May 16, 2021
Poet Nikki Finney quotes a postcard that fellow writer Toni Cade Bambara sent from Philadelphia in October of 1995 as Toni was lying in her hospice bed during the final days of her life. She wrote: “Do not leave the arena to the fools.”
Do not leave the arena to the fools. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s what Jesus thought to himself during the time between his resurrection and his ascension. He knew that he must leave his disciples – or at least his flesh and blood self must leave them. He knew that he had work for them to do. And he loved them. He loved them more than we can understand. But he also knew them. He knew that they had run scared the night of his trial and crucifixion. He knew they had pretty much been hiding in fear since his resurrection. Even before all of that intensity, he had heard them squabble among themselves about who would be the greatest. Did he ever shake his head and wonder if he was leaving the arena to the fools?
The word “fools” might be a little harsh. More likely they were all still traumatized. Even from their hiding places in the shadowy corners, the disciples had seen the brutality inflicted upon Jesus, the whipping and the driving of nails through his hands and feet and the piercing of his side with a sword, blood and water running out. They had seen truly awful things, things that you don’t just forget. Their trauma has made them uncertain about what to do next.
The trauma hasn’t completely made them forget their earthly ambitions. We hear those in the question they ask Jesus just before he floats away: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this when you will finally give us what we need to be a powerful nation that can conquer our enemies and be free of the Roman Empire?
Jesus dismisses those ideas but promises them that they will receive a different kind of power. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for that power to appear. In the Acts story his final words to them are these: “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.”
And that’s when Jesus ascends. He is carried up in the sky. Up, up, and away. Who can blame the disciples for looking up? It’s what any of us would do.
The Spirit is about to show up in wild and unexpected ways. That’s our story for Pentecost next week. But for now the disciples wait. They wait. They watch. They wonder.
The disciples are in a time of transition. It’s a turning point from the season in which they had watched the ministry of Jesus unfold. They saw it up close. How he healed people with a touch. How he brought Lazarus back from the dead. How he fed thousands with crumbs. How he calmed the storm. They heard his stories – of reckless sons forgiven, of lost sheep found, of water that would never run out.
Now it’s their turn. They’re the ones who will have to do the teaching and the healing and the seeking out of the lost and the lonely. They must now become the storytellers – of all they have seen Jesus do and of all that the Spirit will now empower them to do in Jesus’ name. They must be his witnesses – in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Starting from Jerusalem and heading out into the whole world with a kind of spiritual centrifugal force. They will tell the story of the messiah who was not at all the way they expected the messiah to be.
No wonder those strange men dressed in white robes say to the disciples: ““Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They’re reminding the disciples that Jesus has told them what to do. They have their assignment. Wait here for the Spirit. Get ready to head out to every corner of the world to share the good news of the One who lived and died for all of us, the One who has defeated death.
I find it so fitting that we are reading these particular texts on this particular weekend. We are at a turning point too. After a long period of worry and fear and trauma, we are now able to anticipate the next season, one that we believe will be more hopeful and healing. Like the disciples, our fear doesn’t immediately go away. Nor does the grief or the worry. We all know people who have died during this time, either from COVID or from something else. Our ways of grieving for these beloved people – our rituals for burying the dead – have been disrupted.
But we have a job to do, Jesus says. We’re called to tell the story, the story of hope in the midst of fear. We are called to live the story, the story of this limitless love that Jesus has shown us. Jesus reminds us not to let our vision be too narrow.
Things will be different in our world and in our lives. Some things will be different at church. We’re not yet sure about all the ways that things will be different, but we can’t help but be changed by what we have been through. The story of Jesus ascending reminds us not simply to stare longingly at what has been, but to get ready for what will be, even if we can’t yet imagine it.
Jesus knows that the transition from the crucifixion life to the resurrection life is not an easy one to make. He’s patient with the disciples, and he’s patient with us as we learn from him how to live in a new way. Theologian Willie James Jennings observes that we are always drawn by God to our future. He writes, “For some of us that drawing will not take us away from what we have lost or what we feel or what we see. But for others that drawing will mean leaving behind such loss, if it would be an obstacle to our moving toward what God wants to do in and through us.”[i]
Think for a moment about a loss of the last year. Something you can never get back – time with someone dear to you, milestones in your school or work or family life, trips and celebrations that had to be postponed or canceled. It’s OK still to grieve what has been lost.
Now think about a gratitude from the last year, however large or small. Something you never could have imagined would emerge as a gift but has in fact touched your heart. It’s OK to honor what has been a blessing, even though an uninvited one.
I for one share Paul’s gratitude as he writes it to the Ephesians when he says: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
The hope to which he has called all of us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Acts by Willie James Jennings (from the series: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 20.
Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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