DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
1 June 2014 – Ascension Sunday
Click here to read the scripture first: Acts 1:1-14 (NRS)
If this sermon were to have a title, a good one would be: Ascension??? . . . What’s it all about? Where in the world did he go? And what are we supposed to do now?
So the Ascension of the Lord: what’s it all about?
If any of us grew up Roman Catholic or Episcopalian, you probably could school the rest of us about Ascension Day, as it’s such an important part of those traditions. It takes place every 40th day of Eastertide, always two Thursdays prior to Pentecost Sunday, the fiftieth day of Eastertide. And it’s considered one of the main high holy days. In fact, in Roman Catholicism it’s a Holy Day of Obligation. Or a day in which everyone better be at mass or else! . . . Legend has it that as early as 68 A.D., or just a generation after his death and resurrection, the first followers were celebrating the day the Risen Christ ascended. That kinda makes sense because not only would that have been about the time first followers would have been passing on the mantel to the next generation, but also because those would have been difficult days when things with Rome really were heating up – the Jerusalem Temple was about to be demolished entirely. Reassurance of an ascended, sovereign Lord would have been a growing comfort. Ascension Day might have been observed as early as the First Century A.D., but we only have written documentation of such celebrations beginning in the Fifth Century A.D. – by the time both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were around (www.officeholidays.com/countries/Europe/ascension_day.php).
Either way, in the good old days, some very interesting customs took place to mark this holy day feast. Often the paschal candle (or Christ candle) would be extinguished. It was a way to symbolize that ascension was the end of Christ’s work of reconciling us to God and one another. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension completed the task. . . . Blessing of the first fruits often was a part of an Ascension Day celebration. People would bring the first harvest of their grapes and beans for the priests to bless. . . . Sometimes Ascension Day included a procession into the sanctuary like a parade with torches and banners as a way to commemorate Christ’s ascension. I love the descriptions of priests suddenly raising a figure of Christ high above the altar all the way up through an opening in the roof. Kinda reminds me of a “Jesus Christ Super Star” production where an actor with flowing blond hair and pristine white robes is lifted up on one of those stage harnesses to float off above all the spotlights. . . . And while I’m really not sure what this next Ascension Day custom has to do with the ascension of Christ, I’ve read that in England churches commonly would beat the bounds on this day. Sources report that “Members of the parish (would) walk round the parish boundaries, marking boundary stones and hitting them with sticks. According to some, it was once the young boys of the parish that were hit with sticks instead of the stones.” The logical explanation to this was that “knowledge of the parish boundaries was once important, since churches had certain duties such as care of children born out of wedlock in the parish. (Thus) one of the purposes served by beating the bounds was that of warning the young men of the parish that (quote) any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Ascension). Isn’t that great? We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals! . . . But in some ways a good ole’ beating of the bounds might be a wonderful reminder to us that we have responsibilities to and for those living in the shadow of our sanctuary. Like this territory and the people of it are ours. It’s our job to ensure they know and experience the good news of the work of our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. It’s our mission to tend to their spiritual needs. Can’t you almost picture Christ, returned to the Triune God, now saying things like: “check out that church community, God. They really are at it in their own backyard!”
Which brings us to where in the world did he go? Now, I gotta be honest. We had a little fight about this in the pastors’ lectionary study I’m a part of. I kept asserted that I worry that too many of us are concrete literal thinkers. When we hear about ascension, if we buy it at all, don’t we too often picture the human figure of Jesus sitting somewhere up in the skies alongside however we picture God the Father to be? I worry that we don’t get the metaphorical understanding of the creeds’ words that “Ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father” (Apostles’ Creed/Nicene Creed) was language used to speak of the Risen Christ being the right-hand one of God, the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe – the beloved ambassador or trusted emissary of God sent on a very special mission. We don’t always get the metaphorical, military-like language (common to that day) that the Risen, Ascended Christ is the one who successfully has completed his impossible mission even as he’s begun another. When it comes to ascension, I worry that too many of us concrete literal thinkers, if we pay attention to it at all, just get caught up in a view of the victorious Christ risen from the earth into the sky now to rest up on a cloud somewhere right alongside God; as from afar, they wait to see how badly on our own we might mess it all up.
Of course, a more seasoned preacher in our pastors’ bible study assured me that we 21st Century Americans don’t think that way. He assured me that we don’t see the world as the three-tiered cosmos of our biblical ancestors who didn’t yet know the earth is spherical, like a ball, instead of flat, like unleavened bread. Certainly Presbyterians in the pews, my preacher companion told me, know God isn’t just further up there than the astronauts have gone because it’s land here where we are, the fires of hell under below our feet, and heaven above where God and the angels reside – which was the ancient three-tiered view of the world. Rather, we know that this earth is one part of an amazing galaxy, in this incredible universe, where God is everywhere – in us, among us, and beyond us! Ascension up, as Acts of the Apostle’s describes with the words: “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), is more like the Risen Christ taking our humanity into the eternal heartbeat of God. Having lived as one of us here among us, the Risen Christ, who is God too, brings who we are fully into the Godhead so that we are in a new communion with our God forevermore. That’s why ascension matters – because in Christ, we’re united with God in a way we’ve never quite been before. At last we can get on not just with worshipping our Lord as one to lift high on a pedestal. But in emulating him as the one lifted up as the Way. The Path. The Proto-type. The Hero in whose steps we walk.
Which leads us right into what we are supposed to do now. Acts of the Apostles is believed to be something like the sequel of the gospel of Luke. And the ascension of the Lord opens Acts, just as it had closed the book of the gospel of Luke. This writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministered primarily in Galilee before his trek to Jerusalem that got him killed and raised again – while Jesus the Christ played the leading role in the gospel of Luke; in Acts, it’s going to be his followers. Or the Holy Spirit of God working through his followers in the same way the Holy Spirit of God was working through Jesus all along. He kept telling his followers, like the gospel of John records (John 14:12), that it’s better that it happens this way so that we will do greater things than him. What we’re supposed to do now is fulfill the mission he passed on to us.
I love that Acts opens with the apostles hanging out with the Risen Christ on the Mount of Olives, again overlooking Jerusalem. I’m sure the view was a bit chillier this side of crucifixion and resurrection. As the disciples stood on the same spot from which they first entered the city, pre-Passover; they easily could recall all the Holy Week events. They hear him saying something about being baptized not with water like John the Baptist. But they just want to know if it’s all about to be over, the whole kingdom of Israel restored. Giving them something else upon which to focus, the Risen Christ says: “It’s not for you to know the times or periods set. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (yes, the dangerous city where they put the Lord to death), in all Judea and Samaria (the provinces that don’t necessarily like such Galilean outsiders), and to the ends of the earth (which includes worlds you can’t even image – people so very different from you who may not even recognize their hunger for the Holy)” (paraphrase of Acts 1:7-8). They were hoping it all was about to be over. But it was just the beginning! . . . Instead, it’s a tall order he’s giving them. And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order. You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.
What we’re supposed to do now is get busy. Or rather wait for the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, next Sunday, and then get busy! As he’s lifted up like Enoch and Elijah – two other righteous ones of God whose feet supposedly left this earth in the same way. While Christ is taken out of the-kind-of-sight they’ve been having of him since before and after his resurrection, the apostles have to have another message to get them to stop just standing around gawking up at the skies. They’re assured he’s coming back in the very same way. As they are standing on the Mount of Olives, the words must bring to mind for them the prophetic visions that the triumphant Son of Man will come down from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to reclaim it all as God’s own. . . . Acts records that they finally go back into Jerusalem and they stay together. Praying and waiting for this empowering gift that will infuse them with the courage and energy, determination and clarity to emulate the one now lifted before them. To be about the business of carrying on his mission even if it means standing before the powers that want him dead, engaging those so totally different from themselves, and journeying into the wild unknown. . . . Any who claim the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ as Lord and Savior are to get out there to fulfill the mission he’s entrusted to us. Do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!
The Ascension of our Lord: I hope it’s gone from ??? to !!!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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