“A Liminal Moment”

Scripture – Acts 1:1-11a

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, May 21, 2023


I know you are wondering, so I want to be perfectly clear from the outset: this sermon was not created by Artificial Intelligence. Some might say it was created by questionable intelligence!

Today, we ponder a passage that is at odds with our modern scientific cosmology: the ascension of Jesus. These days many Christians barely give it a nod, but in the ancient world it was a prominent day on the Christian calendar – not far behind Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The event was weighty enough to find its way into the early creeds of the church. Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include the line: “He ascended into heaven.”

That was all well and good in prescientific times, however, with our postmodern view of the universe, this story may prompt more eye rolling than conviction. “Oxford theologian and Anglican priest Keith Ward captures the clash of ancient and modern cosmologies that we experience with the ascension story. He writes: ‘We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way.’”1

In the first century, when Luke wrote, his description fit perfectly with his day’s understanding of the physical universe. Today it makes no sense. Does faith demand that we accept this story as a literal historical event or is it a metaphor that has the power to draw us into the story?

Picture this moment in the life of the disciples. Jesus has infused them with vitality and joy, meaning and hope. For three years they have been tutored by the master teacher who has awakened them to divine wisdom. He has revealed God as a loving parent who wants the best for them, and he has opened their eyes to a remarkably beautiful way to live. He has exposed them to the power of sacrificial love, challenged them to treat others as they would want to be treated, and taught them that peacemaking holds a prime place in God’s heart.

However, Jesus’ physical presence with them is now coming to an end. That dazzling chapter of their lives is reaching its conclusion. A new chapter is beginning and we can imagine the disciples are feeling jittery, if not terrified. If I try to put myself in the shoes of the disciples, I think I know what song I would be humming: the song made popular by the band, R.E.M. Many of you can sing it. “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

It was a liminal moment. The disciples were standing on the threshold between what had been and what was yet to come.

In one sense, that is always the case for us. We have a past that is filled with all manner of positive and negative experiences, and we hope to live into a rich and fulfilling future. But it is what we do in the NOW – in the moment – that will shape our future. And not only our tomorrow, but also the future of others.

We miss the point of this story if we imagine the ascension of Jesus to be merely an ancient tale from prescientific times describing how Jesus was beamed up to heaven. This is a pivotal event in the Christian story. It marked the moment when the ministry of Jesus ended and the mission of the church began.

According to our passage, the disciples initially misunderstood what was happening. They said to Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?” Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know the time.” And then, he cut to the bottom line. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Our text says that after Jesus spoke these words, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Two men in white robes ask the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” As I understand it, this is not simply a literal question about them gawking at the sky. I think the disciples were being asked, “Why are you looking for God to make the world right? What did Jesus just say to you? YOU will be my witnesses.”

It is a moment akin to runners in a relay race. Having completed his leg of the race, Jesus handed the baton to the next runners – the disciples. In passing the baton, Jesus was saying, “Through you the homeless will be sheltered and the hungry fed. Through you the sick will be healed and the grief-stricken comforted. Through you the weak will be protected and the oppressed set free. Through you the faith will be spread and the ways of God will become known.”

And within a few days, these previously indecisive and panic-prone individuals were transformed into intrepid and energetic witnesses who created the first Christian communities and began to spread the faith against staggering odds.

“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said. He was speaking to those he had lived and worked with, but his words echo down through the centuries and are intended for anyone who claims to be his follower. The baton now rests in our hands. God expects us to carry on the work Jesus began.

As we faithfully fulfill our duty, it is essential that we keep in mind that most of the time our efforts are not rewarded by a startling bolt of light that slays the darkness. Like Jesus, we still live in Herod’s world, so the gains are modest. However, we dare not forget that some of the seeds we plant flourish beyond our sight. We simply cannot see all of the repercussions of an act of love. We cannot see the long-term impact of a kind and generous act.

Do you know the story of Howard Thurman? He grew up in Florida in the early part of the 20th Century when there were separate schools for black and white children. Otis Moss III shares Thurman’s story.

“Public education for black children in Daytona Beach ended with the seventh grade. Without an eighth grade, there could be no demand for a black high school; and if, by chance, a demand was made, it could be denied on the ground that no black children could qualify. Thurman was bright and yearned to continue his education. The superintendent of the schools examined Thurman. He passed, and a short time later the eighth grade level was added to the black public school.”

“Thurman yearned to keep going, but there were only three public high schools for black children in the entire state of Florida. However, there were some private church supported schools. The nearest one to Daytona Beach was in Jacksonville. A cousin who lived in Jacksonville told Thurman’s mother that if he enrolled in the school he could live with him and his wife doing chores around the house in exchange for a room and one meal a day.”

“When the time came for Thurman to leave for Jacksonville, he packed a borrowed old trunk with no lock or handles. But after buying his ticket at the railway station, the agent refused to check his trunk because the regulations stipulated that the receipt must be attached to the trunk handle, not to a rope. Therefore, the trunk would have to be sent express. But after Thurman bought his train ticket, he did not have the money to send his trunk. He collapsed on the steps of the railway station and cried his heart out.”

“But when he opened his eyes, he saw before him a large pair of work shoes. It was a black man dressed in overalls and a denim cap. The man said, ‘Boy what in the hell are you crying about?’ And Thurman told him. The man said, “If you’re trying to get out of this town to get an education, the least I can do is help you. Come with me.’ The man took Thurman to the agent and asked, ‘How much does it cost to send this boy’s trunk to Jacksonville?’ Then he pulled out his rawhide money bag and counted out the money. The agent handed over the receipt, and then, without a word, the man in the overalls turned and disappeared down the railroad track. Thurman never saw him again.”

Moss writes, “We will never know who that stranger in the railroad station was. He left no record, wrote no books. All he did was give hope to a young boy sitting alone in a railway station.”

“Thurman made it to Jacksonville and went to high school. Overcoming further challenges, he made it to college. In time he became a minister, philosopher, and teacher. And he became the mentor of another young man, by the name of the Martin Luther King Jr., who took Thurman’s works as the basis of his nonviolent resistance. That stranger at the railroad station changed history with a generous gesture that gave hope to a despairing black boy.”2

Why are you a follower of Jesus? I don’t know about you, but one of the chief reasons I’m a follower is because every now and then I get a glimpse of God’s realm breaking into this flawed and broken world. Every once in a while, I see good knocking the socks off evil. I see love put the kibosh on hate. I see peace subdue animosity. I see generosity swat aside inequity. I do not spot it nearly as much as I would like because darkness is a hefty foe. But if I’m paying attention and peering into the right places, I detect signs of God’s emerging realm.

As followers of Jesus, we are driven by hope – hope that God can make use of even our modest actions to accomplish something grand. Whose trunk can you ship?



  1. Dan Clendenin, “Taken Up to Heaven: The Ascension of Jesus,” May 14, 2023
  2. Otis Moss III, Dancing in the Darkness, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), p. 10-11