A sermon for May 28 on Acts 1:6-14
Tonight we mark the seventh and final Sunday in Eastertide. Seems like a long time since we shouted those first “alleluias”, sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” accompanied by the pipe organ, and popped the cork from the bottle of sparkling wine. It is a long season—fifty days, making it longer than Lent, which is not accidental. It is a liturgical season that follows the timeline set out by Luke, in his gospel and in the Book of Acts. As Luke sets things out, for the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers, and then he ascended to be with God. That was followed by ten days of watching, waiting, and preparation on the part of the disciples, and then came the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came upon them in a whole new way. That’s the story we tell next Sunday, which means that tonight finds us in the “in-between”—in those ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost.
To listen to the sermon, click play:
We heard the story of the ascension, in which Luke tells in a really picturesque way the disciples experience of Jesus going from them. It is a picture that really only completely “works” within an ancient world-view, in which the earth was static and unmoving. The heavens are above—they’re up, beyond the clouds—and in this story it is almost as if in his resurrection this world—this earth—couldn’t entirely contain Jesus. And while we know that the earth is round and spinning, that the universe is almost unimaginably vast, and that “up” is relative to where on the globe you happen to be positioned, the image of ascension can still speak.
Leave the city, with its bright lights that obscure the night sky. Stand on a dock by a lake, or on the edge of a prairie field, and look up into the clear night sky. Let yourself be dazzled by the stars, and wonder at the vastness of it all. Ponder for a minute that some of the stars you are “seeing” actually no longer exist. They are so far from where you stand on this earth that in the time it has taken for the light to travel to meet your eyes, some of those stars have burned themselves out, and what you see is a mere echo of their brightness. If ever there was an experience of being able to see wonder, mystery, vastness, and at the same time to feel our own smallness, this is one of them. You stand for a while, your neck craned, your eyes fixed on that sky. Transcendence.
The disciples stand, necks craned, eyes fixed on the clouds. They have experienced a glimpse of wonder, mystery, and transcendence. Yet they can’t stay there. No. As Luke tells his story, he writes of the appearance of two men in white robes who say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” It is a bit of a funny question, for where else would you expect them to be looking? And when the messengers say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”? All the more reason to keep watching the sky, don’t you think?
But again, no. They can’t stay in that posture, trying to freeze the moment in time. This now marks the beginning of a transition for them, from disciples or students who, for all that they have tried seem to have had an uncanny gift for not quite getting the point that Jesus had been trying to drill into them. The transition from that to being a people called to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And yet their transition is not one that is immediately activist. As Matt Skinner observes,
When the two messengers in robes, those angelic figures, call Jesus’ cloud-gazing apostles back to their senses, they do not order them to get to work. Although there is urgency in the admonishment to stop staring slack-jawed into the sky, the moment’s urgency does not result in immediate action.
The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.
Luke indicates that they’ve heard the promise of the coming of the Spirit—of the coming of the presence of God in a whole new way—and in response to the promise they finally get it right. They walk back to Jerusalem, and spend those ten days “devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” They have learned that often you need to “be” before you can begin to “do.”
In a very real sense and in keeping with the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, this subverts all conventional expectations. In his book The Lord, Romano Guardini reflects on what might have been expected in a story of resurrection; what might have been expected in a typical religion of the ancient near east, with its cycles of myths and legends. “What would those days have looked like?” he asks.
Doubtless, they would have been filled with demonstrations of the liberated one’s power; the hunted one, now omnipotent, would have shattered his enemies; he would have blazed from temple altars, would have covered his followers with honours, and in these and other ways would have fulfilled the longings of the oppressed. He would have initiated the disciples into the wonderful mysteries of heaven, would have revealed the future, the beginning and end of all things. But nothing of this occurs.
What does occur is this. The resurrected Jesus teaches his followers, and shares meals with them. He encourages and commissions them. He embraces Thomas even in his doubts, and in a story told in the final chapter of John, he offers to Peter a threefold reconciliation to counter that disciple’s threefold denial on the night of the arrest. He does, in short, the sort of thing he had been doing all along. Shaping them, forming them, encouraging and challenging them. Keeping company with them in the breaking of bread or the grilling of fish on the beach. For the most part it is almost spectacularly unspectacular, his way with them. And after that one rather more spectacular almost mystical experience of watching him ascend, they move into the decidedly unspectacular posture of waiting in openness, trust, and prayer.
They will in time begin to move—to do—yet when that happens it is because their time of waiting has opened them to a whole new beginning. They are no longer the flailing characters of the gospels who can’t ever quite get it right, but instead are apostles with a vision, a passionate mission, a Spirit-touched trust and strength. They will be unleashed into their world, embodying the subversive way of Jesus. And it all begins with their willingness to wait, to pray, to be.
I like William Willimon’s thoughts on the significance of those two messengers in white who tell the disciples to stop gazing up into the clouds. Willimon writes of these two messengers as being “a reproof for any church which wistfully longs for some departed leader, as if the church were a mere memorial society for a dead Jesus.” In this Willimon is holding in view churches that have forgotten that to gather for worship—however beautiful the music, however peaceful the service, however lovely the words of the liturgy, however literate or inspiring or well-crafted the sermon—to gather for worship is also to prepare to be sent out into the rest of life.
We in this community do well to remember that. Every time we gather here there must be a real sense that we are for this hour echoing what those disciples did over those ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Pray. Wait with expectation. Be. And only then, go out through those doors to again try to do this faith.