(a sermon for May 24, 2020, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)
To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.” But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead: “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”
Actually, truth be told, it all kind of has the look and feel of these makeshift graduation ceremonies we’ve been seeing online during this time of quarantine: bringing some sense of closure to the situation with some last-minute words of advice but very little pomp and circumstance! What’s interesting here, however, is that’s there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to a mysterious future that is just about to unfold! But then again, I suppose that’s also part and parcel of a typical graduation ceremony: I remember at my seminary graduation, our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!” What? You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough? To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”
But that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet there’s often an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!
And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
Can you even imagine what those disciples were thinking at this point? Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen? Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business.”
Oy Vey, indeed! This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place. But now they’re finding out that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!
But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.” “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.” Power: in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr! So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on being my witnesses even when the way ahead proves to be very difficult; and moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy! You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next? In many ways, says Jesus, you are the people of what happens next!
And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven.
“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Just like that. It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.” The message was clear: the time for standing around was over. There would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of their journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.
I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; in her book Gospel Medicine she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead. But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them. The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers. The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.”
They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more were gathered, but then maybe as it could be shared throughout Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, maybe even “to the ends of the earth.” It was a mission that started small, but grew; and it is a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…
… and it is the very same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today… most especially today.
That’s right… lest we forget in these strange and uncertain days we’re currently living through; this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven? This tale of an ongoing mission, and of a time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised will someday be? Friends, it’s our story just as much as it was theirs; as Jesus’ disciples and the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next… whatever happens next.”
In every generation, you see, the question has always been the same: when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ? Now, how that question is answered – and the way that faith gets expressed and acted upon – that has most certainly grown and adapted over the course of all those generations and in keeping with ever-changing times and new challenges, including the one we’re facing right now in this age of pandemic. There’s hardly been a day that has gone by as of late – especially this past week (!) – when we haven’t wondered aloud how we’re supposed to actually be the church when we can’t even come together for worship together in our sanctuary? Under all these limitations we’re under, how can we ever be considered in any way, shape or form “essential?” Well, here’s the thing: ultimately, whatever our current situation or ongoing challenge, the answer to that question never changes:we are ever and always the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!
In other words, beloved, sanctuaries or no, we are essential.
We are essential when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for hope, for love, and for a peace that the world cannot provide. We are essential when we make the commitment to not be passive about an uncertain future or by allowing ourselves become somehow diminished by not being able to do so many of the things we’re used to doing as a church. We are essential when we let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit become our very dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “whatever happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here from Concord, New Hampshire and beyond “to the ends of the earth,” even if it happens by way of Facebook Live. At the end of the day, you see, the measure of being an effective “witness” can never be measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.
But it all starts, you see, right here… right now… in the very places where we are quarantined.
Beloved, each and every one of us are called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and serve as living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. Maybe it comes forth in many and creative ways we’re caring for one another as family and friends; maybe it’s found in an encouraging word shared in a phone call, a card or a letter, a facetime chat or ZOOM session; could be it’s shown in the small but powerful ways we seek to reach out to others with “goodie bags” and other not so random acts of kindness; or maybe it’s simply in living as an example of how patience, quiet strength, good humor and “grace under pandemic” shows forth a deep and abiding faith in God’s providence. But whatever it is and however its manifest, ultimately it serves to proclaim both our allegiance to Christ and what it is, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.
And so, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, let us be bold in our witness, most especially in these continued days of challenge; and let the good news of the Kingdom be heard and seen… in us.
May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.