Ascension Communion Meditation

Click here to hear the full service

Acts 1:1-11

Ephesians 1:15-23

Luke 24:44-53

Click here to hear the sermon only

Ascension Communion Meditation

When you cross into a new time zone, you may hardly notice the change.  You drive from Boston to Kansas City, from Kansas City to Denver, from Denver to San Diego, and you cross in and out of different time zones.  In the crossing you hardly notice the change. Boundaries are often invisible, arranged in the imagination. They are not though for that reason inconsequential.  If you forget that the zone you are in has changed, you may arrive to buy gasoline an hour after the station is closed, and sleep in your car.

On the feast of the Ascension we cross into a new time zone, in the Christian year, and especially in the Gospel of Luke and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.

Our Gospel and Lesson today acclaim the Ascension.  Let us endeavor to understand their chiming joy, to interpret these pages of Holy Writ, to understand them by standing under them, as it were.   For we are placing ourselves in apprehension of Love and Truth, here, so that the chance may emerge that our apprehension of Scripture may give way to Scripture’s apprehension of us. So that, grasping, we may be grasped, and, speaking, we may hear, and longing to love, we may be loved.

Luke by legend was a physician, a writing physician, like Oliver Sachs or Anton Chekhov.  Luke, whom we follow in the Sunday readings this year, is the only gospel writer to add a sequel to his book.  Luke’s Gospel precedes Luke’s Acts, and together they form some 25% of our New Testament. The Ascension, the translation of Jesus from temporary earthly location to lasting eternal home, lies somewhere close to the deep heart of what Luke, fore and aft, was out for, was after.

Our Gospel lesson today is the very end of the Gospel of Luke.  Our lesson from Acts today is the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.  So, we are at a major divide, a seam in the seamless garment of the Scripture. For Luke, all of time is divided into three parts, as Caesar’s Gaul, divisum est en tres partes.  First, there is the time of Israel, that runs up to and includes the ministry of John the Baptist.  Second, there is the time of Jesus, beginning with the Baptist and running up to, well, this morning, to the Ascension.  Third, there is the time of the Church, which runs from right now on up to the end of time, when Jesus will come again. Luke has set the orderly account of Jesus, his preaching and teaching and healing, his passion and death and resurrection, in between Israel and the Church, John and the Ascension.  Jesus has been making appearances and speaking of the kingdom of God, an extension of resurrection, but now he departs, making space for the baptism of Spirit, next Sunday, Pentecost, just as his life took wing in the baptism of water, at the hand of John the Baptist. Notice that John, and his baptism, are mentioned here, right at the moment of prediction of the baptism of Spirit.  For Luke, all time is divided into these three parts.

You, careful listener, will have noticed though a problem.   Luke has Jesus ascend twice, once in the Gospel, on the eighth day, as is the Gospel tradition, and then, again, in Acts, after forty days.  So which is it? After some study, let us simply admit defeat, as Fr. J. Fitzmyr puts it:  Why Luke has dated the ascension of Jesus in these two different ways, no one will ever know. (Anchor, 1588).  Though from this pulpit today we might offer a thought.  For Luke, chronology, as does geography, finally serves his theology, his preaching of the gospel.   He is willing to admit of a bit of chronology confusion, or contradiction, in order to insist, to make clear his joyful sense of time in three parts.  So, one ascension scene, Luke 24, it may be, makes clear the end of the time of Jesus. And the other ascension scene, Acts 1, it may be, makes clear the beginning of the time of the church.  

With Luke in Gospel and Acts guiding us, we come to communion this morning, in the time zone of the church.  Here we find bread for the journey, wine for the soul. Here we find sustenance to go on, in faith. In the example of forebears, in the ministry of ordinary saints, in the chance possibility of conversion—example, ministry, conversion—we recognize a different time zone, that which follows on Ascension, the time of the church.

Example

First, there is bread for the journey, wine for the soul, in sturdy example.   St. Luke, perhaps more than any other Gospel writer, affirms the utter importance of leadership—in life, in community, in church.  And leadership is example. Period. For Luke throughout all Acts, you can see and name leadership by the examples of Peter and of Paul.  We too in our own time cherish exemplary leadership.

At morning prayer in the Harvard Memorial Church, in a special service for the Board of Visitors there and some others some 10 years ago, Peter Gomes, of blessed memory, and inimitable voice, offered a meditation based on his childhood breakfast memory.

At his home in Plymouth, over breakfast, the morning papers were quietly read, including the obituaries, most especially the obituaries.  His mother emphasized these, Peter remembered. She pointedly asked, morning by morning, after the meal and the morning papers, ‘Anybody interesting die?’  By these, he went on to recall, Peter’s mother meant, especially, did any African Americans of note die, and were they eulogized in the papers? It was one of her ways, one guesses, of teaching and shaping the young Mr. Gomes, in the way of faith.  She wanted him to learn from the experience and achievement of others. ‘Anybody interesting die today?’

The anecdote here loses much of its punch and penache without the developed Elizabethan intonation preferred and practiced by Professor Gomes.  James Forbes, at breakfast and just before preaching here at Marsh Chapel on weekend, sent his greetings to Peter, and said, ‘Remind him sometime that he is not a 19th century Englishman’.  It was said in good humor, in jest, and in that covenant of the preaching clergy wherein one, once upon a time, could josh one another.  There was at one time, not so long ago a preaching siblinghood, wherein one man sharpened another like iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).

It is in this sense of memory, of reading the obituaries, of noting especially those who have come up the hard way, of honoring the gifts of others that we may ourselves be capable of honor in some way, that the life of James Alan McPherson appeared, in a newspaper recollection a few summers ago.  African American son of the south, son of a carpenter and maid, graduate of an HBC in Atlanta, then of Harvard Law, McPherson decided against the law, and chose to write instead, becoming the first black author to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction. Yet his writing sometimes remembered the law. I don’t have to drink the whole ocean to know it is salty, and I don’t have to read all his books to know McPherson could write.  As: (Mr. McPherson wrote in The Atlantic in 1978)

What Albion W. Tourgee, in his brief in 1896 against segregated railroad cars in Plessy v. Ferguson, was proposing, I think, was that each United States citizen would attempt to approximate the ideals of the nation, be on at least conversant terms with all its diversity, carry the mainstream of the culture inside himself.  As an American, by trying to wear these clothes he would be a synthesis of high and low, black and white, city and country, provincial and universal. If he could live with these contradictions, he would be simply a representative American. I believe that if one can experience diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned the right to call oneself a ‘citizen of the United States’. (N.Y. Times, 7/28/16,)

There is fine writing, a paragraph finely composed.  McPherson remembered Plessy v. Fergusson, and in reading him, Rev. Professor Peter Gomes came to mind.  Gomes haunted the reading, partly for what his mother taught him in reading at the breakfast table down in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth, and mostly because, by ricochet, and oddly, McPherson captured the very gift of our former neighbor and pastor from the Harvard Memorial Church.  Gomes lived the contradictions without going crazy.

Ministry

Second, there is bread for the journey, wine for the soul, in spirited ministry.  Hear the ringing gospel in Luke! On a morning when we think of 12 more good lives sacrificed to gun violence, in Virginia Beach, a violence that proper appreciation for public health and consequent adequate gun laws would largely erase, we need to hear fully the Lukan evangel:  Salvation. Forgiveness. Peace. Life. Remember and repeat. Salvation. Forgiveness. Peace. Life. There is a better way to live, and better path forward to common good than we have yet embraced. Those who show us gospel grace in ministry convince us. Like Mona Lee Brock, who died this spring.  I love her story, and I cherish her ministry, partly because it connects so strongly to our own past, and part of our summer life each year.

Mona Lee Brock had farming in her bones. “Farming you don’t learn from books,” she once said. “It’s not taught to you by a professor in a college. It’s taught by sitting in your father’s lap on a tractor. Or between your mother and father in a field. It’s from birth up, and it’s a part of you.”

And so, when the farm crisis of the 1980s swept across the nation’s fields and plains, when bankruptcies and foreclosures soared and crop prices fell, and when many farmers, who saw no way out, took their own lives, Mrs. Brock was moved to act.

She assigned herself the job of ad hoc emergency counselor to farmers. As someone who had grown up on farms and had lost her own family farm, she was sympathetic to their plight. She took thousands of calls around the clock, talking despondent farmers down from the ledge and devising strategies to try to save their farms.

Willie Nelson, the country singer and driving force behind Farm Aid, called Mrs. Brock “the angel on the other end of the line.” Around that time, Mrs. Brock, who knew most people in Lincoln County from her work in the public schools, invited many of them over to her farm one night so that they could talk about how to survive. Farmers soon began calling her at home when they were in trouble, starting her on her accidental career of counseling them.  Her son said the suicide calls to his mother seemed constant, and often chaotic. Her overarching goal was “to make sure the family survived, even if the farm didn’t.”

“She led the way in terms of how to counsel people.  People could relate to her and unburden themselves. She was on the same level as they were. She was very calming. She was a farmer.” When the Oklahoma Conference of Churches wanted to set up a suicide intervention hotline, it contacted Mrs. Brock

Asked what kept his mother going, Mr. Brock said, “The Bible and the Constitution.” A Baptist, she often prayed with her callers. And, he said, she cautioned those who were suicidal to think about their families and what it would be like for their children “if they sat down at the supper table and there would be an empty chair.”  Mrs. Brock died at 87 on March 19, 2019, at her home in Durant, Okla. (Summarized form the New York Times, April 4, 2019)

Doesn’t it make you wonder what further dimensions each of our ministries could engage?

Conversion

Third, there is bread for the journey, wine for the soul, in the call to faith, in the experience of conversion.  For Luke, in the epoch, era, and time of the church, this is the baptism of the spirit.

Now let us make this personal, for you and me.  Somehow, we ended up in worship this morning, or we are listening to this service.  Is there a nudge to faith here, or to renewed faith here, for you? Faith is a gift of God, given in ordinary time, Luke’s time of the church.  Faith is the courage and capacity to get up and start again. It is a saving gift, a forgiving gift, a peaceful gift—the gift of life itself. Is there a nudge to faith here, or to renewed faith here, for you?  Faith is a gift of God, to you.

Our neighbor in Newton, Malick Ghachem, had a letter printed Wednesday of this week in the New York Times.  He is explaining his conversion to faith through the Catholic Church, at a time when many churches are awash in conflict, scandal and trouble:

The word church has two meanings in Catholicism:  the institutional church (the hierarchy of priests headed by the pope), and the Body of Christ (made up of all of us who are Catholic).  This second church is the one I joined. I follow the pope, but the institutional church has a distinctly secondary place in my understanding of Catholicism.  I want to see the institutional church reformed, but since it did not draw me to Catholicism in the first place, it would be unlikely to deter me in the end from the more spiritual definition of the church.

Many of us could say the same of our own life journeys in faith, in our own communities and churches.  

Coda

Are you hearing the voice of someone whose example gladdened your heart?  Take this sacrament to your comfort.

Are you remembering the labors of someone who provided saving health to others?  Take this sacrament to your comfort.

Are you at a moment, come Sunday, and for all the human foibles of the churches, when someone is calling your name, calling you to faith?  Take this sacrament to your comfort.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply