May 24, 2020
As we come to the end of the Easter season today, we hear the story of the Ascension as told in the beginning of Acts. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.
READ Acts 1:1-11
The disciples in this story are… gobsmacked. I think that’s the best word to describe this scene of them standing on the hillside. Absolutely gobsmacked. Standing there. Looking up into the sky with their mouths hanging open. Not understanding what just happened. Jesus had presented himself alive after being crucified. He gave many convincing proofs, appearing for forty days. Why would this day be any different… day forty-one I’m guessing. On day forty-one Jesus was supposed to be with them there in Jerusalem… teaching them, as he did, about the kingdom of God. The memory and the horror of the crucifixion sort of fading into the past. I mean, the greatest threat of Rome was what… its brutality. The worse thing the Sanhedrin could have done was to find a way to kill the man. But it’s been forty days since he came back. Forty days. 960 hours. I’m sure in that time their shoulders had dropped as their anxiety began to lessen. They were able to breathe a bit easier… the tension leaving their bodies. This was going to be ok. Jesus was with them… was going to be with them as they moved forward toward this kingdom of God.
And then on day forty-one… Jesus goes and tells them goodbye… and floats away into the sky… ascending into heaven and they are left on a hillside staring into the sun completely gobsmacked. Their thoughts are betrayed in the question they ask Jesus before he floats off… “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of God… their concern… their thoughts are still focused on the kingdom of Israel when the son of David will take the throne… when Rome will be defeated and cast out… when those who had lifted themselves on high and lorded over others would be brought low… a political and a social and an economic revolution. Lord, is this the time you are going to finally act? It’s as if they couldn’t let go of their old expectations for how things were going to be as long as Jesus was there in front of them… as long as Jesus could do it for them and they follow behind in his wake.
If I were writing this sequel to Luke’s gospel, I would have Jesus say as he floated away… “Me? Hey folks, it’s not my story anymore. The real question is if this is the time when you will restore the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit will be here soon to give you everything you need.” And then that cloud would come and Jesus would disappear from their sight.
The gobsmacked disciples would respond… “What the what??” Their shoulder rising again in anxiety… the tension coming back. Our story?
They don’t know what to do. There was no plan for what came next. They hadn’t been brainstorming organizing principles or holding afternoon meetings about best practices in creating this new non-profit organization. Jesus had taught in abstracts. The kingdom of God is like this. The kingdom of God is like that. He spoke in parables and concepts. He didn’t write down a certain set of teachings or practices. How were they supposed to dress? What was the organizational flow chart as to who would be in charge of what? What was the proper ritual for this? How many times a day should they do this? What are the right answers to all the questions that are going to be asked? Jesus hadn’t given them that crucial information before floating off.
Day forty-one came and they were left staring up into the sky with nothing.
I don’t know… maybe I’m telling the story in this way because that’s what we’re going through right now. It’s almost comical thinking back to that March Session meeting and the short discussion we were having about these growing virus concerns. We had decided we weren’t going to pass the plate… and really pulling back on the Passing of the Peace. That was Wednesday. By Sunday we weren’t gathering in person for worship. Sunday came and we were left staring up into the sky with nothing. What are the right answers to all the questions that are going to be asked?
Looking in the story of Acts… the disciples were left with the promise of the coming Holy Spirit. It’s a promise we rely on to this day. For them… after the Ascension it was a waiting time… it was a figuring out time… it was a time of prayer. After they recovered from being completely gobsmacked, they devoted themselves to prayer… together. Just as we have talked about this Easter season, they felt it was better to be together rather than leaving the Mount of Olives and going their separate ways… to give their own response alone. Jesus had given them each other… in all their varied backgrounds, with all their different outlooks… a tax collector, a zealot, some fishermen, women. They prayed together in those days between the Ascension… day forty-one… and the day when the Holy Spirit arrived on Pentecost… day fifty. And I’ve always been a bit dismissive of it, but they also realized that with the loss of Judas they somehow had become incomplete… so they prayed some more and sought to discern the will of God… and Matthias became the newest apostle.
When the virus came and we could no longer do everything the way we’ve always done it… we prayed… and we sought God’s will. We decided that it was right to try to keep our connections with whatever tools we had at our disposal… worshipping via video, using Zoom to meet, making phone calls… remembering one another in prayer maybe more than we had done previously. There was no blueprint for going forward. There was no history or playbook to show us the way toward the kingdom of God. We had the vision from the scriptures. We had parables and concepts. The church buildings closed, but the church goes on… our fellowship goes on because the ties that bind us together aren’t easily cut… because those ties aren’t built upon or reliant upon the freedoms found in the constitution… they aren’t built upon or reliant upon social acceptance or right dogma… or proper dress… or like political beliefs. There is a tie that binds our Christian fellowship together… the kind of tie where we give freely of ourselves to one another… where we look out for one another. As the country celebrates Memorial Day this weekend, what is at the core of that celebration but remembering those who gave their lives for others… those who sacrificed or were sacrificed. Instead of taking up arms, the church takes up the cross and sacrifices for the benefit of others.
What this time of Covid has shown is that this congregation isn’t centered on a single individual. As your Pastor, I’m not the center of this congregation… it doesn’t revolve around me. I’ve said it a number of times over these past Sundays… it doesn’t center around the worship show we are able to put on every Sunday. We’re just not that charismatic or entertaining… but then again I don’t where the idea came from that worship was supposed to be entertaining. We don’t have a cool light show or a rocking band that will get your heads bobbing and toes tapping. Still, I hope in our prayers and study and reflection upon scripture… in the good works we are able to do for some in the community and for one another… in the showing of our mutual love for one another… in those ways God is able to work through this congregation to exhibit the kingdom of God. I’ve always thought Parkway was more popsicle sticks and homemade arts and crafts than slick production anyway. But Covid has wiped out all that surface stuff… all that surface stuff we churches thought was so important and worried so much about… all that stuff that we believed would attract people to our congregation if only we could do it better or be a bit more hip… if only we could find that one thing that would hook them to consume their faith through this particular venue. Maybe it really is okay to be the congregation that values the connections God makes through people rather than judging our merits by the number of people sitting in the pews.
On day forty-one when our expectations and thoughts of what was supposed be floated off and disappeared behind that cloud… what we were left with was an understanding that had somehow been poured into our hearts through parables and concepts… and we were left with one another in our flawed forgiven selves. We prayed with our hearts and our minds… and through every connection we kept while separated from one another. And you… even in a time of uncertainness and anxiety… have sought the will of God and found that this fellowship we’ve been given is important. I’ll let you in on a little secret, part of the reason we can afford to wait and see… part of the reason we aren’t rushing to gather in person to worship even as Phase Two of North Carolina’s reopening has been declared and we’ve been given permission… we aren’t rushing because we don’t have to. Our anxiety isn’t in trying to get back to the comfort of what was… or making some statement about exercising our rights… our calm and our patience is in knowing that what binds us together is greater and can withstand this time when by necessity we must be apart.
Jesus leaves the disciples in the story of the Ascension… and yet, Jesus never leaves the disciples in the story of the Ascension. What they will find as they begin their story together… is that Jesus has been internalized more than they know. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost… and we will hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon them… and we will witness these disciples rushing out and meeting people speaking to them in their own language… telling whoever will listen the story of God’s good news in Christ Jesus. And then… from there the church will go out and they will tell the story of God’s good news in Christ Jesus. The situation around them will change. And they will adapt and tell the story. The situation around them will change. And they will adapt and tell the story. The situation around them change and change and change. And they will always find a way to adapt and tell the story of the good news of God in Christ Jesus. Not always perfectly. There will be plenty of gobsmacked moments to come… but that tie that binds them to one another… that tie that binds them to God… that tie is Christ still at work… always at work… even when our sight might be obscured… the vision is sure. Amen.