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?

Profile
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.