Let’s buckle on the sandals of the disciples for a little while. Let’s imagine how we’d feel as we move from Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to 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.” Or maybe the risen Christ regains the disciples.
As if this jumble of emotions weren’t enough, the disciples experience Jesus suddenly ripped from their midst again. It's like some cosmic joke. The tragedy beyond all tragedies. The story from Acts tells us that 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. After all Jesus had promised to give them power through the Holy Spirit. Like people who have been stunned by tragedy and need to be told what to do next, they obey the angels and return to Jerusalem, there to await Pentecost, which we will 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, and 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 be 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 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 obeyed his human 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 Web to extend his influence worldwide at a moment’s notice. His contact was instead very individual, very human, very one-on-one. Even when he preached to crowds, it was live, man to men – to women – and probably to children. And the human Jesus could only preach and teach and heal so much. He’d get tired. He’d need to rest and renew, just as we do. As a one-man show, we wouldn’t expect his 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 70 disciples did go out and try to spread Jesus’s story, but they returned to him after not very long. With Jesus around, who’d want to leave? Who would have the self-confidence to do the things Jesus was doing? Who would have wanted to be even 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 one figure, however magnificent he might be. So Jesus turned his disciples loose. He cut the apron strings. He broke their plates. He moved on. Though at least he left a forwarding address -- Jesus, c/o My Father’s Mansion.
Without Jesus’ actually being 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 here. So I’ll leave you to do it.”
Work to be done. The Jews had been hoping for a Messiah. Many were hoping for a political messiah who would send the hated Romans packing. Many people today still look 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 reverted to a pumpkin. The point is that our God is not a fairy tale god. In the same vein, we are not fairy tale puppets. When God created man, he created a creature who could love. Who could love God the Father, the Creator. Or who could choose not to love God the Father, the Creator. Or who could be indifferent to God the Father, the Creator. We are free to love, to not love (please forgive the split infinitive), to be indifferent. If we weren’t, if we’d been programed to love God and to worship God, what kind of relationship would that be? Puppets and a 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 disciple. 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 flipping, hoping for a nice musical offering, maybe on PBS, and I stumbled across a documentary about German concentration camps during WWII. It was actual footage that had been filmed at many of the camps. I missed the beginning of the show, but I suspect the film had been made by Germans, though it had narration in English.
I had seen documentaries on the subject 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 actually stood, transfixed, for probably 45 minutes, watching and listening. I had always thought that there were a quite a few such camps. What I hadn’t realized 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 narrator made the point that to live in Germany was to know the extent of the suffering, the extent of the extermination of thousands upon thousands of human beings.
As I watched I asked myself, as many do, where God was for the victims of the Holocaust. Stories do emerge, though, that witness to God’s presence in the camps, stories of those who offered what comfort and strength that they could.
And I know God was approaching the camps as well, in the form of the Allied forces. Moving forward to rescue the prisoners -- like my Uncle Larry. Larry was a navigator in a bomber that had been shot down, and he spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp. He survived the crash and the camp, but he died a relatively young may as a result of the malnutrition experienced there.
Look at everybody who spent time in the service directly, or in war-related industries, or in medical facilities. Ultimately they were all working to rescue the world from Hitler’s insane, unspeakable cruelty. What if the people of Germany, the everyday people, had takenupon themelves the task of shaking off the hypnotic spell that