Ascension Sermon,

May 21,2023 – Church of Peace

Michael Swartz



Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.  – Winston Churchill, at a moment in WWII


The Ascension of the resurrected Jesus Christ was not the end of the story.  It was a midpoint of the narrative.

While the gospel of Mark left the remainder of the story as a sort of a mystery, Matthew, Luke and John portray it as the beginning of a new era, the era of the church as the locus of the continuing ministry of Jesus.  This was now the era of the Holy Spirit, moving through the church.  And Luke, in his two-volume work, Luke and Acts, made this most explicit.  The new era begins next Sunday with Pentecost.


Our Christian understanding of history is reflected in the way we talk about time:  BC and AD.  Before Christ and Anno Domino – the year of the Lord.


Knowing where we are in time orients our understanding and can shape our actions, or at least how we feel about things.


On a personal level this makes a big difference.  I always remember the quote of longtime Church of Peace member, Loudella Bernauer; “If I had known how long I would live I would have taken better care of myself.”  In her later years she was a frequent flyer at Franciscan hospital.  She joked that they should name a wing for her.

In the few months Nancy’s mother’s life it was difficult for her.  We knew we could sustain the care with the help of hospice.  But we also knew we could not keep it up forever.  It was mercifully brief.  Thank God.  Rest in peace.


A quotation from Rev. Erston Butterfield, an Associate Minister of the Illinois Conference of the UCC, in the basement fellowship hall of this building in the 1970s that I heard is, “Well, it does not matter much what you do, this church will be dead in five years, anyway.”  Thank God, our congregation and Pastor Ken Kuenning took that as a challenge rather than a death sentence.  And often at an annual meeting I would lift up that comment and remark with glee, “well, we ain’t dead yet.”


At the beginning of the 20th Century there was a consensus among the educated classes that religion was dying.  I am most familiar with Sigmund Freud, who believed this was true.  But this was the thinking in other spheres as well. Secularity, rather than religion, was the shape of the future.  In Bob Woodward’s 1987 book VEIL – the Secret Wars of the CIA, there was a post-mortem of the debacle of the Iranian revolution, and a list of 12 things the US intelligence got wrong. (This was when the Shaw of Iran went down, the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power and there were Americans held hostage.) Reason number 9[i] was that the embassy and the state department could not believe that religion could be a consequential force, potent force, a revolutionary force, in the shaping of a nation in the 20th Century.  Well, it may not be our idea of religion, but it has indeed proved powerful.  Think 911.  Words about religion seem to be on the up-swing at this moment in the national and world conversations about politics and human rights.



So, since by the power of the Holy Spirit, God still has a mission in the world, what does that mean?  How do we discern God’s mission?  How do we participate in God’s mission in the world, our nation, our church, our personal lives?


Personal.  God walks with us still, as Jesus walked are far as Bethany with the disciples.  God accompanies us, loves us, teaches us, inspires our prayers and praiseful worship.  We may want to double down on:  Love the Lord your God with all your mind, soul and strength, and love our neighbor as yourself.  As you would that others do to you, do also to them likewise.  Our faith, Jesus faith, was and is an ethical religion, it pertains to how we treat others as well as how we think in our hearts.  And our faith, our religion, is of a communal sort, “Where two are three are gathered in my name…”  The notion of the Holy Spirit is that each of us gets some, and then we interact with each other in love to shape our understanding and plan our action.  We care not for ourselves alone.  We relate to others in Christian love.

One of the growing ideas/insights in our brand of the Christian religion in my lifetime has been to appreciate how Jesus accepted women and children as well as men, Samaritans and Romans as well as Jewish folks, folks with disease and healthcare needs, disreputable people in his culture, tax collectors, unclean people – your get the picture, Jesus resisted “other-ing” people.  And putting them down, neglecting their interests.  Jesus seems to have been against devaluing people of other religions, even.  And found precedent for this in his reading of scripture.  (This could be a whole sermon.)  Jesus prayer in John, “That they all might be one.”

And God is still speaking.  Our faith grows and changes.  We don’t put periods where God puts commas.  This is a profound insight that has moved folks in our faith family at least since the 1700s.


Church.  As we look for a new settled pastor at Church of Peace we are at an inflection point.  We want to make sure that we plan for a sustainable future.  (At one point a contractor said about fixing some part of our facility, “Than should be good for 15 or 20 years.”  The area he was talking about was about 60 years old at the time.  I asked, “Could you think of a fix that would last longer?”  We need to plan for longer than our personal lifespan.

Our church is a good neighbor church.  We do not try to “get over” on others.  We cooperate.  We partner.  This has been one of our special powers and we should keep this going.  It is an asset.

Our church needs to keep talking to each other with respect and openness.  We have a diversity of experience, ideas and abilities and need to honor each other to be strong.

We need to keep track of and support each other.  We do, and this too is a special strength.  We must to give as well as get.

Our church needs to hold up our end of the conversation.  There are some very different ideas about what God wants in the world, for women, for people of the African diaspora, for poor people, for people in prison, for LGBTQ folks.  We must be ready to say our piece, calmly, with dignity, and clearly.


Which gets us to…

Our Nation and Our World.  Church of Peace continues to witness to the power of God by doing things.  We must continue to do our thing.  Jane Courtright and I were sitting in her office laughing about the copy of The Little Engine that Could on her bookshelf.  I am so proud of the Church of Peace, the food pantry, the work camps, the parish-nurse program, the music ministry, the loyalty to each other in times adversity and shame, the Community Caring Conference, community organizing, being an anchor in the Long View Neighborhood.  I am so pleased that Jesus would probably criticize me for the sin of pride!  I’ll take my chances for you!

Church of Peace reminds me of the quote, “If you don’t like the news go make some of your own[ii].”  Church of Peace has engaged in the political process of Rock Island over the years by doing appropriate things, and has made our community a better place, and embarrassed some of our neighbors to step up and do their part as well.  In our own gentle way we must stand our ground.



The Holy Day of the Ascension reminds us that we are in the middle of things, not the end or the beginning.  Transition is taking place.  It won’t be the same.  Some things will be better and more powerful.  We also have some nostalgia.  As a senior citizen I count it a privilege to be part of something that was going on before I was born and will continue after I am gone.  Something that is making a difference for good.  Something that carries forward positive value.  In a general sense this is the benefit of being part of God’s mission in the world.  And a particular expression of this is the Church of Peace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen and amen.

[i] page 110.

[ii] If You Don’t Like the News, Go Out and Make Some of Your Own Paperback – September 1, 1994 , by   (Author)


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