The only way through is together

The Ascension, JESUS MAFA, 1973

A sermon on Luke 24.46–53 and Acts 1.1–11, for The Table United Church of Christ in La Mesa, California.

These passages are a book apart in our Bibles—where the gospels are organized with the synoptics first, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, followed by the extra colorful gospel, John.

But many, maybe even most, scholars believe they were originally experienced together. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles both share the same author. Acts was likely passed around as a sort of “sequel” to Gospel of Luke.

Both books are addressed to “Theophilus,” a name which means “lover of God.” Some people read that as the books being addressed to a specific person named Theophilus, like the dedication before a manuscript, but others—myself included—think Luke may have been addressing this to “lovers of God” more broadly; sweetly naming all the people around the world from that day forward who would read these books.

Reruns & cliffhangers

But no matter which way you read it, Luke opens with an address to “the most excellent Theophilus,” and Acts continues “in the first book, Theophilus.”

I read that sort of like the “last week on…” recaps at the start of an episode of your favorite TV show, just after an episode which ended in a cliffhanger.

And this is quite a cliffhanger!

Even today, as we read these scriptures more like “reruns”— already knowing how the story ends — the suspense is still there.

Luke opens with one of the most famous tellings of the advent and Christmas story, follows Jesus through his adolescence, moves forward to this long epic that covers the teachings of Jesus and shows how much he meant to his disciples, builds toward a first climax at the death of Jesus, then just when you think the story is over, turns to the real climax you didn’t think was coming: the resurrection! And the resurrected Jesus starts appearing to the disciples, comforting them in their fear, feeding them homemade meals… it starts to feel like maybe the “climax” of the resurrection is actually just the start to a new story.

And maybe it is!

Jesus starts teaching the disciples in a way that I can’t not hear as kind of… “hyping them up”? Telling them he’s sending something from his Father and they will be clothed on power form on high. Doesn’t that sound great. He tells them to hang tight together until they receive that power; maybe hinting that they’re going to really need each other soon… but wait a minute.

He’s sending them? He’s not staying with them?

They need to stick together? Stick together through what?

Plot twist

All of the sudden, the story shifts. Jesus takes the disciples on a walk to Bethany… maybe a half hour or a 40 minute walk at a leisurely pace.

And when he gets to Bethany, he blesses them, maybe something like the blessing we do at the end of each service here. The… he… leaves. Ascends to the heavens. Disappears.

The scripture tells us they went back to Jerusalem with joy and kept blessing God, which is wild to me. These disciples have been on quite a rollercoaster so far, but still they are trusting in the words Jesus said to them, that they would receive power from on high to sustain them in his absence.

And you know, I say “but,” but maybe it’s more like “and because of all they went through.”

Maybe the fact that they’d been through so much together, that they’d lost Jesus and then received him back again, maybe that all gave them the hope or fortitude or faith or whatever it took to return with joy at Jesus’ promise rather than sadness at his departure.

What’s added in the sequel

The book of Acts picks up where Luke ended, but first it rewinds for a second. It adds on at least three important details, maybe things the author forgot the first time around, or maybe things that just didn’t seem important to write down until folks started reacting to the first gospel and he realized “oh man, folks are confused. I gotta clarify this.”

First, the whole baptism thing.

Baptized with the Holy Spirit?

Jesus tells them “John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit just a few days from now.”

A few folks in Bible Study this week asked about that baptism thing. What does Jesus mean by baptism with the Holy Spirit? Are there two kinds of baptism, with water and Spirit? Some of us had never heard of such a thing before.

There are some Christian traditions that believe in two Baptisms: one where you are baptized with water, and one where you are baptized with the Holy Spirit. There are a wide variety of what that means, but in general, it’s more common in charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, and associated with the idea that you can get an extra degree of closeness to God that gives you the ability to do certain incredible and fantastical things.

That is not generally a common belief in the UCC. In general, we think of this as Jesus marking a transition: at one point, you were baptized with water, now, it’s not just water: you will have the Holy Spirit descend upon you when you are baptized, maybe a little like the Holy Spirit descended to Jesus like a dove when He was baptized by John. Baptism is not just a ceremonial washing anymore, it is a sacrament and God is present in it, in a way that theologian Karl Barth describes as “divine preparation for the Christian life in its totality.” God joins us in baptism, giving us the ability to live into our commitments.

“Does this mean I can use my sword now?”

The second detail Acts adds is the whole “restore the Kingdom of Israel” thing.

The disciples are revealing here something that I think was maybe one of the things that got them extra excited about the resurrection of Jesus.

Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition talk about a Messiah who will restore Israel, and Israel maybe felt like it needed a lot of restoring in a very material, real-physical-world-right-now way.

Jesus had just spent a few years walking around the colonized city of Jerusalem preaching about the coming Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom run by the loving God who puts the last first and the first last, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, who scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly.

To people who felt so intimately what it was like to have an unjust and unfair ruler, Jesus had been preaching about a new ruler coming.

So it’s not shocking, to me, that the many people maybe expected Jesus to lead them in an overthrow of the Roman Empire and a return to self-governance for Israel.

And it’s also not shocking to me that, when Jesus was executed by the Roman state after being charged with attempting to be “King of the Jews,” then rose back to life, folks maybe thought he would be victorious not just over death as a concept, but over the people killing and oppressing them in that moment, in that place and time.

Maybe the disciples, at least some of them, think that Jesus is going out towards Bethany they think he’s going to build a fortress for his army or something. The disciples ask if now’s the time—maybe Peter’s thinking like “okay so now do I get to use my sword?”—and Jesus answers in a way that feels like a a non-answer to me: “you don’t get to know when. Just know the Holy Spirit is coming.”

Come on, Jesus. We asked a straightforward, yes-or-no question. Give us a straightforward answer, right?

Then, after telling the disciples “pscyh, you don’t get to know when Israel will be restored,” Jesus starts ascending up to heaven.

You can just feel their hearts pounding at this moment. Anxious about what will happen next. Scared to lose their leader, their teacher, their beloved mentor and friend, the person who was going to protect them.

Two visitors

But their rapid heartbeats maybe start to slow down a bit as the third additional detail arrives: two men in white robes come to stand with them—with the disciples—comfort them and allude to a coming return.

“He’ll be back,” said with heavenly assurance.

And that’s where our reading ends today. “Jesus will be back, the Spirit is coming, to be sent by the Father.”

Three persons; one God.

You’ll notice something that’s maybe not too terribly common here. In this week’s reading, we have—in one pericope—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named. All three persons of the trinity are called out in just a couple sentences.

For many people, one of the most beautiful things about trinitarian theology is the relationship between the three persons of the trinity: three persons, one God; one substance, essence, power. A God of unity.

One church

And that God of unity calls and prepares God’s followers to live a life of unity.

That God of unity sends, at maybe one of the scariest moments of the disciples’ lives, heavenly beings to be in companionship with the disciples.

That relational God charges the disciples to stay together, waiting for the power of God to come upon them.

And as we’ll discuss next week in the Pentecost story, when they are together and the Holy Spirit descends upon them, it maybe starts to make sense why they were told to stay together, until—notice the qualifier, until—the Spirit comes. Almost like they’ll be prepared to go live lives of unity with people all across the world and in tons of different languages when the Spirit arrives.

As you’re maybe catching on to, a theme I’m noticing this week is the together stuff; the way the church is called to Unity in the Holy Spirit.

It was time for the teaching—the “just believing” to cease and the doing—the “be living” to begin.

Doing together what we cannot do alone

A while back, at my home church of Kensington, I preached on the book of Ruth and talked about the meaning of church, the reason we do all this, is to do together what we cannot do alone. So you can imagine I was rather touched when I visited The Table and started seeing that slogan all over the place.

In their time of crisis, the disciples are invited by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit who was sent by the Father, to do together what they cannot do alone.

Doing the things I’ve seen you all do already in my short time at UCCLM. Things like holding each other in comfort or care when going through trials—self care is important, after all, but it only gets you so far. We need other people.

Doing things like investing together in supporting a preschool to nurture the “little ones” Jesus talked so much about.

Doing things like challenging one another to expand ideas about justice and inspect whether we’re working towards repentance from and repair of the inherited harm from which we benefit.

Things like protecting one another and the vulnerable among us from powerful people who intend them harm.

Those are things the disciples got to do now that they weren’t just trailing around Jesus listening to him preach. Those were are things the disciples had to do.

The only way through is together

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have ADHD. I am rather distractable… but sometimes, those distractions are productive!

Take this week. One morning I was scrolling through Twitter while I really should have been getting ready for work, and saw that Hank Green—an author and educator whose work I really enjoy—had been diagnosed with cancer.

Folks were sharing prayers and wishes for comfort and healing, talking about all the ways his work had changed their life and how they hoped they could cheer him up like they’d been cheered up by him.

Then one person shared a pull quote from a talk given by Hank Green’s brother, John.

John Green references Robert Frost in saying that the best way out is always through. But then he adds a qualifier:

the only way through is together.

And as we come to a close, I want to offer that to you as an encouragement for this week.

When you are facing trials or when this community is facing trials; or when you or this community are facing things that are just hard even if they’re joyful, I hope that you choose “the best way out.” And in so doing, choose the way that can only be walked “together.”

Bring your needs to the community, to the Table. Call out our community needs. Name the hard things.

Don’t wait for a charismatic leader or pastor or messiah to command you, and certainly don’t try to white-knuckle pain alone. Join together in solidarity, in action, in prayer, as a community.

Honestly, just like you already have been for the past few weeks, as your beloved Pastor Kelly is away on sabbatical. I’ve gotten to witness you all working together in such beautiful harmony.

Your pastoral care group keeps better tabs on and is more responsive to the needs of the community than I’ve ever been able to keep on any community.

Your volunteerism astounds me.

I keep finding myself thinking “am I supposed to…” and then looking and seeing it’s something you all have already done.

Your services run like clockwork, your choir is always full, and it’s not just because people need something to do with their time. People who come here, feel love here and so they stay here, and they become a part of what it is that drew them in in the first place.

You are a church that cares for one another.

You are a church that does together what cannot be done alone.

And I hope you always stay that way.