A Sermon for 28 May 2017 — Ascension of the Lord Sunday
A reading from Acts of the Apostles 1:1-14 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us in this reading assigned for the day of the Ascension of the Lord. Listen:
“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
This week marked a significant ritual among Christians of England, Scotland, and Wales. In years gone by, the week of Ascension Day was the time in which parishes would beat the bounds. It was a practice that made some practical sense. “In the days before maps and written title deeds, a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important. So the custom grew up of walking the boundaries, stopping at intervals to strike boundary stones to ‘mark’ the bounds” (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds). Supposedly the practice began in France as far back as 470 C.E. and included religious ceremonies. Three days of Ascension Day week were dedicated to “old parishioners (mixing) with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries” (www.wshc.eu/blog/item/beating-the-bounds-a-parish-tradition.html). Prayers often were a part of the boundary-marking parade. The parish priest beseeching God to make fertile the crops growing within the parish’s lands. Beating the bounds showed to God and any who saw that those living within the boundaries of the parish were devoted to God, from whom they sought “protection from evil and (blessing) of the congregation and the fruits of their labor” (Ibid.). One source claims that “the youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones. (And) in some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders” (Ibid.). As of 1598, Poor Laws made those in need, the destitute, and apprentice children the responsibility of the parish (www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/416-beating-the-bounds). Which unfortunately started another practice of running out of the parish young girls who were found to be pregnant out of wedlock. Which, according to another source, explains why beating the bounds included beating the young boys. It was a warning to 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 absurd!?! . . . We Christians certainly can come up with some wild rituals!
If at first the beating of the bounds ritual seems to have nothing to do with the Ascension of our Lord, stop to consider. Ascension’s not just a time to get tripped up about where exactly he went. The Ascension of the Lord tells us what 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. In other words, this writer wants us to know that while the one born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, ministering 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. He kept telling his followers, as 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. The Ascension of our Lord tells us what we’re supposed to do now: fulfill the mission he has passed on to us.
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 as the plot of their long trek behind Jesus comes to a magical, marvelous end. . . . 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 near impossible order he’s giving them. And according to how it got recorded in Acts, it is an order. Christ says: You WILL be my witnesses from this spot right before you, unto ever-expanding circles beyond.
I don’t really know when we Protestant Americans lost the sense of a parish. Boundaries around those to whom we are responsible as a congregation. But in some ways, I think a good ole’ beating of the bounds is exactly what Ascension Sunday calls for. A physical ritual to remind us of the territory that is our near-impossible mission. We annually would touch markers indicating that the people living in the shadow of this sanctuary are ours. We, as the body of Christ – commanded by Christ for this mission, have responsibilities to them. 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, saying things like: “check out that church community, God. They really are at it in their own backyard!”
What would the ascended Christ say about us? . . . This congregation has discerned an awesome mission statement: Serving God by Serving Others. But who are the others? In my years of working with churches, it seems to be the most difficult part of heeding Christ’s command. Clarifying who it is who will be the target of the congregation’s mission ministry efforts. Some of us always want to keep up the mission we’ve been supporting for years – even if we no longer have the passion or ability to continue that particular work. Some of us want to help everybody – thinking we need to save the world, even though Jesus already has that role covered. Some of us want to focus on young people and others want to ensure the needs of the elderly are met. I wonder what would happen if we literally beat the bounds of the three to five mile radius around us, declared it the parish, then got busy learning the needs of those living within our bounds?
I reconnected in the past year with an old friend from Divinity School whose congregation is alive! But it wasn’t so when first he arrived there. A typical urban flight situation, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of the old faithful too stubborn to leave. As my friend got busy among them, he asked them to look around. To see what the needs of their community were. And not just to look, but to ask: ask the real people they encountered around the neighborhood just what it was that they needed. Before long, the small congregation opened their doors as a soup kitchen. They started feeding anyone who was hungry. A clothes closet came next as people seemed to begin coming out of the woodwork. Worship attendance increased as those around the neighborhood started seeing that this congregation took seriously the human need existing in their midst. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t always easy. And it’s not a cookie cutter mold for all churches everywhere as if doing these same ministries will automatically bring the same results here. It’s the story of a congregation that slowly, over the course of several years, found and began to excel at its niche. It even has become a leading voice in their area for pushing the bounds of the wider church’s definition of inclusivity. Through team work, intentionality, and commitment to Christ’s command; that church has found themselves to be a thriving, diverse collective of disciples of Christ who are committed to the needs of those living right around the blocks of their neighborhood. It remains an impossible mission, but one blessed by the presence of God’s gracious Spirit.
Ascension Day is so important. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . It’s the near-impossible mission the crucified, risen, and ascending Christ entrusts to his followers. The work he commands us to do. So that we will do the greater things he told us will be done by the Holy Spirit through us!
Happy Ascension Sunday, disciples of Christ. Let’s get out there to serve within our bounds!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!
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