Hope for the Future, Ascension Day (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

It’s a tragic thing to witness someone who does not have hope or dreams for the future. Part of our human nature is to envision a better tomorrow and strive for new accomplishments and realities. When this part of our nature dies, the whole person eventually gives up and dies. Many times our deepest desires are birthed in our most primal need for family, love, acceptance, and self-realization. When dreams and hopes are not fulfilled as we envisioned, we may face a crisis of faith as we struggle to make sense of the harsh reality of life. Jesus’ disciples lived in a time of repressed hopes and dreams that were squelched by foreign powers and internal competing political and religious factions. Their religious leaders did little to help keep hope alive, but rather burdened the people with endless rules and regulations that were impossible to fulfill.

Israel existed as a vassal state under the control of other nations for much of its long and checkered history. First it was the Assyrians and Babylonians, and then the Persians followed by the Macedonians, and finally the Romans. After centuries of rebellion and armed struggle to gain their freedom, the people of Israel held on tightly to the hope of reestablishing the Davidic line on the throne in Jerusalem. When Jesus appeared on the scene, the disciples were well steeped in this nationalistic dream. Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven the disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It is apparent that they were still looking at the events that transpired over the previous three years through earthly eyes. They were holding tightly onto the hope that Israel would be delivered from Roman hegemony and Jesus would become their king despite his assertion that his kingdom was not of this world. It is difficult to let go of dreams we’ve held on to for so long, especially dreams that give us the strength to endure hardships and injustice.

The disciples were members of a subjugated people, living under Roman law, and members of a despised race. It’s understandable that they held on tightly to the hope of a better life, one where they could reach their fullest potential and be able to live their lives as a free people. What they failed to see, however, was that Christ promised this very thing, but not in the manner in which they had dreamed. They were not yet able to let go of their national dream and open themselves to receiving the greater blessing that God had in store for them.

They were not able to envision the impact they would have on the Roman Empire and the world at large. Their view of life was still shaped by their limited vision that was focused on statehood and local politics. Little did they know that in just a few decades Rome would completely destroy Jerusalem, their temple, and their way of life. But out of the smoldering embers would rise a Church, one that transcended ethnic and political barriers, one in which Christ predicted that even the Gates of Hell could not prevail.

Like the disciples, we too seek a life where we can achieve our fullest potential and feel as if we have a purpose for living and make a difference, that our existence has some deeper meaning than just getting by until we finally die. For many of us, we have a deep desire to be needed and wanted by others. We may long to make an impact on those around us and be remembered as someone whose life was not lived in vain. Our view of life is often shaped by our own limited vision we have of life and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We may define ourselves by what others say or do to us.

Sometimes we live our lives as a subjugated people, ones who are enslaved by our fears, doubts, feelings of inferiority, and our seemingly unmet need to love and be loved. We hold tightly onto things and people that we believe will bring us wholeness and happiness. The tighter we hold, however, the emptier we feel.

Eventually we give in and negotiate a truce with that which makes us miserable, much like the leaders of Israel did with the Romans. Or, we get angry and rebel against what is taking away life’s joy and impeding our goals and we find ourselves constantly at war with others and ourselves. This was the plight of the zealots of Jesus’ day. Either way, we miss the point of Jesus’ purpose, just as the disciples did when he spoke to them prior to his ascension.

Sometimes when we lose the object of our affection we see that which is greater and more meaningful. It’s a painful process, but one in which we can gain great insight, blessing, and peace. We are asked to let go of those things we hold dear to our heart and love deeply, as well as those things that hold us captive and slowly extinguish our hopes and dreams, and ascend with Christ to that place where we are glorified with him. Christ’s ascension is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we spread the light of Jesus’ truth throughout the world. Jesus completed His earthly mission of bringing salvation to all people and was physically lifted up from this world into Heaven. The meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection is given in the Ascension. Having completed His mission in this world as the Savior, He returned to the God in heaven and raised earth to heaven with him!

Jesus glorified humanity when He returned to God and reunited us with God. Jesus took on our human nature and then deified this human nature by taking his body to heaven and giving it a place of honor at the right hand of God. With Christ, human nature also ascends and consummates the union of God and human. He took with him all of humanity’s weaknesses and frailties – our fear, insecurity, feeling of rejection, hurts, anger, disappointments, despair, doubt, pettiness, resentment, bitterness – and transformed us into his image. Christ’s redemptive ministry was not complete until he returned to God in bodily form. By doing so, he made a way for all of humanity to experience God’s healing both in spirit and body.

The angel asked the disciples why they were looking into the sky where Jesus had just ascended. We often find ourselves doing the same thing even today. We look heavenward for answers, but the answers we look for are found right here. They are in front of us and in our hearts where God dwells. The answers are found in the people whom God brings into our lives, and they are revealed in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was completed when he ascended into Heaven. There he intercedes for us in bodily form as we go about his business here on Earth. We have been redeemed, not only in our spirits but also in the flesh through Christ’s ascension.

Paul writes that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. Mortal flesh has been glorified in Christ, and along with that our dreams and hopes have also been sanctified. Go and live life to its fullest, don’t lose hope, keep on dreaming, live righteously and fight for righteous causes, and love lavishly. Amen.

Download the sermon for Ascension Day C.

Written by The Reverend Deacon Timothy G. Warren

The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren is the founder and pastor of St. Francis, an emergent outreach ministry in California’s High Desert Region, and founder/president of Lifeskills Development, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

 

Opening our minds to the Ascension , Ascension Day (C) – 2013

May 9, 2013

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The commemoration of the Ascension passes us by in this country. In places where the Eastern Church is prevalent it’s an important feast day, up there in importance with Christmas and Pentecost. In many places, it’s a work holiday. Always falling on a Thursday, the word “Ascension” passes through lips casually, but it is doubtful that those who speak it contemplate its meaning. In our church it is celebrated but on a minor key; we have to admit that the Ascension is a difficult image to create in our minds and it’s difficult to make sense of it. Coming 40 days after Easter Day, it is mostly ignored since it falls on a Thursday.

On feast days, it’s interesting to look at some of the remaining customs of ancient people, because even under the veneer of superstition and legend, a core of truth may be found. In many parts of Greece where the Orthodox observe the day with great joy, village people stay up on the night of Ascension staring at the skies. Legend tells us that those “who are pure in heart” see a light ascending to the heavens. For some reason, in Greek villages the day is associated with shepherds, so milk features greatly in the recipes set aside for just this day. And the water of the sea becomes symbolic also: This is the first day of the year when people enter the sea either to swim or to wade, and then to carry some of the water home to ward off evil.

The first custom, that of looking at the skies, reminds us of the unquenchable longing of the early Christians for the Lord’s return. There is a poignant scene in Lloyd Douglass’ book, “The Robe,” where Christians are pictured as always looking to the distance as if waiting for someone, longing for someone, so convinced were they of Jesus’ imminent return.

Luke is the only one of the evangelists who gives a particular image to this event, starting with the end of his gospel and continuing it in the Acts of the Apostles. Fascinated by his words, countless great artists and iconographers have painted their interpretation of Jesus’ Ascension. In these paintings, icons, and frescoes, Jesus is literally ascending, his feet no longer touching the earth, sometimes surrounded by angels, a cloud above ready to hide him from human eyes. And thus it is that many of us probably imagine the Ascension.

There is nothing specifically right or wrong in this image. We are visual thinkers. Words help us create images that we remember even though we have seen them only in art or in our own minds. This is not the place to inquire in what form Jesus returned to the Father. Some hints are given throughout the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: He enters a room suddenly, without using a door; he appears next to couple walking together on the road to Emmaus; he cooks breakfast for Peter and his friends by the shore. But he disappears just as suddenly as he appears. So the hints tell us that though the resurrected body is visible, the qualities it demonstrates are different from the body that was crucified. This is enough for us.

Two details are surprising in this final story in Luke’s gospel. One is found in verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” There is something liberating in this statement. Our minds must be open to understand, not closed. We see so much evidence today of minds that refuse to understand the truth of the scriptures, preferring to stay closed and limited by what they think they understand. Reading the Bible with open minds, open because Christ has done the opening, reveals something new each time we read a passage.

The other detail is that even though Jesus disappeared from their midst, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” These are the same people who, with great fear and grief, had hidden during the crucifixion and burial. Why are they joyful now? Their dearest friend has disappeared from their eyes. They will not see him again and this time apparently they know that he will not be making another post-resurrection appearance. Why are they joyful now? Is it that now, finally, they truly understand him and believe him?

The opening of their minds to understand the scriptures has much to do with this joy. “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells them. What a powerful word this is: “witnesses.” They have witnessed a new creation, and they know it. They have witnessed love in action. They are now witnesses to the resurrection.

The fear of death has been replaced by the joy of knowing life. They believe in his promises. The Paraclete, the Advocate shall come. They will stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Above all, they have been given a job to do. Their life has a purpose and this fills them with joy. In our reading from Acts, Jesus tells his disciples: “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.”

We are included in that last phrase, “the ends of the earth.” The disciples fulfilled their mission. They did the work. Now it’s up to us to continue it.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Around a Greek Table” (Lyons Press, 2012). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

The tide is turning, Ascension Day (C) – 2010

May 13, 2010

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Luke 24:44-53

Now is the turning of the tide. In our readings for this Ascension Day, we encounter an important shift for those who follow Jesus from being turned inward, focusing on their common life and learning at Jesus’ feet, to that same group looking outward to the needs of the world. In this way, the Gospel of Luke completes the incoming tide of Jesus’ life and ministry and the Acts of the Apostles begins the outgoing tide, which has the gospel flowing forth to the ends of the earth.

The evangelist Luke is the beloved physician who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This two-volume set is fully a quarter of the entire New Testament. Our readings for today are at the seam where these two texts overlap to recount the last moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the genesis of the Christian Church. Through these readings we encounter a dynamic that is important not simply to understanding that point in history, but is vital to our own journey as followers of Jesus.

The Book of Luke begins in the temple in Jerusalem. The gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies. There the angel Gabriel appears with the news that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s aged wife who was thought to be barren, will give birth. The son born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is the forerunner, John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke will then continually return to the temple, for Jesus’ naming, and for his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple. Finally the gospel ends with the final line verses, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”

The temple has a gravitational pull in Luke’s gospel, everything is always pulled back to that center. Then in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then goes outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not to the ends of the earth, he will reach to Rome and beyond. Along with the journeys of Peter and the other apostles, we get Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the Apostle.

In Luke, everything was focused inwardly on building up the group. In Acts, that group is shot out from the center point. Pentecost will come like a bomb going off, which sends out a creative rather than destructive force. Ascension Day is the seam that holds those two narratives together. This is where the inward focused turned and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus began.

It is worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge that Ascension Day is a stumbling block for some. They will remark rightly that we know better than to conceive of a three-storied universe with heaven above, hell beneath, and earth sandwiched in the middle. We have pierced the sky, traveled to the moon and are even now being watched over by astronauts working at the international space station. What sense does it make to talk of Jesus disappearing off into the sky, a vanishing point of distance from earth ending his earthly ministry?

This knowledge need not distract us, as we know through our own faith journeys that God has a knack for giving us not just what we need, but what we are ready to receive. The disciples, or followers, were becoming apostles, or ones sent out, and they needed Jesus to leave in such a way that they would stop hanging around and get about the work of the gospel. Ascension Day accomplished that essential purpose.

On all the days leading up to that one, the disciples looked for their Lord. Their lives were centered on Jesus. Knowing more about the heavens doesn’t change the truth of Jesus’ leaving his earthly ministry to become once more the second person of the Trinity, no longer limited by the incarnation to being in one place at a time. After the ascension, the apostles began to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then with Pentecost, they were empowered to go out in ministry.

The truth is that Ascension Day worked. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples became apostles. They stopped looking for Jesus here and there, and they began to pray for the Holy Spirit who would be with them always. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.

What would it take for us to change our focus? After all, it is easy for a church to go from being about the mission of sharing the love of God found in Jesus with a lost and hurting world, to turn our mission stations into clubs. A church does not exist for its own sake, but as preparation for those who gather to take part in Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.

The word “member” should probably not even be used to describe aligning oneself with a given congregation. We are not to be members of a club, exclusive or otherwise, as if Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were for the purpose of starting a new institution. The institution of the church exists to further God’s mission – reconciling the world to God. We are missionaries working on the front lines of the mission of the church, which is what we each encounter every where we go.

This need to turn outward is so crucial, that it is a good idea to have someone at the end of Eucharist to step up and take the role of the two men robed in white who said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” These words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples’ gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission.

After that push, the apostles would be prepared when the Holy Spirit came ten days later on Pentecost to begin the work of taking the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

In the dismissal, we have such a moment. The deacon or priest says, “Alleluia. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” or similar words that focus us outwardly. This is no idle moment. This is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar – that point where we last saw the Lord. The dismissal is a reminder as our worship service is ending that while the worship is finished for now, the service is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.

Most of us do not go out loving and serving the Lord right away. It is more likely that we go out to get something to eat rather than going to serve in a soup kitchen or to console a grieving friend. That is fine. But we should not leave worship untransformed. We should look at our waiter or waitress differently, knowing that this is a person whom we depend on not being in church, so that we can enjoy a meal after we worship. Treat that person as you would treat Christ if he were serving your table. For having seen Christ in worship, we should become better at seeing Christ in others. Then loving and serving the Lord will be much simpler as we will find Jesus everywhere we look.

This is the transformation of Ascension Day. The tide is turning. Before many minutes pass, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Flow forth from this place to begin to fulfill that mission anew. This is the day for turning our eyes outward. This is the day for changing our focus to see Christ in the world anew. And having seen, we can begin anew to love and serve.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue served as the church planter for King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Ga. After a decade with that new congregation, Frank will become the Canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia beginning July 1, 2010.