May 13, 2018
Feast of the Ascension
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter season. At St. Peter’s, we celebrate today as the feast of the Ascension. The reason for that is that Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday. If we didn’t shift it to the following Sunday, it would slip by almost unnoticed. And it is too important a feast for that.
Within the liturgical year, there are two great arcs of preparation and celebration, each anchored by a major feast. The first arc includes the four Sundays of Advent, which prepare us to welcome God-with-us, Emmanuel, and the celebration of Christmas, which culminates in the feast of the Epiphany, when the child born in such humble circumstances is revealed as the Saviour and Light of all the nations. The second great arc begins with Ash Wednesday and the six weeks of Lent, in which we journey with Jesus toward the cross and examine the brokenness of our lives and of the world that made the cross necessary. In Holy Week, we walk the way of the cross with Jesus. We witness his entry into Jerusalem, his final meal with his disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his unjust trial and condemnation, his torture and agonizing death, his burial in a generously donated grave. This arc reaches its climax with Easter and the glorious resurrection of Jesus. In the seven weeks of Easter, we learn to live as a resurrection people and we are prepared for the mission that Jesus will entrust to us. The Ascension marks the end of Jesus’ physical presence among his followers and leads to the celebration of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to carry out God’s mission. The second arc of Lent-Easter-Pentecost is much longer than the first arc of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, indicating its greater importance.
The Ascension, then, is a moment within this second great arc. The witness of the New Testament to the Ascension is quite varied.
- The earliest tradition proclaims Christ risen and ascended, but not in any kind of sequential understanding. Resurrection and Ascension are understood together. They both mean “glorified”. Paul picks up this tradition in his letter to the Philippians: “Christ humbled himself; therefore, God has exalted him.” This earliest understanding is reflected in the epistle to the Ephesians, which we heard today: “God put this power (that is God’s own power) to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” So, it’s resurrection/ascension/ glorification as one event.
- Somewhat later, the Ascension emerged as a distinct event in the tradition. Luke places the Ascension on Easter Sunday evening. Here’s the sequence: the women discover the empty tomb and tell the disciples, who dismiss it as an idle tale. Later the same day, two disciples encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and recognize him in the breaking of the bread. They hurry back to Jerusalem to find that Christ has appeared to Peter also. Suddenly Jesus is with them again; they share food, then he blesses them and departs from them, as we heard in today’s gospel passage. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended to the Father. He gives her a message for the others, that he is ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”. That same evening, the risen and ascended Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples. Presumably John understands Jesus’ return to God to have occurred sometime after his appearance to Mary Magdalene and before his appearance in the upper room. Indeed, it is not exaggerating John’s theology to say that the hour of Jesus’ glorification and return to the Father includes his crucifixion and death as well as his resurrection.
- Only the book of Acts, which is volume two of Luke’s work, places the Ascension forty days after Easter. The account in Acts is a historicizing or a locating in time of something that has always been part of the Christian proclamation.
So, the Ascension is a moment in the Easter proclamation and celebration. It is a hinge moment, a time of transition between what has been and what is to come. In the days and weeks following the resurrection, Jesus prepares his disciples for the time when he will no longer be present physically with them. He reminds them of the teaching of scripture that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer before entering his glory. He commissions them as witnesses. And he tells them to wait until they receive power to carry out their mission.
Transitions are always ambivalent times, as we move from the present to the future, from the familiar to the unknown. On one hand, we might feel excited, confident, and energized, sure of our purpose and direction. On the other hand, we might feel anxious, unsure, uncertain, and afraid. These ambivalent feelings are just part of the package. They come with the territory. And they are completely normal. Look at the disciples themselves, in today’s reading from Acts. They are still stuck on an old agenda: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this it? Is it finally time? And Jesus says, “That’s not for you to know.” But he doesn’t scold them or berate them for not understanding. He simply says, “Wait until you receive power. Then you will be my witnesses.”
I believe the church has been in a time of transition for about the last 40 years, although we have been slow to recognize it. It is the transition from Christendom to a post-Christendom world, from the time when the church was central to and embedded in western culture to a time when we are back on the margins, back on the periphery of this culture, as we were when everything started. It’s a time of deep anxiety for many Christians, people who remember when everyone went to church: stores were closed, movie theatres were closed, there were no organized children’s sports on Sundays, and Sunday schools had more children than there are people in the pews now. It’s easy and understandable in these circumstances to operate from a position of fear and scarcity. We see the dwindling numbers, both financially and numerically. We see the aging nature of many of our congregations. We worry about the future of the church. And there are some who are kind of stuck on an old agenda. We just need to do more, try harder, and we can recover the “The Way We Were”. But we can’t go back to the way things used to be. The page has turned and doing the old things harder, doing more of the same isn’t working. I believe God is calling us into a new way of being church, a way in which faithfulness matters more than numbers, where mission is not about more bodies in the pews but about sharing the good news of God’s creating, saving, and healing love, where the church is there, not to sustain itself or even to survive, but to carry out God’s mission of bringing justice, love, mercy and peace to a broken world. There is certainly grief for what used to be, and we need to honour that, but there is also a sense of excitement and purpose in discerning a way forward. God is calling, and the church is slowly responding.
Our diocese is in a time of transition. Bishop Donald has been our bishop for eighteen years, and he will retire before the end of the year. That’s a long time in the life of a diocese. We are moving from what we’ve known into a somewhat unknown future. Where is God calling this diocese to move? What kind of person do we need to lead us into this journey? And who will that person be? How will we navigate the challenges that face the church here in Rupert’s Land? On June 16, a new bishop will be elected to work with Bishop Don in the transition and to become our new bishop. I ask your prayers for all the nominees, and for the members of Synod who will choose our new chief pastor.
Our parish is in a time of transition. We are a little more than a year into a new model of ministry, based on the collaboration of the whole community instead of the leadership of one person. We have adopted this definition of collaboration: “the identification, release, and union of all of the gifts in ministry for the sake of mission”. The very first paragraph of the Foreword of the book we studied last fall says this:
We have stepped into this new millennium as a people and a church still becoming. We carry with us the stories, experiences, and relationships which have molded and shaped us as disciples of Jesus. We have grown more comfortable with our pilgrim status and a servant model of leadership. We come with hope and expectation seasoned by both success and failure. We are learning to pack the essentials of ministry – faith, compassion, forgiveness, prayer, collaboration, and mission – and we are leaving behind what clouds the vision and deters the journey.
(Howard J. Hubbard, Bishop of Albany, in Loughlan Sofield and Carroll Juliano, Collaboration: Uniting our Gifts in Ministry, 2000, p. 9).
I think these words capture perfectly the sense of both uncertainty for the unknown and excitement about our future. And on top of this deep change in our understanding of how we as a parish are called to be church, our Rector Donna has been nominated for the election of our new bishop. And so, we are bound to feel a mixture of excitement, a sense that God may be calling Donna to this new ministry, a little bit of pride, and more than a little anxiety about ourselves. We don’t know what the outcome of the election will be. What will it mean for St. Peter’s, either way? Will we be searching for a new incumbent? Who might that be? Will Donna remain with us? The leadership team of our parish has said unequivocally that we have every confidence that we are strong enough to continue to build on the collaborative model that is so well under way, and that, should Donna be elected, there will be others capable of and enthusiastic about continuing this journey with us.
We face transitions too in our personal lives. It may mean a new job or even a new occupation. The old may have had its problems and struggles, but at least they were familiar. Now we may feel a mixture of anticipation and grief over the change. Or the transition may be leaving the place that has been home for decades, where you raised your family and had deep roots in the neighbourhood, for a new home, perhaps in a new community or with more supports around you. And you may wonder, what will I do with myself? Who will be around me? Who will help me when I need it? Will there be congenial new friends? And how will I keep up the friendships and connections I’ve had for so long? Retirement, sending our children out into the world, losing a friend, losing a loved one – our lives are full of transitions. And it is right that we mourn what we’re losing at the same time as we look forward to something new.
The Ascension, then, is a time of transition. It is a time of moving away from the reality of Jesus’ physical presence, a time of letting go, a time of waiting, a time of learning to trust. Like all other transitions, it is in some ways uncomfortable.
But the good news is that Ascension is also a time of promise. “You will receive power,” says Jesus. You will be given what you need. Wait for it. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. In John’s gospel, Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphans.” I will not abandon you. I will not leave you to your own devices. I will send the Advocate to you. As long as Jesus is present, there is no room and no need for the Advocate. The Advocate will remain with us for ever. In the old translation, it used to say “abide”. I love that word “abide”. It doesn’t mean just to visit; it means to stay, to remain. The old hymn says, “Abide with me”. Your abode is your home, the place where you live. Jesus promises that the Advocate, the Spirit, will abide with us for ever. Not only that, but through the Spirit, Jesus himself and the Father will abide – will make their home – with us. God makes God’s home with us so that we may be at home in God.
The Ascension of Christ proclaims that Christ has taken our humanity into the divine life of love so that we may share in it. And the reason we are invited to share God’s life of mutual, self-giving, collaborative love is so that we may witness to it and share it with all whom we meet. We gather inwards; we worship; we seek empowerment. We are sent out to be witnesses of the good news of God’s unconditional, radical, constant, faithful love. The Ascension prepares us for our task. It is promise with responsibility. First wait, then witness. Wait. Stay in the city. Wait for the promise. You can’t do what you are sent to do until you are equipped. Then witness, to the places you know and the places you don’t, away to the ends of the earth. Begin where you are. For the disciples, that was Jerusalem. For us, it is our homes and communities, our places of work and play, all the pieces of our daily life. From being disciples – learners – we are to be apostles – people who are sent.
May God continually renew our hope in the promise and keep us faithful to our mission. Amen.