Tag Archives: Ascension of the Lord

The Fullness of Christ

A Sermon for 2 June 2019 – 7th Sunday/Ascension Sunday

Despite the fact it’s not Thursday, we’re hearing Scripture readings assigned by the lectionary each year for the Ascension of the Lord. As most people never have heard of it and aren’t about to shift their daily calendar to attend to it, as we do for Christmas and Easter; this liturgical day often gets pushed from Ascension Day – the fortieth day of Easter – to the Sunday following it: today, the seventh Sunday of the season of Easter. This year we heard not only the gospel reading assigned for Ascension Day, we also hear the epistle. Ephesians is a letter, likely written by a student of the Apostle Paul, to the church of Ephesus. It has been said to have been “one of the most influential statements of Christian discipleship in early Christianity . . . (with) its depiction of Christian life as a battle against hostile forces” (The Discipleship Study Bible, JKWP, 2008, Ephesians introduction by Stanley Saunders, p. 1990). New Testament scholar Stanley Saunders writes: “Ephesians depicts the Christian life as a battle against cosmic and worldly powers that enslave humankind and darken our awareness and understanding. . . . The first three chapters describe the new reality that has come into being in Christ” (Ibid.). The fullness of Christ, who fills all in all. Listen to this reading of Ephesians 1:15-23 to hear God’s word for our Christian lives today.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

            This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

When I was a child, I loved the Wonder Twins! You may not be familiar with Zan and Jayna who originally were a part of the Super Friends Justice League (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonder_Twins). No matter the caper, the twins would come together, fist bump, and declare: “Wonder Twin powers activate!” Zan would proclaim: “Shape of” whatever state of water would be needed to combat the evil being done by whoever was threatening the wellbeing of the world. Jayna would shout: “Form of” whatever animal she needed to be in order to work with Zan in saving the day. So, like: as a giant water-wave, Zan could take out the nemesis with a powerful tide while Jayna transformed into something like a friendly whale to carry those in peril safely back to shore. What’s more, as twins they had this psychic connection so that they literally could tell when the other superhero needed back-up. As long as they could come together, to fist bump and declare “Wonder Twin powers activate,” their special powers would be triggered. They would be transformed into exactly what was needed. They galvanized their superhero abilities for everything to be a-okay.

It is that activation. That process – when those two twin energies join together as one. That ability to call upon something extra-ordinary that strikes me in the Wonder Twins. Typically, they looked like every other brother and sister going about their day. But something in them knew they possessed very special powers – ones needed so very much by those in trouble. Oh, every now and again a crafty villain came along to try to bend their minds to his own control. That was when the world most was in jeopardy – the powers of the Wonder Twins vulnerable to be twisted for destructive ends. But for the most part, Zan and Jayna knew that something was in them that could be an incredible force for good. Again and again, they would jump to it, ready to activate those amazing powers not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of any who were in need.

Amazing special powers within is what the writer of Ephesians was trying to tell the church. As far as we know, the writer of this letter never had seen the Christians of Ephesus in person – just heard of their amazing works (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C., Vol. 2, Christopher Rowland, p. 511). Likely the writer heard of feats we’ve come to know as typical Christian kind of stuff – though the acts often were revolutionary in their own time and place. Christians would ensure those without had food. They would care for those who were sick. Christians would welcome widows into the community and give them new purpose through service in Christ’s name. Early Christians sent special offerings to those experiencing famine, like in Jerusalem during the reign of Claudius about fifteen years after Christ’s death and resurrection. They gathered together for prayer – which likely included the kinds of story swopping we hear at Fellowship Time each week. They helped those needing help and found a way to meet as equal all sorts of people: Jews and Greeks. Slaves and free. Men and women alike. Something was activated in them so that they understood the world differently. They saw something in people that many others could not – or just were not aware yet to see. It’s the prayer the writer of Ephesians has for the Christians hearing the message. The spiritual enlightenment the writer wants for them – the opened eyes – that leaves us knowing who we are, what we are made of, and to what we have been called.

Premier Twenty-First Century teacher Father Richard Rohr recently released his mind-opening opus called The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything we See, Hope for, and Believe. In it, he weaves the theology we’ve come to know in the Western Church back together with the best wisdom we turned from in the Eastern Church when we mutually excommunicated each other’s finest teachers in our 1054 C.E. split. He lifts up Scripture after Scripture to show what’s always been there, but we haven’t always seen. For starters, Rohr reminds us that Christ is not Jesus’ last name! Christ is the word for the anointed one, he explains. The “name for the transcendent within . . . the immense spaciousness of all true Love . . . another name for everything – in its fullness” (SPCK, 2019, p. 5). Rohr is trying to remind us that Scripture proclaims from the beginning that the whole world is “Christ-soaked” (Ibid., p.15) – God infused, if you will. Containing a very special power within! Spirit and matter woven together – shown beautifully to us in the incarnation of the one we claim was vulnerably born in Bethlehem. This is the scriptural witness: that the fullness dwells in all – the divine in and above all that leaves us that beautiful mix of flesh and Spirit. The biblical witness proclaims this truth. A reminder we desperately need to know, Rohr claims, because something in the human mind has a tendency to clench the negative. Before we know it, we see the world through the eyes of Genesis 3 – the story of our fallenness. Instead of reading the world through the eyes of Genesis 1 and 2 – the Judeo-Christian creation stories that declare everything good, good, good, good, good, very good!

Living from the frame of our original blessedness, we walk around the world able to see the special power – the transcendent within all – the divine in matter. The fullness of Spirit and flesh beautifully aligned as one. It might sound a little wonky, if we’ve never considered the wisdom coming from what’s often referred to as the Big Tradition – or perennial, wisdom tradition of the Body of Christ – a tradition of Christianity coming not just from reason-seeking theologians, but from embodied contemplatives and mystics whose work is having significant world-wide impact today. When we understand Christ as the fullness – seen clearly in Jesus of Nazareth – it’s almost like we get the blueprint for how to live fully human. How to live whole. Rohr explains: “Jesus is the archetypal human just like us who showed us what the Full Human might look like if we could fully live into it” (Ibid., p. 23). Jesus is the one who shows us how to be those in whom the Spirit of God is activated. Which hopefully we experience at least a few minutes every day!

It’s how the writer of Ephesians can declare to the church that we are Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). With enlightened eyes, we can see. Spirit activated in matter; the fullness of Christ in, yet above, all. We might need reminding now and again – which is when it’s best we return to our baptisms. You remember baptism, I hope. The trickle of water on the head. The tracing of the cross on the brow, done – in purist liturgical form – with oil as an anointing. Not as coincidence, nor as a way to show the world we’re now somehow over and above everything else. Rather, baptism reminds us – and all with the eyes to see – that we know the Spirit of God to be in us (Another Name for Everything: Episode 1: Christ-Soaked World, 24 Feb. 2019 Podcast about The Universal Christ, Father Rohr). We understand and accept our original blessedness. So that our baptism into Christ – our engrafting into his body – is kinda like our initial fist bump with God when the Spirit of God gets activated in us. Baptized, the Spirit’s power works through us. So we can go forth to combat the forces within and without that threaten the well-being of the world.

It’s a risky venture to infuse us humans with the Spirit. To rely on us now to live awakened – the special power activated in us to be the body of Christ for the world today. To remind everyone we meet that the Spirit of God lives in them too – longing for enlightened eyes to see. Thankfully God gives us each other for the fullness of Christ to dwell. For the need is so great. So many precious people of this planet are in peril because, for whatever reason, they do not know – they cannot yet see their own original blessedness. The good in self and in neighbor. It’s time we remember to live into our hope. To embrace our glorious inheritance. It’s time the immeasurable power of the Spirit gets activated in us all!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

One

A Sermon for 13 May 2018 – Ascension Sunday & 7th Sunday of Easter

[Acts 1:1-11, and John 17:6-19, NRSV]

A reading from the gospel of John 17:6-19.  If you’ve followed the last couple of weeks of our gospel readings, then you know that this portion of John still happens during that last supper Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion.  Apparently, he had a lot to say that night!  This part of John’s 17th chapter has Jesus turning his eyes heavenward to talk with God.  At the close of all the words recorded on his lips that night, Jesus is praying for his followers.  Our own needs are foremost in his heart.  Listen for God’s word to us as Jesus addresses God.

“’I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.  11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.  12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.  I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.  13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.  14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Recently, a colleague told me about a scene from a movie that brought goose bumps to her skin.  It’s one of those sci-fi type films set in a strange, other world.  There are these creatures.  As I heard of them, I pictured some sort of animated thing similar to monkeys – with really long tails.  I’m not sure about the premise of the movie, but after a challenging, chase scene; the monkey-like creatures stop for a moment.  They are somewhere out in a forestry-jungle – and they obviously are exhausted.  Suddenly, in one accord; all the creatures stick the tip of their tail into the land under their feet.  When they do, the scene captures the flow of energy all around.  From the land, into their tails, into each creature’s body.  And from the land below each creature’s feet, outward to the feet of the creature next to them, then up into their bodies too.  In what must have been one amazing moment, movie viewers saw something like a vibrant electrical current connecting it all.  Land to creature and creature to creature.  Like the web of roots under the floor of a forest – connecting one tree to another.  The whole scene transfixed into one!

Last week, I heard another story.  Our Executive Presbyter Warner Durnell told the story in his sermon in worship at the start of the Presbytery meeting last week.  (Source unknown.)  It’s about a farm mouse, who lives in the farm house, and is absolutely panicked when the farmers order a mouse trap to set in the house.  Frantic, the mouse goes from animal to animal shrieking:  “There’s a mouse trap in the house!”  From the chicken, to the pig, to the fattening cow.  Each animal tells the little mouse, “I hear you.  And I can see how you might have need for alarm.  But what concern is a little mouse trap to me?”  The other animals think the mouse’s problem has no impact on their lives.  So, they encourage the little mouse to head out to the field to hide out on his own.  A mousetrap in the house is of no consequence to the chicken, the pig, or the fattening cow.  Until that very night, when the farmer hears rustling close to where the trap had been set.  Fumbling in the dark – convinced of their success in putting an end to the nuance of the mouse that has been in their house; the farmer arrives near the trap only to see – too late – that the tail of a venomous snake is caught in the trap.  Before the farmer can react, the snake snatches down on the farmer’s leg releasing the deadly poison into the farmer’s body.  The story goes that the farmer was rushed to the hospital and thankfully survived the night.  When the farmer and his wife finally returned home the next afternoon, the farmer’s wife decided some chicken soup might be exactly what her husband needed to regain his strength.  She heads out to the barn to ring the chicken’s neck in order to make the soup.  A few days later, the farmer takes a turn for the worse.  All the children come home to sit bed-side, waiting to see if dad will make it.  With the house full again, the farmer’s wife decides to prepare dinner for them all.  Having the pig slaughtered, the family sits down to a meal of ham and mashed potatoes.  Followed by fried bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.  The farmer doesn’t make it.  After the funeral, neighbors from far and wide come calling upon the farmer’s wife and family.  People are everywhere on the farm, and obviously the farmer’s wife is the kind of woman who can’t let a soul go home hungry.  She calls for the fattening cow.  All the guests feast on her infamous beef stew.  From the forest’s edge, the little mouse watched it all.  Terribly sad that his barnyard friends couldn’t see what he saw:  a threat to him was a threat to all.  For as the little mouse knew:  they all were one.

I could go on.  After all, it’s mothers’ day and who knows better than a mother that the child that grows in her womb remains one with her forever.  . . .  One.  We all are one.  Jesus says it in his prayer for his disciples.  “May they know they are one the way you and I, Holy Father, are one” (John 17:11).  He’ll say it again in the verses that follow the reading we heard today.  When he expands the circle beyond the first ones present that night to us all.  The gospel records:  “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one’” (John 17:20-23a).

Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  Ascension Day technically takes place ten days prior to Pentecost; so, forty days after Easter.  In other words, a few days ago on Thursday.  But since it’s not really a Presbyterian thing to gather for worship exactly forty days after Easter, it’s typical to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord the Sunday after instead.  It’s why we’re singing hymns that remind us of the risen and ascended Christ.  And why our first reading was from Acts chapter 1.  Captured there is that mysterious story.  In Acts, we’re told that the Risen Christ had commanded his followers to remain together in Jerusalem.  Waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would douse them with incredible power.  Enlivening them to witness right where they were, all over their homeland, and beyond – even to the ends of the earth!  The story goes that as he speaks, the Risen Christ is lifted up out of their sight.  Like the time the prophet Elijah was taken up before Elisha’s eyes.  Those first disciples must have rubbed their eyes wondering exactly what they had witnessed.  Acts records that they stood there staring for a while – likely with their chins on the ground, their eyes searching.  . . .  After all, did you hear what he just told them?  Sure, they were going to get the Holy Spirit.  But it meant that he expected them to go tell the story.  To speak about what they had seen.  To enact what Christ had enacted among them.  To risk angering the very same ones who six weeks earlier had put Jesus to death.  No matter.  He expected them to see the way he did:  one.  One.  Each connected one to another.  One.  . . .  Maybe Jesus’ first followers stood gazing up at heaven to figure out what they had seen.  But, more likely they really wanted to get away too.  So that they were standing there internally pleading:  “Take me!  Take me too!”

How often have the people of God similarly been locked, looking to the heavens?  Over the years, we’ve even concocted all sorts of elaborate – inaccurate – theologies of how someday God will come to destroy this all.  But not before we’re taken up too, either before or after a 1,000-year reign of the returned Christ.  Because really?  Who wants to be left here one more day to endure the difficulties of this earth?  The challenges of a post-modern world.  The fast-pace life of a technological culture.  . . .  No matter how deep the human impulse to fly away into the skies with God, to incorrectly make the spiritual journey all about me and the One up there; one commentator has written:  “Instead of retreat from the world, Christ offers an alternative model that can empower the community to live in the world without succumbing to its values and pressures.  They (we) are to stay in the world under the protective care of God.”  Loving one another because we are connected one to another and to it all.  That same commentator writes that we “are to live amidst all of the knotted complexities of the world without . . . getting entangled.  . . .  Christ reminds the church that the pattern of his own life was not escape from the world but engagement with the world, with all of its distorted powers and pressures (Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2; p. 547, 549).  No matter how much we might want to stare upwards – to focus on a relationship with a God that is out there beyond us as the point of it all; before his crucifixion, Christ fervently prays for us to look at the space between us.  To know that we might be a zillion different individuals – all created with particular gifts and unique abilities – but we are one.  Connected – whether we want to be or not.  Whether we like the neighbors around us or not.  Whether we have a single concern for their plight, or not.  It’s how we have been made – in the image and likeness of the One that is Father and Son and Holy Spirit too.  Christ in us, and he in God, and we – all – completely one.

May we have the eyes to see, the minds to envision, and the wills always ready to act.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

What Now?

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 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  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.  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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  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.”  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!

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Ascension Sunday Sermon – Acts 1:1-14

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!
RevJule
______________________
1 June 2014 – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-14

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.

© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)