The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In all my ministry, I have never preached a sermon about the Ascension. Part of the reason is that it is a very odd story. I mean we just don’t see people being lifted up into the sky, and if you want to call that a mystery, that’s fine; if you want to call it a metaphor or a literary device, that’s fine. In terms of my own faith journey, it isn’t a terribly important story, but it has certainly received a lot of attention when it comes to art. And the artists didn’t have a lot to go on…you just heard it: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
This fourteenth-century image by Giotto is in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, near Venice. Giotto and his assistants covered the inside of this amazing place with frescoes that many art historians say helped bring in the Renaissance in Italy. Obviously, Jesus is at the center of the image with little angelic beings that look as if they are encouraging, as if to say, “Go! Go! It’s that way!” And below Jesus are the two “men in white robes” mentioned in the text, each pointing upward. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is in characteristic blue on the center-left of the bottom register, with the rest of the crowd.
Rubens’s Ascension puts the viewpoint from underneath Jesus, again putting Jesus in the center of the scene. No crowd is shown, just two cherubs, and the viewer is part of those gathered and looking upward. The reds in Jesus’ robe and the yellow light pouring forth from the clouds tells you what is really important.
And even into the 20th century, Salavador Dalí shows Jesus being taken up into a heaven that looks almost like the center of a sunflower with the dove of the Holy Spirit facing him and a distinctly feminine onlooker, who I take to be the feminine face of God the Creator. Jesus is at the center and the crowd and the men in white robes are absent.
But the imagery hadn’t always been focused just on Jesus.
In this 13th century manuscript, the focus is on the disciples…the only part you see of Jesus is his feet.
I love this early manuscript image that shows not only Jesus’ nail-punctured feet, but even the footprints he left behind. And the crowd is looking up wondering.
But my favorite, in terms of what it says about the story from Acts, is a late 19th century painting by James Tissot.
It doesn’t even show Jesus’ feet. It’s all about the light permeating everyone in the painting, which in this case is the two men in white robes and the crowd. Look at the crowd and what they are doing…do they look like they have their “act” together? They look confused, mortified, wondering what they would do next! But the light is still among them.
I don’t think the story of the ascension is primarily about Jesus. You see, it comes at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and Jesus needs to finish his curtain-call after the resurrection and take his place. And that leaves the crowd of followers. And it leaves us.
Imagine yourself for a moment as one of Jesus’ early followers, and you’ve walked with him through the triumph of Palm Sunday’s entrance into Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. What must they have thought after the crucifixion? The Jewish renewal movement he started was now doomed to fail, and the kingdom of God he proclaimed was nothing more than a pipe dream.
And then he came back, rose from the dead and was seen by his followers. They must have been so amazed and gleeful that he was back among them. But then it happened again: Jesus was gone. Or was he? Can’t you just imagine the disciples saying, “Well, now what?! We’re supposed to carry the news to Judea, Samaria, and the whole world! This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!”
If you are like me, perhaps you’ve caught yourself at some time over the past three months saying, “Well, now what?! The church building is closed and we have to learn to livestream and handle Zoom meetings…This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!” And we all know that this pandemic is nothing as earth-shaking as the disappearance of Jesus.
Have you ever thought what the first disciples were up against? Has it occurred to you that it was a miracle that this ragtag group of Jewish heretics started a movement that would grow into the largest religion on the planet? There are about 2.4 billion Christians in the world today.
What are we up against? A deadly virus without a cure that continues to spread around the globe. A president who is more concerned about how he looks than about the lives of US citizens. An economy that is at best volatile. Job losses surpassed only by the Great Depression. And closer to home, having to be church in the world, instead of being church together in this building.
If you only have one theological take-away from the pandemic let it be this: the church is not the building. The church is you and me and all of us together being the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Christ in the world. It is you bringing groceries to elders and also having the grace to receive the gift of help. It is you supporting people with food and housing insecurity, immigrants, and those working on the border. It is you paying your whole pledge early so that we avoid cash flow problems. It is you supporting our beloved camp at La Foret, which has birthed more UCC ministers than anyplace I know. And as one of our elders of beloved memory, Bob Calkins, used to tell me: “Hal, it’s all about love.”
You are the love and the light, my friends, and I am so grateful that you are a part of the mission and ministry of Plymouth. You are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. It’s hard being apart, and it won’t be forever. It’s not about the building…it’s about God’s love and the love we share. And love continues…. Christ’s light continues.
Part of the mystery of the growth of the church is contained in the light in Tissot’s painting. Amid the bedlam of humanity doing its best, and oftentimes failing, there is love and there is light. Keep shining bright, my friends!
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Images: public domain
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I want to share some background with you about our story for today from the Book of Acts, chapter 17. The Acts of the Apostles tells of the movement and expansion of the good news of Jesus the Christ as well as the actions of the earliest followers of Jesus and their gatherings or churches after they receive the great anointing of the Holy Spirit during Jewish festival of Pentecost. Acts tells the story of the preaching and evangelism of the apostle, Peter, who knew Jesus so well and of the apostle, Paul, who never knew the man, Jesus. Paul received God’s good news of Jesus in a miraculous vision of the risen Christ as he was literally pursuing the persecution of Jesus’ Jewish followers after Pentecost.
Our story today centers on Paul. Paul was born in Tarsus, now in modern day Turkey. He was a Jew from his mother’s heritage and a Roman citizen from his father’s. As such he was educated not only in the Torah but also in Greek/Roman rhetoric. All of these elements go into the complex character of Paul whom we can learn so much from in theological dialogue, sometimes in theological conflict, as we read his letters to the earliest churches. In Acts the stories of Paul are told through the lens of the gospel writer of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and was very likely writing some 20 or more years after the death of Paul. Not necessarily concerned with writing fact-checked details of Paul’s life, this writer wants to picture Paul’s audacity and passion in sharing his new faith in the revelation of God in the risen Christ.
At the beginning of chapter 17 in Acts, we find Paul traveling throughout Asia Minor from city to city with his companions, the older, Silas and the younger man, Timothy. They are fervently spreading the redeeming and powerful news of Jesus to Jews and any Gentiles who might listen as well throughout the region. We have to admire their tenacity as time and again they are thrown out of the synagogues by fellow Jews offended by their claims of Jesus as the Messiah. Their lives are threatened. They are beaten and jailed by the Romans for being subversive in preaching that the God of Jesus the Risen Christ is Lord rather than Caesar. Having been thrown out of the town of Thessalonica by the Jews, they are followed to the town of Beroea by these same irate men who are want to expel them from the whole region. Believers in Beroea find and shelter the three. They hide Silas and Timothy and secretly escort Paul to Athens in order to save their lives.
Our story begins in the middle of chapter 17. Paul is waiting for his missionary companions to join him in Athens. It ends with his sermon to the intellectual elite of Athens at a place of council and debate known as the Aereopagus or “Ares’ Hill” for the Greek god of war. During the Roman Empire it became known as Mars Hill for the Roman god. This was a hill outside the city center with a stone amphitheater. For centuries, even before the democracy of Greece was formed, the educated went to this hill to debate philosophy and make legal decisions. These men were often advisors of the king. Though Athens was part of the Roman empire in Paul’s time, Mars Hill and its council still functioned as a seat of authority in the city.
You will hear that Paul’s intent as he preaches to the intellectual elites is to open their minds to a new image of God, the ONE God revealed in Jesus the Christ. The information in his sermon may seem quite familiar to you. It is the salvation story of the Bible. To challenge what may be our overly familiar images of God, I have changed some of the pronouns that Paul uses for God from “he” to “she”. Hearing an unfamiliar pronoun takes our images out of their familiar God boxes that are culturally constructed to even speak of the God mystery. Now we know that the Holy cannot be contained in an intellectual box so perhaps, hearing new pronouns, the ears of our minds and hearts will open to bring us a new encounter with the Holy ONE. Perhaps we will hear the words of Paul with some shock and awe as the Athenians did so long ago and begin to seek God anew. Acts 17. 16-32
16While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, "What an amateur! What's he trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods." (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill [The intellectuals on Mars Hill said to Paul,] "What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean." (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown God.' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands. 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though [She] needed something, since [She] is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek [God], perhaps perhaps even reach out to [God/Him] and find [God/Her.] In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist, [have our being.] As some of your own poets said, 'We are [God’s] offspring.' 29"Therefore, as God's offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when [God/She] intends to judge the world justly by a man [God/He] has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising [this man] from the dead."
32When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, "We'll hear from you about this again."33At that, Paul left the council. 34Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Location 42947). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.] For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us…. Thanks be to God.
“An unknown god”…. Mirabai Starr, world religions scholar, author, and translator of St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, writes of “an unknown god” in a 2014 Huffington Post Article:
“I have always been drawn to a God who eluded me. A God who transcends gender — transcends everything, actually. A God who rebels against all forms, annihilates conceptual constructs, blows my mind. In other words, a God I can’t believe in. Because beliefs are dangerous — dangerous to God, anyway. The minute we define Ultimate Reality we destroy it. God chokes and dies inside the boxes we make.”
Starr goes on in this article to write of the God she seeks to be in relationship with rather than intellectually construct. I think this was Paul’s intent as he introduces the unknown god to the Athenians as the God he knew as creator and redeemer of the world, the very Ground of Being. In Paul’s Jewish heritage, the God who names God’s self as “I AM” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Paul begins with images of God from natural theology, as creator the cosmos and all of its beauty, then moves to an ever-present, seemingly beneficent God who is the parent of humankind. These would have been familiar images to the Athenians as he indicates. Finally, he brings in the shock and awe, announcing the God who has the unbelievable power to conquer death, to resurrect a man from the dead. No wonder some to the Athenians laughed at, ridiculed Paul, in one translation called him “babbler.” And yet others said, “We want to hear about this again!” And some believed and followed this God of Jesus the Christ on the way of faith.
This God that Paul preached to the Athenians rebuking their notions that God can be kept and worshiped in human-made idols – who is this God for us today? Is this a God that will turn us from the idols of our times? What are the idols that flood the cities of our lives? They are probably as numerous as the idols of the Athenians, though we may not make them out of gold or silver or stone. We may make them out of achievement in work, or in wealth, or in athletic endeavor, or in intellectual pursuits, or in following the best health practices. We can even make an idol of following religious practices in order to earn God’s notice. Are our works of social justice ever in danger of becoming idols? Our political views and actions? Our need to be right? Whatever we set before seeking, reaching out to God can become an idol. Trying not to have idols could become an idol.
Do you catch my drift here? God is the undefinable container in which all of the universe, all that we know, has its being. Each of us lives and moves and has our being in God, whether we acknowledge this or not. “Bidden or unbidden God is present with us.” This wisdom saying is usually attributed to Carl Jung, yet he found it in the ancient Latin writings of a Desiderius Erasmus who attributed it to an even older Spartan (Greek) proverb. Paul proclaims this unknown, yet ever-present God as not just a beneficent creator, but a fierce lover of humankind, so fierce that God defeated death itself in the risen Christ. Paul proclaims that this God, “I AM,” who raised the man, Jesus, from the dead, was Lord of all, not Caesar or the empire. This unknown God is not an inanimate idol made by human hands or human will, but a living presence.
Who is the God that we proclaim? Who is the ONE that we seek before any of the idols in our lives? Is it the God of relationship, ever-present, fiercely loving, and always seeking us, revealed in Jesus the Christ? Our biblical and theological heritage speaks of this God as “he”. Yet we know that God is neither male nor female, God is ALL, God is ONE. God answers to Father, to Mother, to Beloved, to Holy Mystery, to Gracious Bearer of Light, to Challenger of Our Lives, to Comforter of Our Souls’.
During our time, as we live and move and have our being in this God in the midst of pandemic, in the midst of intense political strife, in the midst of extreme economic uncertainty and divisive polarized rhetoric of our day, may we put aside the idols that tempt us when we are fearful, that distract us in our grief. May we turn our hearts, our ears, our minds, our full attention to the ONE who is ever-present, who grieves with us, who rejoices in our presence and in our joys. The ONE who has conquered the power of death and brings us gifts of grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness as we seek to be in relationship with one another and with God. May we take the time during these tumultuous times to still ourselves that we may know again and again the “unknown” living God in whom we live and move and have our being.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)