Updated: May 31
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Eastampton, Massachusetts, on 16 May 2021 [Ascension Sunday]:
Acts 1:15-17, 21`-26; 1 John 5:9-013; John 17:6-19
In every life, in every situation, there comes a time when it seems as if we are crossing a threshold, moving from the familiar into something new. In some circumstances, these threshold moments can be exciting, liberating, holding new prospects and possibilities. For instance, the thresholds of a student’s graduation or a wedding or the birth of a child can convey the hopeful allure of a promising and enlarged future, in which cases we eagerly leap over the threshold. Yet, too, there are some thresholds we would rather not have to cross, such as when a loved one dies or a job is lost or an illness strips us of our complacency. At such moments, we are at best more likely to stumble over the threshold but more likely need to be pushed, forced to cross into the new space and the new experiences, all of which speak of the painful absence from what we have known.
Irrespective of whether the thresholds before us invite our eagerness to move forward or fill us with paralyzing dread, there is one question that all moments of transition raise: What’s next?
In the Christian tradition, last Thursday marked the fortieth day after Jesus’ resurrection. Forty, biblically speaking, is a pregnant number. It harkens back to the Israelites’ experience of wandering in the wilderness for forty years before their deliverance into the promised land. Forty is also how many days Jesus spent alone in the wilderness, preparing for his public ministry and the execution of his life’s saving purpose. In terms of the Christian liturgical calendar, forty days after the resurrection brings us to Ascension Day, that time when in fulfillment of his earthly ministry, our Lord returns from whence he came and to sit at the Father’s right hand in the glory.
There is much that needs to be said about Christ’s Ascension. Given that this festival day always falls on a Thursday, much about the Ascension has been neglected. (After all, who but the unusually faithful would come to church on a Thursday?). Yet, this is not the occasion to attempt to make up for all that neglect. Rather, let me focus on Jesus’ Ascension in terms of the transition it signifies and how the Ascension answers to transitional question of “What’s Next?”
The answer the Ascension provides to that question of “What’s next?” has everything to do with Easter and the ongoing reality of what resurrection says now about our living in the God-life.
One of the ways I view Christ’s Ascension is in the context of what Christmas began. As John’s gospel so eloquently puts it, God’s own Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Or as the Christmas hymn puts it in overly simple terms: “Love came down at Christmas”. Incarnation: Divinity took on the fullness of humanity in order to reveal the God-life on our terms: a love that fear and death cannot overcome. And this is what Jesus’ resurrection conveys: Nothing can keep God’s love in a grave – nothing!
Symbolically, metaphorically, bit by bit, Christians like us spend (or try to spend) forty days absorbing the reality and significance of resurrection: that it is not simply about Jesus but also about how God desires us to follow Jesus and to become more and more like the Risen One. That is the full Easter message; but it is a message with two postludes and two transitions. One is the Ascension. The other is Pentecost.
As I suggest, the Ascension of Jesus completes what Christmas began. In Jesus’ return to the Father and in our willingness to follow him, we are given a glimpse of our legacy and destiny as God’s people: namely, we have been created, redeemed, and strengthened so that we might be in full Communion with God, just as Jesus, the Ascended Christ, is. This, after all, is the point of the Collect of the Day’s petition: That we would be “exalted” (that is, to be raised up in rank and power and life) “to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before”.
Our destiny, our heritage as God’s people-in-Christ is to be in full Communion with the Holy One. Therefore, as the gospel tune puts it, “People get ready…”
It is curiously telling that in Jesus’ Ascension and leaving his disciples, in what would ordinarily be a hard “goodbye”, we read in Luke’s gospel (24:51-53)that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and kept the prayers because there would still be another transition for Jesus’ followers. And that would be what Pentecost is all about. (But we will need to wait one more week for crossing that threshold and making that transition.)
For now, at Jesus’ Ascension, Jesus’ followers were not crushed by his departure. They were not filled with dread at his impending absence. Rather, they were joyful. (Remember, “joy” stems from thanksgiving.) They left the place of Ascension with joy and hope. (As an aside, wouldn’t you expect that the disciples would have memorialized that sacred and unique Ascension place with a plaque or a statue or some sort of time capsule – at least taken a selfie of themselves all gathered around Jesus’ footprints?). But that is not the perspective of the disciples because they had an answer to the question, “What’s next?” And the answer flowed from their joy that they had a new threshold to cross and that in doing so, they would be taking additional steps in becoming like the Risen One and embodying their God-given heritage.
Consequently, careful attention to the Ascension story reveals three responses made visible by his faithful followers. The first is, as I have already mentioned, joy. To the potentially dreadful question of how life would continue without Jesus in their midst -- leading them, teaching them, loving them – to this question of fearful absence, gratitude emerges because in continuing to follow Christ and to carry his life and ministry onward, there is more than the absence. And joy (gratitude) is the result.
The second Ascension response stems from this sense of joy. It is hope, hope that springs from resurrection, that in continuing to “awaken to” (this is what the word “resurrection” means) – in continuing to “awaken to” what life is like on God’s terms, hope springs from within and prepares our souls for God’s enlarged life and love.
The third Ascension response is encapsulated in mission. Our Eucharistic Prayer D (the Communion Prayer we have used throughout Easter) states this missionary response so powerfully and clearly. Listen to what it says: And, that we might live no longer or ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all [my emphasis].
In grateful response to what God-in-Christ has given to us (what we have held this Eastertide), we share this gift with all those whose path we cross. And this is the essence of purposeful “mission”, the beginning of which will be celebrated next Sunday on the Day of Pentecost.
My entire point in rehearsing this Easter context, this resurrection reality, is to point out how the life we see in Jesus -- crucified, raised, and ascended to reign in glory – my point is that the God-life is a movement of transitions – transitions from what we are and where we are to whose we are with God. And I am raising this issue of transitions because you and I and the entire world is in the midst of a transition that was caused by the pandemic. Some of us are beginning to cross over this pandemic threshold and entering not the old normality but something new and different. Others are still less certain that this is what they want to do. Some are paralyzed by their longing for what was familiar, insisting on the value of returning to “normal”, that is, to what they believed they controlled.
But my actual point in saying all this is to address all of you as members of St. Philip’s and to point out that we have walked through a fifteen month wilderness and are now at a threshold that we must cross – one way or another. That threshold entails whether you and I will take and use the Ascension responses of joy, hope, and mission and move into “what’s next?” for us as a parish church; or will we cross the post-Covid threshold with only the desire to return to “normal”?
This coming July will mark the sixth year of our partnership as priest and people. In some important ways, we’ve “come a long
way, baby!” And we have done some important, faithful things together. (I hope that we can celebrate them all together, as we mark St. Philip’ 150th anniversary as a faith community.). Yet, as important as it is to rehearse and share our history together, you and I must face the fact that the transitional question of “What’s next?” has yet to be honestly answered by us.
As Junior Warden, Steve Bailey, pointed out to some of us recently, the Chinese symbol for chaos and opportunity is the same symbol. And so it is as followers of Jesus. While this pandemic time has been a frightening hardship on us all, we must also realize that times of transition are the only times when real, deep change can occur. Whether it is the Red Sea or the Calvary cross or the empty tomb or re-opening at 128 Main Street in Easthampton, there are thresholds to cross; and the demanding question of “What’s Next?” requires our responses.
A week from Tuesday, the Vestry will meet for our May session. Our agenda will be consumed by this issue of transition and what St. Philip’s will choose to do in response to what we have learned in the past year. I have presented the Vestry with the task of answering three questions, and I intend that these three questions also be the context of all who cares about this place, its life and ministry. Here are the questions; and I ask you to pray about them and to contribute your responses.
In light of all that the pandemic surface among us, as a parish church what do we need to hold on to?
In that same light, what do we need to let go of?
In terms of what we have learned in these last 15 months or so, what do we need to do differently?
“What’s Next?” Will we grasp an increased “awakening to” what God has done in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? Will we rediscover a burning hope for our future with God and with one another? Will we express this new life with an even more rigorous sense of mission, of sharing what God has given to us with those we meet?
“What’s Next?” my dear ones. Who will be crossing this threshold? Stay tuned. Amen.