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BREADTH, LENGTH, HEIGHT, DEPTH

Acts 1:1-11 / Eph. 1:15-23; 3:14-21 Church of Saint David, Halifax


Jesus was gone. Into thin air. Or maybe it’s better to say “thick air”. When we paint pictures and stain glass with this story, we fill the sky with clouds of mystery and beams of golden glory. The air was thick for that small, frightened band of disciples up on the Mount of Olives that day.

So they stood there, looking up into thick air. Where else could they look? Should they look? Until two messengers came and questioned them, and set them straight. Sent them straight back to the city to wait. Sent them with a promise. The Jesus they were still looking for, as they looked up into thick air, would come again.

I stood there, on the Mount of Olives, and looked straight up into the air. It seemed like the proper thing to do, on the spot that Christians have claimed for centuries was the place. A crafty dealer in antiquities sold the spot to the Crusaders. They built a tiny, domed church there. Like an “X” on the spot. There’s a stone in the shrine, with a dark patch on it that looks like a footprint, if you look at it just right.

Did Jesus leave it there? Did he have rocket-feet, that burned a stone black just before he took off into thick air?

I had to wait awhile to go in to see it. The shrine is small, with a narrow door. The door was half-blocked by another crafty dealer’s souvenir cart. I bought a few postcards. I waited. And I looked up.

The sky was flawlessly blue. There were no clouds of mystery in it. No golden beams of glory, though the sun was bright. The sun glinted off the guns of the soldiers on the rooftops around the walled shrine. The air was thick that day.

It was the day of the first election for the Palestinian authority. The streets on the Mount of Olives were full, the lineups outside the polling stations deep and long. And quiet.

Israeli police and young conscripts lounged in doorways, and turned their faces upward to the January sun as they stood on rooftops and balconies. The air was thick with possibilities, but the possibility of peace– at least for a day– seemed to reign over all.

The air was thick with politics. I rode the plane with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter from Frankfort, and saw them later, in their blue vests, among the U.N. election observers.

The air was thick with religion. Israelis. Palestinian Christians. Palestinian Muslims. There’s a mosque right at the gate of the Ascension shrine. Add to the mix Christian pilgrims: protestant, catholic, orthodox, fundamentalist. Prayers in different languages offered all around.

I looked up into thick air. I saw, I heard, I felt: This is the same weary, dangerous, volatile world that Jesus came to. This is the same world that he left. Left without a shrine or monument, just a promise. We’re forever building shrines and monuments for him. But, do we live in the promise?

The disciples, a handful or two of them, looked up into thick air. Their vision was boundless. No walls, shrines, mosques around them on the Mount of Olives. Nothing higher than an olive tree or two to break their horizon. The city was behind them, on a hill of its own. Boundless vision. No sense of latitude or altitude. Just sky.

And they were... frightened? ...frozen? ...caught somewhere between hope and despair?

Imagine it. Jesus was with you. You were with Jesus. Then he was taken away from you. Or took himself away from you, to die a senseless death. Then he was back again! Alive! With you, you with him. Now he’s gone.

What do the borderless sky and the desolate earth hold for you now? The air you breathe is thick with threats that you are powerless to oppose. Powerless, because the only One who ever meant anything good or godly to you is gone!

But, just before he went away... and on the walk out to the hilltop... and before that in town... and, and even before he went away the first time...

What was it he said about receiving power from on high? Something? Someone? ...will come to you from beyond the boundless sky, through the thick air, and fill you with power... you will be witnesses to all the world...

If it’s true. If we remember it right... and, look! ...two angels come and tell us it is true...

Then the boundless sky and the Christless earth hold only possibilities for us. The air is thick with dreams to be dreamed and brought to life. The air is thick with visions to be lived. The air is thick with the power of God.

Will we cower in fear? Will we build a shrine? Or will we live in the power?

Half a lifetime beyond that day, half a world beyond that place, a man named Paul sat in Rome. Under arrest. Unable to see the sky. Waiting to stand in Caesar’s glory, and there to make the final defense of the Gospel, before certain death.

Paul’s vision was bounded by stone walls. Maybe a window broke his grey horizon. A solder at his door. A young scribe at his side, to record his last thoughts and prayers for the people of the churches around Ephesus.

A man once credited with turning the world upside down. His world had shrunk to this. This is what he gave his scribe to write:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend... what is the breadth and length and height and depth...

...of what? The breadth of a prison cell? The length of a walk to the place of execution? The height that hopes reach before they plummet to the ground? The depth of despair?

No. Paul the prisoner had a vision as boundless as the clear, blue sky over the Mount of Olives. The boundless sky that he couldn’t see, and the world beneath it, in bondage to Rome, held only possibilities for Paul. The air he breathed, dank prison air, was thick with the power of God.

Paul spoke:

God put this power to work in Christ when God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion... God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made Christ the head over all things for the church, which is Christ’s body, the fullness of the One who fills all in all.

Paul wasn’t there that day on the Mount of Olives. This is his reflection on the story that others told him, about the day when Jesus ascended into the thick air.

God’s power at work... for the church... fullness... abundance... power...

Like the boundless sky above, this desolate world is filled with possibilities. The air we breathe is thick with the power of God.

Will we cower in fear? Will we hide in our shrine? Or will we live in the power?

O people of the Church of Saint David, I pray that you may have the power to comprehend... what is the breadth and length and height and depth...

Yes, the air is thick. Within these walls, the air is thick with history. Thick with tradition. Too thick? Perhaps, for some. Not thick enough, for others, who are fearful of losing treasures with time, and cherished things with change.

For some, perhaps, breadth is the width of this chancel, length is the length of the aisle, height is the height of the nave, and depth is the depth of the deepest note on the organ. These are the dimensions of glory, and they elicit love and loyalty, and passion – as Presbyterians can be passionate. That passion has potential to be good, and gracious, and powerful. For others, perhaps, breadth, length, height, and depth mean more. They must mean more. Faith must stretch to latitudes and reach up to altitudes greater than the dimensions of any church. But what are those dimensions? How high is high? How wide is wide?

That passionate quest is good, and gracious, and powerful.

O people of the Church of Saint David, I pray that you may have the power to comprehend... what is the breadth and length and height and depth... of possibility. I pray that you may have power to comprehend together what God can, and will do, in you and through you, together.

The seekers and the savers, together.

The air is thick with history. Let us all breathe the confidence and strength that what has been and what is still can give us. But let us also breathe the power of God for what is yet to come.

Outside these walls the air is thick. Thick with still more history. Thick with politics. I am glad to breathe different air for a few days, and leave behind a dirty campaign in what has become a truly nasty atmosphere in Ontario these last few years. Or am I right in smelling a fall election here? The air is always thick with politics in Nova Scotia, I guess.

The air is thick, too with language. Words like downsizing, rightsizing, restructuring. Profane use of words like vision and mission and reform, to cover the truth about doing more with less for greater profit for the few.

Phrases like “Health Care Reform”, “Educational Rationalization,” “Welfare Reform.” Phrases that make sense in policy, and promote good ends, perhaps, but have a human cost that many people cannot bear. And so the air outside these walls is thick with pain.

And thick with fear. Each day’s news brings word of fresh disasters, unanswerable questions, cries for justice that can’t be met. The shrinking world brings echoes of gunfire from school corridors in Littleton, Colorado and Taber, Alberta, into schools in Petrolia and Halifax. Bombs fall from airplanes over Yugoslavia, and refugees pour out of planes in Greenwood and Trenton.

What will the future hold for our children, and grandchildren? What will tomorrow mean to parents and grandparents? Dare we speak of tomorrow for our world? The air is thick with fear.

Yes, this is the same weary, dangerous, volatile world that Jesus came to. This is the same world that he left. Left to us to transform with a vision of God’s Kingdom, in the power of God’s Spirit.

Will we cower in fear? Will we hide in our shrine? Or will we live in the power?

O people of the Church of Saint David, I pray that you may have the power to comprehend... what is the breadth and length and height and depth... of possibility. I pray that you may have power to comprehend together what God can, and will do, in you and through you, together.

I pray that you may understand that the air is thick with the power of God.

Power to respond to every fearful change and challenge. Power to respond with ministry that renews and transforms a hurting world. Power to declare the name of Jesus, who has been lifted up above all powers and authorities in this world, above and beyond all forces of darkness.

Power that transcends the breadth and length and height and depth of any problem.

Like the boundless sky above, the earth we walk too often in fear holds only possibilities for us. The air is thick with dreams to be dreamed and brought to life. The air is thick with visions to be lived. The air is thick with the power of God.

Will we cower in fear? Will we hide in our shrine? Or will we live in the power?