Handing Off the Baton of Blessing

A sermon based on Luke 24:53
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 17, 2015

The Ascension story Olivia just read has blessings in it and I plan to focus on that, so I thought I’d start with a little story about blessings. When we think of day-to day-blessings from God, we’d do well to remember a child’s very brief description of the blessing of her first ride in an elevator. She said “I got into this little room and the upstairs came down!” Blessings as we shall hear are about our bringing the heaven upstairs down to earth. 1

Today we are blessed to commemorate not just our children’s education and their educators, but Ascension Sunday, it’s a day on our liturgical calendar that doesn’t usually get a lot of hoopla– I do not even recall going to a church service where it was discussed.

Our earliest New Testament writer, Paul, doesn’t mention it and neither do three of the Gospels. The Ascension story only appears in Luke and Acts, both written by the same author, but it’s an important story, in fact celebration of the Ascension of Christ goes way back in Church tradition. And whether we think the story is historically accurate or a part of a Luke-Acts parable, it still has meaning. In the arc of the journey from Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost Jesus’ ascension from earth to heaven is pivotal.

It’s called Ascension Sunday because the stories in Luke and Acts indicate Jesus is taken up into heaven . . . He ascends. It’s not that Paul or the other Gospel writers did not think Jesus ended up in heaven, it is just they don’t tell the details like Luke.

Luke is probably my favorite Gospel, overall I tend to hear a glass-half-full nature to it, a very hopeful “believe-in-love-and-be-love” message chapter after chapter. In Luke women and other oppressed people, and even ne’er-do-wells and enemies, are especially highlighted beneficiaries of Jesus’ movement and work in the world. So much so that, in Luke, anyone we might want to hurt or hate, we Christians are checkmated out of acting violent toward and hating . . . Turn your cheek, love your enemy, do to others as you want done to you are all there in Luke (6:27-31); and, of course, love your neighbor is a supreme edict. These are about blessings to us, and others, and the world, and well . . . God.

Generally speaking Luke and Acts can be heard to be about blessings from Christ and God . . . as well about our being blessings. Indeed Luke’s “Jesus-Narrative” begins with Mary being blessed and a blessing by blessings us and God with her conception of Christ and her song of blessing we call “The Magnificat.” That song claims Mary and we are blessed by God. A God who remembers and blesses us with kindness according to God’s forever promise.

So Luke starts as a story of blessings. And it really should come as no surprise that Luke also ends with blessings. The very last verses in the book of Luke have Jesus continually blessing his followers and his followers in turn continually blessing God even as they await Jesus’ promise that they will be “clothed with power from on high.” As one commentary puts it, in this story “blessing begets blessings.” 2.

And as I said, Luke ends with “Jesus continually blessing.” I said that because the story has Jesus lifted into heaven as he bestows non-stop blessings . . . we can hear them as going on forever . . . not just a part of the Ascension but beyond the Ascension.

And it’s not just Jesus’ blessings that go on and on, we are told his followers “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (52-53). Humans, we learn, can bless God.
In between Mary’s blessings and the lesson today Luke is full of other blessings, so it is fair to say in Luke we have a Gospel about blessings.

We use the word “blessing” or variations of it a lot in church and in our culture. And here it is again in this story. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) has a great summary explanation of “blessings,” it reads:

In the Bible blessing may be understood as a performative utterance, the effective activity of pronouncing and bringing about good for someone. . . Blessing may also be an act of greeting or prayer that evokes good for someone or seeks to avert of neutralize evil. Finally, it may be an act of praise by which a benefactor, human or divine, is acknowledged and thanked for benefits received or expected.

Bibleworks software indicates that the Greek word translated as “blessed” in our reading is “eulogeo” which in the context of the story can be heard to mean in Greek that Jesus is both invoking blessings and consecrating His followers with solemn prayers.

So between the Anchor Bible Dictionary and Bibleworks we find the answer to the question of what blessing means in the story of the Ascension of Christ. Blessing means doing, evoking or thanking for good.

And in case any of us are wondering “consecrate” means being made holy.

The end of Luke can be heard to indicate that we are forever being given blessings and consecration by Christ. We get good things and are being made holy by the ascended Christ. And we can hear that the very last words in the Book of Luke are that Jesus Christ’s followers respond to his leaving not just with worship and joy, but by “blessing God.”

Jesus leaving earth for heaven is not a bad thing, his followers are not mourning over the turn of events from Holy Week to Easter to Ascension, God has made sure there is blessing in it. The end result being God offers blessings through Christ . . . and that Christians bless God back.

These blessings by God and blessings by Christians are pivotal to the Christian story because the crucifixion on Good Friday was meant to take that all away. Jesus was killed. His followers, like the rest of the world experienced that he was dead. No more teaching and doing love, no more blessings and consecration were in the offing by Jesus.

But … BUT! . . . Easter changed that dreary outlook. After dying, the unimaginable happened. Jesus was experienced as living. He arose from the tomb somehow. He is risen. And he continued to teach and love and bless and consecrate his Followers as the image of the risen being, Jesus.

And see, until the Ascension Jesus is doing most, if not all, of the work. He, as a single being–first as Jesus, a living man, then as the image of the risen Jesus Christ was the center of the movement and the provider of most of the actions and blessings. Until the Ascension he embodied God’s work on earth.

In short, until Jesus leaves he’s the one doing the brunt of God’s work, the Divine action. He’s the ands and feet and voice of God in the world.

Easter at first is a relief because Jesus still hangs around and do some more work. The movement doesn’t have to fall apart because the leader’s not really gone. But these followers, they have to eventually become the ones who start doing God’s work. They learn in the transition from Easter to Pentecost to become the ones that go on with the holy work Jesus started and taught them. The ministry of providing blessings to the world. In this sense Jesus has to ascend in order that we might ascend, not in the go-to-heaven sense, but in the take-the-higher-road-and-bring-heaven-to-earth sense. We do that by our blessings, by doing, evoking or thanking for good; by consecrating our lives and our communities so they are made holy. Jesus followers– including us– become the hands and feet and voice of God in the world.

So instead of just forever being given blessings and consecration by Christ as a single being, the Church –we, Christians in community– are charged to forever give good things and make things holy by and through the now ascended Christ. In today’s story, just before he ascends, Jesus promises to clothe His followers with power on high.

Next week, on Pentecost, we celebrate the story of how that comes true, how we become Church–Christians in community. You don’t want to miss that, a whole bunch of us wear red (all of us are invited to) and we talk about the amazing day the Church was born. The Body of Christ comes back in the form of communities of his followers who bless God and the whole world by spreading the Good News, doing Jesus’ work in the world.

The Good News boiled down is God’s love has no strings attached for you or for us or for anybody else; and that we are both blessed and blessings when we become a part of that unconditional love and spread it about– being blessings ourselves!
Ascension Sunday remembers that out of the love of Jesus’ life and teachings and action, out of the ashes of his death and the wonder of His resurrection, his single being ascends and his followers are blessed and become blessings empowered, charged as an organic growing community to be the second coming of Christ at the empowerment of Pentecost.

But first Jesus’ followers have to get – to understand– he is no longer going to be doing all the work, that his work, his presence, is now to be incarnate on earth by our being blessings. Blessings that bless God and the world and one another and us as individuals.

I used to run relay races in track, I know at least a couple of our youth have been running relays during track season – and as I was thinking about this text today a track metaphor came to me. On Pentecost we remember when Jesus’ followers actually begin to run with the baton of blessing Christ hands off to his followers. Ascension Sunday we remember when Jesus handed the baton of blessing to us, the Church. In track language, it’s the day of exchange— the baton of blessing is exchanged, given to us. And with the Ascension of Christ the workload is also exchanged to the new Body of Christ, the multitude of Jesus Followers.

May we hold tight to that baton of blessing and run our very best with it.

AMEN!

ENDNOTES:

1.Hodgin, Michael, 1001 More Humourous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p 41-42
2. Feasting on the Word, Commentary at p 525
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