Where are you focused?


Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, a Principal Feast of the Church, one that is never transferred to a Sunday, which always takes place 40 days after Easter.  The Lectionary appoints both versions of the ascension that were written by Luke to end his Gospel account and to open the story of the Church’s beginning in Acts.  While the account in Luke’s Gospel is powerful commissioning story, because of some timing issues related to the way in which Luke tells the story, I’ve always been partial to the way the Ascension gets told in Acts.

After promising his disciples, yet again, that the Spirit would come to lead them in his absence, Jesus is lifted up to heaven by a cloud while the disciples looked on.  Luke doesn’t tell us how long the disciples remained there, staring slack-jawed up toward the sky, but at some point we are told that two men (angels) in white robes appeared and said, “Men of Galilee, why do stand here looking up to heaven?”

This is a polite way of saying, “Why is your focus fixed up there, when Jesus was clear that there was still plenty of work to do down here?”  The Feast of the Ascension is an annual reminder of God’s incarnational love for the world he created.  As Christians, our call is not to be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good, but rather to roll up our sleeves and get to work wherever the Spirit might lead us.  We are called to focus our attention not on the age to come, but on the prayer Jesus taught us, that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus has left the earth, and he has left us in charge of building the kingdom in his absence.  So, dear reader, where is your focus?  Where is God calling you to get to work?  Where can you build the kingdom?

A Liminal Place

Liminal is one of those great seminary buzzwords that a good priest will never utter in their congregation.  I like to think of myself as a decent priest, so I try not to say the word liminal out loud, but I feel like I can type it here on my blog.  Liminal is a fancy Latin transliteration that means “at the threshold.”  Basically, it means transitional, which, as we all know, means lots and lots of stress.  Heck, even changing rooms is enough to make our brains reset.


This Sunday, the 7th Sunday of Easter, is a liminal place, even though most people won’t recognize it as such.  Thursday marks the Feast of the Ascension: the day, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection (according to Acts), when Jesus left his disciples staring slackjawed, as he rose to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  May 15th, then, will mark the Feast of Pentecost, 10 days after the ascension, and 50 days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the upper room in power and might.  The 7th Sunday of Easter, then, sits smack in the middle – a liminal place in which Jesus is no longer on earth, but the Spirit has not arrived to kick start the spread of the Gospel.

There isn’t much in the lessons appointed for Easter 7c to clue you into this fact, but the Collect lifts of the theme quite nicely:

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

The Holy Spirit, promised to his disciples by Jesus, is called the Advocate, Counselor, Helper or in the King James Version, the Comforter (John 14.16).  For ten days, the disciples prayed, listening for God to give them direction.  For ten days, their anxiety no doubt grew and grew as they heard nothing in response.  For ten days, their comfort level decreased as they wondered once again if Jesus’ promise really would come true.

I suspect most of us can understand how the disciples felt in those 10 days.  Maybe Easter 7 is a good time to ponder those liminal places when it feels like God is far away; when the comforting Spirit of God seems absent; when stress and worry compound until it feels like our prayers are doing nothing more than hitting the ceiling and bouncing back to earth.  Maybe Easter 7 is a chance to take a deep breath and remember that the prayers we pray matter, that we really do believe that God will not leave us comfortless, and that even in the dark times, the Advocate, Spirit, Comforter is here to strengthen us for the road ahead.

Lord, is this (finally) the time?

I had the distinct pleasure of substitute teaching Father Keith’s Wednesday morning Bible Study today.  Our assigned topic in his Eastertide study of Encounters with the Resurrected Jesus was the ascension story; a timely topic what with tomorrow being the feast day that bears that name.  His title for the study was the question of the two men robed in white from Luke’s version of the story in Acts (a portion of which is also assigned for Sunday), “why are you standing there?”  But I think I’m in agreement with the Sermon Brainwave crew when, back in 2011, they suggested the key question in this text is “Lord, is this the time?”

The disciples had followed Jesus to the precipice of Hell and back.  They had heard him teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  They had seen him exert supernatural control over wind and water, illness and demons, even life and death.  They had marched into Jerusalem with him ready to take on the world, watched him toss the tables in the Temple and get in the theological grill of the religious powers-that-be, and declare that the whole thing would come tumbling down while he would build it back up.  They were ready for him to flex his muscles and restore all things to their rightful place when they watched with horror as he stood silent before his accusers, admonished them to put away their swords, collapsed in exhaustion under the weight of his cross, and died pathetic and naked hanging from a tree.  They had been to the bottom of the pit and had sunk in the miry clay, when lo and behold, he was back.  He had conquered death!

After 40 days of hanging out in and around Jerusalem.  After hearing him continue to teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  After watching him disappear from their sight in Emmaus and reappear in the middle of an upper room in Jerusalem.  After a miraculous catch of fish and delicious fire baked breakfast. After all of that, they were ready for him to do what they still fully expected him to do – put his boot on the neck of Pax Romana and restore the Kingdom and lineage of David.

Lord, is this [finally] the time!?!?!

You can hear the desperation in their voice, and feel the sinking feeling when he responds essentially by saying, “Nope.  Not yet.”

We do not know the day or the hour.  Trying to pinpoint the time and the place and what series of construction projects will bring Jesus back is absolutely pointless.  What matters is how they, how we, take all that stuff that Jesus taught and that stuff that Jesus did and work toward bringing the Kingdom to earth in the meantime.  Now certainly is the time for that.