St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
May 16, 2021, Easter 7B, Ascension Sunday
John 17: 6 – 19
We had some pretty good and hopeful news about the pandemic this week, didn’t we – with new cases decreasing, the rate of hospitalizations and deaths falling, and with more people being vaccinated, the CDC made new recommendations about mask wearing for those vaccinated, capacity numbers being increased, other restrictions being lifted. It’s a breath of fresh air after 15 months of bad news, isn’t it. Families are coming together in person for those missed hugs and gatherings; retailers, especially food service businesses are desperate to hire staff, schools are beginning to open, churches are having conversations about reopening – lots of activity we’ve missed these past months.
But there’s also some caution expressed: does this mean that we go back to normal, whatever that is? And we’re asking the question, “Who are we going to be after all this?” Friends, that’s up to us.
We are invited on the Seventh Sunday of Easter to enter a period of waiting again. But this period of waiting is different; it’s the pause between the hope of the past and the hope for the future. It’s sometimes hard to hold this space because we’re so eager to move on and find new direction. Moving on – that’s what we want to do when we’ve experienced a loss, a time of transition, isn’t it. But if we move on too quickly, maybe we miss one of the most important lessons of life. It’s the in-between that invites us to find depth and to hold the anxiety and fears of the future at bay and embrace this one moment.
Today brings us to the end of the Easter season in the church calendar – beginning with the advent story of preparation for Christ’s birth, the Christmas season when we celebrate the coming of the prince of peace, the epiphany season when we note God’s declaration of who this Jesus is, then Lent when we walk the long and hard road into Jerusalem, experience the horror and sadness of Holy Week, and then the unspeakable joy of Easter. During this Easter season we hear again the age old stories about the resurrection, Jesus’ appearances, the disciples finally coming to really believe that their beloved Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. Then 40 days after the resurrection comes Ascension Day, when Jesus parted from the disciples again, carried up into heaven, leaving them to carry on his ministry.
I’ve come to realize that in the same way Easter doesn’t make sense without Good Friday and Good Friday doesn’t make sense without Easter – Pentecost doesn’t make sense without Ascension and Ascension doesn’t make sense without Pentecost. And while I’ve always loved the Pentecost celebration, the birthday of the church, maybe I’ve lost something by jumping over Ascension Day and the promises of that time.
For 40 days the disciples have enjoyed appearances of the Risen Lord – during Eastertide he’s still among them – but he tells them this is not going to last – at least not in the same way. So, today, here we are on the 7th Sunday of Easter, straddling the past and the future – that most uncomfortable “in between time”, wondering, now what. What’s to become of us without Jesus present to us, teaching and leading... but Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, that we too will be clothed with power from on high – that we are to continue to tell the story – and we have Jesus’ final words to his disciples, according to Matthew: the Great Commission, Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And that power and authority will come on Pentecost. We know that as we look back on the story. And maybe that’s the purpose of Eastertide – to understand how this journey and especially how the resurrection helps us to be what we have been called to be, a time of discernment, a transition time for the disciples.
It is for us as well because we’re in a transition time too here, aren’t we as we look ahead – we too ask, what’s next?
We’ve experienced one of the greatest challenges we’ve ever faced this past year – the raging pandemic, bringing death, sorrow, uncertainty, loss of jobs, loss of routines – look at how we’ve all had to adapt – I am amazed at how communities and people have responded to the sorrows and challenges of taking care of each other during this time. It’s been hard – especially with all the violence that has erupted this past year too, both in word and deeds – but it’s also been encouraging as people have come together to make needed changes.
Now, restrictions are being lifted – we see the light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the miracle of science – of course, we need to continue to be cautious – but we’re feeling a new hope and freedom, aren’t we, as we move into a new transition time – maybe life will get back to “normal”.
But it’s a new normal – and that makes us both sad and happy at the same time. The question for any transition, what do we do with the new now?
All of us are at a point in our stories where we ask ourselves as do the disciples, how God is calling each of us and what is God calling us to be and do. What are we called to do as a community? How do we “go therefore and make disciples.”
How do we move between the remembrance of the past into the hope of the future? What indeed does it mean to move on? Move on to what? And can we really move on without learning and living out the lessons this past 15 months have taught us? Should we?
I can only imagine what those first disciples were feeling – how can all this continue without Jesus physically with us? They know that Jesus is the son of God – that in him they had seen the fullness of God – as much of God as they ever could or hope to see. They knew, he was God. But how do they help others see Jesus for who he really was.
Maybe this is a week between the Ascension and Pentecost in our church calendar when we observe a bit of a time-out. A time to regroup – a time to look back though we know we can’t go back - and at the same time, look ahead to new possibilities, asking what’s next?
How can we know what the process of discernment looks like – that process must be intentional – we have to stop and work the steps – take a time out, if you will.
Jesus gives us some guidelines: he prays that the community be unified; that the community fulfill Jesus’ joy; and that the life of the church be distinct from the life of the world. And today, that’s a real challenge and opportunity for the church – to be in the world but not of the world. We are surrounded by chaos and anxiety, aren’t we – but, you know, we have such good news to share: our God is ever so much bigger and stronger and more loving than we can imagine; our God never changes; our God surrounds us with strength and courage and love and shows us the way to change the world, bringing in a world of peace and justice. It’s not easy – but we can do this! But only with God’s help.
Jesus’ prayer for us helps us identify those outcomes we seek in the discernment process: new life coming out of death. New life coming out of change – perhaps entirely new, perhaps a natural outgrowth of a direction we’ve been taking – whether that new direction is our choice or not.
That’s what God wants for us and from us – that’s what Jesus prays for us – that we are protected from the evil one in the midst of the world – that we might have a sacred joy made complete in us. That we may be in the world but not of the world – that while we are in the world we know that we belong to God and that God will always protect us.
And to have joy made complete in us – maybe we understand that best as modeling our lives after Jesus’ life and living the gospel commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. You know, that’s really pretty simple: treat others as we want to be treated. So simple that we can miss it.
It’s like when we hosted the food bank and some of you came to help – and met the people who benefit from the generosity of our community. To see their faces, to get to know them, to recognize them and call them by name when you see them around town – I remember feeling a new sense of joy, of purpose those days. When is the last time a jar of peanut butter and jelly or a box of cereal was a real gift to you? Or a fresh orange or crisp apple, red ripe tomatoes, fresh warm bread, a dozen eggs - we take so much for granted, don’t we. And to hear everyone say thank you – so much gratitude from those who have so little – at least according to our standards. Believe me, I got a new perspective on my privilege that changed my life.
Jesus prays that we will be in the world but not of the world – and he knows the stakes are high. Jesus calls us to bring the world back on the path. We all have the ability to do that – perhaps in small ways but we all have the ability. The question is, figuring out what our part is and, then, will we do it?
Knowing that God has uniquely blessed us with all the gifts we need to be God’s reflection in the world and living this way makes it possible for others to see our gifts and to see God in us.
As Christians, for what will we be known? Will we be known for damaging our mother earth out of greed to the point where we end life as we know it? Will we use our voice for justice and peace rather than to further violence and conflict? Will we generously feed our hungry neighbors every day? Every time we shop, will we think of our neighbors? Will we invite prayerful contemplation in every decision, knowing that the answer is there – we only need to be still so we might hear God’s call.
We who gather this morning love this church – care about the future of this church don’t we – we know in order to move into our future we have to expand, enhance our ministry here and in the community. We can get so stuck when we get anxious - but let’s take a time-out: let us remember the stories and let them work in and through us to make this a better church, a better world – a world of peace which is not the absence of war, but of a peace that passes all human understanding. It’s ours for the making through the grace of God who loved us enough to come to earth as a man, fully human, fully divine to show us the way.
As we approach the festival of Pentecost, let us be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us move from the joy of Easter as a re-creation of new life with the hope that guides us all to be God’s love in the world. What are the new directions where God is leading us? What are the ways that we can hear the voice of God still speaking in our lives, individually and communally?
Friends, we’re all in this together! What’s next for us? God is with us as we take our time-out. God is with us, still speaking. Jesus will show us the way. Praise God for that! That’s the promise and the joy!