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Easter 7A & Ascension Sermon
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
May
24, 2020

 

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Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So, when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ; Amen.

This last Thursday was the fortieth day after Easter. According to our reading from Acts this morning, it was forty days after Jesus had been raised that he ascended into heaven. Now, folks from my congregation knows that I consider the number 40 when heard in these Bible stories as an estimation of the time described, whether it be the number of days and nights that it rained while Noah and all the creatures where on the ark, the number of years that the Hebrews wandered in the desert, or even the number of days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. I don’t necessarily think it is to be taken literally. I also consider it a holy number, one that is not used lightly. It signifies something very important is happening, and I think that the fact that Luke in his second volume to Theophilus that we call The Acts of the Apostles uses the number forty to describe the time between the resurrection and the ascension means that this is something important to all of us faithful who hear this account today.

Many people have used the term, “quarantine” for what our nation and world has been experiencing lately. As we have been asked to stay inside unless it is essential, we are grieving the fact that we miss out not only on the work that we are called to do and the gathering for corporate, in person worship, but also the fun things that have been put on hold – sports, leisure, going out to our favorite restaurants or bars, pools, parks, graduations, graduation parties, and other events or places. This is especially painful now as this weekend signals the beginning of “summer.” This quarantine has been longer than forty days. If you consider our last in person worship service was March 15, today marks the 70th day of quarantine.

But did you know that the term, “quarantine” is actually based on the Italian word for the number 40? It is true, and it goes way back to the middle ages when, in an effort to protect coastal cities from the plague epidemics brought from other cities and infected ports, ships were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This was considered a time not only to protect the citizens of the land, but to prepare the sailors and passengers for reaching this new place. Now, we are not sure what they did on those ships to pass the time while they waited. Many of us during quarantine have used the time productively, cleaning the house, doing small projects, reading books previously set aside, taking walks and exercising more, and things like that. Some of us have gone on with life much as it is normally, as we have continued to work, albeit in new ways. Some have taken up habits that are not so healthy, like eating or drinking more, watching more television or computer screens and arguing with family or friends as tensions build. Most of us have probably done a little of all of this! I saw someone post a meme that said, “Home isolation has it’s ups and downs. One day, you’re flying high and cleaning the baseboards with a Q-tip, the next you are drinking tequila and watching squirrels out the window. There’s no in-between!” How true …

So, what if we see Jesus’ forty days of resurrected life as a time of preparation? Preparation for whom? I think it is preparation for all of us. It was preparation for those original disciples, because they were able to be with him in a unique way, to learn more about this, “Kingdom of God” which is what Jesus brought with him in his earthly life and ministry in the first place. He must have been talking a lot about this kingdom, because just before he ascended into heaven, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” I am not sure if they expected a yes or no answer, but Jesus must have somehow recognized that his time of preparing these people was over – that he could do no more with them in person, so it was time for him to leave. He assured them that God has not abandoned them, and that soon the Holy Spirit would come upon them. As a result of that gift, they would not only focus their attention on restoring the Kingdom to Israel, but they would be called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judea, and to the ends of the world … yes, even in that place where Judeans were forbidden to go and to mingle, those dreaded Samaritans!! This forty-day period has prepared them for something bigger than themselves. It has prepared them to tell all of God’s creatures that Jesus’ Kingdom is upon us.

We still ask God and each other when has the time come for things to occur. How do we know when it is time for something to happen, especially when it involves a change or a risk? How do we know when it is time to move on or to double down, to get out there and make something happen, or to wait until we see how things unfold, how do we know if we can trust the voice of one expert or advisor, or another? How do we know when we can safely resume our worship services inside this building, and what can and shouldn’t we do to make those safe and loving for all who gather? This is one time where I can identify with those who have asked me questions as a pastor, expecting a yes or no, white or black answer, only to hear me think out loud for about five minutes about the implications of what we may be about to do. Jesus doesn’t give them a yes or no. But he makes a promise that is even more important: that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them to be witnesses to everyone. And then he leaves them – he floats up into the clouds while those present cannot help but keep their eyes gazing upward to see where he is. It is an important promise and event for the disciples and for us because it completes the circle of Jesus’ earthly life and connection with God’s creation. Let me explain to you what I mean.

In our Christian theology, we can sum up Jesus’ earthly presence with four words – Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. The first three of the four describe God’s only son breaking into our broken world and our human condition to be with us, to experience the sufferings and challenges of our lives alongside of us, all the while offering healing and love to all. Even though the resurrection is an overcoming of those things, Jesus still remains with us flawed humans through and after that event in his time on earth … for forty days.
Then, the ascension is the time of returning to Jesus’ heavenly father, showing us that there is a promise of something new outside of this earthly life. God has still broken in to dwell with us in the human condition, but through Jesus’ ascension, we also have the promise of returning to the fullness of the Kingdom of God, that dwelling in perfect relationship and peace with God and each other. In the ascended Lord, we have a promise of our ascension into this heavenly kingdom once our time in this beautiful, yet flawed world is done. God doesn’t only break in to dwell, but God shows that there is a promise of something new and joyful.

So, what does that mean for us? We, who are the spirit led gathering of God’s disciples, waiting not only for Jesus’ promised return, but waiting to be able to be together with our beloved church family to worship in person again? We who don’t have yes or no, black or white answers and in some ways are utterly unable to imagine what is going to happen next? First of all, it means that our calling as witnesses of Jesus is even more important! We are to witness to the greatest commandment – to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This should inform our lives during this quarantine preparation time even more than it did 71 days ago! This may mean remaining apart a while longer … it may mean cautiously coming back together sometime down the line … it may mean we don’t sing or that we sing quietly or hum for a while … it may mean that we wear masks, assuming that we, though experiencing no symptoms may be carrying the virus with us … it may mean that God has something totally new for us to do, like sharing that love with the ones that we have called enemies for a long, long time. This pandemic has revealed in new ways the risks that we Christians experience in witnessing to this self-giving love of Jesus in our words and actions. It is a risk of rejection, and a risk of sacrifice, which, by the way, were the risks that Jesus took by breaking into our human condition to love perfectly even in the face of death.
In Jesus’ ascension, we have the promise of the culmination of a life of witnessing to this love. In the meantime, we have the Holy Spirit – which we will lift especially high next Sunday on Pentecost! It is because of that spirit that God is accomplishing new and better things through us while we wait for the time to be fulfilled, some forty days down the road. No, not the literal number forty, but the holy number 40, for this is a holy time! We are being prepared for something much better than we know now. May the spirit continue to lead and guide us as we look not to the skies, but to the ones that we are called to love in the name of our crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus. Amen.