Sunday, May 28, 2017

“Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.”

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A) – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-11
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Whenever I go away for a while – be it a few days or a few weeks – I can count on the same series of reactions from my cats upon my return. When I first get home, they will look at me like, “oh, it’s you.” Then they will proceed to ignore me. Anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Their way of punishing me for abandoning them. Then they will not leave me alone. They will keep me in sight at all times. This will go on for anywhere from a day to nearly a week, depending on how long I was gone. But the best reaction, the one that breaks my heart every time, is that first time after I’ve returned home when I have to leave again. To run an errand, go to work, whatever the purpose. Be it later the same day or several days later. The reaction is always the same. As I go to close the front door, the Boys will be sitting there, looking at me with the most pathetic expressions, with eyes purposefully made to melt my soul. In that look that says, “Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.”

Whenever I read or hear the account of Jesus’ ascension, that same thought runs through my mind. In Acts, we are told: “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?’” (Acts 1.9-11a). As Jesus was ascending, and it is implied that even after, they just stood there, looking heavenward. You can imagine what’s running through their minds. Probably what they even said out loud. “Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.”

This was undoubtedly hard for the Eleven. Just consider the roller coaster ride they had been on over the last two months. First the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with shouts of “Hosanna!” The exhilaration of witnessing their friend and teacher being hailed as the Messiah. Then just a few days later, they were celebrating their last Passover meal with Jesus, where he told them that he would be betrayed and killed. Sure, he said he would be raised from the dead, but what did that mean? Immediately following that meal, he was arrested, placed on trial, beaten, and lead away to be executed. In fear, they watched from afar as he was crucified. From joyous adulation to deepest despair in just five days.

But then, on the third day following that horrific event, they received unbelievable news. Mary Magdalene had seen, even spoke with, the Risen Lord. Jesus had been resurrected, as he promised. And then he appeared to the rest of them. It was true! He had returned to life. He was back with them. The joy they experienced at once again sitting at his feet, learning from their Rabbi. Now that he was back, things could go back to the way they had been before. They could follow him around Judea and Galilee, listening to him teach, watching him perform miracles. They were back on cloud nine.

But now . . . but now, just six weeks after he came back to them . . . now he’s gone again. “Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.” You kinda feel sorry for the disciples. They seem so lost. Standing there looking up into the heavens. Gazing in disbelief. And I guess, in a way, they are lost. If not lost, certainly dazed, confused.
Before his departure, Jesus told them what they were to do. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8b). They knew what to do. That they were to continue the work that Jesus began during his earthly ministry. That they were to witness to who Jesus was – is – in their words and actions. And that they were not alone in doing this. Jesus promised them “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1.8a). The Spirit that he tells them elsewhere will be the source of strengthen, inspiration, and guidance that will equip them to continue in their ministry. To continue in his ministry.

But right now, as they watch Jesus ascend, they have entered into a period of unknown. An unknown they have experienced before. Just like the unknown between Jesus’ death and resurrection. When they were paralyzed with fear. With uncertainty. They have entered into a period of waiting for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit to guide them, inspire them, energize them. In hindsight, we know that this period was only ten days. Only ten days before Pentecost and the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, when everything would change. But for them, in their present, they were alone. Jesus had gone. This time for good. And they were left to figure out things on their own. Left in an in-between time of uncertainty.

But the disciples have been through this before. And even in the waiting for the Holy Spirit, they know what they had to do. If they would just remember. Before Jesus left them the first time – on that night before his crucifixion – Jesus prayed what is known as the “High Priestly Prayer.” A prayer to God that they were meant to hear and take to heart. That they were meant to learn from. In some ways, it was a sermon disguised as a prayer. We hear the first part of the High Priestly Prayer in our Gospel reading from John. In this part, Jesus asks God, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17.11b). “So that they may be one, as we are one.” This is the critical piece. That no matter what happens, they are to remain united in purpose. United in living out the purposes of God that Jesus had taught them and showed them in his life and ministry. It would be their unity that would help get them through this liminal time.

Actually, to be in this liminal time may not be such a bad thing. Maybe this is just what the disciples needed. The disciples are often depicted as not quite getting what Jesus is saying or doing. If Jesus had stuck around, they would have been back where they had been before. Living a life in Jesus’ shadow. Sitting at his feet listening to his teachings. Watching as he healed the sick and performed miracles. Watching on as he did all the heavy lifting. Never having to make any hard decisions about how to live the Gospel. Witnessing the Gospel as opposed to witnessing TO the Gospel. Never quite getting it. Maybe Christ had to leave them so they could figure out how to carry the light of Christ for themselves. Maybe they needed his absence to discover for themselves the meaning of resurrected life. Not to just be told about it, but to discover and live into it. To live into the fullness of what resurrected life means.

This liminal time, the time between Ascension and Pentecost, this time of uncertainty for the disciples, is reminiscent of the time we find ourselves in. We, too, live in a liminal time between Jesus’ departure and his coming again. We live in a liminal time between the coming of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s second coming. The time between the promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of that promise. The time between the promise of resurrection and the fulfillment of our own resurrections. I am particularly mindful of this when dealing with death. When dealing with the need to make theological sense of the fragility of mortal life as juxtaposed to the promise of eternal life. Particularly so when confronted with the deaths of three of our own in the span of nine days. When confronted in a very real way with the reminder that – with the reality that – we are indeed people not of life and death, but of resurrection and new life. But that we do live in that time between. The time between life and death, anticipating resurrection and new life.

And maybe we need to struggle with how to do that in the absence of our Lord. In the physical absence of Christ. As the disciples had to learn in that liminal time between Ascension and Pentecost, we must learn in our own liminal time. That true discipleship – the true discipleship that Jesus calls us to – is not living in the shadow of Christ. It is rather living in the light of Christ. It is figuring out how to live the light of Christ in our own way. How to be the light of Christ in our own way. Discipleship is living out the unity of the Father and the Son, the unity of which we are made a part by Christ himself. By virtue of being his followers. The unity that comes not by agreeing or being all the same or having the same beliefs. But the unity that is characterized by unity of purpose. Unity with the purpose of the Father and the Son. Unity that comes from witnessing to the Gospel, as Christ commanded. Unity that comes with living the Gospel. Unity that comes with being the Body of Christ. Unity that comes with living the resurrected life.

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