I don’t know about you, but I find it hard not to read every scripture text these days in light of our current global pandemic. It’s similar to that reaction we now seem to have when we see images, often taken before this pandemic unfolded, of large crowds gathered together. “Crowds? We can’t be in crowds!” It’s hard not to process the world through our pandemic-lenses. And I think that’s true of the scripture too. Our current life experience has so changed our world that it is almost impossible to read the Bible without viewing it anew because of what we’re going through. I think that’s a good thing. Not the pandemic, of course, but that we find that we can’t help but bring our now-everyday reality of global crisis with us when we read the text. I think we’ll find that the scripture is more than up to the challenge of feeding our souls when we come to it with a new perspective.
Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s the day that we remember Jesus’ return to God’s home, his physical departure from the earth, forty days after the resurrection. For forty days after that first Easter morning, Jesus stayed with the disciples, and according to Luke, he continued to give many “proofs” that he was truly resurrected, and he also spent more time teaching about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign. He also spent this time telling the disciples that soon they would receive a gift from God - the gift of the Holy Spirit - but we’ll talk more about that next week. For nearly a month and a half, it must have seemed to the disciples that they could breathe again. Jesus, who had been violently crucified was not dead, and everything could go back to normal. They would follow him once more. They were not abandoned. Jesus was with them again. And then, he leaves again. And although this time he doesn’t die - death has no power over Jesus - and this time he isn’t torn from them through violence, this time, he’s physically gone for good. Jesus ascends, and there’s no mistaking that he’s no longer on earth with them. They see it happen. There’s no tomb this time. His body is not on earth. And I think, particularly in these challenging days, it is hard not to feel the grief, the disappointment, the sense of loss that the disciples experience. We talked about that at Bible Study this week. Donna Peck expressed what was probably running through the minds of the disciples: “Jesus, why can’t you just stay?” Why did Jesus have to leave again? How disappointed and heartbroken they must have been!
We talked about another aspect of their grief in this text at Bible Study too. Before Jesus ascends, the disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore Israel?” This is a question they’ve asked Jesus a lot, in various ways, during his time with them. Remember, all of Israel was under occupation by the Roman government. For minority groups, like the Jewish people, a relatively small and, in the eyes of the Romans, unusual religious group, living under foreign occupation was oppressive and restrictive. To have their homeland, the land God had promised them, controlled by those who were reluctant at best to let the Jewish people worship and live as they chose - it was painful. Roman rule was impoverishing to most of the people. It meant living in fear, trying to be careful all the time not to disrupt or draw too much attention. After all, look what happened when the dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and elders was brought to the attention of Pontius Pilate? So the disciples and others have asked Jesus before about Israel being restored. It’s what people assumed the messiah, the anointed one of God, would come to do. People assumed that the whole point of a messiah was restoring Israel, ending the Roman occupation, letting the people hold the land again that God had given them. Jesus consistently deflected such requests, trying to show that he was not that kind of messiah. The kingdom Jesus was about was the one we’ve been talking about over the last weeks of listening to Jesus’ parables: God’s reign brought to earth, not through overthrowing governments, but through persistently trying to make God’s ways our ways. Still, though, the disciples can’t seem to help but ask again. Because Jesus is now leaving earth, and still, the people are oppressed. Still, Rome is in charge. Has God’s messiah come and gone from earth, and nothing changed? Again in the text there’s a sense of grief and abandonment. Grief over losing Jesus again. Grief over losing hope about what Jesus came to accomplish. So when the men in white - God’s messengers, angels, - appear and wonder why the disciples are gazing up into the sky, trying to catch one last glimpse of Jesus, when the messengers seem to want to hurry the disciples along, I wonder if the disciples are thinking, “Can’t you just give us a minute, an hour, a year to process this? We’re devastated again!”
I feel like I connect more with the grief of the disciples in these hard days. Maybe you do too. I think we, too, are both wishing that the things that we’ve loved, the “normal” rhythms of life could stay the same, and that the pain and suffering of this season could be alleviated. We know that God is with us always, but sometimes it is hard to feel that God is close to us, and sometimes it seems as if wherever Jesus has ascended is very far away from our everyday experience. What are we to do? Where is our hope? Is there a word for us in this Ascension story? For the disciples, Jesus gave them two messages: The Holy Spirit is coming, and you are to be my witnesses. And I think in those messages, we find comfort and direction too.
Jesus promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming. The disciples didn’t know what that meant yet. But we know that the Holy Spirit is God, just as Jesus is God. The trinity - that our God is one but also three - God, Christ, Spirit - is sometimes hard to understand. But the gist of it for the disciples was that although Jesus wasn’t going to be present in human form, walking down the road with them, God was going to be very present - as close as their breath, in fact, filling them up with the Holy Spirit. The power that they saw in Jesus would be the same power that would propel them into sharing the good news of Jesus and God’s amazing love. How God was with them was being transformed, but they were not abandoned.
Some of you know that I enjoy attending - not every year but about every other year - the Festival of Homiletics, a weeklong preaching conference, full of great worship and preaching, and lectures about worship and preaching. It’s really fantastic. I was supposed to have been at the Festival this past week in Atlanta, Georgia. But, like everything else, it was canceled because of COVID-19. A modified Festival moved to an online format, and while it isn’t quite the same, I’ve been enjoying listening to the lectures and sermons. One standout was from Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He preached about Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. That’s a story from Easter day in the scriptures, when Jesus travels with some followers after he has been resurrected, but they don’t recognize him. They spend the day with him without recognizing him, only realizing that it is the resurrected Jesus when he shares bread with them at the end of their journey.
Moss reflected on how Jesus was present with them for the whole journey, but they only recognized Jesus when the physical exchange of sharing food was made - their needs were met by Jesus. Likewise, he said, God is always present with us, but sometimes we don’t recognize God’s presence. Sometimes, he said, God is just “outside the frame.” Moss, who was, like most pastors these days, preaching into a camera in a mostly empty sanctuary, revealed that the whole time he was preaching, there was someone supporting and praying for him just outside the frame of what the camera could show to us viewers - his wife was there, encouraging him. When the camera pulled back, we could see that she’d been sitting beside him all along, but had been just outside the frame. God is with us, friends. Sometimes, though, God is outside the frame that we’re using to look at the world, to look at our lives. We might need to adjust the way we’re looking to witness God’s presence, but I promise, God is with us.
And because God is with us, we, like the disciples, can have the confidence to carry out the same assignment Jesus gave to them: we’re called to be witnesses. What are witnesses? Witnesses are those who can verify the truth of events that have taken place. Witnesses can say, “Yes, I was there.” Witnesses say, “Here’s what happened.” We witness with our words and with our actions. In fact, our whole lives are a witness to what our truths are. What does your life - how you live, how you love, how you serve - what does your life say is the truth for you? As I mentioned, we spent some of our last weeks talking about the kingdom of God about which Jesus speaks in his parables. We talked about what things are like when God’s reign is not just in heaven, not just for eternity, but for earth, for here and now. We pray that we would be part of making that possible every time we share in the Lord’s prayer. We say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray that God’s way may be our way, here and now. And so we witness to the reality of God, to the work of Jesus, every time we do something that sort of “narrows the gap,” or at least the perceived gap between earth and heaven. Everytime we live in a way that exemplifies God’s reign, God’s rhythms, God’s values and priorities, we’re being witnesses for Jesus. And if many people wonder where God is, we are witnesses everytime we help people adjust their focus and realize that God is there, just outside the frame of where they’d been looking. The disciples: they did tear their gaze from heaven and get to work. It was not easy. They did not do it all at once. They had to make many decisions about how they would best carry on the work of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. But these followers of Jesus became witnesses to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus asked. And slowly, that the work of Jesus in the world does restore and renew us, free us from oppression, conquer injustice, even when it comes about in unexpected ways. In these hard days, what is the witness of your life?
I can’t promise - and Jesus doesn’t promise - that there won’t be some grief-filled days ahead for us, when we wish we could just go back to a different time, how things were before. But Jesus does promise that God is with us, as close as our very breath. And if God is with us and in us, let our whole lives tell the story. Let our whole lives bear witness to the truth. Amen.