Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

As I write this commentary, a growing restlessness pervades the United States. Hopes and rumors that stay at home orders will soon be lifted abound. A roiling vortex of emotion about those decisions –joy and disbelief, relief and anger, grief, fear and hope – swirl together in a complex coil. No one knows what the future will look like. No one knows, with 100% certainty, if lifting the orders will result in greater death and economic disruption, or if our lives will slowly settle back into familiar patterns of the prosperity some of us have known. Experts and authorities are at odds with one another; antithetical messages battle for supremacy. And yet, through the melee a universal question surfaces over and over again: is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when our economic vitality will rebound? Is this the time that will force us to bridge our partisan divides and pull together? Is this the time that will catalyze our country (our kingdom), once again, to greatness?

As our church leadership thinks through what our communal life might look like in the aftermath of physical distancing, I hear the same question, and the same roiling emotions, surface: Is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when we go back to our beloved buildings to gather together the same way we’ve always gathered, with the same experience of sacrament and space? Is this the time when people will return to the church and thus return the Church to its former role as a pillar of society? Is this the time when the Church will be restored, once again, to greatness? Yet even as we ask the question, there is some recognition that the worship traditions we cherish, and the way we’ve always practiced them, will likely have to change.

In some ways, the Church today asks Christ the same question that the disciples asked: will we be restored to our former glory? The disciples, even in the midst of their immediate, personal experience of the new thing God was doing in the Incarnation, got caught up in the religious and political expectations of their time. Expectations that the Messiah would deliver them from the yoke of Rome’s oppression, that Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel who had experienced centuries of inter-tribal division, the destruction and desecration of her Temple, the Exile and diaspora of her people, and the fracturing of her political independence and self-governance.

Our context today faces a similar political challenge, but the hope of restoration is different. The largest age demographic in most denominations are those who are 65+, aka the Boomer generation.[i] As children in the 1950s and 60s, their experience of religious life was as the epicenter of social and civic life. Sunday school classes were bursting at the seams, churches were planting roots in flourishing suburbs, volunteerism was at an all-time high because serving on a religious committee was socially emblematic of being a good citizen. However, in the longer scope of Christian history, what our tradition considers “normal” and what we long to return to is anything but. The dominance of Christian life in the 50s was an outlying blip on the overarching span of church history. What we long to return to as normal never was the norm and, I hope, will not be the vision we hold up as our longing for the future to come.

Which is why I appreciate the scene of Jesus’s Ascension in Acts Chapter 1. I confess that, in this time of physical distancing and pandemic isolation, I hear the words of this text differently than I have before: Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father;” that “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…[and] 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.”[ii] Then as Jesus ascends into heaven, I’m sure with great cloudy fanfare and divine pyrotechnics, the disciples stare after him in awe, ostensibly taking Jesus’s instructions quite literally.

While they are waiting, in verse 11, two (angelic?) messengers give them the proverbial divine slap upside the head with the question “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And so the disciples return to the city, where they spend many days “constantly devoting themselves in prayer” with other faithful believers. This period of prayer is followed by God fulfilling God’s promise at Pentecost, sending the Holy Spirit upon them and empowering them in language and deed to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all.

At the time of his writing, Luke’s context was not a pandemic, nor were the events global, and yet there is a global call to the work God gave the apostles, and us, to do.  Which is why I confess it difficult to empathize with the preoccupation to be restored to our buildings, to what we’ve always known, and the grief at how the church must change to adapt to meet the needs of the world around us. Hasn’t it always been our mission to meet the needs of the world with God’s love and power working through our hands and our feet? Has not God constantly been doing a new thing, shaking the foundations of our human structures, boundaries, and expectations? Do we not believe that baptism is our initiation into Christ’s body and a lifelong process of transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us (sanctification)? Why then, would we expect to return to what we have been instead of anticipating what God is preparing us to become?

Much of my ministry as a priest has been to encourage communities to ask themselves the hard questions of if and how they are deepening their relationship with God, if and how they are listening for and to the Holy Spirit (who, in my experience, is constantly doing a new thing and constantly pushing us out of our comfort zones), if and how they are ministering to the needs of their neighbors around them in an authentic way, if and how they are willing to change in order to become the beloved community that God envisions, that accepts and welcomes ALL people created by God in God’s image.

As much as we declare ourselves to be people of resurrection, resurrection is uncomfortable. Resurrection is hard to define, takes time to come to fruition, and never looks the same. Resurrection requires a comfort with uncertainty and the Unknown that is not an innate human characteristic, but is a skill developed over time as we are pushed into growth situations (often against our will). Resuscitation to the old life we’ve always known would be much easier and much more comfortable.

Becoming people of resurrection means helping our churches become comfortable with the unknown. It requires immense courage and adaptive leadership: diving into the wilderness, trying new things, learning from failure, and picking up and trying again. [iii] It requires all the baptized to reclaim their baptismal gifts, empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission and ministry. Getting comfortable with the unknown means taking risks and making decisions that may not be popular with those who want to return to the status quo. But risky, daring, bold, courageous leadership is needed from every heart if the people of God are going to survive and thrive in the midst of a “foreign (read secularized, unchurched) land,” on the margins, and in a “tent of perpetual adaptation.”

These are not skills valued by an institutional structure in its death throes and resisting, with every fiber of its being, the new life it is being called into. As a bishop once said to me, “such a style of leadership is not helpful for our institution.” He’s not wrong. But when did God call the church to become an institution? The church’s call has always been to continue the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ: proclaiming the good news of God’s love, offering healing and restoration to those who seek reconciliation with God, and serving our neighbors as we would serve ourselves. This moment requires of us the difficult, messy work of creative reimagining. In order to live into the new life of resurrection, we have to die to the old self and let go of the former ways of being. Easier said than done, as our hierarchies and structures have demonstrated, and mourned, for decades now.

I do not believe that the church is dying. I do believe that the institution as we know it is dying. I do believe that religious life as we know it is changing. But I do not mourn these things. This moment, this opportunity for exercising our God-given ingenuity and creativity to rethink our spiritual growth, mission, and ministry models fills me with hope, not dread or grief, or fear. I see a higher attendance rate and far more newcomers dropping in on our online services and offerings than before, and that tells me that the world is still hungry for God’s love and God’s presence, and our ability to mediate and interpret that with meaningful and tangible means. It is my hope that this moment may indeed call us to metanoia, conversion, awakening to reclaim the essentials of our calling and mission. As a wise colleague once reminded me, God is going to do what God is going to do, with or without the Church institution. We haven’t managed to kill the church through millennia of human history, action or inaction. The Body of Christ is the faithful who remember that God has acted before, abide in the promise of Immanuel: God with us, wait expectantly and eagerly for the new life to show up in unexpected ways, boldly venture into the unknown trusting the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

In his seminal work, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez exhorts the church to stop looking up toward heaven, waiting for God’s return or waiting for escape from the chances and changes of this life, and instead to focus on proclaiming the good news of God’s love in the here and now, doing our part in helping to usher in God’s kingdom of justice, love, reconciliation, and peace with the people beside us, part of the church or not.[iv] It is time for us to get evangelical, if you will, by which I mean reclaiming that word to its true meaning – proclaiming the good news of God’s love. To reinforce words with action, to do what we profess to believe. So what is the work of the Church in this time? There are several things that happen in this text that we can put to use as we creatively reimagine our models for mission and ministry:

Teach:

An essential part of the work of the Church is to give people a framework for interpreting and making sense of the events of their lives. Theology is important; how we understand God and what we believe about God shapes how we act in relation to God’s promises. Preach the message you discern that the Holy Spirit wants her people to hear, and teach boldly in a way that fosters spiritual growth. Challenge clichés, sit with the difficult questions and uncomfortable moments when questions can’t be answered, listen for the insights, wisdom and passion of the people you are teaching and learn from them, too.

Trust the promise:

Remember God’s good action and promises fulfilled in the past, and watch expectantly for God’s power to pop up in unexpected times, places, and people. God is constantly drawing outside the lines, calling us beyond our boundaries, asking us to meet Her in the wilderness moments of our lives, bringing forth streams in the desert and making crooked ways straight again, leveling high places and lifting up the lowly.

Receive the power of the Holy Spirit:

Say these sentences aloud, every day.
“God called me for a time such as this.”
“God gave me gifts to help build me up and to build up the people around me.”
“God gives me power and help to accomplish the purposes God intends for me.”
“God will work through whatever I offer, large or small, to do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.”

Witness:

Tell others how God has shown up in your life. How has God healed or restored you? Where has God helped change your heart and renew your mind because of your participation in a faith community? Ask yourself why your relationship with God and God’s people is important to you, why it matters to you to get up and go to church or online worship each week? After you take time to reflect, write a Facebook post or tweet on Twitter giving thanks for a spiritual blessing you have discovered or a person who has helped you recognize God’s action in your life.

Finally, and most importantly, Pray:

The first thing the disciples did after this scene was to “constantly devote themselves to prayer.” They did this gathered together and, I presume, also on their own. Prayer in and for the power of the Spirit is the essential foundation for the tasks of ministry. It is not enough to simply experience Christ’s presence or know the words of scripture to be an effective minister; our tasks will simply be “doing” if we are not also grounded in the “being” of God’s presence. Prayer is as simple as inviting God to fully participate in all that we do, but there are also specific things everyone can pray together in unity for at this time:

  • For our church leaders to be given courage and confidence to have hard, truthful conversations, to make difficult decisions, to let go of the fears that create barriers to God’s mission of love and reconciliation.
  • For God to show us the people and needs God wants us to minister to, who need to hear the message of justice, reconciliation, and peace of God’s love.
  • For God to show us the gifts for ministry present in ourselves, in our faith community, in people we might not expect that can be asked to help us creatively reimagine how God would have us fulfill God’s purposes.
  • Or together to pray this prayer: Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even as we grieve the loss of power and influence we have enjoyed, even as everything we have known to be “normal” changes around us, even as “the way we have always done it” gives way to experimentation and failure and new ways of being, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

These are not new and innovative tools, but they are essential to braving the unknown with courage, gaining clarity in discernment, and getting our heads out of the clouds into the work God has given us to do right in front of us. I hope our faithful vision will be open, even amidst change and uncertainty, to the new thing God is doing in our circumstances, and the new life that will come out of it. At the root of apostolic faith (and the word, apostle) is an expectation to be sent out, to the ends of the earth, but also in our own communities to proclaim God’s love, God’s power, God’s justice, and God’s peace. The world is hungry for those promises. What are we waiting for?

May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel of new life amidst the fear of death.[v]

[i] https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/episcopal-church/

[ii] Acts 1:4-5, 8. NRSV translation.

[iii] For a great resource on adaptive leadership, see Tod Bolsinger’s book “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

[iv] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.

[v] https://www.fortworthtrinity.org/download_file/view/873/

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

On three different occasions before his death, Jesus taught his disciples about what was to come. He didn’t leave much up for debate or interpretation either. Just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus flat out told the group that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[1] Despite this very clear teaching, the disciples never seem to quite get it. Twice more, Jesus has to remind them that the future they imagine – power, privilege, prestige – is not what God has in mind for the great reversal and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Despite three clearly articulated opportunities for the disciples to hear and understand what was to come, they each seem totally caught off guard when Jesus is rejected by the powers-that-be, undergoes great suffering on the cross, and is killed. In fact, they seem so clueless, that when it all goes down, their only reaction is to run and hide. For three days, they hide in fear. Once the Festival is over, they begin to plan their next steps. Two of them, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple decide to cut bait and head home. At some point on the seven-mile journey back to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus came alongside the two dejected disciples. He listened as they talked about all that had happened, and how they had hoped that this Jesus might have been the Messiah, but those hopes were dashed when he was rejected, crucified, and died.

Here again, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them about God’s plan for salvation.  Beginning with Moses, Jesus used all the prophets and the psalms to, for a fourth time, show them how his rejection, suffering, death, AND RESURRECTION, were all necessary components of the restoration of the world. For the fourth time, Jesus showed them how God’s ways are not our ways and how love, grace, and mercy – not power and might – were the way to redemption. Still, despite a whole day walking alongside the yet unrecognizable Jesus, Cleopas and his companion didn’t realize that it was Jesus until they stopped for dinner and he broke the bread.

Off they went, sprinting back to Jerusalem to share the Good News that Jesus Christ was, in fact, alive! Back in that upper room, the door locked behind them out of fear, they told of their encounter with the risen Christ when he appeared before the crowd. With a mix of terror, confusion, and belief, they listened as Jesus, now for the fifth time, recounted what he had told them all along, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

In Luke’s Gospel, it is with this that the fifth teaching on the mission of Jesus; that his ministry on earth, finally comes to an end. After five distinct opportunities to hear that his life, death, and resurrection were all a part of the larger plan of salvation, it will be up to the disciples to figure out what that means going forward. They won’t be alone, however, for God has promised to send help. In Luke, it is called “the power from on high.” In the second ascension narrative from Acts, it is called the Holy Spirit. In John, it is the Advocate. No matter the name, the promise is that someone else will come in the place of Jesus to lead the disciples in truth, to guide them as witnesses of the Gospel, to encourage them in their proclamation, to help them interpret the Good News that they were unable to hear and comprehend; that God’s plan of redemption came to life through the cross and grave.

With this final teaching complete, Jesus led the disciples out of the city and to the mountain village of Bethany where he offered one final blessing before being carried up into heaven. Exegetically, things get a bit dicey here. We believe Luke and Acts to have been written by the same author, and the fact that the details of the ascension are a bit different between the two texts can feel a bit problematic. In Luke, the ascension seems to happen on Easter Day. In Acts, it is said to be forty days after the resurrection. In Luke, they run back to the city with great joy. In Acts, the disciples are left stupefied by the sight of Jesus’ ascension and two men robed in white have to motivate the slack-jawed crowd to return to Jerusalem. In Luke, they run to the Temple to praise God. In Acts, they gather in the upper room and await the Holy Spirit. Both lessons are appointed for Ascension Day, so what is the preacher to do? Do we ignore the differences? Do we admit them and attempt to explain them away? Do we Jesus Seminar them out of existence?

I’m one who believes that the variety of the Biblical story offers richness and depth. After all, Jesus had to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection at least five different times.  What is constant in the ascension stories is a) that Jesus had to return to the Father, b) that the disciples would not be left alone, and c) that the Spirit’s task was to turn disciples into apostles and evangelists. The good news of the ascension, whether it happened on day one or day forty is that the Gospel could now be spread from Jerusalem to all of Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  As inheritors of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day is our chance to give thanks for fullness of God’s plan for salvation – from the Annunciation to the Ascension – as we await the Spirit’s arrival with power and might in just ten short days.

[1] Luke 9:22

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS in Business Administration he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

Ascension Day: Making Space

Ascension Day: Making Space

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Although I began serving my parish less than a year ago, it is evident to me that we have a space issue. Not because we’re starting to outgrow our building and Sunday morning worship feels a little cramped. Not because there are calendar conflicts between groups wanting to reserve use of our flexible space. No, the space issue that my congregation finds most challenging is in making room for those people who don’t conform to the norm of “how we’ve always done it.”

How does this issue manifest in the parish? Mostly through conversations about what it means to include noisy, boisterous children who wander around the sanctuary and distract us from contemplative worship. Or in conversations about whether or not to have designated alcohol-free fellowship events because some young families have requested family-friendly activities (“but no one will come!”). Or why it was courteous during the interfaith Lenten series we hosted, not to pray specifically “in Jesus name.” I’ll admit, most of these conversations have been induced by me and I’ve been pushing the point about “radical hospitality,” otherwise known as “making space for the other.” But it didn’t dawn on me until I read David Cunningham’s (Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) commentary on Ascension Day as to why this has been such an urgent and imperative point for me.

David observes that the Ascension is not really about the physical act of Jesus’s return to the Father but that the Ascension is about Jesus “making space so the mission of the church can begin.” One simple sentence opened my mind to understand an elemental belief I hold about God:

Making space is essential to God’s nature.

David goes on to cite Rowan Williams’ writings on the Trinity. He notes that “each of the three divine ‘persons’ seeks not to gain pride of place or to assert hierarchical dominion over the others, but to give place to the others, so that they too can most fully be what they are. As such, the divine Trinity models for us the true nature of community, in which self-assertion and hegemony give way to a polyphonic chorus of mutual participation and difference.”

Scripture attests to this.[1] From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is full of ways that God makes space creatively and purposefully, continually reminding us “See! I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”

In the nascent act of creation itself, God opens up the void and implants it with an interdependent community – vegetation, animals, oceans and fishes, birds, and humans who are commissioned to “rule and serve all [God’s] creatures.” From nothing comes life. God makes space for others to participate in God’s dance and to be fully what they are.

In the Exodus, when the Hebrew people find their path barred by the Red Sea as they flee from Pharaoh’s armies, God makes space. God divides the waters so that the people might pass through. From chaos and uncertainty, a new community emerges—the Hebrew people enter into covenant relationship, place trust in the God who liberates.

In the time of Exile, as God allows God’s people to be dispersed throughout foreign empires and Jerusalem falls to rubble and ruin, God makes space for transformation. God inspires prophets to exhort the people to return to God’s ways, and to remind them that God has not forgotten them though the community must learn to sing God’s praises even in a foreign land.

As the heavy hand of the Roman Empire slowly crushes the spirit of God’s people, the Virgin Mary consents to God’s request to use her life and her body to make space for God to incarnate. Definitely a new thing, and a promise of new life.

Christ persistently makes space around his own table, including those deemed beyond the pale of decent society (sinners and tax collectors) as well as Pharisees. He makes space in his busy schedule of preaching and teaching to touch the untouchables, to heal lepers and hemorrhaging women and to bring the dead back to life. He invites despised “outsiders” into relationship with him, Samaritans and Roman centurions and criminals. A community forms of people who otherwise might have nothing to do with each other.

God makes space in the empty tomb. Resurrection is unquestionably a new thing. The empty tomb becomes for us a sign of God’s promises: new life, reconciliation, and the shalom of God’s kingdom being ushered in.

Christ’s Ascension makes space for Pentecost; for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes possible the expansion of Christ’s mission from local to global. The Spirit continues to remake and renew God’s church, perpetually calling us into the reality of John’s vision of God’s kingdom: the gates of the new Jerusalem eternally flung open, overflowing with the river of life and shaded by the tree of life which produces healing for all the nations. From beginning to end, God gives place in community – mutual participation in all our God-created difference.

So why is making space and giving place so hard for us to do?

So often our culture teaches us a false dichotomy, that in order for someone else to be fully who they are means that I have to miss out. In a conflict, there are only winners or losers; for someone else to win, I have to lose. Or “there’s only so much pie to go around,” so if someone else gets a bigger slice then my slice is necessarily smaller. By all our “normal” cultural standards, this concept of giving place or making space goes against our rugged individualism. But when we recall that God doesn’t play by our rules, that God’s love is not scarce in supply and thus something to be hoarded, when we revel in being most fully what God has created us to be then we are free to invite others to discover fully who God has created them to be.

Making space is not easy work, particularly when we have grounded ourselves in particular religious, spiritual, and emotional spaces. God asks us to let go of our self-centeredness, our worldly illusions of stature, our need for control, our fear of change. Participation in that polyphonic chorus often looks and feels more like a rock tumbler. We tumble against each other until all our rough edges are smoothed out… that’s true community. Perhaps our exasperation with that child’s noisy shoes might give way to joy when we realize that she is a sign of new life in our midst. Perhaps if we make more of an effort to reach out to people who feel like outsiders, they might start showing up to more communal gatherings. Perhaps we can still passionately proclaim Christ through our ministry to others, modeling repentance and forgiveness of sins, even as we respect other faith traditions. Perhaps we can do mission not to the other but with the other.

What new thing may God be calling you and your people to become aware of? In what ways does God call you into deeper participation with God and with each other? What space must be made in order for your people to grow and your mission to be met?

For God is always doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

 

 

 

[1] I am grateful to The Rev. Chance Perdue for the insightful examples in his eloquent sermon preached at the Church of the Redeemer, Nashville, TN that prompted my thinking about the scripture portion of this essay. Check it out at: http://redeemernashville.libsyn.com/the-god-who-makes-space

Ascension Day: The Departed?

Ascension Day: The Departed?

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Ann Dieterle

“Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension…”[1]

In my tradition, these words are included in one of our Eucharistic prayers, and the Nicene Creed makes reference to Jesus’ ascension into Heaven.  I confess that while I recall his death and resurrection frequently, I don’t often recall his ascension, as this prayer invites me to do.

My primary image of an ‘ascension’ occurs in an episode of “The Simpsons.” The family is51A0-qpgk6L._SY300_ outside having a barbecue and is surprised by a flying saucer. One by one they are lifted via beam of light into the alien craft, until they get to Homer. The patriarch, having eaten one too many hamburgers, actually drags the beam of light and UFO down until the determined aliens employ a second beam.[2]

Somehow I don’t think that’s what Luke was thinking about as he was writing down the last words of his Gospel—although flying into the sky in a beam of light might come close to what it looks like in our imaginations. It’s similar to some artwork on the subject.

There are several themes that emerge in this text, and a preacher might choose to deal with each of them briefly or select one theme and go into greater depth.

One theme is Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus does a lot of teaching in his post-resurrection appearances. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” This scene is a continuation of his interaction with Cleopas and another disciple on the walk to Emmaus. This portion of the Gospel occurs immediately after that walk and his subsequent appearance to the disciples when he joins them in eating a piece of fish. Teaching and eating: that’s what the post-resurrection Jesus does. No doubt eating the fish is in part to demonstrate that he is not merely a ghost, but there is also a Eucharistic element to it, too.

Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr writes that the core work of all spirituality (and, he emphasizes, it is work) is to “have three spaces opened up within us, all at the same time: our opinionated [mind], our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”[3]  Jesus’ intention is to “open their minds” and, one imagines, that the heart and the body are freed as well—if not in this encounter, then in the entire movement of events after the resurrection and up to the day of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As Cleopas recalls, “[Weren’t our] “hearts burning within us?”

We might need that same teaching: to have our minds opened to Jesus’ Jewish roots. And certainly in a success-obsessed and consumer-driven America, we need our minds opened to Jesus’ teachings that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In what other ways do our minds need opening to Jesus’ teaching?

A second theme is Luke’s version of the great commission.

In addition to “opening their minds” to the Scriptures and the Messiah’s proper role in salvation history, Jesus also appears to the disciples to give them a commission. “Proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.  Be witnesses of these things.” It is expansive in its scope: go to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. In a climate of increasing Islamophobia, it is worth noting that this is an inclusive statement. The Gentiles, previously considered ‘others’ by the nation of Israel are to be included in this invitation to repentance and forgiveness of sins. The NRSV translates the Greek phrase epi toe ho-no-mati’ as ‘in my name.’ I’ve heard this expression used in an exclusionary way. In other words, if you haven’t engaged in repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, you are probably going to hell. In college, I was strongly encouraged to say a very specific prayer in order to secure my salvation. It had to be word perfect too, which seemed strange for a God of grace and mercy.  “Upon my authority” is another possibility and seems more appropriate within the context of a commissioning. A question this raises for me is: how can we talk about our faith in Jesus without demonizing other religions?

The word translated as “forgiveness” can also be translated as “deliverance from captivity.”  It is tempting to see salvation as a solely personal matter. “Make Jesus forget my personal moral failings so that I can go to heaven after I die.” What about what’s going on in the here and now? What about systems of injustice? Surely Jesus cares about this too. Deliverance from captivity includes both freedom from personal sin and liberation from systemic injustice.

A third theme is letting God be God so we can be fully human.

Jesus was carried into heaven. This isn’t an action that Jesus does to himself. Rather, it was something that God did to him and for him. And yet he is not a completely passive participant. He withdrew from them. It is this combination of action and surrender that I believe Jesus wants from us. It is essentially what Jesus invites the disciples to do. They are to stay and wait to be clothed with power from on high. Power, from the Greek word du-na-mis, from which we get our word for dynamite. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is the type of power we can expect to receive from the Holy Spirit. It is not something inside of us, like super willpower. It is something outside of us that works on us in such a way that it transforms us.

It is often difficult for me to do my part and only my part and to let God do God’s part. Garrison Keillor said that the Easter season is the time when Christians ask themselves two questions: “Do I really believe all this stuff? And if so, why do I live this way?”  It’s easy to speak the words and pray the prayers, and then go live as functional atheists.

And yet, Jesus is being lifted into heaven at the same moment that he is blessing the disciples. He chose to leave it to them. The same ones who were capable in one breath of inspired declarations of faith and in the next breath bumbling it so badly that Jesus calls one of them Satan. Jesus chose to trust his mission to these disciples—just as he chooses us: This church that is capable of great acts of faith in one moment and then bumbling it badly in the next. Jesus trusts us with his mission.

It’s two thousand years later and we haven’t destroyed the church yet. And we won’t.  Because God is God and we are not. We are trusted with a part of the mission but it is God who gives us God’s blessing and power from on high. It is enough for us to bless God in return through the way we live our lives.

[1] “Eucharistic Prayer A,” 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer

[2] “Treehouse of Horror,” Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 3.

[3] Rohr, Richard, CAC Daily Meditations from Nov. 23, 2015, “Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2.  Step 2: Trusting a Higher Power.” http://www.cac.org

 

Ann Dieterle
The Rev. Ann Dieterle

The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a beautiful small town nestled in between the Brushy and Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born on Long Island (be sure to stress the “g”) but grew up in Florida. Since going to Sewanee for seminary she’s lived in Virginia twice and the Chicago area, so she is a little bit southerner and a little bit yankee. She is a lover of the outdoors, baseball, reading, and cooking. Her dog Gordon is cuter than your pet.