In churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’re coming to the end of Eastertide, the season when we focus on celebrating the Resurrection. The third major festival of the Christian year-- the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost-- comes next Sunday. Before we get to Pentecost, we celebrate the Ascension, and we hear the part of the story that Luke/Acts places between Easter and Pentecost.
One part of the story is that Jesus has ascended to glory with God. The glory of the risen and ascended Christ is good news-- something to celebrate.
But the other themes in the story invite us to look at the Ascension from a very human perspective, the disciples’ point of view, which is where we stand. When Jesus was carried up into heaven, when the cloud took him out of their sight, the reality they were facing was that Jesus had vanished.
As one of my colleagues suggests, there’s an awkward gap in the story at this point. She compares it to the intermission in a play, between the two acts of the salvation drama. In both Luke and Acts, the curtain falls on Jesus’ earthly life, as the Risen Christ leaves his disciples and is carried up out of their sight. Up until now, Jesus has been the chief actor in the drama. From his birth to his death to his resurrection appearances, it’s Jesus who keeps the story moving. And now he’s gone-- offstage once and for all.
The curtain has fallen. Now what? Is the drama over? By no means. It’s simply intermission.
Now what are Jesus’ followers supposed to do? It would have been hard not to feel anxious and impatient—just as it can be for us.
“Lord,” the disciples ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” We need to know what the plan is. We want certainty. We want to know now.
Hear what Jesus says: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” It is not for us to know all the details of the big plan.
But we have Christ’s promises: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit... You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Luke tells us that the disciples worshipped the risen and ascended Christ. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the verses following the passage we read in Acts, Luke tells how the disciples returned to Jerusalem and went to the upper room where they were staying, where they and certain women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. On the day of Pentecost, disciples were gathered together in one place when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them from on high.
I don’t have to remind you that this is a hard time, a time of transition and struggle for the church of Jesus Christ, throughout North America, and for this congregation at Littlefield. It’s hard to be so demographically challenged here, in the city, here in east Dearborn. It’s hard to see so many beloved friends getting older and less active, more frail. It’s hard not to worry about how we’ll have enough people to do whatever we need to do. It’s hard not to worry about the future of the congregation, in terms of our finances. How will we support the mission?
We need to be honest about our fears and anxieties. We need to grieve the losses. But we also need to be devoted to praying together...and to blessing God with joy...and waiting for power from on high.
If it feels like we’re in an intermission in the carrying out of God’s plan of salvation, then we need to practice waiting for God. If the time you’re living in seems like an intermission in God’s plan for your life, if Jesus has vanished from your sight, and the Holy Spirit’s power is only a distant promise-- then it’s our job to wait. Not just to be idle, or to kill time, but to wait as disciples are called to wait-- with trust and hope. With eagerness and expectancy for the beginning of the next act.
Do we believe that God can work miracles? Do we believe God can use us to transform the world? Do we believe that we can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens us? How many of us want to believe these things?
I believe God has the power to work miracles, and that God wants to use us to transform people’s lives. But it is not in God’s nature to coerce us. We have choices.
In the great drama of God’s salvation story, you and I can choose to fill our intermission time with enjoying our friends and refreshments, until the time-filling activities become the most important things. We can even choose to leave the theater altogether, and go off to try to find another story to give meaning to our lives.
But there is no other story that will fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. God is the One who can give deep meaning to our lives, and gives it in God’s own time, when we are ready, in God’s eyes, to carry out the mission God has planned for us. If we believe this, then we need to live through our intermission times as the first disciples lived through theirs.
When nothing much seemed to be happening, and they couldn’t see where the future would lead them, they remained focused on the drama of God’s salvation story, and worshipped God with great joy. They were centered in God’s gracious, powerful promises as they worshipped joyfully.
In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis talks about “The Critical Choice: Hope Versus Cynicism.”
Wallis says that one of the big struggles of our times is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope—that these realities can and will be changed. This choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice—one that can have enormous political consequences. Wallis argues for a better religion-- a prophetic faith—the religion of Jesus and the prophets.
According to Wallis, the difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power, and possibility of hope. And that is indeed a spiritual and religious issue. More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even a religious choice.
I agree with Jim Wallis when he says that hope is not a feeling. It is a decision. And the decision for hope is based on what you believe at the deepest levels—what your most basic convictions about the world and what the future holds-- all based on your faith.
We can choose hope, not as a naive wish-- but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world. I believe this hope is grounded in faith…and nurtured in our worship life.
The Civil Rights movement in the United States grew out of the African-American church… and then others joined in—people who chose to hope.
During the days of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say, “We are prisoners of hope.”
I know I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s powerful.
During Apartheid, the South African Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during Tutu’s sermon at an ecumenical service. Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of the cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances.
They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make a statement and a point: religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime.
After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, Tutu acknowledged their power, saying, “You are powerful, very powerful.” But then he reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority: “I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”
Then in an extraordinary challenge to political tyranny, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away.
The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. The heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers. Yet the congregation was moved—empowered—to literally leap to their feet, shouting the praises of God. They began dancing. They danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
Some time later, a few days before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa, Wallis remembers wondering, “Who would have ever believed? And that’s just the point, he says. We have to believe.
I know… I know… We’re just a little church. We’re so demographically challenged. So many of the members are older. Everybody is so busy… and so on….
And yet, we are called. Christ has given us a Great Commission: You shall be my witnesses.
We have Christ’s promise: You will receive power…
Like the first disciples, we have the promises of God to cling to, even in times of sorrow and anxiety. These promises are ours, even at times when it seems that Christ has vanished.
So let us cling to God’s promises and rejoice in them. Let us be ready for the curtain to go up on the Salvation story. Because in God, there will be a second act.
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan 48126