A sermon for the 7th Sunday after Easter and Ascension: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21, John 17:20-26
The TV season is coming to close; I know because all the series are showing season ending cliff hangers; they want to leave us waiting; they are baiting us for next year. Angie and I just saw Star Wars VII and we are eagerly waiting for Episode VIII, that will likely be another year. If you did not know, the Empire was destroyed, and the Jedi are reforming under the guidance of Luke Skywalker. Rylo Ren, formerly Ben, Han and Leia’s son, Luke’s nephew, betrays Luke, under the influence of Snoke, the leader of the First Order, and all the Jedi students are killed. Luke disappears. The First Order is emerging as a new imperial force. Only a small resistance force stands in their way. Rey, a scavenger, and Finn, a disaffected storm trooper who desserts the First Order, join forces for survival. By chance they run into the resistance, many of the familiar characters: Han Solo, princes Leia, Chewbacca, R2D2 etc. are there. Near the end, in a dramatic fight, Han is killed by Rylo Ren. Not long afterward, Rey, who seems to exhibit the presence of the force within her, sets out and finds the reclusive Luke at the site of original Jedi Temple, here ends the movie ~ and we are left hanging (IMBD).
Six weeks ago the disciples were surprised by the empty tomb. According to Luke, the physician, not Skywalker, a couple of angles ask them “Why do you look for living among the dead?” (24:5) Since then there have been a number of surprise appearances. Thursday, 40 days after the initial surprise, Jesus ascends to heaven. Once again a couple of angles appear and ask the disciples “Why do stand around looking up into heaven?” Jesus has told the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the arrival of the Spirit. We will celebrate that next week on Pentecost. The disciples think Jesus is talking about Israel, and the Kingdom of David, being restored, so they ask “Is this the time?” He answers
“It is not for you to know the time, that is God’s business, but you will receive the power of the Spirit, and you will be my witnesses.”
Then Jesus ascends in a cloud. The disciples are left waiting.
Today we are waiting. Waiting is not a skill Americans as a culture admire or have, and it is something we try to ignore or overcome. If we are aware of the Church calendar we know:
- Jesus is crucified
- Jesus is risen
- Jesus is back talking, eating, teaching,
- Jesus is gone again.
I’m sure the refrain takes us to the Eucharistic acclamation:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will rise again.
But just as on Good Friday, when we stayed at the foot of the Cross, now I invite us to stay in the Ascension gap. We are waiting between Jesus’ ascension and the arrival of the Spirit and everything that follows.
Note that Luke is writing after the destruction of the Temple. So, his readers are waiting, with disciples, for the arrival of the Spirit, in power, and they are also waiting for some sort of divine response to the destruction of the Temple, God’s residence on earth. Jesus’ teaching that Luke is passing on is that God’s and Jesus’ presence is less about geography and more being in relationship with us. In this way, Jesus’ ascension makes space for the Spirit to come (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). Frank Couch notes that in waiting we should be cautious, and remember that God acts in God’s time, not ours. We should be wary and not assume that we have or can ever predict what God may be up to (Crouch). Wesley Allen writes that Jesus’ ascension emphasizes divine transcendence. It challenges us to deal with divine presence and revelation on the one hand and divine absence and silence on the other (Allen, Jr.). The Ascension, when Jesus says the disciples, including us, will be his witnesses, also brings us face to face with the reality that as disciples, we have some responsibility for what’s next. This time of waiting carves out space in time when we can join the disciples in pondering:
- what it means to follow Jesus
- what is it that we are expecting?
- what does Jesus 2nd coming mean for us?
The disciples started by asking the wrong question. Are we asking the right questions?
How often and how do we stand and look for Jesus among the dead, or in any of the other wrong places? How often do we stare off into heaven for answers or a vision for the future? I suspect we tend to project on Jesus’ second coming the same kind of earthly values and desires the disciples were casting on Jesus as God’s Messiah, and perhaps on his ascension. As they were, we are overly concerned with the future. But it has never been about the future, or up there somewhere in some time; this entire story of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension has always been about now, about God/Jesus/Spirit being right here right now (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). How we are now, links us to today’s Gospel reading.
Today’s verses from John’s Gospel story are from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples at the last supper. We hear how Jesus prays that the disciples will be one as he and God are one. We heard about that a week or so ago. The prayer also reveals Jesus’s desire that through their witness, everyone who hears the story will be one, with each other. Luke leaves us waiting; John leaves us hanging between earth and heaven, between the past, the present, and the future. John also reminds us to be cautious about what we think we know, so we can be open to divine surprises (Lundblad).
One place to pay special attention is the misunderstanding that oneness means absolute conformity. Within divine oneness, there can be disagreements and squabbles (Hogan). The difference is how we disagree and squabble. The current political norm of attacking the person of an opponent is not an example of oneness. An open debate, where each party passionately expresses their belief and at the same time makes themselves vulnerable to be changed by the other, comes closer.
So, we are waiting, we are hanging in time and space. We are between:
- the beginning of the primary season in February, the conventions this summer and the elections this November.
- the ending of school in a week or so, this summer’s adventures, and the beginning of next school year, with new classes, new teachers, and perhaps a new school.
Our oldest daughter and her family are between completing their current jobs and moving half way across the county for her to begin CRNA school. The unexpected have already begun to appear, as they hang between times, waiting for the next phase of life to begin.
The Diocese is waiting; the Bishop is on sabbatical for the next eleven weeks. We hang between now and then, wondering, as does he, what God will reveal. I expect many of you are betwixt and between; hanging in time, waiting for something to end or something else to begin, or both.
I know the temptation to rush to the power of the Spirit and get the waiting over. And I trust the Spirit’s mysterious whisperings in these matters. However, this is a short sub-season of between. This is a time to stop. A time to wait. A time for:
- discernment, (Acts 1:25-16)
- worship, singing, (Luke 24:52)
- and simply being in and looking deeper into the presence of God (Hoezee).
This is a time to attune to the surprising, unexpected next step God is leading us to take.
Allen, Jr., O. Wesley. Commentary on Acts 1:1-14. 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Crouch, Frank L. Commentary on Acts 1:1-11. 8 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 17:20-26. 8 5 216.
Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on John 17:20-26. 8 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
IMBD. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). n.d. 6 5 2016. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2488496/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ql_1>.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 8 5 2016.
Lundblad, Barbara. “Commentary on John 17:20-26.” 8 5 2016. Working Preacher.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.