Year A, Easter 7
June 1, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
We are forty-three days into our Easter season. We celebrated the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday, and that means that Easter is coming to a close. Think about it for a minute, the ordeal the apostles had been through. Can you imagine all of the trauma, amazement and downright otherworldliness of the weeks that had passed since the Resurrection? Remember, this story, the whole story of the Easter season is told in real time. The Acts of the Apostles start on this day, the day in today’s reading, what we now call the Feast of the Ascension. The forty days preceding… what a whirlwind! Can you imagine? The betrayal, the arrest in the middle of the night, the trial, torture, and crucifixion of their friend and leader… The faithful band of followers, the (now) 11, were scattered to the winds. That is enough right there to break the spirit of many a dissenter, many a movement. Then add the peculiar, mysterious nature of the past 40 days. The empty tomb, reports of angelic messengers, then His mysterious appearances and instantaneous disappearances. Everyone’s head must have been spinning. And they wonder is this it, is this beginning of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel?
That is not what Jesus taught, that God would flip a switch and poof, the kingdom of God would be restored. And which kingdom are they talking about, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Israel, isn’t clear. Either way, that was not what Jesus taught. It was going to be a slog to the kingdom, not some divine command to all from on high, but again with the doozie of a month they had all had, who could blame them for hoping that it would all just be fixed like that?
But then again, in the next moment, Jesus is lifted up before their very eyes and carried by a cloud out of sight. And as they stood, looking skyward, jaws on the ground, two men in white robes, maybe the same two from the tomb that Mary Magdalene had spoken with, but they are suddenly standing there saying “Men of Galilee… This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” An end to his earthly ministry in this fashion, riding a cloud into the heavens, wouldn’t do much to dissuade the 11 from hoping for as spectacular a conclusion of God’s plan for us and our world, would it?
It is interesting, though, that while the apostles could be rather daff, rather tone deaf to the meaning of Jesus’ teachings, their reaction to this event, the Ascension, was right on, totally, exactly what was needed, a model unto us to this day. What did they do? ____ Right. They gathered together and prayed.
That gathering, that gathering of the eleven and “certain women” in the upper room was the first church service ever; and it was exactly what they were supposed be to doing. Their reaction, their instinct, their impulse to gather together, in community with their intention and attention turned to God, together… they were right on the mark. This reaction to the trials and tribulations of the world, even though they thought about and hoped and probably prayed for it to all come to a conclusion, for the kingdom to be restored in an instant by divine fiat, for Christ to return riding on a cloud to set all things right in the world, their reaction, their instinct was exactly what was called for in that moment, for in that moment, though they had seen Jesus carried away in bodily form up into the heavenly realm, He was present in spirit, in eternal and actual spirit in that tiny gathering in that upper room. The mystery of the church commenced, and in that, in mysterious and abiding ways, the kingdom began to be restored.
The world is always in turmoil of one sort or another. In this age, we are facing some particularly broad turmoil in the form of extreme disparity of wealth and of course climate change and the impending collapse of natural systems, but it has always been something. Peter wrote of this very clearly in his epistle today. He wrote of the “fiery ordeal” that was taking place, and we have a lot to learn from that witness.
Peter was writing in particular about the “fiery ordeal” that those whom he corresponded with were facing very specifically due to their profession of Jesus Christ. Remember, Peter’s ministry was in Israel, among fellow Jews, not amongst the gentiles further a field that Paul preached to. In Israel, “The Way” as followers of Jesus referred to their “Way” of life and belief, they were heretical blasphemers. Peter and the eleven saw themselves as Jews who witnessed the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy, that the temple had been replaced with this new manifestation of divine authority in the life and now risen spirit of Jesus Christ. The old way was torn down and the building block that had been discarded, Jesus, was the cornerstone of the new kingdom. They were pretty alone in this thought. Pretty alone and pretty reviled and pretty horribly persecuted. St. Stephen was stoned to death just a few chapters later with Saul (not yet Paul) standing over his body, and of course there has been the trauma of the past 40 or so days that the faithful remnant were right in the middle of.
Jesus Christ never told us it was going to be easy. He spoke of narrow gates. Of winnowing forks and unquenchable fires. Of sheep and goats being separated; pruning hooks tending to the vines. There is an old farming adage that the cruelest thinner is the kindest farmer. When you plant seeds, you over plant to ensure germination evenly, then you go back and thin to the appropriate spacing. If you don’t thin enough, if you don’t kill enough of the plants, they all become overcrowded and none of the plants reach their full potential. Carrots need an inch and a half, two inches even between plants… but it is hard to pluck all those tiny carrot plants out. Oh what lost potential! But none of those carrots would achieve its full carrotness without enough room, light, water, nutrients.
That is what the church (that is Church with a big C) has to offer, has always had to offer from that first teeny-tiny larval church in the upper room, to us gathered here around this table this morning. The Church is a gathering, a community, the ecclesia; and it is a gathering centered upon, oriented on God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. That is the ideal church, the Platonic form of “church.” Church is the embodiment, the enfleshment of Jesus’ Great Commandment to us, to love God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our selves and to love our neighbor as ourselves. A gathering of people oriented on God.
That kingdom that those disciples asked about, “Was it about to be restored?” you know, mysteriously and in subtle (and at times not so subtle) ways, is manifest here, in the church, the Body of Christ. The winnowing is not within the church. The sheep and goats are not differentiated within these walls but in relation to the larger society that this and every church inhabits. The church gleans from society those seeking to humble themselves before something much, much larger. Those with anxiety that needs somewhere to be cast; those seeking discipline and the tools to keep alert. Those who sense the adversary abroad in the world and seek to resist, to persevere, to survive the suffering that life offers all of us, the church is here for you. And it is not a path to avoid suffering, to avoid discomfort and alienation and trials and tribulations, Jesus never promised a rose garden, but it is a path to survive, to heal, and in that newfound wellness, to serve that others may find the same.
As we gather today, a community at prayer together, as we gather over these next few months, discerning what it is that we are doing in this little cell of the body of Christ, contemplate what we are doing. Really think about this. Pray on it. What are we doing here? Why do you come to church? What can you imagine, dream that God wants us to be right here, right now, together?
Because here is the kicker; here is the answer to the prayers of our ancestors, all the way back to that very first church service in that upper room. The answer, our salvtion, in fact, is questions like these: serious contemplation of how we are to love God and each other, how we gather in the name of Jesus, how we discern our individual and communal vocations, how we live our lives offering the humble kindnesses we have to offer to those that need them, really, truly, actually and eternally, the kingdom of God is restored, one relationship, one action, one moment, one baby step at a time. AMEN.