A Threshold Moment
A sermon based on Acts 1: 1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 28, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A few weeks back I was in Seattle visiting my children, but I also saw my sister Samantha who lives in nearby Port Orchard. We took wonderful ferry commutes to her lovely little home. While at Sam’s we got to talking about old times and went through a few photo albums from way back. I brought a couple of pictures home. One is of me being dropped off at college for the first time. It was taken moments before I was left on my own to begin living away from home.
I remember the moments shortly after that picture very well. As my parents (with Nancy in the back seat) drove away that day, it was one of those times in life when I told myself to soak it in, that this was a monumental moment. The drive away from the dorm was straight and long and Nancy and my parents told me later they were worried because as they looked back they saw me still standing there on the porch looking at them as they got blocks and blocks away from the dorm. But it was nothing to worry about, it was not a moment of sorrow for me. Rather it is etched in my mind as one of anticipation of great transformation. I knew in those moments that I was saying good-bye to life as it had always been under my parent’s roof. And I also knew I was about to say hello to something else. I had no idea how big that something else was.
I gazed a long time at the Ford Country Squire station wagon fading away with my parents and Nancy (who turned out to be the love of my life) in it but also fading away was life as I had known it. Something new was about to replace it.
On that dorm porch I was in between what had been, awaiting what was next. There are many such betwixt and between moments in our lives, if we think about it. Pregnancy is a good example, parents to be, especially first timers, are for a number of months, betwixt and between, awaiting the transformative moment of the arrival of a family. Other examples are awaiting the result of professional exams or try-outs for teams, choirs, bands and plays. The time of moving to a new town or a new job are other instances. The Bible has stories of betwixt and between times. Sometimes a day or less, like crossing the Red Sea. Sometimes a whole night, like wrestling with God. Sometimes many days like floating on an ark. Sometimes scores of years, like wandering the desert to the Promised Land. There are these times in human lives of waiting for the promise and unfolding of something new.
In seminary we learned to call such times, “liminal” or a “liminal space.” The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold, that open part of the doorway that stands between and frames two spaces. We must go into that space to get from one place to another. So to be in the liminal space is to be in-between here and there. It’s to stand in the threshold. It’s our betwixt and between places.
This morning lesson sets out one of the most important thresholds, liminal spaces, in our Christian narrative, the Ascension of Christ. We talk a lot about the Jesus stories that occur before Holy Week and during Holy Week, Easter Day and shortly after Easter. We even talk a lot about the Jesus Following in those times and at Pentecost and beyond when the Holy Spirit creates the church, the Body of Christ, living on in Jesus’ followers. But we do not talk so much about the very special liminal space that was created on the day of Jesus Ascension which divides and frames the time between the living Body of Christ known in one man, Jesus, and the living Body of Christ know in the men and women and youth and children of the Church.
The ten days from the Ascension of Christ to descension of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost represent a very Holy liminal space. It was a threshold that held the disciples as they decided what they would do now that they understood Jesus was no longer going to humanly lead the Jesus Following.
This year, Thursday, May 25th was officially Ascension Day, that’s ten days before Pentecost. Since few tend to be in church on Thursdays, we commemorate the Ascension today, the seventh Sunday of Easter. In our lesson, on the very first Ascension Day, the disciples find themselves standing between Easter and Pentecost gazing into the sky as Jesus Christ, in single human form, leaves them. It’s a pivotal threshold. It’s a liminal space. It’s a story about one of the most important liminal spaces in Christianity– dare I say, in history.
Except for the three days of liminal time between Jesus death and resurrection, Jesus had always been the present leader of the Jesus Movement. Both the pre and post Easter human forms of the one man Jesus did the teaching and did most of the work. He personally led the movement. Consequently prior to the Ascension, Jesus Followers understood Jesus as the sole incarnation of God on earth. This was so before and after Easter . . . up to Jesus’ departure at the Ascension. Jesus’ living and teaching before he was crucified was God’s presence in ordinary flesh. Rome’s attempt to destroy Jesus led to his death and three days of liminal time not knowing what to do next. Easter changed the uncertainty by making Jesus’ ordinary flesh extraordinary flesh. Remarkably, miraculously, Jesus was experienced as living after dying.
The Jesus Followers tragically lost Jesus to an earthly empire’s crucifixion, only to joyfully find Jesus in the heavenly empire’s resurrection. The resurrected Jesus, according to Acts, wanders with the Followers of Jesus for forty days. Like Jesus’ wilderness wandering before his ministry, the Jesus Followers have forty days in what had to be a strange and wonderful wilderness of Jesus’ post -Easter existence. Jesus the incarnation of God is experienced as a resurrected human.
Now Christians have long argued, and will most likely always argue, about the resurrection and what it really was, physical or spiritual, history or metaphor. But one thing Christians do not argue about is that experiences of Jesus in a singular human form leading his first followers lasted no more than forty days after Easter. It is historically accurate to say that at some point relatively soon after Jesus was crucified he no longer led the Jesus Following in a single human bodily form. One way or another, factually or metaphorically today’s story is about that reckoning.
While it is true that the crucifixion did not end experiences of Jesus’ existence, that Easter resurrected it . . . it is also true that all experiences of Jesus’ ordinary and extraordinary singular incarnational expression of God on earth changed shortly after he was executed and experienced as resurrected. Certainly Jesus’ life and death and resurrection continued on reverberating and affecting Jesus Followers and the world, but the moment Jesus left is one of anticipation of great transformation. It is good-bye to the Jesus Following as it had always been under Jesus’ singular human presence . . . and hello to something else. The story of the Ascension indicates the disciples had no idea how big that something else was. The Jesus Following as they knew it was fading away quickly. Something new was about to replace it. They are between what had been, awaiting what is next. They had to know that when Jesus ascended, fading away was the Jesus Following as it had been.
What were they to do? Well, Jesus told them what to do, Right? They were to wait for the Holy Spirit to baptize them, receive power from it, and become Jesus’ witnesses to the end of the earth.
But what did it mean? It had to, at the very least, mean that Jesus meant he was not going to be there in human form leading the way, nor be the sole human incarnation of God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.
But how could they know what that would mean? In that liminal space there’s this a gaping hole of unknowness–and there were choices to be made. They are betwixt and between.
The Ascension remembers the creation of a threshold for the Jesus Followers. The Ascension of Jesus in one human form as the Body of Christ, we now know was a require condition for the Church’s succession as the Body of Christ moving forward in the world in a whole new way.
The people Jesus left to form that Church are ordinary folks. It is so crucial for us to remember that, Jesus leaves his work behind to regular Joes and Janes, the yous and me-es, the us-es of the world. The Feasting on the Word commentary for our lesson puts it like this:
Among other things this text underlines how God works through the simplest of folk– peasants and outcasts, thick-skulled and fearful folk– to change the world. These disciples are given responsibility for Jesus’ radically revolutionary movement to turn the world right side up. 1.
Although Christians spend a lot of time arguing about whether there was (or was not) a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter or a bodily Ascension. It is hard for me personally to understand Jesus human body’s condition and existence as of primary importance, as the ultimate question. The truth seems to me to be that one way or another he was and is an experiential reality. And whether there really was a bodily Ascension, or not, the Truth is that one way or another there had to be a liminal space, a threshold time, after Jesus was no longer physically with the Jesus Followers for them to let Jesus the man go and to decide what they were going to do next. Should they give up on the movement? Should they each go their separate ways? Should they do what Jesus asked?
We are told in the story that angels show up and start the push to get the disciples out of the threshold. We are told
While [they] . . . were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 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.”
The liminal space between Ascension and Pentecost continues for days as the disciples respond to Jesus’ teachings and choose to do as Jesus asked, that is to wait for the promise. The wait in the narrative is the liminal space. Their waiting leads to Pentecost– where as Jesus promised they experience the Holy Spirit showing up, baptizing them and providing power so that they become Jesus’ witnesses to the end of the earth. It is the liminal space that that starts with Jesus’ Ascension –his human form’s sudden absence– that leads them to form together the Body of Christ acting in the world again.
Only after Jesus ascends his followers spend some time in liminal space before being inspired, coming to understand and experience that God can be incarnate in a number of people in the Church. It is in this way that not one, but many humans continually make up the Body of Christ. We are a part of that heritage.
The good news is that Christ’s Ascension and his disciples’ choices resulted in Body of Christ continuing on in the world. The Jesus Followers came to understand and teach and practice as Jesus did – and asked them to do– that they too could become Christ in the world . . . God incarnate ever after. That incarnation is known collectively as the Body of Christ, the Church.
See we are the legacy of Jesus’ first followers doing what Jesus taught and asked. And it all came about because in the liminal space created by the Ascension the disciples stepped out of the loss of God being incarnate in one person – Jesus– and stepped onto the Way of Jesus where they . . . and we can, and do, experience God incarnate in many.
Just as the disciples had to chose to continue to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ acting in the world modern Christians can, . . . should . . . must, also make that choice. That is how we act as the Church, the very Body of Christ in the world today.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1, p 500
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED