Tag Archives: Ascension of the Lord

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.)