(a sermon for May 28, 2017, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)
Actually, for me the whole scene has the look and the feel of a high school or college graduation!
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!”
See what I mean here? Just as in any kind of graduation ceremony there’s a definite sense of closure, but there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to the mysterious future that is just about to unfold! I remember very well my own graduation from Bangor Seminary; in particular the moment when 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” for any and all pastoral challenges that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough? To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”
But you see, that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in your life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet – I dare say even for those whose pathway seems solidly set before them – there is 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 the eleven of them had to have been 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 find out that their journey goes on, 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 that the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on the journey ahead and to be my witnesses even when that way ahead proves to be very difficult; but 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, 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 the journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.
I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; it comes from her book Gospel Medicine and 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 began to say things that sounded like him, and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before. They became,” concludes Taylor, believers who were “brave and capable and wise.”
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 are gathered, but then maybe throughout Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, even “to the ends of the earth.” It’s a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…
… and it is the same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today.
That’s right… lest we forget in these days of confused situations: this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven; this story of this 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 it will someday be? It’s our story just as much as it was theirs; and as the church, you see, as the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next.”
You see, in every generation the question has always been the same: when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ? How that question gets answered and the ways that faith is expressed most certainly has grown and adapted over the course of those generations and in keeping with changing times and new challenges. But ultimately, the answer to that question – when is the church truly being the church – has never changed; we are the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!
We are the church 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 love, and for justice, and for a peace that the world cannot provide. We are the church when we make the commitment to not be passive about moving into the future, letting ourselves become diminished by whatever the world’s latest set of priorities happen to be; but rather to let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit be our own dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “what happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here on Mountain Road, in Concord and New Hampshire, and even “to the ends of the earth.”
And don’t misunderstand me here; for us to be an effective “witness” is not measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.
Many years ago – I think it was that same summer I graduated from seminary – I was actually on vacation and got a call on a Sunday afternoon from a member of the church where I had been serving as a student, and now newly ordained, pastor. “I just wanted to tell you what happened this morning, so you didn’t hear about it via the grapevine,” she said, and went on to tell me how one of the older women of the church had suffered a stroke during that morning’s worship service. Apparently, they’d just finished singing the middle hymn (which at that church was sung just before the sermon), and though everyone else had sat down, “Edna” remained standing, unresponsive to those in the pew next to her.
Now understand that under ordinary circumstances this was a small congregation, but in mid-August, and while the pastor was away, it was downright cozy! So there was no way this was going to happen quietly or unobtrusively; and of course, everyone immediately gathered around Edna. The worship leader that day, as I recall, was a lay preacher from our association name Leona, and even she put aside her sermon notes and she also came down from the altar to see what she could do to help.
As it was described to me, everybody had a job. One of the women was a retired nurse, so she started checking vital signs. Another quickly went to the kitchen to bring in some cold water, while still another rushed to the phone to call an ambulance. One of the men went out to the head of the church driveway to flag down the EMT unit when it arrived. As for the rest of the congregation, they either prayed quietly or held hands with others as they prayed. Soon enough, the ambulance came and the paramedics did their work, but even the folks of the congregation waited and watched as they took Edna back to the hospital for a full examination; with a couple of them going along for emotional support.
And after the ambulance had left, the members of the congregation going back to their pews, one of the Deacons of that church (as I recall, he was always a Deacon of that church!), turned to Leona and said, “Well, Madam Pastor, I guess you can preach that sermon now.” And with incredible wisdom, Leona just smiled and said, “I think you folks already did.”
It’s a scene that as a church pastor I’ve seen repeated time and time again over the years; I’ve seen it happen here at East Church and with you in a whole variety of wonderful, life-giving, gospel proclaiming ways!
Beloved, we are, each and every one of us here, called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and a living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. What we do here in this place, and also what we do out there, serves to proclaim the ways that faith informs and directs what, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world. We are the people of what happens next by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.
And so let us be bold in our witness; let us truly go “all in” for what we know is true. Let the good news 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!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry