift. Concerning the first one, I think it is beneficial to consider loneliness as a gift from the Holy Spirit which actually compels us to seek God more earnestly. In Matthew 4:1, we see that it is the Holy Spirit which actually led Jesus into isolation: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” In our world of psychologists and self-help gurus, we might think of loneliness as a mental plight that needs to be immediately remedied. With that way of thinking, it becomes all too easy to try and cover up the loneliness with distractions – with vapid entertainment, busywork, or seeking out a shallow interaction, rather than stopping to consider that maybe who you’re feeling lonely for is actually God rather than man. 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 reads, “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 tells us that God has put the desire for eternity in our hearts, which means that our hearts are actually lonely for a relationship with an eternal person. So while human fellowship is certainly essential to the Christian life, we should also turn in to the Holy Spirit, who is promised to be our guide by Christ later in John 16, verse 13: “when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” When our faith wavers and we feel uncertain about whether God is really there, when we feel like we are alone and there is no one interested in our well being, we can pray in the Spirit to ask for the comfort of confidence in the promises of God.
Loneliness can also be provoked by our duty to proclaim the truths of the Gospel in a culture increasingly unfriendly and suspicious of our beliefs. Christ says, “ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning. These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” In the task of bearing witness of Christ, Christians in many countries risk intense persecution. I read a statistic that said that 360 million Christians faced significant religious persecution in the global scene in 2021, which was a 24% increase from the previous year. Now, we need to be careful as Christians not to cultivate a persecution complex. Someone disagreeing with us is not persecution. A TV show deciding to portray practices we know are not biblical is not persecution. But these things can make us uncomfortable, and we may find ourselves having painful conversations with friends or family members when we explain that we have to reject something the culture is pushing. I pray that the sort of persecution of Christians we are seeing in the global scene will not come to American soil, but protecting our right to speak our beliefs requires that we speak. If we stay silent and do not proclaim Christ and His Gospel, the culture will take silence as consent in the face of attitudes at odds with a biblical worldview. And when we articulate why we cannot go with the flow on certain things, we will find that some we talk to will respond negatively, sometimes harshly. This response is all the harder to bear because of our duty to exhibit love towards those we meet, because we feel vulnerable when we speak speech seasoned with salt as Paul commanded and we are met with anger and scorn. Such treatment, or even just fear of it, can make us feel desperately alone. But Christ warned us that this would happen: “And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” And in John 16:14 Christ promises, “[The Holy Spirit] shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.” If you stay in the Word and in fervent prayer, the Holy Spirit will give you confidence in God’s promises in the face of adversity, whatever form it may take.
So we have seen that loneliness can come from the Holy Spirit making us aware of an unacknowledged desire for intimacy with God. It can also come from alienation experienced from those who lash out when we proclaim our faith with boldness and love – in which case we are comforted by the steadfast companionship of the Holy Spirit. What of the personal loneliness of our need for friendship and love? What are we to do when we miss a loved one, when we can no longer hold or be held by that beloved soul? What are we to do if we feel separated or alienated from our fellow Christians by differences of perspective or life situation? Even here in this church, full of love though it is, we may notice that we don’t look at things the same way, and that can be hard to bear or to understand. But if we see our fellowship with members of the Body of Christ as an extension of our fellowship with God by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then we can see that the Spirit is able to forge unity in spite of and often even out of our differences. Ephesians 4:4-6 reads, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Unity would be no impressive achievement if we were all the same. Just as God can make the material world harmonize despite differences into one created order, just so in the Body of Christ He is the architect of a unity through the headship of our Lord and Savior Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that supersedes those things which threaten to drive us apart.
I don’t mean to say, by the way, that if you are suffering from acute loneliness that it’s a bad idea to seek out therapy. It isn’t – a therapist can help you to sort out your emotions. But that should be supplemental to, rather than a replacement for, our walk with God and the Body of Christ. Often one of the best remedies for a burden of the heart is comforting someone else who has the same burden. If you feel alone, reach out to someone who looks lonely. Maybe your loneliness is a means by which the Holy Spirit is calling you to serve the Body of Christ in a new way. In our Epistle reading Peter tells us, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Such gifts, we are told by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” I want to recognize those of us who do so much for this church. I believe it is the Holy Spirit which gave Jane the heart for fellowship that inspired her to suggest game night. I believe it is the same Holy Spirit which gives Judy the gift of hospitality that prompts her to help with hospitality during the coffee hour. The members of the altar guild, the members of the vestry, those in the music ministry, those who help with Sunday School, our lay readers and our clergy are all listening to and responding to promptings from the Holy Spirit to serve God in a manner consistent with the teachings of Scripture. These are more than kind gestures – these are all important labors in the Body of Christ, and we are so thankful for what all of you do. If you are feeling lonely, maybe that is God’s way of telling you to become more active in the opportunities God has put before you to be involved in this Church, or perhaps simply to realize that much of the loneliness is really an illusion.
You are not alone, because the Holy Spirit is grieved by your grief and longs to let Him hold you if you miss someone. He calls you to spend more time with God in intimate friendship through reading Scripture and personal prayer. He calls you to not let how others might see you from faithfully and joyfully proclaiming the salvation of our Risen Lord. He calls you to share your gifts of personality and presence with this church and with those you meet. Through the liturgy, we are reminded of God’s presence in every facet of our being – even in our sin. Our sin can be a chief and great source of isolation, because Satan uses it to trick us into thinking that we’re alone, that we’re cut off, that we aren’t worthy to be a part of all of this because of how we have fallen short. But Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper because He knows we’re lonely in our sins and He wants us to come to Him, to have fellowship with Him and His Body, to fall on our knees with His Body, to Break Bread with his Body, to drink Wine with His Body, to praise Him as part of His Body.. The 39 Articles explain that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper we do so in a heavenly and spiritual manner, which means that it is by the Holy Spirit that partaking of the bread and the wine together our loneliness is driven out by God’s unifying love as he brings us closer and closer together. You are not alone, because Christ is at the right hand of the Father where he ascended to make a place for you. You are not alone, because the Holy Spirit is available to you to help you draw closer to God. You are not alone, because here you have fellow lonely lovers of god and lovers of neighbor who want to serve you and whom you can serve. You are not alone, because there is a testimony of angels, archangels, and the whole heavenly host, who with you testify the lordship of our Savior Christ. You are not alone, because Christ is with you until the end of the age, and the Holy Spirit is here, through all of these means, to let you live confidently in service to your God, “that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever.” Amen.