In the ascension, Jesus leaves the followers with the vision, mercy, and love to do the work they were already doing, always called to do.
The book of Acts begins with an end.
It begins at the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry and his return to God. Much like Jesus describes in that tangled web of relationship we find in our gospel story from John.
So it begins with the end and then proceeds to a beginning. A new life and ultimately, a new faith.
And we receive this beginning between the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, when we celebrate this very moment, and Pentecost next Sunday. Today it is that odd Sunday we call Easter 7. After the ascension, but still Easter. An end, a beginning, at the end, before the beginning.
An auspicious beginning
If the disciples are any reflection on what we’re to expect, then I’m not sure Jesus is ready to leave. Let’s go over this one more time. I can imagine him saying. One more. There’s one commandment I leave you with and that is… anybody? … It starts with L… four letters… L-O…V
Actually Jesus is way more patient with them than I am. I’m frustrated by the disciples before the story is even over, but Jesus isn’t. He keeps teaching them. Right up until the end. Because these disciples show a startlingly poor grasp of the material.
The material being the nature of God, Jesus, and their mission. How do I know this? Because it’s revealed in their question.
There are no dumb questions, but there are small and misguided expectations. And theirs is both.
The disciples ask Jesus in verse 6, chapter 1 of Acts
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Like children in the backseat asking Are we there yet? or coming into the kitchen Is dinner ready now? They ask is this the time? because they’ve been asking and it hasn’t been the time. And, based on their expectations, it will never be the time. Ever. Not as they see it.
Because they aren’t talking about the Kin-dom of God Jesus keeps talking about. The great flipped world and upside down economy of God’s restoration. It isn’t the powerful being brought low and the hungry being fed. And it doesn’t look like those hearts warmed in communion with Jesus along the road.
They’re talking straight up power. Not the Kin-dom of God kind of power from below, distributed to the powerless and the powerful alike, but the Kingdom of Israel. Power from above. David back on the throne, money flowing in, and armies stomping on the Canaanites. God above them shining down glory and majesty on a holy hill. The restoration of a time none of them really knew, a time before the Romans, Greeks, Babylonians. A time when Israel was the big dog.
A time in which that big dog oppressed its neighbors and its own people. When Solomon enslaved his own people and amassed wealth, selling weapons to foreign leaders. A time remembered far more fondly than was experienced by the people.
And in asking Jesus if the revolution is coming now, if he’s ready to take on Rome now after the crucifixion and resurrection, after God showed how powerful God really is by destroying the hold of death itself, they still aren’t looking at power the way Jesus is.
They’re looking for power to oppress, to rule, to be mighty again after 1000 years of being knocked around. And they look at Jesus, after following him around for three years, doing everything he’s done, hearing everything he’s said, and healing people by the power of God themselves all over the world, hearing Jesus tell them over and over what the Kin-dom of God is like and how they are called to embrace the overturned tables, the strength in weakness, the power in mercy and love and what do they do for the millionth time?
Is this the time?
It’s almost as if they haven’t learned a single thing from him.
But here’s the real miracle. Jesus, in hearing this question doesn’t go ballistic. You or me? Oh my word. We’d explode. Are you kidding me? Three years? And you’re still asking about that junk? I couldn’t have been any more clear!
Instead of exploding and calling them names like I would’ve, he displays incredible patience. And more than that. He demonstrates how to be by not ridiculing them or yelling at them or giving them a list of doctrinal statements to memorize. To not raise their right hands and promise to believe, cross your heart and swear on the life of your firstborn or you get excommunicated and labeled a heretic. He doesn’t do that.
Jesus says what power really looks like. What glory and might are really about. Not them. It’s not their people, their tribe. Or their country or military or government.
“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.” (1:8)
Your power isn’t yours. It isn’t you. You won’t be princes or powerful vassals of a supreme king with land and titles. The power isn’t about you at all. It’s the Holy Spirit. And it’s coming to make you witnesses of God’s power. A power, not to stomp on enemies, but to liberate the powerless. Not to destroy those who threaten us, but free, heal, gather, and love.
The glory Jesus speaks to isn’t glory for pride or success. It isn’t wealth and fame. Or stature and opportunities to hobnob with the elites of society. Glory isn’t success as we know it or the towering ego of having the best church in all of Terre Haute. Glory is always about God. It’s about the beauty of God revealed in diversity and hope. In the mercy we share to weirdos and nerds. To teacher and student and faculty. To presidents and janitors who gather at the same table to eat and be fed.
This is the glory of God revealed. So unlike Roman glory and kingly might (and wisdom), this glory is revealed at a table with friends and neighbors. It’s found in praising God with gratitude in our temples: our synagogues and churches, our malls and homes.
And it’s a glory that doesn’t come because we’re good or blessed or the right kind of people. It doesn’t come because of the sacrifices we’ve made or the conviction of our hearts. Like a glory that only shines on the good. But it’s a rain that falls on all alike. A rain of washing and blessing and new hope for us. A summer shower on our parched soil, longing for refreshment, the tender touch of merciful release from a drought. Planting fields torn and churned up by war, the soil poisoned with the gunpowder of our violent words, the earth groaning at absorbing the blood of our civil wars.
Adam waits, spade in hand to plant, to till the earth like he promised. Waiting for the gunfire to cease and the warming fires in the trenches to burn out. Waiting for the calm silence to hush the scarred and beaten land. Stillness but the birds’ return, it’s faint cooing, before the first rains fall to soak and heal our wounds.
And Adam, like so many farmers and laborers who follow him, who join him in the field. Farmers of all sorts, including Elijah and Elisha, young David and Deborah; Jesus, Andrew, Peter, and Mary; to Anselm and Peter Abelard; Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day arrive, ready to plant. And they turn to us, motion: “come.”
So we gather in that field around the only stone spared the devastation and circle it like an altar, praising God, revealing God to the living and the dead, rain drenching our little gathering like a river baptism. And we all know that God is here and has been here, not driving the war, but in spite of it. In spite of it, God remains and waits, like the first farmer for this moment, this revealing of love and mercy and sharing in holy food and holy work.