Poof! Everything Has Changed – Rev. Boone Clayton
Acts 1 (CEB)
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
During this time, the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons. Peter stood among them and said, “Brothers and sisters, the scripture that the Holy Spirit announced beforehand through David had to be fulfilled. This was the scripture concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus. This happened even though he was one of us and received a share of this ministry.” (In fact, he bought a field with the payment he received for his injustice. Falling headfirst, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines spilled out. This became known to everyone living in Jerusalem, so they called that field in their own language Hakeldama, or “Field of Blood.”) “It is written in the Psalms scroll,
Let his home become deserted and let there be no one living in it;
Give his position of leadership to another.
“Therefore, we must select one of those who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus lived among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken from us. This person must become along with us a witness to his resurrection.” So they nominated two: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
They prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s deepest thoughts and desires. Show us clearly which one you have chosen from among these two to take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” When they cast lots, the lot fell on Matthias. He was added to the eleven apostles.
It was January of 1996 and my family drove down to Florida from Northern Virginia. We were going to a family wedding down there and taking advantage of the trip to spend a few days at Disney World. I remember I was supposed to miss a week of school but the “Blizzard of ‘96” began hours after we hit the road to go south. Many, many inches of snow fell and all of my friends back home ended up missing the same week of school, too. While we were there in Florida, my mother, who is a chemistry teacher and a big fan of NASA, set it up so that we could go to Cape Canaveral and witness a space launch that was happening that week. We had to wake up at 3 a.m., which I was very excited about at the age of 12, and we saw the launch. Now, it was dark, and I don’t remember much about the cloud cover that night, but I would imagine that it took off and eventually disappeared into the clouds in not something too dissimilar from Jesus’ ascension in the scripture reading today.
I appreciate the symbolism of the numbers involved here: 40 days in the wilderness to start his earthly ministry after his baptism, and then 40 days to conclude it after his resurrection. I wonder what it was like that day, 40 days after the resurrection, to have been gifted with more time with their teacher, their master, their Lord and then to see him taken away in a very different manner than he was 42 days earlier. This time, like a space launch, the ascension into the heavens must have been full of positive anticipation.
The ascension sequence is something we don’t spend a lot of time on in the church, I think. In asking another pastor this week if they were “doing” the ascension today, they shared that they never quite know what to do with it and that it feels like some of the other labeled Sundays – Trinity Sunday, Reformation Sunday, Christ the King Sunday – talk about it or don’t, it’s not going to be a dealbreaker either way. It’s stuck there in the middle of Easter and Pentecost and it’s true that it’s not a big deal as they are, and yet in many ways it is necessary because it completes the circle: Jesus comes, Jesus lives, Jesus teaches, Jesus dies, he lives again, teaches again, and he departs having been lifted up. If nothing else, the difference between today and those other labeled Sundays I mentioned is that this is directly in the scripture as part of the sequence.
I was struck by what one commentary said about it though. “The festival of the Ascension is endlessly problematic and admits of no simple or single “explanation.” It is clear in these texts that the church struggled to voice a reality that ran beyond all its explanatory categories.” The larger problem, it said, once the church had explained what happened to the body of Jesus after Easter, the larger problem was what the church should do next now that Jesus is no longer present. The community that is left has no power of its own. “It possesses none and it can generate none for itself. It has no claim and no cause for self-congratulation. And yet…power is given.”
Power is given. When we look at the big picture of this passage before us today, when we track its chronology leading up to the Pentecost story that comes next week, we see that it is all pointing to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that Jesus was working in the power of the Holy Spirit, then Jesus tells the disciples that in a few days they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus reiterates that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Remember that there are about 120 people there, so it’s not just the remaining 11 disciples but more like 11 squared.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the ridiculous question that they ask Jesus right in the middle of all this. We’re told they’ve just spent 40 days hearing Jesus speak to them about God’s kingdom. And then, like kids in the back seat of the car asking, ‘are we there yet?’ they ask: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It’s simultaneously head-shakingly funny and maddening. They really are like kids that woke up and decided they wanted to go to Disney World, only to be repeatedly told that they were going on a different journey – and then to start that very different journey and go much of the way. Nothing Jesus has done up to this point has communicated that a restored Israel Disney World is in the cards, and yet as Jesus pulls the car off the interstate in what is definitely not Orlando, Florida, the whole back seat asks about Disney World again.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ message is: The spirit was coming. The Holy Spirit is coming.
Notice their reaction, having been told the Holy Spirit would come upon them and seeing Jesus disappear into the clouds, and even after two men dressed in white appear and tell them to move along – no dilly-dallying here. There is no fear, they are so calm, trusting, faithful. We know this big event is right around the corner for them, but they don’t. And it’s even more amazing to see what they do next: their work is important – huge – but still their first step is to pause. (They go back to Jerusalem and wait, as instructed. When have you ever known the disciples to do exactly as they were told?! This event has moved them.) But the pausing here is not an excuse to be slow, or for us in the church to get caught up in church bureaucracy. Rather it’s a reminder to soak everything in prayer because that is what they pause to do. The lesson for us there is that our major decisions must be done deliberately and intentionally.
Truthfully, I’m amazed at their trust. But they’ve had a crazy few weeks since those Passover days in Jerusalem. And in a week their whole world is going to change again when the fires of Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit carries them forward.
We’ve had a crazy week, haven’t we? Truth be told, it’s been a crazy 60 weeks. But just lately between gas shortages, chicken and sauce shortages, and now these new guidelines that loosen the restrictions we’ve been living with for 14 months? It’s wild. The sensation of nakedness walking into a store or a restaurant or — a church without a mask…it’s wild.
We often talk of the event of Pentecost as the beginning of the work of the HS in the church and in the world. But in reality the HS has been on the scene from the beginning. Genesis 1:1, the cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness, the dove that descended upon Jesus at his baptism and the force that guided him into the wilderness himself, and maybe even again in the cloud that lifts Jesus up, up, and out of sight. The HS was already present in the world before Pentecost then just as it is and has been for us now. The Spirit has been alive and well and especially present for us during these trying times.
I recently read about an artist’s work with photographs of people spending time together but looking at their phones and tablets. The big catch: the devices have been removed from the pictures. They look ridiculous, don’t they? Now I noticed that all of the pictures here are our younger folks, but I know that this phenomenon is not bound by age or youth. Maybe, just maybe, remembering the ascension is a little bit like these photographs: you’re looking and looking for what was just here in front of us but it’s gone. And when we turn our gaze to the world around us, the world that’s left behind, we see that it’s still a beautiful place with plenty of God’s work still to do and plenty of God’s love still to share. We are not done with the pandemic just yet, but we must have the trust, the belief, and the faith that God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit is with us now and forever, empowering us to continue to do great things in God’s name. Amen.