One of the ways to tease out a Christian denomination’s priorities and theology, is to look at how they name their Churches. If a denomination tends to use phrases like “Crown of Glory Christian Fellowship” that suggests a very different approach than “Historic Holy Trinity Parish” and that suggests a very different approach than “your subdivision named here, Church”.
Video link: https://youtu.be/ysU15cRvzrU
PDF link: Sermon_24May2020
So on this Sunday when we mark the going up, or “Ascension” of Christ into heaven, I see that there are Ascension Lutheran Churches in both Calgary and Edmonton, and Ascension Roman Catholic Church, in north Calgary; there’s an Anglican Church of the Ascension in Hamilton, Ontario and Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Parish in Swan River, Manitoba. Without doing an exhaustive count, I’d be safe in saying there are a couple dozen communities of faith in Canada bearing the name, “Ascension.” There is not, however, even one “Ascension United Church.” We have lots of St. Andrews’ and Centrals and Knox’es, but among our 2,500 communities of faith in the United Church of Canada, none that I could find bear the name, “Ascension.”
This surprises me not at all, because this “churchy” word Ascension points toward “somebody else’s Church” to me. Not in a way that’s divisive or off-putting, just in a way that’s not close to my heart. It speaks more of this kind of Jesus (picture of Jesus with Sacred Heart) than this kind of Jesus (laughing Christ). To me, it implies more of this focus (classic picture of Jesus in the heavens) than this focus (downtown ministry/soup kitchen). It suggests to me a worldview where life on earth is almost a sidebar, compared to the end-goal of heaven. Funny thing is, the only Ascension parish I’ve actually had dealings with was actually very community-oriented, so the name doesn’t necessarily align with the lived reality, but there’s still a disconnect for me. This description of Jesus being lifted into the clouds functions within a vertical understanding of heaven up there which is completely separated from earth… and I’m sorry, but my sense of the ongoing, living presence of Christ is much more out and about, around and within, than removed from humanity, above humanity, up, up and away.
As is often the case, when I need someone to engage a traditional Christian concept in a way that can speak to me, Fr. Richard Rohr is at the ready. About the Ascension, he writes:
“In the story of Christ’s ascension as told in Acts (1:9-11), angels appear next to the disciples as they gaze after the rising figure. The angels ask, ‘Why are you standing here staring up into heaven?’ Most of Christianity has been doing just that, straining to find the historical Jesus ‘up there.’ Where did he go? We’ve been obsessed with the question because we think the universe is divided into separate levels—heaven and earth. But it is one universe and all within it is transmuted and transformed by the glory of God. The whole point of the Incarnation and Risen Body is that the Christ is here—and always was!”
Fr. Richard continues, “Jesus didn’t go anywhere. He became the universal omnipresent Body of Christ. That’s why the final book of the Bible promises us a new heaven and a new earth. (Rev 21:1), not an escape from earth. We focused on ‘going’ to heaven instead of living on earth as Jesus did—which makes heaven and earth one. It is heaven all the way to heaven. What you choose now is exactly what you choose to be forever. God will not disappoint you.”
What helpful words. Yes, the book of Acts does point toward a heavenly dwelling place for Jesus, far above us. But the overall intention of the author of Luke and Acts, is not to isolate the Christ in some faraway locale, no longer connected to or interested in what we humans get up to. The intention, as Fr. Richard puts it, is for us to regard the entire universe, heaven and earth together, as one single realm of God’s concern and love. Jesus didn’t exit the scene, he unified the scene, connecting the life he lived on this planet, to an ongoing spiritual presence that is accessible even now in our actions and contemplations of love. His move, from here to “beyond here”, also connects us with that “great cloud of witnesses” – the faithful who have gone before us, who, with us, form a wondrous, ever-unfolding dynamic of grace, and forgiveness, and concern.
So, as someone who views Heaven more as a love-infused state of being, rather than a far-off physically locatable place, these words from Richard Rohr help me to not be so vexed by this picture of disciples standing around open-mouthed as Jesus is launched into the sky. I’m willing to have my mind and my will softened enough, to go with this idea that placing the same Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth creates a bridge between our lives… and a spiritual reality beyond u… and a new realm of love still forming even beyond that.
So I’m getting there, but I need a bit more help. And Baptist Pastor Gina M. Stewart, writing in The African-American lectionary, helps me get a bit closer with her words about Acts 1: 4-8: “At his Ascension”, she writes, “Jesus shifts the emphasis from speculation about the future to demonstration and transformation of the present.”
I like that. Moving from “speculation about the future” to “demonstration and transformation of the present.” With this idea from Pastor Gina, not only can I get past the idea of heaven “up there”, I can also start to break down any notion that the only reason that life matters is to get that heavenly prize at the end. That may have been a great motivator over the generations, to force the underclass to work without complaint for the benefit of their masters, but it’s totally unbiblical, and one of the great social sins across history.
What we get, in the dialogue in the first chapter of Acts, is a conversation very much focused on mission in the here and now. Just before the moment of his ascending, (Acts 1:8, NIV) Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Those disciples, and every one of us following in their steps, is charged with living lives that bear witness to Christ’s radically-inclusive love, to speak the truth of love in the halls of power in places like Jerusalem, and in the excluded, marginalized places like Samaria that most folks would rather steer clear of. And rather than just giving his disciples this task, then exiting the scene, stage upward, Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and motivate and unify them in their loving actions.
So, just before the Ascension, Jesus said, “you gotta be witnesses”. Then immediately after the Ascension, a couple of mystery men show up – as they often do in these Bible stories – and ask the loaded question (Acts 1:11, NIV), “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Yes, they disciples just experienced something extraordinary but the task isn’t to stand there flat footed and say WOW. The task, is to embrace Christ’s mission and get on with it.
In these days of separateness, I’ve not said much about mission because so much of it requires group action and, well, that’s not easily accomplished at the moment. But I do want us to imagine, even in these days when we are apart, that we are the ones being asked by those holy questioners, “why do you stand here looking into the sky [when there is work to be done]?” As a reminder of what we believe God wants to accomplish through us, I’m going to bring our congregation’s Mission statement on-screen, and give you a few moments to let it speak to who you are and where your heart is at right now.
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church’s Mission as a Church Community is:
- to nurture the spiritual exploration and growth of all our members and adherents;
- to be an intentionally inviting Christian community that seeks, welcomes and embraces new members;
- to reach out and become an agent for social justice in our neighbourhood and in the global community.
As you see these familiar words again, what do they elicit in you? What spiritual exploration do you wish for yourself and others? How can we present ourselves online, and in new ventures we either support or initiate, to reach beyond ourselves and be deeply welcoming? How will our commitment to social justice be shown, in our neighbourhood and beyond? How can we, in our ‘scattered now’ and, God willing, in a future when it is safe to be together, answer the calling to truly be a community of love? If you’ve been on the verge of entering more fully and formally into the things we actually DO as a community of faith, reach out to me or to someone on our Church Council, and start the dialogue.
Although the festival of the Ascension has been a date on the Church Calendar that I have felt distances me somewhat from Jesus, it may now turn out to be one of those days with a very different message. If Christ’s loving presence is everywhere… and my task, is to be a living witness for the justice-making ways of Jesus… and if our timeline for action, is “right now, if not sooner”… then perhaps this skyward-looking day might turn out to be a day to root us more firmly in the ground, and recommit ourselves to mission.
With the Holy Spirit supporting, inspiring and at points questioning and challenging our every move, may our responses to this call to mission be creative, and relevant, and filled with Christ’s own courageous, life-shaping love. As witnesses to that love we live and pray, Amen.
Rohr, Richard. Christ, Cosmology, & Consciousness: A Reframing of How We See. (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010) accessed at https://cac.org/heaven-earth-one-2016-10-27/
United Church of Canada – congregation locator: https://www.united-church.ca/search/locator/all?keyw=&mission_units_ucc_ministry_type_advanced=10&locll=
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church