The Seventh Sunday of Easter E. Bevan Stanley
May 24, 2020
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Is this the time when we can come out of our houses and eat at a restaurant? Is this the time when we can visit our friends and relatives? Is this the time we can plan travel again? Is this the time when we can go back to our places of work? Is this the time when our hopes and desires will be fulfilled?
Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” We do not know what the future holds. Even that phrase is misleading. The future does not hold anything. There are multiple possibilities of what events may come next. Some may be more likely than others. And our actions may change what is more or less likely. But we don’t know. As a result of this uncertainty, we are all thinking about what risks to take. Is it okay to eat at a restaurant if the dining is outdoors? Is it okay to gather with friends if we stay outside in the yard six feet apart? What about work? What about church?
In these decisions we are weighing risks and benefits. What are the risks to ourselves? What risks may we be imposing on others? How might my actions support others in terms of getting businesses going again? We weigh our good and others’ goods and the good of our society at large.
A year ago, we did not foresee this pandemic. Now the future is equally unknown. Certainly, the people in Michigan did not foresee the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams in the middle of this pandemic. What we do now is this: We will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us; and we will be witnesses to Jesus in Litchfield, in all Connecticut, and to the ends of the earth.
Here is the story from our faith tradition. Last Thursday, forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven. This is, of course, a metaphor, since heaven is not up in any astronomical sense. The second person of the Trinity returns to the place where he, she, or it has been for all eternity, in the presence of the first and third members of the Trinity. Or, in our traditional metaphor of the creeds, Jesus ascends into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God the Father. Today we are between that event and whatever comes next. What we are promised is that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will come to us and empower us to be apostles of Jesus, people sent out by God to tell the whole world about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and how we have been reconciled to God and each other by the coming of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
After Jesus has left the apostles, two angels appear who ask them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The implication is that they should be doing something else. They should return their attention to this world. They were not clear what they were supposed to be doing, so the text goes on to say, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” This is always a good thing to do, when we don’t know what to do. So, too, many of us in this time of uncertainty have found that one of the gifts of the physical distancing caused by the pandemic is the opportunity to spend more time in prayer, more time reflecting on God’s presence in our lives, and more time considering the purposes of our lives.
The short version of the Ascension is that Jesus goes to heaven so that he can always be with us in every place and time. That is, before Jesus died, he could only be in a small area of Palestine and with the few people he encountered. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer constrained by space and time. He can be with every person on the planet simultaneously and throughout all time.
The First Letter of Peter makes a slightly different point, which is also helpful to us in this pandemic. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Peter was writing in a time of persecution, but the response to difficult and potentially deadly circumstances applies to us now. Suffering is common, indeed universal. Do not be surprised when it comes. Just remember that suffering makes us one with all the other seven billion people on the planet. Some suffer more than we do, some less, but we are all in the same boat. As we pray for others in their suffering, we find that our own becomes easier to bear. And we recall that Jesus understood and experienced suffering as well. When we suffer, we share in Jesus’ suffering, and that suffering is redemptive. Tomorrow we will celebrate and remember those who gave their lives for our country. They suffered for our sakes. We do not know how, but somehow, suffering is part of reuniting humanity to God, and reuniting human beings to one another. Peter says, “Cast all your anxiety on him [Jesus], because he cares for you . . . you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
So, Jesus is no longer constrained by space and time. Our future is unclear. We pray and find that Jesus is closer to us than ever. As we all suffer in this pandemic, we are closer than ever to everyone else on the planet. When we make choices about our behavior we do not think only of our own comfort or desires. Like those we remember tomorrow, we give up our comfort for the good of our community and nation. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us. And in all this, Jesus restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes us.