A dad I once met had this conversation with his 5 year old son.
“I think I’ve figured it out, Dad,” the boy said. “I think I’ve figured out why Jesus had to go back to God.”
“Really?” the dad questioned. “Why do you think that is?”
“I think Jesus had to go back to heaven, Dad, because it is the best way he could see all of the whole world at the same time.”
This insight may have been helpful for the disciples-turning-apostles who experienced Jesus’ ascension in person. Imagine the emotional and spiritual roller coaster they have been on since Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem- - even longer if you count the years they spent following Jesus during his ministry.
From the initial excitement of being called by name to follow this charismatic preacher, teacher, and healer. To the painfully slow realization that he is also their Lord and their God. From the pride at being trusted to minister in his name. To the frustration of being rebuked when they just didn’t get it. From the festive entry into the city of Jerusalem for Passover. To the agony of his suffering at the hands of others. From the devastation of putting his body in a tomb. To the confusion and elation of discovering it was empty three days later.
The time of his ascension must have been another hill on the roller coaster the disciples were riding. On the one hand it was a time that provoked great celebration and worship. How glorious for the disciples to see their Lord and master, their Messiah and savior, being lifted up and carried into heaven the only suitable place for their God and king to reside.
On the other hand, now there’s another letdown. It was like he died and left them alone all over again. He had been among them teaching and leading, and now he’s left the earth on which they are stuck with no leader, no teacher, no friend in the deepest sense. The times look, yet again, desperate and foreboding. The crisis of the unknown has hit this body of believers, and the way forward must seem impossible to see. Jesus’ ascension could carry his disciples back down the hill into depths of despair. Their worry and confusion about how they will proceed could easily monopolize their time, their energy, and their life together.
It could, but Jesus tries not to let that happen by leaving them with a unique promise and an important call to action. Knowing he is about to leave the earth and their presence, he orders them to wait in Jerusalem for what has been promised, the power of God, the Spirit of God, that is on the way.
Similarly, our times of confusion and frustration and worry are not solitary confinements. They are not without hope or direction or inspiration. Our times when the way forward seem difficult are also blessed with the knowledge that God’s Spirit is forthcoming, God’s presence is with us, and God’s guidance is never failing. God’s Spirit brings us the power we need to continue on in the life of faith and even just the PROMISE of that power can be enough to bring comfort and ease the anxieties of transition and uncertainty.
The promise and power of which Jesus speaks is the promise and power of the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit itself is not something NEW that comes to the people of God at this point. The Spirit of God blew over the waters at creation. The Spirit of God was with the Israelites in Egypt, the exodus, and the wilderness. The Spirit of God was on the prophets of God and among the people of God throughout their turbulent history and rocky relationship. The Spirit of God is not new.
What is new is the deliverance of the Spirit of God to this particular group of God’s people for this particular purpose. For the other piece of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples is a call. The narrative from the opening words of the book of Acts tells the disciples this call will take them to “Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The first volume of this 2 part story of Jesus and the early church, the gospel according to Luke, though, gives the substance of the witnesses’ expected testimony; it concerns crucifixion and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness. In a nutshell the testimony of the disciples is the wonder wrought by God in Jesus and the effect of that wonder on the world.
This is the call to the earliest church, and it is the call to the church today. It is the call to be witnesses to what we have experienced in the life of faith. It is the call to share what we know to be true about God and God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. It is a call to reach others where they are, and point to the one who gives us the power, and courage, and mandate to cross unwritten boundaries with the gracious love of God. It is a lofty call, but is a call that comes with a promise.
We are promised the Holy Spirit in order that we will have the power to live as God calls us to live, the power to witness to the unbelievable truth of God’s love for the world. We are promised the Holy Spirit in order that we will discern where we are to carry God’s message. The accounts through Acts that we have heard in the last few weeks should be a comfort in this calling. Everywhere the apostles go to be Christ’s witnesses, it seems that the Holy Spirit beats them there. They are both carried and preceded by the Spirit in their faithful following of Jesus’ command.
This is God’s promise and God’s comfort. Even though the situation around us may change, our calling never changes. Even times budgets may get tight and anxiety may be high, our calling stays the same. And as our calling never changes, neither does the promise of God’s presence and guidance in fulfilling our calling.
Brothers and sisters, even in times the times that feel like an emotional and spiritual roller coaster, we are being called and we are being sent. These are not times to turn fearful, or circle the wagons, or hold ourselves back from the ministries God is placing in front of us. Even in times that feel like they are uncertain, maybe even because the times feel uncertain we must trust in the Spirit that has been promised and step out to follow the call that is placed before us. By the power of God, we will move forward being Christ’s witness not only in our community, but around the world. Hear Jesus’ promise, and praise him in great joy as we discern the Spirit’s leading and call to our church.