It was a promise.
They would not be left alone. They had already lost him once and were already grieving losing him again. There had been so many amazing moments. So many miraculous things, so many people healed, so many conversations had, and so many opportunities to learn. There was also that amazing set of weeks when they had gone two by two to rehearse the work of Jesus. The disciples returned filled with joy at what they had seen, at the ways that God had used them to bring the kingdom to those that needed it most. There had also been the sadness of their friend, teacher, and Lord taken into custody and then crucified. Then the disappointment of their actions caused by their lack of faith and their fear.
Then he showed up, like he said he would. He encountered the two disciples as they went to Emmaus then he met the twelve. Thomas could not believe it until he saw it, all were comforted that Thomas had spoken what many of them felt. This time though was all about passing on the work, about giving final pointers, and about reminding them that they would have what they needed to continue the work started. This work was the kingdom, the visible rehearsal of what would be permanent at the end of time. What could be better than the presence of the resurrected Jesus?
Soon they would find out.
Ascension Sunday pivots us from Eastertide into Pentecost. It moves us from the long narrative of Jesus' life that culminated with his death and resurrection and now lands us in this moment. We like the disciples, are left wondering, what now? Life in Jesus would be easier with his physical presence. I often wish I could hang out with him like the twelve did.
This time though the disciples would not be left alone. We will not be left alone. The Holy Spirit will come down, now we just need to hold tight and wait. Today, we are reminded of our identity as God's own people, as Christ's body on earth. Acts tells us that we are witnesses...we have seen the risen Lord, we have experienced the risen Lord, and we continue to make tat experience known.
We, bearers of the message that our brokenness, strife, and our missing the mark does not define us, that forgiveness, restoration, and redemption are possible. We, bearers of the message that the promise of long ago, the promise of a God who creates, does not break, who sustains, does not harm, who reveals, does not hide. This God has come to us in Jesus!
Now the promise is trusted to us, God's own people, so that all creation can experience the wholeness, integration, peace of God.
As Jesus reminds the disciples of who they are and of their journey and next steps, Jesus begins ascending. Clouds carry him to the right hand of God. We are in awe of what we are experiencing. I am sure that it is a beautiful sight. A sight that you and I would be hypnotized by, like a balloon that gets away, or a plane taking off with a loved one, we cannot do anything but stare and wait until the last possible glance is gone.
The disciples did not have that luxury. As Jesus was being lifted up "two men in white robes stood by them," like fellow onlookers, like Jesus on the Emmaus road asking: Why are you looking up? What are you looking at? Don't you see that Jesus will be back? Go on and get back to work! Don't be distracted. Move on and stop staring, there's nothing to see here...
The Jesus who broke into history once will break into history again, that is the promise. How? Through the disciples, through us, as long as we don't waste our time looking at the heavens! When I first think about this, I want to tell myself that I don't do this. I am a type A personality. I would consider myself a go-getter, so of course I am not just staring and waiting, right?!
Many of our faith communities are very busy also - their calendars filled with activity, the parking lot full every day, meetings happening all the time. Busy with good things: worship, Christian education, administration, service opportunities, etc. Truly the list would be endless. These could be called "Holy Distractions."
This past summer I took a six-week sabbatical from my work as a pastor. As part of this time away, I spent a week at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The first few days in this silent retreat were the toughest. My mind spinning with so many things, most of them church related. Little by little though I realized that my soul was filled with so many "holy distractions," to the point that I was often paralyzed and frustrated. The silence and solitude provided a helpful space, those things becoming my "two men in white robes," calling me back to the mission of God in the world.
For me the holy distractions had become a form of self-soothing, of procrastination, a form of avoidance of the work that I had been called to as a follower of Jesus. I am sure that I am not alone. I also know that this affliction does not just happen in our individual lives but happens also to the collective people that we call the church.
In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen reminds us that our task, our call, is the "opposite of distraction." He says, it is "to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God's active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in the parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence."
Now this is no invitation to quietism, or to inaction. It is for me an invitation to stop staring and to start to see God in our horizontal relationships. The book of Acts reminds us that God truly showed up in Jesus, flesh, blood, sacrifice, struggle, and glory. Jesus enfleshed and still present. Soon we will receive the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus in our life together that will give us what we need to carry on the work.
On this Ascension Sunday I invite you to take inventory of your life and your life together. In what ways are you staring at the sky waiting for Jesus to return? In my own life I confess that I am spending too much time within the walls of the congregational space. I am spending too much energy on administering the life of our congregation. I am spending too much bandwidth wondering what the future holds for The United Methodist Church, my denominational home. I am spending too much time attempting to keep God's people happy. All in the name of Jesus, of course, all out of love for the body of Christ. Yet still, staring, still looking out, still hoping that Jesus is really not gone.
But I sense a new energy. In my life, in the community I serve, and in the world. I sense a hunger for making goodness, love, and compassion enfleshed. I sense a deep need for the people called the Church to pay attention and to stop staring, waiting busily for Jesus to make all things new. Instead let us shine a light on where we see Jesus alive and well around us.
Jesus in the local marketplace as we shop with others for food that is good for mind, body, and spirit. Jesus in our homes as we wash dishes, do laundry, and pay the bills. Jesus in our workplace as we live into our vocation, deal with co-workers, and serve others. Jesus in our congregations as we sing songs of praise, share bread and cup, and are sent back into the world to be Jesus. Jesus in the abandoned places, as writer Shane Claiborne tells us, the places that others have forgotten but that Jesus remembers well.
As we look around and see Jesus, our lives are transformed. We are reminded that we do not have a monopoly on who Jesus is. We are humbled by the many ways that Jesus shows up forgiving, restoring, continuing the work of creation from the beginning of time. The way that Jesus shows up loving, healing, and calling our name, and the name of our neighbors.
It would be easier to keep on staring. Allowing our sugary memories of Jesus, of the church, of how things should be to lull us into paralysis. But today Ascension calls us to pay attention. It awakens us back to where we are, rooting us in the soil given to us to till as workers in God's vineyard.
So, people of God, why are you looking up? Wake up, Jesus will be made known again, through you! Yes, one day he will come again but until then, you are it! You will have empowerment from on high, you will have all you need to continue the work of Jesus in history, all of creation awaits with expectation to hear the good news of forgiveness, restoration, new life. The words of God, who in history and through a people makes salvation known.
So, people of God - Now, get back to work!