29 May 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In my family, my brothers were named after someone important to my parents. I’m the fifth of six boys, and as far as I could ever tell, my name was grabbed out of the air; no one in our family history, such as it was—poor English servants impressed into the Royal Navy, horse thieves, gypsies, charlatans, and all that—no one ever had the name, Philip. Even my younger brother was at least named after the doctor who pulled him screaming into this world. I called my father out on this one day, and he told me: “forget about your name, what’s important is that you were born on the day that General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower,” Jan 20th, 1953. “You should Thank God I didn’t name you ‘Ike’.” Later, when I was reading the Harvard Lampoon or something equally edifying, I also discovered that I was “born on the cusp.” Most years I am an Aquarius, but just occasionally I am a Capricorn. On the cusp, on the verge, a liminal person. Looking forward, looking back.
Allow me one last personal reflection. One day when I was in the military, freezing, in a tiny guard shack on an RAF base in East Anglia, with fog so thick you could slice it with a knife, a miserable box lunch was delivered to me, half way through my shift. I used to measure out the contents and eat one part of the lunch every 30 minutes as a way of hastening the end of the shift. This day there was a surprise, a box of Cracker Jacks—disgusting—but inside was a prize of some sort, and I hoped it would amuse me. I tore open the little box to find a miniature book, on each page of which was a single word. You had to flip through the pages to get the gist—the message, a liminal message, told me “What you will be, you are now becoming.” Profound as that may be (or not), as I looked around me, I thought, “this is not promising.”
The story of the Ascension, which Luke alone of the four Evangelists recounts (the longer ending of Mark is another matter), locates us similarly in a liminal moment. Luke’s Ascension story describes an ending and a beginning in at least two senses. First, it marks dramatically the end of Jesus’ physical presence with his disciples, and anticipates the beginning of a new norm of experiencing God. Second, from the standpoint of Luke’s narrative, the Ascension concludes Luke Volume One, and then also begins Luke Volume 2, the Acts of the Apostles. If we consider the two texts together, we could draw from them any number of themes to ponder. In each case, Luke locates his version of the “great commission” in this moment of exhortation before Jesus ascends; so, Ascension is linked to mission. In each case, we get a rare glimpse of Trinitarian thought: the Father has made a promise he is about to make good on (which in fact goes back to Luke 11 where Jesus concludes a brief lesson on prayer with “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Jesus, the Son, is of course at center stage; and the Holy Spirit is about to come upon the disciples from on high in great power.
It could be said that the Ascension was also a moment of becoming, or really a moment better described as “on the verge of becoming.” More importantly, though we miss this because Luke is about to race off on the story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is a moment of waiting. Wait here until power comes. And as they absorb this word, the scene depicts the disciples as looking on in amazement as their mentor, now their Lord, drifts off from them and upwards into the clouds. To be taken up, is to be taken into heaven. The angels tell them, almost scolding them, “Why do you gaze at this disappearance act? He will come again just as he has gone up from you.” Waiting, liminality. A day when something comes to an end, and something begins. But somehow always in-between.
As I said, if we probe these two texts, there are plenty of interesting historical, or theological or, indeed, metaphysical tidbits to fasten on. But this day it is this “in-betweeness” that catches my attention. Yes, I know, the story will quickly move on to Pentecost and the fulfillment of that promise of the Father…the outpouring of the Spirit, power for ministry and for all that we are called to do in mission, in service to our Lord. But we have the rest of the year to think on these things. And even when we do, the fact remains that we are in-between, waiting, looking up and waiting. Jesus has now been clothed with resurrection life, our prototype, the firstborn from the dead, the first to enter heaven clothed in the new resurrection life. Our forerunner; and we will follow. But now we look up. And day to day we get on with our living; we get on with our mission; but you have to admit…in those spaces in our day, or at the end of the day, or maybe at the beginning of it, we look up. There he goes; here we are . . . left with the Cracker Jacks wisdom: “what you will be, you are now becoming.” Standing with one foot on either side, caught in a liminal moment: General Eisenhower is becoming President Eisenhower.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This interesting assertion does nothing more than to mark out the territory we now inhabit. And Jesus’ command to “Wait” does the same thing. We are in the middle of something; in the middle of ourselves; yearning to become something more of what we have seen, perhaps; challenged to take on a mission, perhaps; but nevertheless frequently returning to our senses and the realization that we are not yet there. If we take this day in our liturgical calendar seriously, and do our best to inhabit the moment, we are invited to indulge ourselves in the mystery of being in-between; somewhere between now and not yet; just about but not quite; pretty soon but we’ll just have to wait. And if we dare to do it, we could take Ascension Day—this dramatic moment in God’s redemptive history, adoring apostles worshiping the risen Jesus as he is withdrawn from visibility into heaven, our forerunner—we could take this day and extend it to cover the rest of the year. An archetypal moment for us, for it locates us in a moment defined by waiting, defined by almost, defined by not yet. We are liminal people, but we are something else. We are blessed people.
Our Gospel text says that as he was departing, he blessed them. We are blessed by God in this moment in-between. Blessing, eulogeo in the Greek, is a good, a beneficent word of declaration. God first blessed his creation in Genesis chapter one, and there it is closely linked to his creative word (God said, “Let there be light, and there was light”); Jacob on his deathbed blessed his sons; Moses before he died blessed Israel, God’s people. Luke’s Gospel is framed by blessing, in chapter one Zachariah, when his mouth is opened at the naming of his son John, blesses God; and at the end of the Gospel Jesus, God the Son, departing earth blesses his disciples. The greater part of the year, our worship begins with blessing and closes with blessing. To bless, in biblical parlance, is not to offer a best wish to a friend or family member. It is, to put this into the language of “speech-act theory”, a performative word; a word which speaks into existence something wonderful. Blessing takes language very seriously, so seriously that, if you can recall that deathbed scene in which Jacob is blessing Joseph’s two sons and Joseph has arranged his two sons in such a way that the right hand of supreme blessing will fall on the elder son, because Jacob wishes something else, he crosses his hands (the trickster right up to the end) to ensure the most potent blessing falls on the chosen younger child. Blessing is powerful; serious business. And the blessing once bestowed cannot be called back (remember Jacob’s own trickery in stealing the best blessing of Isaac, his father, from his elder brother, Esau). And in our liminal moment, Jesus raised his hands and blessed us. What words did he say? How long did they hang in the air as he disappeared from sight? We are left to wonder. But they are words that produce what they speak, and we live, even as we live in-between, waiting—we live in the power and protection of those words; we live to serve, to worship, to love, and, yes, to wait. We are left to wonder at those words, to search the Scriptures and our souls, to ask our poets and artists to try to render those words for us, so that we can inhabit the in-between clothed in our Lord’s blessing.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Moses’ words are rewritten, spoken afresh by Jesus:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. . . I am coming to you.’
We can choose our blessing. But in the in-between marked by this day of Ascension, let us live fully, expectantly, waiting courageously and with purpose, waiting in a service and love which make God’s blessing a reality in our world.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2014 Philip H. Towner