The Adventurous Lectionary – Ascension Sunday – May 24, 2020
Bruce G. Epperly
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
These days, many of us would like an Ascension. The world is too much with us. We are inundated with news of death tolls, the possible spread of COVID 19 to children, uncertainty about church openings, and concerns about going out freely in public again. We would like to flee the daily reports of incompetence and gaslighting at the highest levels of government, unemployment, and a broken public health system. We would like to escape. Yet, we are in the world, on earth, and need to join scripture and cable news if we are to be relevant as preachers.
The Ascension reading asks: Can we be both heavenly minded and earthly good? Can we have an eternal perspective, embracing the afterlife and also seek this worldly beauty and justice to our earthly lives?
Today’s readings are about height and depth and time and eternity. First, Jesus is asked when the realm of God is to come to earth? His answer is evasive and lends itself to agnosticism about any future prognostications about the Second Coming. History and ethics, faith and spirituality, are to be lived out now without concern for God’s future for us. The same might apply to the Coronavirus: when will be free of it? When can we open the church doors, get back to business as usual, or jettison our face masks and physical distancing? Jesus’ words – nor to honest scientists – succumb to political spin. They are healthfully agnostic, inviting us to live in the now while planning for the future.
The Acts 1 passage continues. Jesus is ascending . Jesus is no longer on the earth. But this is no cause to abandon our planet or our ethical obligations. The moral and spiritual arc of history do not take a holiday even in a time of pandemic. We have work to do. It is an opportunity to take our place as Jesus’ companions in creative transformation, in bringing beauty and healing to the good Earth. God is in us and with us and is luring us forward toward new adventures in faithful discipleship.
You will receive power from the Holy Spirit! What might that mean to us on Earth? What does that promise mean to struggling persons and congregations, dealing with pandemic challenges and post-pandemic concerns? As we consider Jesus’ Ascension, we are reminded that our work is here on earth. We don’t need to wait for heaven to experience God’s presence and live out God’s good news. Heaven is for real – and it is right here as well as on the far shore of mortality. Once again, there is proliferation of speculation on the Second Coming in certain Christian circles, occasioned by the current pandemic. One thing all these prognostications have in common is that have been universally wrong or rescheduled to later dates. End times prophets as well as those who connect the virus with divine punishment would do well to remember Jesus’ own words: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
What’s most important in the Acts passage is that we will receive power from God’s Spirit and that our task is become both heavenly minded and earthly good. “Why are you staring at the sky? Why are you abandoning my work on Earth?” the angelic messenger asks. “Your work is here on earth. Your calling is to spread good news and embody Jesus’ ministry of hospitality and healing in your time. God will give you the power you need to transform the world.” This same counsel is given to us: we have work to do right here responding to global climate change, praying and acting for the liberation of the oppressed, working for equality for all persons, closing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, ensuring health care for the vulnerable, and bringing beauty to our daily relationships. We have work to do as God’s companions in healing the world beyond pandemic.
We often feel too small to take on the challenges of the day. I am sure Jesus’ first followers had second thoughts about their ability to carry on Jesus’ mission. They and we might want our problems solved in a heavenly realm. We might want to escape presidential malpractice, global climate change, and the bloviations of politicians here and abroad. But we are not helpless and alone. God’s Spirit is with us, and God has given us power to be agents of healing and creative transformation in our time.The Acts reading focuses on God’s initiative in our ministries, but it also affirms that we can prepare for bursts of creative power through devoting ourselves to prayer, individually and as communities. Prayer is not an escape from the world, or passive acceptance of God’s will, letting God do the work while we sit on the sidelines. Prayer is an active process of aligning our lives with God’s vision, discerning our calling, joining with neighbors in common cause, and getting to work. Prayer is essential to activism and inspires us to take creative risks and leave our comfort zones to fulfill our vocation in our time and place.
We are not alone. We are safe. The One who ascends to the heavens is also as near as our next breath and upcoming encounter.
The reading from I Peter invites us to a robust spirituality in this time of pandemic. William James once spoke of the “moral equivalent of war,” and the author of I Peter would agree. There are threats abounding in our world and they can overwhelm us, if we lose our focus and succumb to apathy, fear, and temptation. Faithful mindfulness keeps us alert to God’s presence, the dangers at hand, and the power available to us. From our sheltered comfort zones, we often act as if life is safe and secure even in pandemic. But, deep down, the pandemic reminds that we know differently. This was true before the pandemic, it is true now, and it will be true beyond pandemic. We have a fight on our hands. While we may not choose sides or define others as enemies, the future of our planet is at stake, the economic well-being of millions is on the line; we face those who hate, exploit, and destroy in the name God and personal prosperity; hate crimes have gone up targeting Asian-Americans and persons of color are victims of injustice even though we claim to be “all in this together.” We face those who limit God’s love to a select few or view God’s sovereignty as license to risk others’ lives by disregarding social responsibility, line their pockets with gold while others are out of work, and destroy the environment for short term financial gain. We face our own complicity and fearfulness. We may have to sacrifice so that others will live, and in sacrifice, we share in Christ’s own willingness to share our burdens so that we might find wholeness and salvation.
With the cross on the horizon, Jesus prays for his disciples and for us. The passage from John’s gospel affirms that God is glorified in Christ and Christ is glorified in us. Jesus affirms that eternal life is here and now, as well as in God’s heavenly realm. In fact, we are in God’s heavenly realm whenever we attend to God’s vision and know God as our deepest reality. Jesus and the Father (Parent) are one in spirit; God is the animating force of Jesus’ life, and Jesus can become the animating force of our own lives. Aligned with Jesus, his power, inspiration, and guidance flow through us, not as robots but as creative partners in bringing beauty, healing, and justice to the world.
We are given the task of claiming and following the power and guidance of the Spirit. As the Psalmist proclaims, God’s sanctuary is with us and gives strength to God’s people. We are one in the Spirit and one in truth, and this must guide our politics as well as we challenge gaslighting, scapegoating, science denial, and nation-first ideologies. We can become agents of divine reconciliation, bringing earth to heaven and heaven to earth whether we pray or protest, as we see to bring God’s realm to earth as it is in heaven.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC and GOD ON LINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.