A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for the Sunday after the Ascension
For about two precious weeks each Spring, the scent of lilacs sweetens the air around my house. During that time I never miss the chance to stick my nose into a cluster of the blooms and take a big whiff. The key is to exhale, completely, so there’s nothing left in your lungs but anticipation. Then inhale—completely. Breathe it all in.
There’s something about finding that tiny point of emptiness before breathing in that makes the scent all the sweeter. Finding that point where you’re waiting to inhale.
Now, hold that thought.
“…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Believe it or not, Luke, the author of Acts, wasn’t really concerned about physics. You might think that the focus would be upon this great upward movement of Jesus into the clouds. My mother (a post-Enlightenment woman if there ever was one) used to scoff and mumble about staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet, and if you google the Ascension you will find a number of interesting images. Actually , mom was in good company—there are theologians who find the whole episode to be a little embarrassing.* The Incarnation? No problem. Resurrection? We can handle that. Ascension? Please. Even laying physics aside, the very idea of God as being exclusively UP THERE no longer works, cosmologically or theologically. While we often still gesture upward when talking of God in heaven, most of us on reflection will acknowledge God as immanent—being all around and within Creation and not just above it.
But Luke was part of a world that believed in a three-tiered universe of Underworld, Earth, and Heaven. In the first century the idea that Jesus would ascend was not in the least bit out of the ordinary. Of course the Son of God would ascend and be exalted to God’s right hand. If you look more closely at Luke’s description of the disciples’ reaction, you see that they just gaze upward—they just watch him go. They don’t fall down in fear like, for example, the shepherds on that first Christmas. In the conventional wisdom of multiple cultures of the time, ascension was what happened to those who were especially favored by God or the gods. Hercules, Moses, Enoch, Elijah, even the Roman emperor Augustus were said to have ascended from earth into the heavens. If Jesus hadn’t ascended; now that would have been a surprise.
But to dwell on this argument is really beside the point; it’s the equivalent of standing and staring upward with our mouths hanging open long after Jesus is gone. The angels bid us to move along; nothing more to see here.
But just because we shift our gaze away from heavenly acrobatics doesn’t mean that this episode isn’t significant. The Ascension story is not as important for what the disciples saw as it is for the fundamental nature of the moment itself. It is in fact an existential moment in the life of the Body of Christ.
I have talked before about something I called the “liminal millisecond”—that fleeting yet infinitely deep moment of God’s time in which everything can change. And the fact is that liminal milliseconds happen all the time; it’s just that you can see some more clearly than others. Like now.
A liminal millisecond is a threshold between the past and the future, when (theoretically) virtually anything is possible. It is moment that often requires a decision: Who or what is God calling me to be now?
It was in such a moment—this Ascension—that we see the completion of Incarnation: When the two men (or angels) tell the disciples to stop looking upward, and when they return to Jerusalem, Luke’s focus shifts from Jesus in the world to the community in the world. What he shows us here is the singularity that will become, on Pentecost, the Body of Christ.
“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, to the ends of the earth.”
As usual, this was not the response the disciples expected when they asked if NOW Jesus was going to restore the kingdom. It wasn’t what they expected, but when has Jesus ever given them an answer they expected? But it was the answer they needed. This was not the time to revisit old expectations. This was a time to prepare for something new. The purpose of Jesus’ ascension was to make room for his promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
Waiting to inhale. Just like the lilacs.
What Luke describes here is that liminal millisecond when all is emptiness and anticipation. Waiting to inhale the Spirit.
The disciples, a couple of them perhaps reluctantly, turned toward Jerusalem and an uncharted future, equipped with each other and a promise from Jesus. They faced a world in pain and turmoil. A world of empty places just waiting to be filled with the Gospel.
So here we are, like the disciples, at a pivotal moment between Ascension and Pentecost, facing a world still in pain, still broken and begging for hope. Where do we find the empty places just waiting to be filled with the power of the Spirit?
The thing about emptiness is that it contains its own kind of fullness. On the one hand it can be filled with anxiety about an unknown future. This carries the risk of denial—a desire to dwell nostalgically on a (allegedly) simpler (and arguably rosier) past in order to avoid confronting the challenge of seeing things from new perspectives. That’s a form of gazing upward into the clouds. All we get is a crick in the neck. So what is the alternative? Instead of anxiety we can let the empty places that await us be sources of invitation, drawing us forward to new opportunities for formation and ministry.
For example: St. Martin’s was invited a few weeks ago to the 9th Annual Interfaith Poverty Conference, and those of us who attended were blessed to hear a bracing keynote by The Rev. Dr. James Forbes of Union Seminary calling us out as God’s “Dream Team” in the fight against poverty in Rhode Island. Conference attendees participated in workshops on immigration issues, minimum wage issues, racial and economic disparities in education and housing, and challenges faced by low-income seniors.
The facts presented were startling. 13.9%. That’s the percentage of people in poverty in Rhode Island in 2015; that’s 141,000 people, mostly people of color living in poverty. 19.4% of children- children—again, mostly youngsters of color, in poverty. And 9.2% of children living in extreme poverty between 2011 and 2015. Almost one in ten? I have to confess something here. These figures shouldn’t have startled me. And they wouldn’t have, if I had been paying attention. These people are our neighbors.
You may have heard (and if you haven’t, you have now…) that the Episcopal Church and the ELCA (Lutheran) Church have joined together in a call for fasting, prayer and advocacy on the 21st day of each month through the end of the 115th Congress to stimulate awareness and action in combating poverty in this country and throughout the world. Why the 21st of each month? Here’s another statistic: That’s when 90% of Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program benefits run out. For our neighbors. You do the math.
In our Gospel today we are reminded that God has given us to each other, that we may be one, as Jesus and God are one. And to be blind to our neighbors is to be blind to God’s call to oneness with all of God’s beloved; to commit to compassion, service and justice.
For those of us coming up for air in our first week of The Bible Challenge, there may still be at the back of our minds the lingering question of why we do this—what is the point of reading the Bible all the way through? Here’s a little more encouragement: Did you know that there are over 2000 references in the Bible to issues of the poor, wealth, poverty and social justice? Over 2000. As we engage more and more deeply every day with Scripture, I pray that it becomes not just an intellectual exercise or isolated spiritual discipline that we pick up once a day, like a set of free weights, and then lay aside until tomorrow. This work should be building our muscles to be fit for God’s purpose—the fulfilling of God’s dream of healing and reconciliation. We are not learning just to speak of the faith that is in us, but to live it, in how we engage with the world and with all of our neighbors.
This liminal moment in which we find ourselves as Pentecost approaches is an existential moment. Who are we? What are we becoming? As we wait to inhale the Spirit, filled with nothing but anticipation, may the God who surrounds and enfolds us draw our gaze, not upward, but into the eyes of our neighbor, because it is there that we will find Jesus.
*”Rudolf Bultmann in his essay The New Testament and Mythology: “We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted… No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven … And if this is so, the story of Christ’s … ascension into heaven is done with.”