To read the texts, go here http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Luke+24:44-53&vnum=yes&version=nrsv and here http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Acts+1:1-11&vnum=yes&version=nrsv:
This Spring one of the clergy at Williamsburg Church and I led Disciple, a 34 week intensive and demanding Bible study; trust me, it’s not for sissies. We finished the Old Testament last month and in August we’ll start taking on the New Testament.
I can always count on at least one in the group asking tough questions about what’s been read, how scripture all fits together, noticing contradictions or other problems, dealing with faith issues raised by their careful wrestling with the Word of God.
When we read Luke and Acts this fall, I know someone’s going to have questions about today’s stories of Jesus’ final time with his disciples. They’ll notice that they don’t exactly match. In Luke’s gospel story, that final time with his friends is Easter evening, but in Acts 40 days have passed. In Luke Jesus departs from Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, but in Acts he leaves from the Mount of Olives, just a small valley from Jerusalem. In Luke only disciples are there; Acts’ two men in heavenly white are not. At least one of my folks is going to read carefully and thoughtfully, see the easily missed differences, and want to know what’s what.
And I’ll say what I often say: “Take this seriously, but not literally. Don’t get lost in the detail weeds but pay attention to what Luke really wants us to see.” And I’ll remind them that what we see one time may differ from what God shows us the next.
Today, in either report, what I see clearly is that Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was with his disciples long ago. Those days are over and done. As much as I’d like to see his face, or watch him heal the sick, or hear him tell a story, or slide a pillow under his weary head in a boat, such things are not for me. We’ve been given something better. Then the Lord Jesus could only be one place at one time. He could only do one thing at a time, only have one conversation at a time, only help one person at a time.
But now the Risen Christ is up and above such limitations; he’s no longer bound by time and space; wherever we are, he’s there with us. In a classroom or at work, at the kitchen table at dawn or in bed at day’s end, in the delivery room or by a hospice bed, in wide open spaces or a prison cell, at a picnic shelter or one for the homeless, the Risen Christ is with us, praise the Lord.
Scripture tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39); there’s nowhere I can go from God’s Spirit (cf. Psalm 139:1-12). There’ve been times when I thought I needed to hide or run from God; I grew up fearing a god out to get me and ready to zap me when I took a misstep. But as a long ago saint said, “I no longer fear God, but love God (St. Anthony, a 3 century monk).”
When I see Jesus, I’m not filled with fear, but love. I see kindness and mercy, compassion for the broken and beaten down, I see a welcome for us who know we’re a hot mess or who hunger and thirst for a better way; I see God in the flesh with arms widely welcoming all who would draw near; I see loving arms stretched out on the cross embracing our suffering and sadness and hurtful ways, and somehow transforming our deadly ways into living way.
By his stripes we are healed, and by his wounds we are made whole; so says scripture (Isaiah 53:4-5). And today, I see that Christ’s suffering, sacrificing, wounded love is really God’s suffering, sacrificing, wounded love; God has taken this Risen Christ up into the very heights of heaven, into the very heart of God. We have God’s word on it: now we have an ally and advocate (see Hebrews 4; 1 John 2) in God’s very presence praying for us, speaking up for us, calling to God’s mind how weak and frail and stupid we sometimes are; and how precious and beautiful and beloved we are. So God shows us patience and mercy and kindness and grace beyond our deserving. Christ is near to the heart of God, making room for us as well.
This is such joyful good news! How sad that often the world sees us as grumpy, frumpy, self-righteous pains. What joyful news; how can I not share it with others? We get to continue the beautiful new thing Christ began; it’s not a burden, but a blessing and a gift. We know Christ is raised from the dead and has been given God’s power and authority; we know that what he says about life is true and real; we get to bear witness to what we’ve seen and know to be true, and to carry it forward everywhere. We get to offer people life and hope, mercy and joy, invite them to go a new way and to experience forgiveness and healing. W are given permission and power to bear witness that “Christ has opened a new and better way to people of all ages, races and nations;” as told in our baptism joy we are privileged and powered “to reject and repent from spiritual forces of wickedness and evil, to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” (see the Baptismal liturgy of The United Methodist Church). We simply say and show what we know: the joy of Christ alive in us; serving him gladly, knowing his goodness and grace; Christ and Christ only first in my heart (a lyric line from the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”).
Last week I taught a Sunday School class at Williamsburg Church on Romans 12. There Paul urges us not to be conformed to the ways of the world but to be transformed by Christ; as one translation puts it, “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold you from within…(J. B. Phillips, The New Testament: A Modern Translation). I asked where we need to let God remold our lives. It’s a pretty quiet group; they usually don’t talk much, so I was surprised by their quick and deep answers: “We’re too cruel and unkind to each other.” “The world’s molding us to be mean-spirited, suspicious, hurtful, hateful, to love violence too much.” “We need to surrender ourselves to the deepest truth of scripture, not just what’s convenient or agreeable.” As Christ forms us, “We stop being so afraid of each other or those who are different;” “We become quiet and still, we slow down, pray and wait; “We listen more to each other and for God’s still small voice;” “We learn like Christ to love, no matter what.”
Sisters and brothers, the world needs us to be such witnesses because it’s lost its mind, its soul, its heart, its way. The world needs to see us living the Jesus way. We claim him as Lord and Savior; no one else. If the world’s going to see Christ alive, it’s our calling to bear witness to his life in ours. If we don’t, who will?
But we won’t do it on our own; we need power from above; we need the Holy Spirit to come and do in us what’s not possible for us. That’s why Jesus tells us in Acts we to wait, to be still. We need to worship each week to be filled again with joy, to be reminded and challenged and encouraged to stay open to God’s power and to be connected to it lest we burn out like a light no longer shining. It’s why we need to come to Christ’s Table, to be refreshed and renewed by the One who feeds and nourishes us to live his odd way.
The great good news is that power is available. It will be given, as we wait and pray with hope and faith and joy. We have Jesus’ word on it, and he’s never failed me yet. In the waiting and hoping, God makes room to speak and to act. The world rushes by and tells us to get a move on; Christ tells us to wait, to be open and ready.
Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine was offered a terrific job. His first thought was this is a no brainer; of course he should take it, strike while the iron is hot. But he thought to wait and to listen. He’s a Quaker so he invited several people to form a clearness committee to help him. For a few hours they simply asked questions, and in the space of trust, waiting and listening they provided, he realized God was not calling him to that work (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Parker Palmer in 1984 when he met with the doctoral students at Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now incorporated into Union Presbyterian Seminary).
I think about that a lot these days as our United Methodist Church in this terribly tough season after General Conference’s decisions about matters of sexuality and the place of LGBTQ persons in Christ’s family. We’re uncertain about which to go, how God might lead us in a new day or a new direction. Some of us are tempted to act now, to step boldly and quickly when we may not yet know the best way to go. Perhaps especially now we’re called to wait, to listen, to receive power from above, to trust that we’re not alone, on our own. Christ’s healing, helping, joyful, extravagant love and power can yet live in us; his powerful presence can yet shape and change and strengthen us. The world needs to see the Way of Jesus’ welcoming love for all, witness it, to know it’s true. The truth is, we need that life-giving power from on high, and it’s worth waiting.
Sometime in the last few years, a church acquaintance went off on how angry she was at a president. She was clearly angry, fed up, utterly done with him as a president and as a human being. I asked if she prayed for him, and she acted like that was the most ridiculous question ever. “Of course not; I can’t; I won’t. It’s impossible.” She blew off my reminder that what’s impossible for us is possible for God. Hard as it is, we’re commanded to pray for our enemies, for leaders and persons in authority, even a president who, like us is also a sinner and beloved child of God. She’d have none of it; I was struck by how much she needed Christ alive in her to shape and remold her life with that power from above; how much good it would do her to ask for that promised gift to move her from death life, and to wait for it in confident faith and hope. What’s impossible for us is possible for God.
In 2006 I marveled at that truth in the lives of Pennsylvania Amish parents whose children were slaughtered at school. In their awful grief they went to the home of their children’s murderer, to speak and act in mercy, grace and forgiveness. They didn’t go because it was easy, but because it’s the Way of Jesus. They’d spent a lifetime being formed to wait and listen and learn the Jesus Way by heart, and trust Christ alive in them with power to live a better way, a way of life, not death. And the world mocked and ridiculed; but some also marveled and wondered. That Jesus Way lies open to us. Wait for it. Pray for it. Expect it. Rejoice in it. Such power will be given, thanks be to God.
-2019, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.