Acts 1: 6-14
He had been with them for forty days - forty days since he had been executed, that is. How stunned they had been (to put it mildly) when he appeared to them after that, having risen from the dead. Forty more days he was with them, but it was nothing like the years they’d had with him before. Things were very different now. Before, there had been miracles – demons cast out of sick people, withered hands restored, a girl brought back to life, thousands fed with a little bread and fish. Now he didn’t do these things, and he didn’t show himself in public. There were new miracles – he would appear through locked doors. He would vanish from the supper table just like that. All he was doing in this life after death was talking to them and about them. He told them he was giving them power – the power to forgive one another, the power to cast out evil, the power to share the message of the Gospel, even the power to hold snakes in their bare hands, these animals that for them were the symbol of sin. “He told them they would drink the deadly poison of this corrupt world without harm. He told them he would send them his Holy Spirit.” [Donders]
This was all amazing stuff to the disciples, but they didn’t want to hear about themselves. They didn’t want to hear about what they’d be able to do, able to accomplish. It wasn’t about them; it was about him, Jesus. They wanted to hear him talk about what he was going to accomplish. They cut him off from what he was telling them and said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s all great, but when are you finally going to save us? When are you going to restore our country to its rightful, powerful place like in the good old days of King David? When are you going to get these Roman oppressors off our backs? We’re victims of terrible injustice. Life is totally unfair, bitter, and difficult. Obviously, you and God have the power to do anything. You’ve promised us the reign of God. Well, when is that going to happen? Goodness, integrity, health, well-being, emancipation, justice, life in all its fullness. Bring it on!” And Jesus answered that question by saying, “It’s not about times and dates. It’s about you receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s about you having the power to go out to the ends of the earth proclaiming the good news, baptizing those who believe, creating a revolution in the hearts and minds of people which will make them work with you to change the way human societies are. Saved, liberated people will join you in saving and liberating the world.” The disciples still didn’t get it. They thought, “There he goes again talking about us and not him.” Jesus wasn’t done; he said, “I am leaving you for good to join God in heaven. From there I will empower you to do everything you need to do.” And then he started rising. His feet lifted off the ground. He got a little higher, then higher still. He had been appearing and disappearing among the disciples for forty days, but this was a new way of vanishing. He was going straight up. They followed him with their eyes until he disappeared into the clouds. Then they got all together in Jerusalem and they just prayed. And they waited. They did this for ten days, until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit whooshed over them with a power they’d never imagined. It set their hearts on fire and their tongues a-wagging, speaking all the known languages on earth.
We’re all familiar to some extent, maybe only with the basic premise, of the Left Behind series of books, based on some verses from the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in the gospels about the day of God’s coming, when two people are working in the fields and the one who is a believer is lifted up to heaven and the one who is not is left on earth to suffer terribly. In the movie versions the lawnmower rolls on, unmanned, because the person who was pushing it has been taken up. It’s a series that preys on our anxieties, our fears. [The Left Behind series misses the point – we were left behind on Ascension Day 2,000 years ago when the living body of Jesus ascended to heaven. He left us behind, but not before telling us what to do. And he told his disciples again and again – don’t worry. Don’t be anxious. Be not afraid. I am sending you the Holy Spirit through whom you can do all things. Jesus didn’t tell us to spend our lives in fear or finger-pointing but in courage and in faith.] It tells us to cover our bases now or else terrible things will happen. It inspires worry. It uses fear to try to inspire people to faith. Years ago I visited a friend for the weekend and on Sunday she took me with her to church (I was in seminary at the time and so she thought I’d like it.) I was glad to go, but was troubled by the theological perspective of the place. I asked my friend why she went there and she said she thought of it as eternal life insurance. If these people were right about all the awful stuff they said was going to happen, she’d be covered. I asked her what she thought God would say about the kind of self-interest as the reason for church-going! The faith (such as it is) that is born of anxiety is not what Jesus was after, and the biblical exhortations to “fear God” mean to revere God.
Christ left us behind as he ascended to God in heaven, but he didn’t leave us to our own devices, or to the whims of cruel people. And he didn’t leave us twiddling our thumbs. He told us what to do. He told the disciples and all of us that the world we yearn to live in, a world of justice and respect and integrity and equality and mercy and mutual uplift – he said that this great world is our own project to build. He kept telling the disciples about themselves. He told the disciples that the first thing they needed to do was go out across the known world and share the gospel. And the disciples . . . cleared their throats. They looked at the ground, they checked out nearby trees, they looked anywhere but at Jesus, because they were really uncomfortable at the thought of preaching to other people, of putting their faith on the line with strangers, of walking up to total strangers and saying “There’s something you need to hear.” That’s a prospect that would make many of us uncomfortable. Jesus said, “Don’t worry; I’ll give you the skills you need.” And those disciples believed him, or none of us and the communities who raised us would be Christians today. There are now Christians in every corner of the world because those disciples believed when Jesus said they could do it. We, too, are asked to create the just and holy world of which we dream. We are called to say “yes” to life in so many ways, often in saying “no” to any abuse of power. We speak truth to power in bold and humble ways in our work, in our families, in our most intimate relationships. We testify to the truth we know every moment of every day. We remember that Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, advocated most strongly for the most vulnerable people of his day – in those times, the widows and orphans, those with absolutely no safety net, destitute in the face of the smallest set-back. Who are those people in our own society? The returning veteran? The partner and children of a violent person? Those with chronic illness and no health insurance? Those struggling to emerge from generations of discrimination and poverty? How do we testify with the whole of our lives to the inbreaking realm of Christ, risen from the dead and now seated at the right hand of God? “Build the world of which you dream,” he said, as his feet began to lift off the ground.
But he didn’t just say, “Well, you’ve got a job to do, see ya.” He told them how they could get it done. He said that he would send the Holy Spirit, and that as he sat in the company of God in heaven that he would give them – and us – all the power we need to do what is before us. “You shall receive power to be my witnesses,” he says. Christ ascends for our empowerment. The Apostle Paul understood just what Christ meant. He wrote to the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”(4:13) Christ left us behind not so that we might be anxious about ourselves but empowered to build his reign on earth as it is in heaven. In the gospel work of justice and mercy that we do, we receive his power. We are not left behind and left alone but strengthened in all our gentle witness, all our humble testimony, day in and day out. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
The disciples, in those weeks after the resurrection, were waiting for Christ, waiting for him to accomplish everything they wanted. But Christ left them and us behind. Are we waiting for Christ, or is he waiting for us?
Joseph Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990).