Sunday, May 28, 2006

7 Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

My husband recently celebrated his retirement after thirty years with the United States Air Force. His official retirement date is not until July 31st, but he had some vacation time built up so he is living in a time between working and not working. With two children still in school and college expenses just a few years ago, Bruce is not going to continue in retirement. He will find another job in due time. As a matter of fact, he's as good as hired but he is just waiting for the time to go back to work. So, while living in this time between working and not working, he's also living in a time between not working and working.

Thursday, May 25th is Ascension Day, which always falls forty days after Easter. For the past forty days we have heard scriptures that focus on the relationship between God, Jesus and the disciples. The key word for the past few weeks has been "love." Jesus has assured the disciples that they are part of something much bigger than themselves – they are part of the vine, part of Him, part of the kingdom that dwells in, with and under God. They love as God first loved them and they continue in that love as they live the life God has called them to live. In that life they will have joy and they will have it abundantly. We have been assured, along with the disciples, that God will not abandon us.

Yet, on this Sunday we experience a very brief moment of abandonment. On Ascension Day Jesus returns to His Father in heaven, leaving behind the world in which He has lived for thirty or so years. He leaves behind the people He has loved, called into service and taught about the Kingdom. He leaves them with a promise, but He leaves and they do not see the fulfillment of that promise for ten days. For those ten days, the disciples are living between the ministry they have been doing with Jesus and the ministry they will do in His name. They are left alone for a brief moment, but they are alone together – a fledgling church seeking to do God's will in the world.

Their response to the ascension is absolutely natural – to go to work. They throw themselves into the business of doing ministry. They set out to reestablish a broken system, a system broken by the death of one of the Twelve. Judas Iscariot suffered such a deep regret for his role in Jesus' death and he saw no possibility of redemption, so he committed suicide. It had been written and it was fulfilled. However, his death left a hole. For whatever reason, Jesus selected twelve men to be the core of his ministry. Most theologians would agree that twelve is representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve is the number of divine government. In Matthew 19 Jesus even tells the disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

So, there is some significance to the number twelve and the disciples felt the absence of their brother who was taken from them according to the scriptures. They gathered together to choose another apostle. We could argue about the significance of this event, especially since we hear so little about Matthias in the historical writings of the Church. We could discuss the wisdom of this choice and about the way they went about the process. What did it mean to cast lots in that day? Isn't that a form of divination or at the very least a gamble with the future of Christ's body? Did they really need a twelfth at that moment, or might God have had a different plan? We do see a positive example in that they prayed before making the choice – if only we would be so diligent with prayer before making all our decisions! Yes, we could discuss all these issues and perhaps they have some relevancy in this day and age.

However, what we see in this passage from Acts is a church suspended in a moment of time unsure of which direction they should go. The apostles are between being called and being sent. They are told to wait in Jerusalem until they are "clothed from on high." The promised Holy Spirit would come, but they did not know when or how. They only know that they are going to be sent to continue the work Jesus began and that they had to wait for the right time.

Have you ever experienced a period of waiting such as the disciples experienced in these days? What I mean is this – have someone ever promised you something without telling you exactly what it is or how it will come to be yours? For example, we often would try to surprise the children with a visit to someplace special. When we get into the car we might tell them we are going someplace they will enjoy, but that it is a surprise. The whole way there, they watch for signs and landmarks, asking, "Are we going to…?" Thinking by the direction we are going or the roads we are taking that we are most certainly going to a certain place. They are often wrong, and are forced to wait until we take another turn or get on another road. Then they think of someplace else, constantly trying to guess the surprise before we arrive.

The disciples were in Jerusalem waiting. They kept watching for the signs, but they had no idea what would happen when the Holy Spirit came. I can imagine them seeing something that might be considered a sign and wondering, "Was that it?" Here they were, waiting in prayer but unsure of what was to come. So they did what we all do – they took control into their own hands. They decided to get on with the business of being church. It is natural; it is human. When we aren't sure what God wants of us or what He has planned for our ministry, we jump forward with busy work. Something was not right; the government of the church was incomplete. So, they chose one of the disciples to become the twelfth apostle to make the council complete.

When we think about the time Jesus spent in ministry on earth, we think of the Twelve as being His only long term companions. We recognize that there were times others tagged along. Certainly we see women at His side and we know that He sent seventy or so men out to the villages to preach repentance and share the gifts of the kingdom with the people. However, when we think of Jesus' three years of ministry, we only see the Twelve as being His constant companions.

In today's story from Acts, we see something different. Peter said to the brothers, "Of the men therefore that have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us, of these must one become a witness with us of his resurrection." Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias were there from the beginning. They weren't late comers to the work of Jesus, and they weren't the only ones. These two were chosen from all those that had been with the disciples from the beginning. They'd heard Jesus preach and teach. They'd seen His miracles. They were there to celebrate His life, to mourn His death and to be witnesses to His resurrection.

I would think that this makes the earliest church more accessible to us. After all, it is possible that Jesus had a congregation of seventy or so men, with a number of women and He had a council of Twelve who were specially chosen to lead with Him. No wonder the apostles were quick to restore the council to some sense of normalcy. It is natural for us to desire stability in the midst of chaos. And while they were calm and prayerful in those days between Ascension and Pentecost, it was definitely a time of chaos. What is next? What will happen? How will we know?

Do you ever hear similar questions in your own ministry? Do you ever ask similar questions in your own church? Every group of Christians throughout history has gone through times of chaos, times of change, times of uncertainty. Every Christian has experienced that moment in time when it seems like God has abandoned them. Every church has known what it is like to stand in the gap – between working and not working, between not working and working, between discipleship and apostleship, between being called and being sent. While we are waiting, we take care of business. We do so because we are afraid that we have missed something. We feel abandoned so we take control. We are anxious to receive the promise so we do whatever we can to make it be fulfilled.

And all too often we think the way forward is to go backward. We'd rather not live between two worlds, so if we can't have the promise today, we'll settle for that which we know.

The apostles selected Matthias to be a witness with them to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. He was to be a witness not only the physical event of Jesus' raised body, but also to be a witness to the testimony of God. John writes, "And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." What does it mean to have eternal life? We often think in terms of the place called Heaven, the place where we will go when we pass from this world. What does Heaven look like? Is it a place covered with fluffy white clouds or is it a city with golden pavement? Is it the most beautiful garden you can ever imagine or is it an endless banquet with the most delicious food you've ever tasted? These are images based on our own experiences, but they also fit into some of the images we see in the scriptures. So when we talk about eternal life we think about Heaven and what it will be like when we get there. But does it really matter?

John writes, "He that hath the Son hath the life." This is not just a future promise, it is a present reality. Those who believe in the Son of God have eternal life. It is not just a place where we will go one day, it is the life we live for today. We are stuck between the promise and the reality. Yet, even here we have the life He has promised. Eternal life is for today for those that dwell in the word of God.

Is it going to be heavenly? No, it is quite unlikely that we will experience a heavenly life in this world. As a matter of fact, everything about being a Christian is counter-cultural. Jesus says, "I have given them thy word; and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." Following Christ doesn't mean being accepted by society or doing as the world expects us to do. It means standing up for the Truth and living according to God's good and perfect will.

Unfortunately, we spend a great deal of time in the business of the church trying to make ourselves acceptable to the world. We try to satisfy everyone's desires, offering warm fuzzies instead of the Word of God. We treat the work of the Church as a business venture, worrying constantly about numbers and dollars, without prayerfully considering God's calling for us in this world. We make ourselves and the Church part of the world in which we live.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus is praying His final prayer for the disciples. It is a prayer He prays out loud for the very purpose that they might hear His words. They were words meant for them, and for us. It is a prayer about gifts – gifts that God gave each one of those disciples to Jesus and that Jesus gave the disciples God's Word. It is about relationships – the relationship between God and His Son, Jesus and His people, the people and God's Word. It is also about the relationship between God's people and the world. How much greater it would be to have the fulfillment of the promise now instead of later?

But God does not take us out of the world. Instead, we are sanctified, made holy by God's Word and our relationship with Christ. We are different, we are separate. We are not taken out of the world but sent into the world to share God's Word with others. This does not mean becoming like the world in which we live. Everything we do is dependent on our identity, not only who we are, but more importantly whose we are. It won't be easy. They hated Jesus and they will hate us. But while we live in the reality of the Christian life, we need not live in fear or worry. As the psalmist writes, "The LORD watches over the way of the righteous."

There is great comfort found in this prayer from Jesus – Jesus prays for us. He intercedes with the Father for us. We can be assured that Jesus' prayers are heard and answered. God is watching over us.

It might not seem like it sometimes. It might seem like Jesus is far from us and the Holy Spirit is no where to be found. We might not recognize the work of God in our lives and we may jump too quickly into the business and busy-ness of being the people of God, but God is still there.

Bruce is between working and not working even while he is between not working and working. It is a time of uncertainty, a time that could call for worry and fear. He's not worried. Even though he is seemingly suspended for a moment in time, he is resting and waiting. There is no reason to look back or to rush forward. Now is the time of prayer, to hear God's voice and listen for His will.

Why did the disciples feel the need to rush into choosing a new apostle? It was perfectly natural, a human response to the uncertainty of tomorrow. It wasn't necessarily a lack of trust in God, for they knew the promise would be fulfilled. It was more likely a lack of trust in their faith. Would they know God's voice? Would they recognize His will? Would they know the Holy Spirit when He came to them? We know that the Spirit would come with great power in a miraculous event just ten days after the Ascension, but they only knew the promise.

As we experience the church year, we stand with the disciples in this time of uncertainty. Even though we know that the Holy Spirit is here to stay, we can sense that feeling of abandonment, the anxiety that we will fail to recognize God's will for us in this world. We aren't willing to wait, to spend the time in prayer listening for God. Instead, we jump into the work of the Church, treating it like a business and conforming to the expectations of the world in which we live. We run after numbers and money as if that defines our relationship with God.

Even our image of Heaven is based on our worldly perspective. We imagine streets paved in gold and grandiose mansions. But today's scriptures help us to remember that Heaven is not just a place to which we will go some day. We've been called and we will be sent into that place where there is not pain or suffering. In Heaven there are no tears, only an eternal life of joy living in the presence of God. But the eternal life that is promised in today's text is not something for which we have to wait. It is for today. In Christ and through Christ we dwell in the presence of God in the here and now. So even while we are suspended in time waiting the fulfillment of the promises we are sent into the world to be witnesses with the other disciples of the eternal life given to us by God.

Our testimony makes us different. It even makes us weird. But it also makes us blessed. The psalmist writes, "And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also doth not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." The prosperity under God's care does not guarantee worldly wealth, health or life. It means that we will have the peace that passes all understanding, a joy that is complete and an eternity in the arms of our Father.

Where is your faith today? Where is the faith of the congregation to which you belong? Are you in a time of waiting? Do you feel as though God has abandoned you – that Jesus has gone and the Spirit is not yet there? Don't rush into judgment against yourself or jump into the busy-ness of control. Wait. Pray. Love. Share. Listen. Hope. Believe. God is not gone, He never left. Even though it seemed like the disciples were alone for that moment, God was not far. He was with them and He is watching you, guarding your life in the midst of the chaos that is this world. Meanwhile, Jesus has ascended to His Father but Holy Spirit is not far. He is preparing heaven for you and He is preparing you for heaven. Pentecost is just around the corner. Do not worry or fear; you can't miss God's amazing grace. It was and is and will be, just as He promised. Thanks be to God.

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