May 13, 2017 + “Ascension Sunday”
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
This past Thursday, the Fortieth day of Easter, the church celebrated “Ascension Day.” This would be Jesus’ last post-resurrection appearance, the last time the disciples would see him in his resurrected body, the last time he would teach them face to face, the last time they would engage him in conversation. He will remind them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he will commission them to be witnesses to all they had seen and heard regarding the Kingdom of God. And then he blessed them, and as he was blessing them he ascended into the sky, into the clouds, into the heavens, to be seated at the right hand of God.
The past forty days with the resurrected Jesus was a very unique time for the disciples. During this period Jesus would come and go, surprising and startling them, comforting and challenging them, opening up the scriptures to them, revealing the Kingdom of God to them. It was a time that anthropologists refer to as “liminality.”
The disciples find themselves in liminal space, in thin space, in sacred space, in a place that is preparing them for the next chapter in their lives; a time that is preparing the world to more fully encounter the reign of God, and the beginning of a time when all things would become new. Liminality is a transitional period, a rite of passage, a holy place where one leaves the “ordinary world of limits” behind so as to encounter the true reality of one’s existence, one’s purpose, one’s destiny, one’s true calling in life. In liminal space, the world somehow stops, and one’s vision becomes clear, one’s passion becomes strong, one’s discernment is understood, and one is finally prepared to cross over the threshold into a new future where “all things are made new.” Twentieth Century Anthropologist Victor Turner describes people in liminal space as, “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.” While this could be seen as a very troubling space, a confusing space, Turner adds hope by connecting the “betwixt and between”to the “realm of pure possibility.”
On the day of the Ascension this “liminality” ends for those first disciples, this unique time in history concludes, and for a moment they are seemingly “stuck,” not knowing what to do next, perhaps unable or unwilling to boldly cross that threshold into the next chapter of life, that place where all things become new. Luke tells us that they just sat there looking up into the sky watching Jesus float away, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Eventually, two men, two strangers, two messengers of God, interrupt them, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." So, it is, they return, they return to the moment, they return to their mission, they return to Jerusalem, they cross over the threshold of the new day, and await the coming of the Holy Spirit; the one who fill them, inspire them, and lead them into that which is coming next, the unfolding of the emerging of the church, the Body of Christ fleshed out once again, the kingdom of God at hand!
How has God provided “liminality” in your life? Where and when have you found yourself in such “liminal” space? What seasons or moments in your life have provided you with crystal clear clarity, a critical clarification of your values, the ultimate understanding of self, a vision of God that cut through all the noise and confusion? And more importantly, what were you able to do with experience? Were you able to cross over and begin the divinely inspired “next chapter” in your life?
This past week at The Table’s “Theology Pub,” (a wonderful opportunity for theological conversation and engagement) we were discussing liminal space. We noted that there were at least two kinds of opportunities, those chosen and those unchosen.
I imagine most of us have chosen to attend and participate in events that created that “thin space” between heaven and earth where we had an incredible experience with the divine. We been to retreats and summer camps, taken trips and pilgrimages, where we were able to escape the boundaries and limits imposed by the world and experience the powerful overwhelming presence of God. And at the end of such experiences we often find ourselves wishing that it didn’t have to end, that we could stay in the moment of that holy space forever. We often make resolutions as we leave these places, hoping to make changes in our life. And sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t, - unfortunately most times we don’t.
And then there are those moments or seasons when we are forced into a liminal space that is very different. Liminal space that put us to the test. Sometimes these times and places are chosen, for example sometimes we choose to enter into a wilderness space through an intentional spiritual discipline. But more often than not, these are the spaces that life’s circumstances choose for us. At our “Theology Pub” folks shared stories of losing material possessions in economic downturns, the despair encountered in broken relationships, the forced detachment brought on by disease or accidents, and the jarring shift of reality that occurs when a loved one passes away. These times too, in a different way, invite us, or perhaps force us, to ask the hard questions about life, re-evaluate our values, and resolve to make changes, even require us to make changes.
Either way liminal space can be holy space, a unique place where God’s presence is powerful, a place where ordinary time and limits gives way to the extra-ordinary possibilities of redemption and renewal, the art of transformation, the place where death gives way to resurrection.
One way or another, perhaps in both ways, we will find ourselves in liminal space, the real question is, what will we do with it, what will we do when we come down from our mountain top experience, what will we do when we emerge from the other side of the valley of death, what will we do with our experiences in “thin space?” Will we boldly step over the threshold into the next chapter of life, into the next adventure in faith, into the resurrection? Or will we, just slip back into the places where we came from, stuck in the ordinary once again?
Our Paschal Candle, according to the liturgical tradition, was lit on Easter morning, signifying the resurrection of Christ. On the Ascension, according to the liturgical tradition, it is extinguished, signifying that Jesus is no longer among us in that unique bodily form. Until next Easter morning we will only light its flame on days when we proclaim and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism or at funerals.
(Extinguish the flame)
In this moment we might gaze at the last few trails of wispy smoke that are drifting up and away, or we can be reminded that liminality leads to something new, that liminality leads to the threshold of a new age, that our time in holy space leads to the coming of the spirit in a new and powerful way that will change our life. One must end so the other might begin! One must end so the other might begin!
In many ways the Ascension of Christ serves to finally move the disciple on to new things, it forces them to let go of old ways, old expectations, and trust in something new, something rooted in the old, but yet again, something very new. It moves them from observing the resurrection into living out the resurrection. Today the Ascension of Christ invites us to do the same! God has brought you to this place for a reason, God has brought us together for a reason. Our time spent “betwixt and between”prepares and invites us into the hope of “possibility.” Perhaps together, supporting each other in the faith, sharing our hopes in the faith, holding each other accountable in the faith, daring to be so bold in our Christian vocation, we can find the courage and the means to cross over the thresholds that await us?
Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the creation of the Church, the Body of Christ present in a new way, God choosing to “indwell” within each of us; within each of us together. This moment changed the life of the first disciples forever, the coming of the spirit continues to change the followers of Jesus forever. As we move from the season of Easter to Pentecost, from “mountain top” retreats and experiences back into the world; from disappointment, pain, and even death into a new day; may we do so open to the work of the Spirit, God’s desire to be present in each of us, making all things new, ushering in the kingdom of God. Amen.
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But 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, and to the ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.