Let’s buckle on the sandals of the disciples for a little while. Let’s imagine how we’ll feel as we move from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper, the arrest, the horror leading up to the crucifixion itself – the devastating sense of loss at the discovery of the empty tomb, and finally to the glorious post-resurrection encounters with Jesus. It’s the ultimate intensification of the old plot – Boy meets girl, Boy loses girl, Boy finally gets girl. Only this plot is -- Jesus finds disciples, disciples lose Jesus, disciples regain the risen Christ.
As if this jumble of emotions weren’t enough, the disciples experience Jesus suddenly being ripped from their midst again. It’s like some cosmic joke. The tragedy beyond all tragedies. The story from Acts tells us they stand gazing somehow dumbfounded, into the heavens. Paralyzed with confusion. Confounded with despair. Once again, Jesus is gone from them.
Do you remember when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ on Easter morning? She wants to grasp him, to hold him. But he sends her away instead to tell the others. Because he is not to be held. Instead he is to be shared. And the same idea prevails at the site of the Ascension when two angels bring the stricken disciples back to their senses. Standing there, gawking upwards, straining to see Jesus, won’t bring him back into their midst. He is not to be brought back. The incarnate Christ they must let go of.
The angels send the disciples back to the upper room to wait. Jesus had, after all, promised to give them power through the Holy Spirit. Like people who have been stunned by a tragedy and need to be told what to do next, they obey the angels and return to Jerusalem and wait. Whether they know it or not, they’re waiting for Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday.
In the upper room they wait, and Luke tells us that they “with one accord devote themselves to prayer, together with women, with Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Can you imagine it? I’d be so emotionally wrung out by this time that collapsing and praying would about all I’d be capable of. Lord knows (and the Lord did know!) that there was more to come, and that they needed a respite before encountering the tongues of fire the Holy Spirit would baptize them with.
And what do they do after their baptism with fire? They act! Catchy title, isn’t it? Acts! Which is what Jesus had in mind all along. This Jesus, this incarnation of God, was one single individual, God and man rolled into one. One is the operative word here. He traveled and taught and healed for a few years, reaching as many people as he could, but he was constrained by the limits of time and space. Because of the historical era God chose for the incarnation, Jesus didn’t have the advantage (if indeed it is an advantage) of satellite TV or the internet to extend his influence worldwide at a moment’s notice. His contact was instead very human, very individual, very one-to-one. Even when he preached to crowds, it was live, man to men, to women, to children. And the human Jesus could only preach and teach and heal so much. He got tired. He needed to rest and renew, just as we do. As a one-man show, we wouldn’t expect the Jesus movement to go very far or last very long.
Think about this: with Jesus still present bodily among them – whether in the pre-crucifixion body or the post-resurrection body – would the disciples have spread the Gospel as zealously as they did after Pentecost? During Jesus’s ministry seventy disciples did go out and try to spread Jesus’s story, but they returned to him not very long afterward. With Jesus around, who’d want to leave? Who would have had the self-confidence to do the things Jesus was doing? Who would want to be a mediocre imitation of Christ?
If salvation was to be shared, if the Messiah was to be made known, it would take a whole army of people to do it. Not just a single figure, however magnificent he might be. So Jesus turned his disciples loose. He cut the apron strings. He broke their plates. And he moved on. Though at least he left a forwarding address – Jesus, in care of My Father’s Mansion.
Without Jesus being actually present, it became possible for his followers to become leaders. And after he left, boy, did they! They traveled and told their story, and the body of Christians grew and grew and grew. That’s how we got here today. Because Jesus said – and still does say, in effect, “There’s work to be done here. I know you can do it. You are empowered by the Holy Spirit. And I know you won’t do it as long as I am hanging around. So I’ll leave you alone to do it.” There was work to be done.
The Jews had been hoping for a Messiah. Many were hoping for a political Messiah who would send the Romans packing. These days there are people still looking for a magic Messiah. Actually I think they are looking for a fairy godmother. Though even Cinderella had a curfew, and when she broke it, the fairy godmother’s coach turned back into a pumpkin. The point is that our God is not a fairy tale godmother.
In the same vein, we are not fairy tale puppets. When God created mankind, he created beings who could love. Who could love God the father, the creator. Or who could choose not to love God the father, the creator. Who could be indifferent to God the father, the creator. We are free to love, to not love [forgive the split infinitive, please] to be indifferent. If we weren’t, if we’d been programmed to love God and to worship God, what kind of relationship would that be? Puppets and puppeteer. How boring for God. And for us.
So here we are. Free agents. We happen to have freely chosen to be servants of God. We have freely obligated ourselves to carry on the work of the disciples. Since Jesus isn’t a fairy godmother, isn’t a magic pill, we have to do the work ourselves.
I want to shift gears and engage in some speculation here. One evening I was channel surfing, hoping for a nice musical offering on PBS, and I stumbled across a documentary about the German concentration camps during WWII. It was actual footage, filmed at many of the camps. I missed the beginning of the show, but I suspect that the film clips had been made by Germans. Toward the end of the show it was explained that the final reel of the series had been made by Russians as they liberated camps., although that particular reel had been lost. But somehow the narration survives. The ghastly horror of it all didn’t surprise me. I had read of it. I had seen documentaries before. But this one was different.
One thing that made it so gripping was that the narrator was quietly matter-of-fact. The hell that he was describing, that the viewer was seeing, spoke for itself. Powerful rhetoric would have been overkill. I stood in front of that TV screen, transfixed, for probably three quarters of an hour, watching and listening. I had always thought that there were quite a few camps. What I learned was that there were actually 300 of them. On a map you could see that they were distributed throughout Germany – like a full-body rash. And the narration made the point that to live in Germany was to know of the extent of the suffering, the extent of the extermination of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of human beings.
As I watched, I asked myself, as many do, where God was for the victims of the Holocaust. And stories, do emerge that witness to God’s presence in the camps. Stories of those who offered comfort and hope and strength. Stories of sacrifice. And I know God was approaching the camps as well, in the form of the Allied Forces. Like my Uncle Larry.
He was a navigator in a bomber that was shot down over Germany, and he spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp. Look at everybody who spent time in the service directly, or in war-related industries. Ultimately, they were all working to rescue the world from Hitler’s insane unspeakable cruelty. But what if the people of Germany, the everyday people, had taken upon themselves the task of shaking off the hypnotic spell that Hitler had cast? If they had taken up the challenge that must have faced them to counteract that human tragedy? I’m not speaking blame here. I can’t know exactly what it was like for them. But from the safety of my warm living room, I can wonder.
I think God must be bald. To be God, and to see people appease the Hitlers of this world and allow atrocities like the Holocaust or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, to mention just two, -- well, if I were God, I think I would tear my hair out. How can God go on loving us? It’s an amazing grace, isn’t it?
And today we can see God’s hand, God’s work, in every monument, every movement, every effort made to help us remember, whether we make the effort of remembering the concentration camps or the killing fields or any other human horror. In the remembering might very well be the seeds of prevention. It’s our job, our work, to remember and to nourish those seeds.
It is up to the disciples, up to us, to do the work, to be the physical bodies worldwide for the ascended Christ. When he was present on this earth, he could be in only one place at any given time. In his absence, he is more present than ever, because he empowered his church, this body of faithful people, to act for him.
So when we see situations, conditions, that would make God tear his hair (figuratively, of course), whether they are situations as big as the Holocaust or as small as a town bully, as big as the pollution of the ocean or as small as the choices we make as consumers, as big as foreign relations or as small as our personal relationships, let us pray that we remember that Jesus left the disciples behind, empowered, so that they – and we – could put on our sandals and walk into the places that we are sent in order to do the work he has given us to do.