(a sermon for June 1, 2014, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1: 6-14)
The older I get the more I realize that a great many of life’s most important lessons have been taught to me in the simplest of ways; oftentimes even a passing comment ends up resonating for years in a variety of ways. For instance, I remember once when I was young, sitting with my father and the other men on weekend outings at his little hunting camp up in the woods of northern Maine and listening to them talk all about wilderness lore; something we kids came to understand as “woods savvy,” which simply put, was the instinct necessary for one to become a master outdoorsman!
To possess “woods savvy,” you see, was to have something akin to a “sixth sense” out in the wild: it was the ability to read signs in the wind, water, sky and land to get a clear sense of everything going on in the woods around you, even if you weren’t able to see it. I still remember one of the men always saying that “if you could pick up all the trees, just long enough to catch a glimpse of everything hiding in those woods, you’d be shocked at all the wildlife that was always there but you never saw for all the puckerbrush.” That’s why, he said, when you’re out in the woods you always have to be paying attention; constantly watching and peeking through the trees and across the horizon for that which is just out of our sight!
I’ve always remembered that; and in fact, over the years I’ve come to see “woods savvy” as something of a metaphor for life, especially during those times of utter uncertainty and anxiety in my own life when I would have done almost anything to get some insight as to the unknown!
You know what I mean: what parent hasn’t at one time or another held her child close and wondered how that child was going to turn out as an adult? Or the soon-to-be-graduating seniors out there who are quietly terrified over not knowing how their lives are about to change! For that matter, who among us in the process of navigating life’s many detours and potholes haven’t wished, however fleetingly, to remove the veil between the now and the not yet for a moment or two, if only to know that it’s all going to work out and that everything will (eventually, at least) be alright.
It’s a great dream, but of course it’s not for us to know how our story turns out. Rather it is left to us to live out that story to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. Ours is a life of walking in the woods with the “savvy” we’ve picked up along the way; ever and always watching carefully for signs that are right before us yet are ever beyond our sight!
This is a sentiment that underlies our text for this morning: the story of our Lord’s ascension into heaven; and specifically, the disciples’ reaction to that happening. Because what we find here is that even after the resurrection, even given that their hope had been fulfilled and the future was wide open before them, these disciples still didn’t quite “get it.” To wit, in these last moments together on the earthly plain, they ask Jesus – again (!) – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
What they were asking, you see, was if the old point of view still held; that the kingdom of God could somehow be garnered and measured politically. Even with all that they had experienced in the company of Jesus, the disciples still could not begin to grasp how great and all-encompassing the kingdom of God would be; they were still seeing things through worldly lenses, not unlike how the political pundits of our own time keep trying to assess the results of elections that are still months away! Just give us some kind of sign, Lord, they kept saying to Jesus. Let us know how this is going to turn out so that we’ll know and be ready.
But Jesus answers them this way. “It is not for you,” he says to them, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own hand. But 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.” And in truth of fact, this was nothing new, as Jesus had said this all along – you know not the day nor the hour, the Son of Man will come as a thief in the night – in other words, it’s not for you to know God’s schedule for the kingdom; it’s your job to make ready for that kingdom’s coming; your task to tell the good news to all at home and to strangers abroad; to be about the work of ministry in my name until my return! It is for you to be witnesses, says Jesus, and I will give you power to do it.
This actually amounts to a “heads up,” if you will, from Jesus to his disciples! For as much as they had been through already, this was only the beginning: what they didn’t know, of course, is that very shortly it would be Day of Pentecost and they’d be receiving God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Before long, they’d all be out in the crowd that filled the streets of Jerusalem, each of them telling good news in every language possible and preaching sermons that literally shook the world.
There would be miracles and amazing acts that followed them wherever they went, and over time, there would be others who’d joining them in proclaiming the gospel; a small circle of believers growing ever larger by the day as this news spread across what we know as the Holy land, and even further to the Greek Isles, Rome and beyond. Tradition holds that Peter’s brother Andrew traveled as far as Scotland, and that Thomas eventually made it to India; each of them carrying this good news of Jesus Christ – his ministry, his death and his resurrection – so that every nation and every generation might share in his salvation.
Theirs, you see, was a powerful witness; one fueled by their having received both the promise and the prize; one offered with a confidence borne in faith, and with the assurance that the way ahead, however dangerous, would be made secure by God’s own presence in the Spirit. It was a legacy of faith and salvation through Christ that has continued to this day and it lives on in this generation …even in you and in me, who are the glad recipients of God’s grace communicated by those original disciples so many years ago.
Now I know that in many ways, for us this all seems like so much ancient history; but in truth, friends, we 21st century Christians have more in common with those first disciples than you might think: for instance, like them, we also find ourselves living in the place and time between Christ’s ascension and his return, caught somewhere between the now and the not yet, and engaged in a lifetime journey of faith that goes from dead center to the outer reaches. Our journey may not be one directed to far-flung nations, but it’s no less a challenge for us to carry the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”
Our mission field exists on the absolute fringes of life as we know it today, amidst a world and culture that struggles with mixed messages and muddled priorities. It’s a place that exists as near to us as our own community, or for that matter, even around our own kitchen tables. We are called to bring good news precisely into places where truth is lacking; and as is so with any endeavor of life that’s worth pursuing, on the journey of faith we might never know exactly where we’re going to end up, or even what particular route we might be taking; we just know that it’s important for us to go, and to do so with the integrity of what we know to be true.
And that, friends, is discipleship.
Actually, I’ve always been fond of what the philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard has said about discipleship; he says that the kind of faith journey we’ve been talking about here is, in fact, “an apprenticeship to Jesus,” one’s own decision to walk with Jesus, learn from Jesus, and be with Jesus in order to be capable of doing what Jesus does. “I am learning from Jesus,” he writes, “how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life… as he would lead it if he were [me].” In other words, it’s the cultivation of self and family and workplace and community and especially the church so that it serves to witness to Jesus Christ and his gospel.
For example, as “apprentices of Jesus,” the mysterious and often bewildering task of raising children in this day and age ought to say something about who Jesus is in our lives; so that how we love our children and our grandchildren is a reflection of how Jesus loves us! The decisions we make, the priorities we set for ourselves, the standards by which we live should be in keeping with the same Christian ethic that been modeled for us in Jesus himself; so that what we live is truly what we proclaim, so that others properly see and learn from us what they need to know about Christ.
Even the moments of crisis and conflict – those times when life itself throws us a curve – these provide the very moments when the true depth of our faith becomes apparent and, moreover, influential to those around us. And don’t misunderstand, we’re not talking here about being perfect, “know it all” Christians; in fact, it’s just the opposite. To quote Dallas Willard again, discipleship is not “becoming the Christian nag-in-residence, the righteous upholder of all propriety, and the dead-eye critic of everyone else’s behavior.” But it is being “watchful and prepared to meet… spiritual need… with words [and acts] that are truly loving, thoughtful and helpful.” It’s living the gospel and imitating Christ in everything we do amidst all the “stuff” of life. When that happens, you see, it’s a powerful witness!
At the end of the day, you see, so much of what is good in us; all of those qualities within us that are kind and compassionate and healing and unifying are truly those things that we learn from Jesus. The love we’ve been given in such abundance is the love we are called to share; we must never be afraid to step out and step up for the sake of sharing Christ’s love, for this is how the good news of the gospel is proclaimed.
So the question is, friends; what are we waiting for?
You know, my favorite part of this morning’s scripture comes just after Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Granted, it’s a wondrous, “awesome” sight for the disciples; but even after Jesus is long gone, here are these disciples still staring up into heaven all “slack jawed and buggy eyed,” without a clue as to what to do next. It takes a couple of angels to jar them out of this reverie: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Don’t you know that Jesus will return the same way he just went into heaven? Don’t you understand just how much there is to do to prepare for his return? Don’t just stand there, disciples; you apprentices of Christ: do something!
Well, the same can be said to us, beloved: it’s good for us to be here to worship, to turn our gaze heavenward and be refreshed at his table as we are reminded of who and whose we are: but soon, it’ll be time for us to get up and get going, because there’s work to do! For Christ will return, guided by his Holy Spirit, and as his disciples, we are his powerful witnesses ever and always about the work of the kingdom!
Thanks be to God who sends us forth on the mission.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry