Preaching Notes for Ascension Sunday/Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C (May 8, 2016)
I recently learned that Charles Wesley wrote a good number of hymns for the Day of Ascension! Who knew? (Probably lots of you knew, but I didn’t.) Only one of his Ascension hymns (which was not in his collection above) appears in our current United Methodist Hymnal. It is 312, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise.” The original song Charles wrote had ten stanzas. Our current hymnal has retained only four of them. I must say, I don’t recall ever singing this hymn. Since I will be referring to the words of the hymn text, I strongly encourage you to sing this hymn as part of your worship service.
If you don’t care for the tune in the hymnal, my colleague Jackson Henry has written a new musical setting for this hymn.
In addition, John Hammond has written a very helpful history of the version of the hymn found in our current hymnal.
Hammond writes that not only was the hymn shortened from ten verses to four, but it was also altered significantly in places, by various people and for various reasons. In these notes, I am going to refer to the four stanzas of the hymn exactly as they appear in our hymnal (although I have eliminated the “alleluia” at the end of each line), but I encourage you to familiarize yourself with how we got to this version.
Hail the day that sees him rise,
To his throne above the skies.
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Re-ascends his native heaven.
In the midst of the Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season, on day forty, which is always a Thursday, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. Since the vast majority of congregations do not schedule a special Thursday night Ascension Day Worship Service, most churches, if they recognize the Ascension, will refer to it on the Sunday one week before Pentecost.
Being a child of the sixties and seventies, I have to confess that whenever I picture the ascension of Jesus I imagine it as a “Beam me up Scottie” kind of thing. That is, I see Jesus in his body kind of disappearing into shining dots and then reappearing somewhere else—I guess, as I think about it, in a throne at the right hand of God. Christian art has historically rendered it much more literally than I see it in my mind’s eye with a dressed, physical body that looks like other pictures of Jesus, literally rising into the sky while the disciples watch from below.
Charles Wesley certainly seems to picture him rising into the skies and landing on a throne. It is interesting to me that Wesley makes it clear that Jesus, although fully human while alive on this earth, was a creature of heaven, thus standing firmly in line with the creedal confession:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made. . .
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again … ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead. (The Nicene Creed)
As my colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards has pointed out in the Worship Planning Notes, we who live in the scientific age may have to find new categories to help modern worshipers grasp the meaning of the Ascension story. After all, we don’t think of the world as existing in three flat layers, with hell below, earth in the middle, and heaven above. But maybe John Wesley can help us out with his next stanza:
There the glorious triumph waits,
Lift your heads, eternal gates.
Christ hath conquered death and sin,
Take the King of glory in.
John Wesley wrote sermon notes on Psalm 24, which inspired the imagery in these lines.
“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in” (Psalm 24:7, NRSV).
John Wesley writes that the Psalmist is “speaking here of the gates and doors of the temple, which by faith and the spirit of prophecy, he beheld as already built, whose doors he calls Everlasting, not so much because they were made of strong and durable materials, as in opposition to those of the tabernacle, which were removed from place to place. These gates he bids lift up their heads, or tops, by allusion to those gates which have a portcullis, which may be let down or taken up. And as the temple was a type of Christ, and of his church, and of heaven itself; so this place may also contain a representation, either of Christ's entrance into his church, or into the hearts of his faithful people, who are here commanded to set open their hearts and souls for his reception: or of his ascension into heaven, where the saints or angels are poetically introduced as preparing the way, and opening the heavenly gates to receive their Lord and king, returning to his royal habitation with triumph and glory.”
Maybe this is where all the artists who painted frescoes and paintings and created mosaics of this scene got their ideas! Or maybe John Wesley’s thoughts were inspired by seeing those images. Whichever way it happened, I can’t help but notice how strikingly different it is from my Star Trek inspired vision.
How are we to envision it anew for today? How do we see the Ascension and understand its impact in a time when we live without these kinds of gates, or even these kinds of houses of worship? After all, we worship in school cafeterias and storefronts, parks and theaters and coffee shops. Can this kind of imagery even have meaning for us?
See! The heaven its Lord receives,
Yet he loves the earth he leaves,
Though returning to his throne
Still he calls the world his own.
So here Charles Wesley calls upon us directly to “see” this in our imaginations. He tells us to do exactly what I have been trying to do: picture it in your mind! Maybe we should close our eyes and see what our minds see. What do we see when we imagine the time and place and concept we call heaven? And how does our vision of heaven “receive” its Lord?
One thing is certain in this stanza, and that is that I can understand the part about Jesus loving the earth he leaves and still calling the world his own, even though he is no longer physically present in it. I can understand this because it is what I truly believe. I believe Jesus is present with us. He is present when two or more are gathered in his name to proclaim the gospel until he comes again. He is present when a baby is born into this world, and he is present when we say goodbye to loved ones as they pass from this life into the next. He is present in the rising of the sun each morning and in its setting each evening. He is present in the blossoming trees and flowers that surround my home, and he will be present when the leaves dry up and fall from the tress and the grass turns brown and the snow begins to fall and the days become short. He is present in every feeling of love and every action of love. He is present in the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine. He is present in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us all.
Where is Jesus “present” for you? Where do you see him in this world?
See! He lifts his hands above.
See! He shows the prints of love.
Hark! His gracious lips bestow
Blessings on his church below.
Yes, I can see his hands lifted! I imagine them held up high, with palms open, in the fashion some of us take when we sing praise songs or stand in the orans position to pray. Yes, I can see the marks on his hands, the “prints of love” that witness to the power of his sacrifice for this world, for you and for me. Yes, I can see his lips moving as he offers a blessing upon the people who gather in his name and who, in union with him, offer themselves in loving sacrifice for the world.
Or Week 5 in Easter 2016 Sermon Series on Baptism (Lectionary assigns this passage to the Seventh Sunday of Easter. These notes do not specifically deal with the Ascension.)
Key Word: Testify
(Note: See page 14 in Easter Series 2016: A Focus on Our Baptismal Vows and the Book of Acts)
The book of Acts testifies repeatedly to the power of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel changes people’s lives. It transforms unbelievers into believers. It heals. It brings hope. It exorcises demons out of those who have been possessed. There is power in hearing the gospel proclaimed!
Of course, at the time Acts was written, the only “scripture” that people had for use in worship was the Hebrew canon. Scholars date Acts as early as the 80s, but there is no real consensus as to date or authorship. Some attribute the work to the same author who wrote Luke, which is an argument for the earliest date. Others place it later, and perhaps with a different author, but one who was closely aligned with the Lukan community and its concerns. Even if the letters of Paul were circulating at this point, and even if Mark, Matthew, Q, and Luke had been written, they would not have been in widespread use. During this period, there were many writings attributed to Christian community that were circulating. It wasn’t until two centuries later that the New Testament canon officially formed.
So at this point in history, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ meant to tell the stories of Jesus from one’s memory. There was no reading of Scripture. There was remembering and sharing things heard from others about what Jesus said and taught and the miracles he had performed.
The good news of Jesus Christ is always offered in proclamation. Our United Methodist order of worship considers both the reading of the Scriptures aloud in worship and the preaching on those Scriptures to be the proclamation of the Word. But as Methodists, we are called to a deeper study of our Scriptures than what can be accomplished by listening to God’s Word proclaimed in the midst of a one-hour worship service once a week. In our baptismal covenant we vow,
“To receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”
John Wesley interpreted this to mean that as Methodists, we are to continually “search the scriptures” in order that we might “spread scriptural holiness over the land.”
When I read this amazing story about the testimony of Paul and Silas to both the woman possessed with a spirit of prophecy, to the other people in prison, and to the prison guard, I am completely awestruck by their tenacity. They refused to stop sharing the good news, even when it cost them their freedom. They refused to stop, even when it cost them their lives.
Do we have that kind of tenacity about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ? I suppose it depends on where you live. I live in the United States, which is a place where we claim to offer freedom of religious practice. In reality, since shortly after our founding as a nation, we have been dominated by Christian belief and practice. In spite of what people seem to believe, America was not founded as a Christian nation or on Christian principles. Many European settlers came to this land seeking freedom of religious expression. That is true. And for many, the expression they sought was Christian. But most of those who signed our Declaration of Independence likely aligned more closely with deism. Although many of them were affiliated in some way or another with Christianity in their lifetimes, only a couple were actually practicing Christians.
My point here is not to argue that America was not founded as a Christian nation, but rather to note that Christianity has been the dominant religion in this nation since its beginning, which means that proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in the United States has, for most of modern history, not been counter to the status quo. But that is changing.
We live in a time now in which more and more of our neighbors neither claim nor affiliate with the Christian faith. We live in a time when proclaiming our faith in a public forum may not be appropriate or welcomed. We live in a time in which more and more people do not hear the message and teachings of Jesus Christ as good news, but rather as an affront to their beliefs and practices.
Of course, in lots of places in the world, this has been the case for several millennia. In many countries, to be Christian is not only to be counter to the dominant culture, but to put oneself in harm’s way. I write this words on the day after Easter. On the news this morning, after a story about last night’s basketball game results (it is March Madness) and the death overnight of two more people from their injuries from the suicide bombing attacks in Brussels, Belgium, bringing the total number of casualties to 35, there was a brief report on something that happened yesterday in Pakistan.
I don’t know if this news will have become more troubling and widespread by the time you read these notes. I can only say that today, the day after the attack, it is not the lead story on the morning news, a fact that grieves my soul. This attack happened in a public park in Lahore, Pakistan, as Christian families gathered on Easter evening to celebrate the holiday together. In Pakistan, Christians make up only two percent of the population. A suicide bomber intentionally targeted Christians on Easter day, setting off a blast that killed at least 69 people and wounded more than 400, many of whom were women and children. I am saddened that there is not more of an outcry coming from the Christian community in America and around the globe. I am saddened that the news of the Brussels attacks, which while tragic, happened several days ago, continues to dominate the news, while this story about our Christian brothers and sisters in Pakistan goes largely ignored, not only by the media, but also, I suspect, by many Christian churches. I am troubled that the systematic destruction of some of our oldest and most important Christian sites in Iraq, a nation where Christianity has been practiced since the first century, barely even gets reported in the news, much less prayed over in our sanctuaries.
We who live in places where being a Christian does not endanger our lives must ask ourselves what we would do if these things happened in our own nation? Would we continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” if doing so might cost us our lives? What if doing so cost us the lives of our children?
Paul and Silas were preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in a public arena during a time in history when a few fringe religions, such as Judaism, were allowed by the Roman government to be practiced, but only within certain parameters. Their refusal to be quiet about their beliefs caused people to sit up and listen. Lives were changed. Even when they came under direct attack by Roman authorities and crowds, even when they were beaten and thrown in prison with their feet fastened in stocks, they refused to be quiet. The told the stories of Jesus to their fellow prisoners. They prayed and sang hymns to God. And their testimony was so compelling that the prisoners and even the jailer listened. Lives were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit working through their proclamation of God’s Word.
Today, many of the voices for Christianity heard in the media are not representative of people like me. I am serious about my Christian faith. I am as committed to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as anyone I know. Somehow the media is never interested in people like me or you—people who steadily and faithfully practice our faith and share the gospel in sanctuaries around this nation and around the world week after week after week. Maybe if we got out of our buildings and joined our voices in a collective outcry about our concern for our brothers and sisters in the faith who live in places where the proclamation of the gospel might cost them their lives, we might make a difference. Maybe if we could be as bold as Paul and Silas, and order those evil spirits out of our brothers and sisters who have been possessed and refuse to be silent about what our faith calls us to do and who it calls us to advocate for in this world, we might be able to make a real difference for people. Maybe if we could just testify about how Jesus Christ has changed our own lives and let the power of the Holy Spirit move through us, we really could bring the kingdom of God to earth, as it is in heaven.
Paul’s words here are words of encouragement for the people in the church in Ephesus to, with the Sprit’s help and enlightenment, continually draw upon the teachings of Jesus, and to remember that he is still with them and watching over them even though they can no longer see him. These words must have been comforting to this community, some of whom may have known Jesus personally and were still grieving the loss of his physical presence with them.
I think this is true for us as well. Just like the Ephesians, we can find comfort and encouragement in Paul’s words. While we did not have the privilege of knowing the physical Jesus personally, we know what he was like because we have the witness of those who did know him. Likewise, we did not travel with him, or hear him teach, or watch him heal. But through the stories we have heard and that we pass on to the next generation, we can know where he traveled and maybe we can even feel him traveling with us as we go through our own life’s journey. We have not seen him heal someone in person, but with the Spirit’s help, we can feel his presence working through the hands of doctors and nurses, massage therapists and hospice workers, and other caregivers. He is not here to heal us with his loving words and touch, but we can feel his love in the touch of a person whose spirit is Christ-like, and we can know his loving embrace when we are held in the arms of someone who shares our faith. It is encouraging. And it is comforting.
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