Up, Up and AwaitEaster Time
Each year, the lectionary-based Bible readings we follow at St. Andrew’s, and in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC), guide us through the whole scope of world history in the light of scripture. They also unite us with other Christian churches in Victoria, within the PCC and around the world. We are all on ‘the same page’ … centered on the same scriptures, and together in listening to the Spirit. The 50 days from Easter to Pentecost culminate next Sunday.
This morning, we heard in Luke’s gospel description of the dramatic Ascension of Christ – taken up in the clouds in the very presence of his disciples. And in Acts 1, we read Luke add that there was also ‘Two men in white’ – angels in some translations – who appeared to the disciples with words of explanation and encouragement.
Pastor and author, Timothy Keller, refers to the Ascension as the detonator that ignited an explosive new power into the world. It is the inaugural event of the era of the Church… our present era in the Christian understanding of world history. In one commentary on our passage, scholar Matt Skinner says, …” the Ascension of Christ is where the disciples first see that in Christ, God has brought the Kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God on earth together.”
It’s God’s answer to the petition of our Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done… on earth as it is in heaven.” Arnold Bromley was a labourer in the cotton fields of Arkansas in the 1930’s… the dirty years of the depression in N. America. It was a dismal life of back breaking labour that he, along with his family and other families, endured. There was no escape and little realistic hope for change. What did matter in that environment was Arnold’s faith in God. He and the others who were picking cotton for long, long hours would sing hymns, pray to God, speak as if God’s Spirit was there among them. And they imagined the heavenly realm, the spiritual world to which they understood they were citizens as a real place of promise and hope. The Father’s house had many rooms, they knew… and they waited with great anticipation to be taken there.
Bromley was also a songwriter… and he wrote a hymn about his confidence in the Hope that lifted him and his family up from despair: Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away… to a home on God’s celestial shore. I’ll fly away, O Glory! By and by, when the shadows of this life have gone… like a bird I’ll fly away to lead on where joys shall never end. Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away. It is the single most recorded gospel hymn in history.
The Ascension miracle strikes a note in people, a spiritual note that is planted there by God in the Beginning. There is a longing in our Spiritual DNA to be ‘up lifted’… to live near to the heart of God. And that longing is also in the heart of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you… that where I go you may be also!” And the angels explain: “Men of Galilee, this same Jesus that has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Likewise, knowing the context of the Ascension passage adds to our understanding of it. There is great anticipation that accompanies this remarkable, dramatic event. The Acts of the Apostles begins where Luke’s Gospel left off: the resurrected Jesus has appeared to the disciples, and over a period of 40 days, he has told them and shown them what his resurrection means … going forward. They understand now what he was he was saying when he told them to anticipate his Ascension: (John 14:19-20) Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (NIV). And now, that anticipated day had arrived.
And there is more. Jesus culminates this earthly time with them with additional promises. Jesus’ followers will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and once unleashed in them, they will testify to His resurrection the world over. The kingdoms of the old world have passed away, and the Kingdom of God has come… it begins here and now… with them.
But first they must wait. (Luke 24:49) “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Acts 1:4-5) … don’t leave Jerusalem… wait for my Fathers promised gift – the Holy Spirit – to come upon you. In the Acts of Apostles, the first act of those apostles is not to act … but to wait.
In time they will witness to the realities of which Jesus spoke -the Kingdom of God on earth, the proclaiming of forgiveness of sins and the release from things which bind and imprison people in this world.
But not yet.
They must wait. And the waiting makes an important point about God will act. Presumably, the Holy Spirit could have come immediately after Jesus’ ascension… but God has them wait. The apostles, the first ‘leaders’ of the church, were in reality the church’s first Followers… led by the Spirit of Christ alive in them. They were the Body of Christ in the world. The Hebrew word for the experience of being with Jesus is ‘paga’. It is used in the many scriptural references to the earthly ministry of Jesus recorded by eyewitness participants. But it is also the word here used to describe these days of waiting after the ascension when the resurrected Jesus was so powerfully present that those gathered felt his touch or experienced his healing power… even though he was not physically present. Followers of Jesus waiting on their Lord were given faith to believe and experience things unseen. It remains so now.
Fred Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor and writer. He shares this: The summer after my only brother died, I found myself missing him so much, needing him so much, that I decided to call up his empty New York apartment. I knew perfectly well that there wasn’t anybody there to answer it. But who’s to say? Maybe some echo might be there …maybe I’d hear the sound of his voice again somehow, hear his marvelous laugh? So, this sceptical old Christian pastor – who you’d think would have better sense – dialed his number and let the phone ring… and ring… and ring. Did my brother answer? I’d love to say by some miracle he did … but of course he didn’t, and the only sound I heard was the sound of his absence. But then it came to me as I listened to the ringing: who can fathom the mystery of things in God’s kingdom? The scripture says: ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’. As I sat there listening, I’d have bet my bottom dollar that in one of those many rooms that phone rang, and rang, and rang … and was heard. I believe that in some sense the voice of my brother was in the ring itself – and that Jesus’ voice was there too. The mysteries of God’s kingdom – the mysteries of the heaven that awaits us – were often on the disciple’s mind. ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Peter asked Jesus; and Thomas questioned: ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered their anxious questions with the most staggering declaration ever spoken: ‘I am the way … if you know me, you will know the Father also. From now on you will know Him, for you have seen Him!’
Before the transforming moment of the Ascension, the first followers experienced the power of Jesus’ physically presence with them. Now waiting in faith, they experience his ‘paga’ His promised presence with the in the power of the Holy Spirit. “When two or 3 are gathered together my name, there am I… in the midst of you.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
In faith… and in humility… the disciples returned to Jerusalem and waited.
And we too, like those first disciples, wait in that space of faith… in humility. In that waiting we encounter the mystery of salvation. It is a very holy, delicate, mysterious space. In this waiting space God is wooing us to salvation. Waiting on God is faith-filled… grace-filled space. Remember when Nicodemus asked Jesus: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ What did Jesus answer (?) “…You must be born from above!”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith” declares Paul, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) Whether you have been on the path of faith for 60 years of if you are just beginning today. No prideful person can know this experience. Waiting in faith is a holy, delicate, mysterious space… near to the heart of God.
Let me suggest an application here for this church family: When the Bellsmith’s left St. Andrews there was a recognition that you needed to wait for God to heal the matters of the heart that are so much the hard part for many; and you chose to wait as well for wisdom and guidance in a time of pastoral transition. For your waiting period God sent Pastor Mitch, who let God’s word speak through worship, and listened while you shared individually and in group settings. And despite being in the middle of a pandemic and its painful trials, you began to experience new ways “for 2 or 3 to gather together in Christ’s name to worship, to pray together and to minister to others in acts of service.
This happened while you waited… and while the church building was mostly silent and empty week after week.
Now as the pandemic lifts, we wait in faith, together… trusting in God for renewed passion and hope for our future. Many of you have expressed – in your own words – both the great potential and the great challenges for St. Andrew’s church going forward. We have also heard and know that our sister Presbyterian churches in the city have passion for their own God-given mission and face their own barriers. Together, let’s pray that God’s Presence with us will give us the faith and the courage to overcome the challenges. Pray too that we will experience together Christ’s presence among us… our own ‘paga’… and share the Christ who lives in us, with all the people, in all the places God leads us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.