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Ephesians 1.15-23 & Acts 1.1-11

Thomas Hawkins grew up on a farm. When was 13 or 14, his father decided it was time to let him learn how to drive the John Deere Model 70 tractor with a cultivator attached. This was no easy task. The corn was planted so the blades of the cultivator would pass between them. Swerving to the left or even veering a few inches to the right would dig up the young plants. But the tractor didn’t have power steering, so cultivating with it required both a steady and a firm hand.

          So it was that one day his father invited Thomas to ride along. After a few passes around the field, he asked Thomas if he would like to steer. Thomas took the wheel, with more than a little trepidation. Within five minutes, he had managed to uproot 40 feet of four rows of corn. His Dad offered a few pointers and Thomas continued down the field. But, the results were no better: long stretches of rows of corn were dug up and strewn behind him.

Finally, his father told him to stop. Thomas figured he’d had enough. Too much damage had been done and the lesson was over. But, to his surprise, his father said that he had to go do some chores in the barn and told Thomas to finish the 40 acre field and then come in for lunch. So he kept cultivating for the rest of the morning. For some time the carnage continued, but by noon, he had learned how to handle the tractor and finished the field.

The absence of Thomas’ father gave him space to learn. Reflecting on the experience, he observes, “My father’s absence was a sign to me that he trusted himself and what he taught me.  It also signaled that he trusted me.  His absence was empowering rather than disabling.  It authorized me to trust myself and trust what he had taught me.  I would never have learned to cultivate corn had I worked anxiously under his critical eye, hanging on his every gesture and comment.” [Building God’s People:  A Workbook for Empowering Servant Leaders, by Thomas R. Hawkins, (Nashville, TN:  Discipleship Resources, 1990), 7-9]

This is precisely what Christ’s ascension does for us. Jesus trusted that he had prepared his disciples well for the task ahead of them. He trusted that the Holy Spirit would empower and guide them. And he trusted that they could do the job: they could proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to the whole world, they could embody God’s love, share God’s grace and bear witness to the Good News to the people of every nation. By ascending, Christ makes space for us to be his church. By ascending, Jesus gives us room to learn how to live as his body in the world, continuing his work, nurturing a harvest of faith, hope and love.

I take this to be part of the meaning of the conclusion to the Ascension story presented in Acts. After Jesus disappears from sight, the disciples stand “gazing up toward heaven.” [Acts 1.10] It appears they were standing there with their mouths open and their heads spinning, unable to fully process what they just saw. But the spell was broken by the sudden appearance of two men in white robes—angels, perhaps. They said, in Eugene Peterson’s translation, “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?” [1.11, The Message] They seem to be saying: Yeah, it was an impressive feat. But it’s over now. He’ll be back. But until then, you’ve got work to do. So, stop staring and get going. [Jeffery Peterson-Davis, “Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1.1-11—Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 504]

 The two men seem to be calling the disciples back to their senses, reminding them that Jesus has spent the last 40 days instructing them about God’s kingdom so they can go out proclaim that kingdom in word and deed. He has commissioned them to go out and be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world. Just as Christ once descended from Heaven in the Incarnation to bring forgiveness, hope and love to the world, so too the disciples must now descend from the mountain to bring that same message of salvation to the world.  

We have been given work to do, but we are not left completely alone, devoid of help. Jesus is making space for us to learn and grow and serve, but he’s not abandoning us. The Ascension is about Christ’s presence as much as his absence. Ephesians declares that Christ is the “one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.” [4.10] Jesus who was one of us—a particular person born in a particular time, place and culture—is now universally present, able to draw near to people in every time and place and culture.  The One who had descended to us in his Incarnation, now has ascended above all things, revealing his identity as “the Lord who transcends time and space.” [Orr, Minister’s Annual Manual, 2003-04, 393] In other words, the Ascension enables Christ to be present and active everywhere at once through the Holy Spirit. Though he leaves his disciples in the physical sense, he actually becomes more universally available to both the church and all of creation.

The author of Ephesians declares the universal Lordship of Christ, stating that God’s power was at work in Christ when “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things…” [1.20-22] The incarnate and crucified Jesus of Nazareth is now the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus Christ, whose authority is above all earthly powers.

 Thus the church, Christ’s followers in all ages, may live in hope and with courage. We need no longer look upon earthly rulers—the wealthy, the powerful, presidents, kings, commanders, tyrannical parents or employers—nor upon earthly institutions—nations, governments, armies or corporations —with fear, awe or envy, for they are all subject to Christ. As Jesus says in John, “Take heart, for I have overcome the world.” [John 16.33 NIV; NRSV: “take courage”; CEB: “be encouraged”] In the end, all these earthly powers are subordinate to the power of the one who fills all things. Christ’s power, in all its “immeasurable greatness” [Eph 1.19], is at work in and among us.

In the same way, we no longer need to look on death with fear and trembling. Death is neither the final thwarting of God’s good work in the world nor the end of our stories, for the one who was crucified and buried was raised up victorious from the grave.  Death was defeated. So our “glorious inheritance” [Eph 1.18] is life—life abundant in this world and life eternal when God makes all things new.

These verses from Ephesians are a prayer that the readers might come to understand the ramifications of Christ’s resurrection and ascension.  When God enlightens the eyes of our hearts [Eph 1.18], we will understand that, because Christ is glorified and exalted, we can live in hope and courage, boldly bearing witness to Christ in all we say and all we do. Inspired by the example of Jesus, we can embody love, enact God’s compassion, and establish justice for all of our neighbors. Enlightened by the power and the presence of Christ among us, we can and should live in faith, hope and love and be the body of Christ in world.

 For this is how God has chosen to work in the world, how God does and will accomplish God’s purposes in the world—through the Body of Christ, the church, us. We are the ones whom God has entrusted to cultivate the field so that salvation may spring up and love may flourish.

This leaves us with a great deal of responsibility. There’s an old story that I first read in one of my predecessor Alan Groethe’s old sermons. I was reminded of it this week when I stumbled upon four different versions of this story from four different cultures. The story, in each version, follows these lines:

There was once a village in which there dwelled a very wise old woman. People often spoke of her seemingly unerring judgement in complex matters and her ability to answer any question, and so many sought out her counsel.

A young boy had grown tired of hearing all the glowing stories. Cynically, he was convinced no one could be so wise. So, he devised a plan to test the wise woman, convinced he could fool her. He captured a small bird. Cupping it between his hands so it could not be seen, he went to the wise woman.

He said to her, “In my hands I hold a bird. Tell me, is it alive or is it dead?” If the wise woman said the bird was dead, he would open his hands and it would fly away. If she said it was alive, he would crush it between his hands.

The wise old woman, hearing the boy’s question, immediately understood what he intended to do. She stared at him for a long time. Finally, she said, “You ask me if the bird is alive or dead. I do not know, for that is for you to decide. The answer is in your hands, my son. The answer is in your hands.” [based on Allen Groethe, “Speaking with Our Lives,” Matthew 4.18-22, Epiphany +3, January 27, 2002 and the versions of the story related in “Non-Theistic Liturgy Resources,” p. 12-13; St. Stephens College, Dr. Charles Bidwell, Coordinator (editor)]       

The answer is in our hands. We hold the power of death—of exclusion, of condemnation, of fear and hatred. And we hold the power of life—the power of hope, of redemption, of a new start, of a new community of love. We have the power to turn people away from God or to invite them turn toward God. We can show them the darkness of a self-righteous, fearful religion that discredits, rejects or belittles them or we can show them a light so lovely that they desperately want to know it’s Source. [Madeline L’Engle] We can keep our hands closed, clenching our fists so others can’t see the Good News which has been entrusted to us. Or we can open our hands, and let life and hope and love take flight. Jesus has left it in our hands. Indeed, he has entrusted it to our hands and he empowers our hands to continue his work.  

 Teresa of Avila, the great 16th century mystic, nun and reformer, underscored this truth in a famous poetic prayer:

God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,

No hands but ours, no feet but ours.

Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.

Ours are the hands with he is to bless everyone now.

Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.


Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

The Church is meant to be the instrument through which the Good News is declared, God’s love and compassion are enacted, and all people and all things are drawn to and filled with God. We are the Body of Christ, through which the power of the glorified Lord flows.  Ours are the hands and feet of Christ, and there is work to do.

 So let us bear witness to our Lord. Let us continue his work. Let us worship and pray, let us witness and serve. Let us tell the Good News so that all may share in our overwhelming joy as we praise the One who rose victorious over sin and the grave and has now ascended above all earthly authority and power to reign as Lord of all. Amen.