May 16, 2021
As we always do on the Sunday we commemorate the Ascension, our second reading is the same story that finished Luke’s gospel told again from a different perspective at the very beginning of the Book of Acts. Listen as the Word of God continues to speak to you.
READ Acts 1:1-11
For forty days… for forty days the resurrected Jesus stayed among the disciples speaking about the kingdom of God. We are used to thinking about Easter as a day… as a single moment when the tomb is discovered to be empty… but… as Luke tells the story… Jesus kept appearing… kept teaching… kept telling his disciples that there was more to come… that the Spirit would come upon them soon… that the kingdom of God was among them.
So for forty days… he was there with them. And the trauma of the crucifixion began to ease as things seemed to return to the way they had been before they entered the chaos of Jerusalem at Passover. The efforts of the chief priests and the scribes were being seen in a new light because of the resurrection. The power the chief priests and the scribes wielded… the power that the disciples had feared so much… that they had run away from… that power began to look thin… like a façade that was easily walked around in order to enter into the truth that was being hidden. This kingdom that Jesus kept speaking about… this kingdom that was coming more and more into focus as their fear began to subside… this kingdom of God where love was the foundation… where the best of what God had put in us could and would flourish and grow… this kingdom of God which starting like a mustard seed… the tiniest of all seeds… could grow and become a great shrub giving nest to all the birds. In the kingdom all were welcome… all could find a home. But the leaders in Jerusalem had made it clear they believed they had the power to decide… with their deference to the powerful and the rich… to the ones who enabled and gave support to their own positions. Those who threatened their self-feeding systems… like raggedy rabbis from the countryside with their clever words and concern for sinners… they had no place and they would be eliminated without even breaking a sweat.
Resurrection had said “no”. That is not God’s will. That is not God’s way no matter how you spin and justify. When Jesus had been in the Temple teaching and praying… they had tried to trap him with their cleverness these chief priests and scribes, but because their cleverness began in their own sin… they were easily shown to have nothing… nothing compared to the kingdom of God Jesus was describing. What had sounded so wise and clever in their own echo chamber circles was revealed to be thin and lacking when the true light shone upon it. Lies that thrived in the dark were revealed in the light. “Beware the scribes”, Jesus had said in the Temple, “beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” This is not the way.
For forty days, Jesus taught his disciples that the sin of the scribes was not the way of the kingdom of God. For forty days he taught them not to think too highly of themselves… that their way was to serve and not to be served. For forty days with his body still bearing the marks of the Romans’ crucifixion he appeared and taught… himself a lesson that those who would follow were to embrace life… to stop listening to the voices of death… to let go of their fear and their fascination… and their belief that to have the power of death was to have power over others. The Empire that surrounded them was great in its wielding of the sword. They destroyed with efficiency believing that they were able to grant life because they could determine who lived and who died. They had silenced many and enforced their will and claimed their kingdom to be eternal.
Resurrection had said “no”. God’s will was to be followed. Life was not just the absence of death. Even as he was being arrested… even as the ways of death sought to insert itself into the story… into the way of Christ… as one of Jesus’ followers drew his sword and cut off the right ear of the slave of the high priest… Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. For forty days, Jesus had taught them that the kingdom of God brought life into the world… that it would heal the many wounds that our sin inflicted upon the world… that the kingdom of God did not leave scars or kept people broken and weak in order to be more susceptible to control. The kingdom of God didn’t look to the strong like moths to the flame, but cast their eyes upon the weak, the forgotten, and the cast aside… and filled their hands with food and water and care… leaving no room for a sword… leaving no time to cater to the demands of ego as the heart filled with empathy and grace.
For forty days the resurrected Jesus was with them teaching them about the kingdom of God. For two millennia the resurrected Jesus was with them teaching them about the kingdom of God. The stories and the lessons were repeated time and again… the characters and the stage scenery changing… but the stories and lessons remaining the same. The way of God was revealed over and over again. The invitation to follow issued countless of times. And when they gathered together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
And Saints… I swear… even though there are no words in the text to the effect… I swear I can hear Jesus sighing… very deep sigh. Maybe even the deepest of sighs. The kind of sigh that comes with closed eyes and a deep, cleansing breath to begin again.
For forty days after the resurrection… for two millennia after the resurrection… Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God. But his followers wondered when the kingdom of Israel was going to be restored… the kingdom where they would have the power like Rome… the kingdom where they would have the places of honor like the chief priests and scribes… the kingdom where they could wield the power of life and death… decide who was and who was not worthy… make the rules and create the systems that favored them and put the others into places of weakness to be lorded over. When Jesus… when will you be making that happen? When will we be given the ability to coerce others into doing what we say through your name? When will we be given the ability to assert our will without consideration to its effect… through your name? Is now the time? How about now? Even now will do. Look I’ve upgraded my sword to an automatic and am confident in my righteousness to rule.
For forty days. Forty is one of those special symbolic numbers in the Bible appearing over and over. And after the forty there is a change. For forty days the world is flooded… and afterwards God regrets the flood and promises in the rainbow never to go down that path of destruction again. For forty years the Jews wandered in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. After his own baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil. Forty days, Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God. In the wilderness, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and taught the people how to be God’s people... and then they crossed the river Jordan and then had to be the promise behind their being chosen. For forty days in the wilderness, Jesus did not choose the quick and easy ways of Satan… but chose the difficult path God was putting before him… a path of love that would lead to him laying down his life for his friends. For forty days, the resurrection was there before the disciples’ eyes. God working… shaping… teaching… showing… reminding… this is what it is to be people of God… this is the kingdom that appears as God’s people be people of God. And after forty days… after two millennia… Jesus ascends saying, “Now you are to be the change. You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and following my commandment to love one another… you will have all that you need. You will know when I am among you and when I am not. You will know when the kingdom is forming and when it is still far away.”
Saints, as the forty days of pandemic is coming to an end… and we’ve learned more lessons of sin and love during this most recent wilderness experience… change is before us again… and the kingdom of God calls us forward into community and service. Amen.