Don’t Wait for Jesus
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday/A • May 24, 2020
Acts 1:1-11 • Psalm 47 • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Luke 24:44-53
We’re near the end of a four part story. The first part was the amazing entrance of God into the world in the person of a vulnerable baby born to two peasants in a small town. The second part was his life preaching that the reign of God was beginning to bear fruit, healing people, inspiring people, opening eyes, opening hearts, joining them together across lines of gender, class and nationality. Among those, 12 were chosen as emblems of a larger congregation. They splintered in the third part when he was crucified and died. His absence killed their kinship but they’ve come back, called back, by his resurrection and the every day miracle of his presence. Now they’re milling around, waiting for the next part to begin, like people waiting for the curtain to go up at a theater, waiting for Jesus to take the stage. When he does, they have one question: “What’s next?” In many ways, we’re in a similar situation today. Our church goes through a cycle every year and it climaxes on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection. This year of course, that cycle has been disrupted. We stayed home on Easter; we’ve struggled to learn to share worship through video. Now we’re wondering, like the disciples, “What’s next?”
Luke wrote both a gospel and the book we call the Acts of the Apostles and he gives us two stories of this moment. If we pull back from the stories and see the whole context, we see how like us Jesus’ first followers were. Some left after the crucifixion; most didn’t believe the first reports of the resurrection. A few Sundays ago, we read the portion of scripture in which Thomas stoutly says, “Unless I see the marks on his body, I won’t believe it.” Some of the followers apparently went home to Galilee or other places. We read about two who encountered Jesus as they were leaving Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus. Some stayed in Jerusalem and these are the ones we hear about in the story today. Luke says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” [Acts 1:3]
What did he teach them? The gospel says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” [Luke 24:45] Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere; comes as the fulfillment of the whole tradition stretching back to Moses and Abraham, his life is the embodiment of God’s promises from the beginning. That’s why our worship focuses so fully on the Bible. That’s what Jesus does, over and over, teaching from the scripture, helping people understand how God has worked all along to make love present in the world. The fruit of that love that Jesus presents is a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness. He says,
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 is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. [Luke 24:46f]
Notice that everyone is welcome here: all nations, all people are included. Notice that there is no set of rules here, instead the forgiveness is unconditional. Repentance—changing your ways—is there, but it’s connected to forgiveness, not punishment. And forgiveness is all about the future.
The future is very much on everyone’s minds in the scene with which Luke begins Acts. The disciples are together, Luke says. Jesus is present. They ask the question on everyone’s minds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]. That’s what everyone assumed the Messiah would do. After all, he’s supposed to be the fulfillment of King David who had pulled the tribes together and created a great kingdom, a kingdom that had not been the same since. It wasn’t the same in Jesus’ time; it was governed by people appointed by the Roman emperor and occupied by Roman troops. It’s precisely the fear that Jesus would lead a movement to violently throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom that led the Romans to crucify him. So now that he’s back, now that he’s resurrected, now that he’s present, everyone’s waiting for him to get on with it. To all these questions, he simply says, “Not your business”—“It is not for you to now the times or periods that the Father has set…” [Acts 1:7] and then, as if to make the point, POOF, he disappears into a cloud. Gone: absent, just like after the cross, just like after the crucifixion.
I said at the beginning that we were in a similar place and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the discussion about reopening. We are used to worshipping in a particular way. We get up, we get ready, we walk or drive to a place, a building, this building. We go in, someone greets us, gives us a bulletin, we see others and greet them. For the past few weeks, my friend Remy has been coming in to do the liturgy, and it takes a conscious effort not to hug him, because that’s a Remy greeting. I still find myself looking over to my right, to where Eva sits, back to where Joan is settled, and Joyce, wanting to greet the choir behind me. We gather; we greet, we listen to God’s Word, we pray, and then we gather for coffee and treats and more greeting. It all takes place here, in this building and that’s what church has meant.
But now we don’t. Now we’re absent from each other. You’re at home, I can’t see you. I have to imagine your presence. I’m not in front of you, I’m on a screen and you’re probably doing other things as well; maybe having some coffee, maybe talking to someone else there. When we started this live streaming, the background assumption was that somehow we would all watch together at the same time but as I talk to people, that’s not how it works. Some watch at other times; some don’t watch at all, they just listen. It can all leave us with the same impatience: “Will you at this time, Lord, restore the kingdom?” The disciples want to go back to the past. So do we. That’s where they felt God’s presence, in the preparation for restoring the kingdom; that’s where we felt God’s presence, in the building, greeting, worshipping, meeting together. We long to restore it as they longed to restore the kingdom.
But Jesus has something bigger and more wonderful than a restored kingdom in mind: inviting all people to a loving relationship with God and with each other, a relationship founded on a mutual forgivingness and repentance that changes them, takes the grasping, jealous, angry present and turns it into a place where the fruits of the spirit—“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” [Galatians 5:22f]—are the normal reality every day. Jesus isn’t going back to David’s kingdom, he’s going forward to the kingdom of God. He leaves the disciples there, standing, feeling his absence, but with a message as well.
So, too, if we have a feeling of absence because we can’t meet here, we should listen to the message. Long ago, I became part of the Clark family. Harry was my minister, Nora was my Sunday school teacher, their daughters were my friends. In time we shared so much and loved so much that we became family. Now in the Clark family, goodbyes take a long time. They start when I go have everything packed and Nora kisses me and sometimes gets teary. Then there’s taking the stuff to the car, more goodbyes, good wishes. And I’ve never driven away from the Clarks that I didn’t see in the rear view mirror, Nora and Harry, standing in the driveway, watching, waving. When Jesus has left, ascended, the disciples remain and I think of them just like that, standing there, staring, as if their staring could call him back. They felt his absence.
That’s when two angels appear. Remember these guys? They always show up at a critical moment. One showed up to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus; others told the shepherds about the birth and they show up again at the tomb, after Jesus’ resurrection. They’re the ones that tell the women what’s happened, they’re the ones that tell them that the absence of Jesus, his death, was a moment and that they should look for his presence.
Now the disciples are staring, now the angels appear, now they say simply,
“…why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way…” [Acts 1:11]
In other words, don’t stand around, looking where Jesus was; look where he’s going. He’s told them that: Just wait, he said, “…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.” That’s where he’s going, they just haven’t seen him there yet. They need to look in a new place. That’s the story of Pentecost, and we’ll talk about it next week.
But this week there is an important message for us. We are all talking bout reopening; we should be talking about renewal. When we talk about reopening, the assumption seems to be, “back to normal”. But simply reopening an in-person worship service will not be back to normal. We know we need to wear masks; we know we can’t do coffee hour, we know other things need to change. We know that we now have people coming to worship through the live stream for inspiration regularly and we won’t abandon this or all of you who do that.
The message of the angels is one we need to hear as well: don’t stand around waiting for Jesus. Renewal comes from moving to make his vision a reality. Don’t wait for Jesus; don’t stand around. Wait for the power of the Spirit and when you feel it, live it. Don’t wait for Jesus, share the news that we can live for him today, loving God, living from God, loving others, letting that love blossom into those fruits of the spirit today. Our future isn’t just reopening, it’s a renewal of our life as the body of Christ. Don’t wait for Jesus: he’s already going ahead, making the way for us, loving us, inspiring us.