Acts 1:1-11 Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Today’s lectionary reading for Ascension Sunday brings us to good news of absence. It sounds like an oxymoron. How can absence be good news? In the beginning of the book of Acts, the resurrected Christ is preparing to leave the disciples and tells them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They are confused. “Does this mean that you will finally restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still believed in Jesus as the Messiah who would lead a revolution to rescue Israel from its Roman oppressors. Jesus did not deny this, but he said that the time for restoration of peace and justice on earth was not for them to know. They were hearing a “not yet.”
This passage connects the ascension of the resurrected Christ with his second coming. In the United Church, you don’t hear much about the second coming of Jesus. But just last week, I had a fairly intensive conversation about this with someone who came to me with a ministry request. In the course of our conversation, she told me that she believed we were now living in the end times in which COVID was a conspiracy propagated by governments around the world and these government fabrications were the cause of conflict within families. Vaccinations were embedding the mark of the Beast in order to control the population. You can imagine how many buttons inside me were pushed with these remarks.
My spiritual guide and my partner are both trying to help me not react with anger but respond with compassion to beliefs such as these. I have found that angry reaction only serves to further entrench opposing views. But compassionate response opens doors to conversation. If I try to understand their underlying fear, they may be willing to hear my side.
There are two things that have helped me with this. First, I have found a glimmer of compassion when I have realized that some of these conspiracy-believing folks include Mennonites, Jewish and Indigenous people, who have a history of government persecution. Some of their ancestors were rounded up and killed, expelled or imprisoned in concentration camps or on reserves. They carry in their ancestral blood the memory of distrust and they have good reason to be wary of sacrificial government pronouncements.
Secondly, those who believe that that we are now living in the end times are following a particular interpretation of the second coming of Jesus that is widespread amongst many evangelical churches. These churches aren’t making up theology on the spot to defend their anti-government positions. They are deeply rooted in a popular theology that has been around for at least a couple of centuries. They believe what is called pre-millennialism. This belief suggests that in the end times, there will be an apocalypse of global proportions, initiating in the Middle East, which will cause extreme suffering and catastrophic events. All of creation will be destroyed. Jesus will then return and usher in a new creation and inaugurate a 1,000-year reign of peace for the faithful ones.
They don’t deny that suffering is happening, but they see it as a sign that we are in the end times. They are not acting out of cruelty, selfishness or ignorance. Rather, they are acting out of a deeply-ingrained belief that God will only save those who believe as they do. Any authorities outside of their church remain suspect. If people hold this belief, then I can understand why they might be convinced of conspiracy today. While I strongly disagree, knowing this helps to give me some compassion for them.
In contrast to this belief in pre-millennialism, the United Church has operated under what is called a post-millennial understanding of the second coming of Jesus. This suggests that the world is gradually evolving in its moral and ethical standards of care for one another and for the creation. Jesus will return after a 1,000-year reign of just and peaceful rulers. This requires human cooperation with God and it leads us in the United Church to trust science, believe in evolution and work cooperatively with people of all faiths.
This is similar to the type of belief that many Jews had in Jesus’ time, including his own disciples. That is why they asked him just before he made his final departure if Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was now going to usher in the era of justice and restore Israel. They believed that the Messiah would finally lead all people into a time of peace and justice in this world, on this earth.
Jesus’ response was to tell them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t know what this meant. All they knew was that Jesus was preparing to leave them. They were frightened, confused and unsure of next steps. They spent their days behind closed doors not knowing what lay ahead of them.
Waiting in that in-between time without direction is incredibly difficult. I just read a New York Times article suggesting that many of us are living somewhere between depression and flourishing right now. The author names this blah feeling that dulls our motivation and blurs our focus as languishing. We might be missing the joie de vivre and feel a bit aimless when planning is so difficult. Waiting for things to open up again takes its toll as we check the stats yet one more time. It is difficult to wait for the results of a biopsy or cancer treatments, wait for a vaccine appointment, wait to see loved ones isolated in personal care homes or hospitals. This, on top of having to switch plans yet again to home-school children and juggle job requirements. Waiting in this in-between time saps our strength.
The disciples must have been in that same state of limbo. Jesus told them to wait. But wait for what? What would it mean for them to receive the gift of the Spirit? What it would mean for them to continue Christ’s ministry without the physical presence of their beloved rabbi, Jesus? My guess is that they were languishing in that unresolved time and space, unable to plan or to focus; unable to find God.
Jesus explained that after they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they would be empowered to tell others about him throughout the known world. And then, we are told that he ascended into the clouds. They remained with their gaze transfixed on the clouds, flooded with emotions as they felt quite alone. Acts then tells us that two strangers appeared and gave them a clue about their next steps. “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 as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, turn your gaze from the clouds back to the earth, for there, in your midst, will you find Jesus once again.
This could refer to the second coming of Jesus. It could also refer to a growing realization that they, the disciples of Jesus, were themselves the body of Christ. They were commissioned by Jesus to heal as Jesus healed, to call people to repentance as Jesus called both individuals and systems of injustice to repentance, to lead people towards forgiveness, as Jesus urged enemies to forgive one another.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that they were commissioned to a witness of the truth of repentance and the reconciliation of forgiveness. In essence, they were commissioned to a ministry of truth and reconciliation. But the key to the success of this ministry as the body of Christ, was to wait until they had received the Spirit. If they tried to do this alone, they would fail. Jesus promised them that, even though they would never see him again, God would never leave them. The Spirit would nudge them when they were lost, strengthen them when they were weary, comfort them when they were overwhelmed with grief, and guide them to those open to Jesus’ healing and message of truth and reconciliation.
God has sent this helper not only to the first disciples, but also to us—present-day disciples of Jesus. When we are languishing in weariness, we can rest in the Spirit’s folded wings. And, as Paul prayed for the Ephesians, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, may we know once again the hope to which we have been called as Christ’s body.
 Adam Grant, “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic? It’s Called Languishing,” The New York Times (2021/04/19).
 Walter Brueggemann, “Blogging toward Sunday (Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53), The Christian Century https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-05/blogging-toward-sunday-0?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=5740a0fc44-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-5740a0fc44-86206583