A Meditation on Acts 1: 6-14
Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
Aston Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2020
“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath days’ journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
“How are you?”, it’s a common question that we’re all used to asking and being asked, “How are you?” And while I don’t think it’s ever intended to sound insincere, it has that tendency to be a question that we ask rhetorically, without really expecting—-or maybe even, listening—to the answer.
And even in the best case, it’s a question that tends to make us feel like we should reply with, “Good! Doing great. Just fine. Thanks for asking!” or any iteration of such. But sometimes….that’s not the answer that we’re truly feeling. Sometimes, we want to reply with, “I’m really overwhelmed….” …. “I’m kind of sad.”… “I’m tired, I have no energy for anything.” … “I’m in a fog of grief.” But instead of saying any of those things, we smile and reply, “Great, thanks.”
So, I’m asking you to think about that in your hearts this morning, “How are YOU?” The calendar tells us we’re in Week 11 of the quarantine, although, depending on the day, you might feel like it hasn’t been too bad or you might feel like it’s Week 111. We’ve all been working to make the best of it—-and some really beautiful, connective, wonderful things are coming of it, even in the midst of the fear and loss—-but even as we are all making the effort to look at the positives and to bring forth the light in the darkness, it wouldn’t surprise me if you were feeling a bit tired.
I know I am. Not tired of the time with my family—I’ve rather selfishly enjoyed having my family home and getting to see them. Not tired of the extra time to work on new ideas for worship, or to read up on commentaries that I had set aside during busier times. Just….tired. Tired of feeling like I’m facing a “known unknown” every day.
That probably sounds odd, and it is—-it’s definitely an obscure way of thinking of about it, but that’s really what it is. We have so much information about what is going on with the virus—-and yet, it also seems like we have so little. We have so much consensus on how to manage things in the midst of it—–and yet, it also seems like we have a lot of disagreement. Some days, I feel like I’m looking from afar at a scale, which is tipping constantly back and forth between one weight and the other, struggling to find its balance and its center.
And I wonder if that might be similar to what the people in our verses from Acts might have felt. Facing a “known unknown”, wanting to move forward, but not really sure exactly how to. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”, they ask, for they have been waiting for the fulfillment of the scriptures. Each day, they have been pressing on, wondering what exactly is going on, as their world is jostled about on the unexpected, joyful, confusing tumult of the weeks after the Resurrection. They have a lot of information, but also none. There is consensus, but also disharmony. They’re at the door of something new—-much like we are here in our own time—but there is still so much to figure out. And that can feel tiring and draining….an uncertain time lies ahead of the people of the Book of Acts. There is much to discern.
Over these last few weeks, we’ve been thinking a lot about discipleship and witness. Our readings from First Peter and, especially, Acts have had us focusing on what it means to live our witness.
Acts is a very unique book. It is not a book focused solely on the miracles and signs of Jesus Christ. Nor is it a collection of writings to particular congregations, as are the letters of Paul. Rather, the Book of Acts is a book that is primarily about the life and witness of the early church. Living witness….. and so it begins its mission of the early church with an aptly appropriate recollection—the witness of the disciples to the Ascension of Christ.
I wonder what the Ascension meant for Jesus’ disciples. I wonder if it answered questions, or just brought about more? I wonder if it felt like a fitting response to all that lay on their hearts….or if it just made a topsy-turvy world feel all the more so.
Think about what those first weeks after Jesus’ death and Resurrection were like. Have you ever tried to imagine yourself as one of the first disciples of Jesus? As one of the first people to stand beneath the Cross on the hill of Calvary; as one of the first people to gently lift Christ’s body from the Cross, and bathe Him and bandage Him, and prepare Him for the tomb. Imagine you are one of the last people there at the stony sepulcher, as the sun sets slowly and sadly over His grave. Then, you are among the first to hear that, indeed, He is not dead, but risen and alive! The excitement and the shock…the disbelief….but also, the profound faith. Imagine yourself as one of the travelers on the Emmaus road, when Christ appeared again, or as any of the disciples over those forty days who were able to joyously experience the great mystery of God in Christ. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”, Christ promised on the day of His Ascension. Joyous and hopeful anticipation….Imagine yourself as one of those first disciples. What are you feeling? Can you even tell? Or are you feeling everything all at once?
In this passage, we read about the way in which the disciples at first stood, “gazing up toward heaven”, we are told. Thinking WHAT, I wonder? Did it happen as they expected? Did they feel prepared for what they were seeing? They knew the scriptures; they knew what was to come. But even so, did it happen as they expected?
What if it had been you who stood there? Would you have been able to believe your eyes?! What might you have done? Where would you have gone? I can only speak for myself, but frankly, I think I would have wanted to get out of there—to leave Jerusalem….to be by myself for a little while….to process all that was happening. But what was it that Jesus asked them to do? He asked them to stay. He wanted them to persevere. Even in the midst of all of the confusion and excitement, facing the “known unknown”, as it were, Jesus wanted them to stay. It certainly would have been only natural for them to want to leave Jerusalem—-to get out of the place that had brought them joy and sorrow and joy and sorrow, like an undulating wave rolling over them time and again. But they were told to stay. I wonder what the disciples would have answered if they were asked, “How are you?” just then….I can only imagine their answers. I can understand why they wanted to gather together in fellowship and prayer, leaning on one another for support. I imagine, that even as they saw the good and wonderful fulfillment of all that was promised; even as they had answers to some of their questions….I imagine that there was still so much to wonder….So much answered, but still so many questions remain.
Even as Jesus was preparing to leave them, what is it that he tells them? He says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” You will be my witnesses. But what if the disciples didn’t feel like they were ready? What if they were tired? Or overwhelmed? Or grieving? Or lost? Or confused? What if it all just felt like too much?
In just a few days time, we will be celebrating the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. What might all of this have meant for those first disciples? What does it mean….for YOU? What does it mean that Jesus said that we are to be his witnesses? There are many, many other things He could have said; or asked; or commanded. But this is what he asked of us. Even in the midst of being tired, or overwhelmed, or grieving, or lost, or confused….we are called to witness to what we have seen and known.
That can be a pretty scary thought, in some ways. “Witness” tends to make us think of people pressing tracts into our hands on crowded street corners; or of people so convinced of their point of view that they press their ideas so strongly on others that they stifle conversation and questioning. But that’s not what “witness” has to mean for us… no, witness is living into the beautiful rhythm of life in such a way that our personhood and our Christianity are never separated. There isn’t just a “Sunday part” of our hearts. Our lives are witness to the truth that there is a good and gracious God. The Ascension is that living promise.
When we live in living witness to Christ, we are astoundingly transformed. Even in all the chaos that we might face in our daily lives, we are held in grace. We are made new. Just as we are, again and again, reminded of our baptisms in water and in hope. We are transformed…..all that we wrestle with, all we must untangle, all we must face…we can face, held in the promise, knowing that we witness in our humanity and our imperfection, but knowing that we are called and sent by a God of promise.
Imagine, again, that you are one of those first disciples…..you are going to spend moments in your life when you will be kneeling in grief and anguish on the hill of Calvary; you are going to face moments when you will sit in despair in front of an enormous rock that you feel will never be moved…when you are tired, when you are overwhelmed, when you are lost and confused, when “How are you?” will be answered with a tense, unsure, “Great, thanks.” …when you feel like you are pulled in a dozen different directions, with paths off of those leading you a thousand different ways. Sometimes, transformation will come with light and glory and an overwhelming feeling of peace. And sometimes, transformation will come in a still, small, quiet moment of prayer.
We are called—through the chaos, the uncertainty, the confusion, the whole mess of life—to remember that we serve a God of promise. We are called to remember, that even when we feel tired and overwhelmed and unsure, that miracles still happen; that God is still working; that the Spirit will come upon us; that our witness lies in our perseverance, and not our perfection. As we dwell in uncertain times, let us pray, “Loving God, we stand before you transfixed, not unlike the disciples before Jesus on the day of the Ascension. Speak to us Your Word, heavenly Creator; strengthen us in our times of weakness; hold us in Your grace, and fortify us to be your witnesses….trusting the timing of Your Truth across the ages, praying, ‘Spirit come.’” Amen.