First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater
Text: Acts 1:6-14 (NRSV)
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or period that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, 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 toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, 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 you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to a room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Before we dive into this morning’s Scripture reading, I think it would be appropriate to take some time to acknowledge that today is not only that the day we celebrate the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also a time of national remembrance of those who have served and have given their lives with the hope that one day we will no longer need to raise up our swords, but instead beat them into plowshares…
As I prepared for this morning’s sermon I spent some time looking through various books and was drawn to one particular historical event. The year was 1942. Singapore fell to the overwhelming might of the Japanese Empire. The United States won at the Battle of Midway. Germany began to conduct acts of genocide at Auschwitz. The United States began to force Japanese Americans into internment camps. And the United States succeeded against the Japanese army at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Besides all of the above, it was also during this span of time that a British Intelligence Officer, by the name of John Buxton wrote a poem remembering a fallen soldier from the last great war. In the last stanza of this poem Buxton writes:
We must fight now, and we must keep our plans when the war
And we must keep our hopes. And we must make
A world where this man and that can be clearly heard,
Where every man can hope, and think, and speak
Freely; where no man’s faith is barred.
For this, that each man may be free forever,
We must fight now.
I was drawn to the words of this poem because they encapsulated the virtues that Christ embodied for us to model. The words of poem articulated the principles for which women and men died to protect and preserve. But the words of this poem begin to fall short when we realize just how long we are supposed to fight the good “fight.”
I don’t think the disciples realized how long they were expected to continue on in their mission to the Church. And I don’t think that they realized that it would be a mission that would ultimately cost them their lives. So who could blame them, then when they quickly turned to ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Though today we maybe wouldn’t phrase the question the same way, who hasn’t found themselves asking Jesus, “Lord, when are you going to do the things that I thought you promised me,” or “Lord, I’ve done everything you asked of me, but yet why are bad things still happening?”
This is all a part of what it means to be human. We have those late night conversations with God in our head in order to try and figure out and find meaning for everything that has happened to us. The problem, however, is that God doesn’t fit into the confines of our expectations or desires. The Samaritan women at the well thought that Jesus was going to offer her actual water, the Romans thought that Jesus was a political king, and in this morning’s passage, the disciples think that Jesus is going to physically restore Israel. But what we find is that in all these occasions Jesus had a different answer to what it was they were seeking.
While I don’t have the answers to these questions, I do know that they are a part of what it means to seek a deeper relationship with God. There is no shame in asking these questions because, like the disciples who questioned Jesus, we find that we are often more concerned with the immediate, the present world around us, and forget that God has an ever unfolding story of grace, love, and redemption.
We know that one day Christ will return. We know this because of the angels who said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, 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 you saw him go into heaven.” I like to think that it was after this that the disciples began to realize what it meant to continue living in the world as the hands and feet of Christ. After departing from the place where Christ was taken into heaven, the disciples and some others who were close to them gathered together and prayed.
This is where Buxton get’s back on the right track in the poem that I mentioned earlier. Because Buxton never said that the challenges we face are done alone. But over and over again Buxton says that it is us in a collective “we” who come together to overcome the trials of this world. In a like manner, we are called to be a community of believers who support and uphold one another in grace and love. Celebrating in each other’s joys and sharing in each other’s sorrows is a part of what it means to live a Christian life. And while some days feel like there are more sorrows that joy we continue on in faith with those around us that God will wipe away the tears from our eyes in order to reveal the paths that are ahead of us.
As we come to an end of Eastertide we are given a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus may have ascended into the heavens, but God with Jesus Christ did not leave us alone. For as we look through the stories found in the Old Testament and in the New Testament we find that the Spirit of God had been with women and men throughout the ages. Preparing ourselves for the celebration of Pentecost, we are reminded in today’s Scripture reading that God’s Spirit is with us and provides the spiritual sustenance to continue to grow in faith even when it feels as though there is no hope left.
We know what it is like to lose someone who is close to us. As someone who has lost a father, friends, and colleagues it can feel as though there is no light that can overcome the darkness. As we remember those who gave their lives in the service to others, we ask ourselves when this loss of life will end? Will there ever be an end? But through all these questions and doubts we remember that we are children of the living God. We remember that we are an Easter people who look forward to the day when the saints of heaven will once again become a part of our community. However, until that day we have one another. We have one another knowing that we are called to lift one another up and go out into the world to support others as well with the good news that we found as Easter people.
Being honest, there will be many days ahead where we will want to ask and will ask Jesus, why things didn’t turn out the way we wanted them to. But let us come together in Christian fellowship so that we might carry each other’s hopes, sorrows, joys, and struggles. The gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have received from God do not signal the end of God’s story here on earth, but instead, marks a new beginning where we are invited to see the continued works of God in new ways.
Would you please pray with me… Holy God, as we remember the lives of those who gave of themselves for others and as we remember the gift of Jesus Christ we give you thanks. We give you thanks for another opportunity to feast upon your holy Word and a listen for your voice in the world today. Grant us your peace as we prepare ourselves to out into the world to be representatives of your love and grace. If our hearts are heavy Lord, grant us strength and your serenity and if our hearts are filled with your joy may you show us your still unfolding work in the world. We ask this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.