Leader: Grace to you and peace in the name of the
People: We come as the household of God, rejoicing in God's presence and trusting in God's goodness.
Leader: Let us offer our praise and prayers, our music, our words and our hearts, to the One who brought us together.
People: We come with joy to meet our God.
Loving God: you call us into relationship with you. Here in this place we seek to nurture our hearts and minds, so that we may leave here stronger in faith and in action. Open us to your Spirit moving among us; help us each to hear your Good News. We offer ourselves as witnesses to your Easter story. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
It had been an exhausting, confusing, baffling 40 days; the teacher they loved had died a horrible death, and they had fled in terror for their lives. After days spent in hiding, they had received the astonishing news that, he wasn't dead, he was alive! Imagine the see-saw of emotions, of hope and dread, of wonder and apprehension. Rumours and doubt turned to belief as they experienced the risen Lord. Such events surely meant that the fulfilment of history was near, that the kingdom would come in all its glory.
As they gathered together in his presence, there must have been great anticipation - now it was their turn; this time everything would go right. But God had other plans. The master whom they had welcomed back with such hope and joy, was lost to them again. A cloud rolled in front of their eyes, and he was gone, leaving them stricken and bereft. What will happen now? Is this the end? Is there nothing left? How will we cope when so much has changed? Why don't you return to us, Lord? When will your kingdom come? These are questions that live again in the hearts of the Christian community today.
There has been a renewed fervour lately, as people watch the signs of the times, and try to match them to biblical descriptions of the Second Coming. Spurred on by the turn of the millenia which is almost upon us, TV evangelists and new-agers alike herald the dawning of a new Kingdom, a new time, a new history. When I was a teenager, a popular Christian comedian had as a part of his act a joke about Rapture Practice. He urged his audience to go out into their back yards and jump up and down; I guess he figured God would appreciate the extra help when the time came to whisk all believers away into heaven. All the excitement about the year 2000 reminds me of Rapture Practice. Lots of noise and energy - but to what purpose? It seems to me that many in the church have got stuck on the question the disciples asked, and missed the rest of the story. Those disciples didn't stay in Bethany, staring up into the sky and waiting for Jesus to come back to them. They might well have done so, if not for the strangers in white robes who told them to quit standing around; those messengers served as a bit of a nudge to remind Jesus' followers of his instructions to them, and of his promise.
First of all, Jesus told them that we cannot know the times set out in God's plan, no matter how many times This Date in Bible Prophecy or Nostradamus fans or other so-called interpreters of the times might like to tell you otherwise; indeed, throughout much of the New Testament the message is repeated again and again: we can't know! That's a sermon in itself, a sermon for those inclined to stare into the skies for signs of the Christ.
But today I want to stress to you not the admonishment about the times, but the promise that followed. Jesus promised his followers that if they waited in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit would come to them, and empower them to witness to the ends of the earth. The disciples did as they were bid, perhaps clutching at this promise as the last thing they would have from this man they loved.
They gathered then, in Jerusalem: the remnants of the twelve, the women and men who had accompanied Jesus on his journeys - even his mother and brothers. They waited there, in the city, and they prayed. That is where the lectionary for this week leaves us - waiting with Jesus' friends and family in Jerusalem. It seems to me that the Christian churches of today - whether on the evangelical, liberal, or radical parts of the spectrum - have something in common with those disciples. The question the disciples asked of Jesus is not an unreasonable one: anyone who looks around at the world in which we live can be pardoned for wishing God would come and fix it for us. We increasingly despair over the state of things: and not just things in general - but the Church too. In my conversations with folk in various places I have heard bafflement and sorrow from those who mourn a church which is seen to be dying. The church I grew up in - the busy, reasonably stable, popular community institution I knew - is fast disappearing. For those of you who have been around a bit longer than I, the change is even harder to handle. Some parts of the church see this loss as -you guessed it - one of those signs of the end times. In our denominations, most tend to see the trends in the church as merely the signs of our times, and see little hope in our churches' future.
The disciples must have thought that in losing Jesus a second time, they were losing the vision they had seen while with him: the vision of a kingdom where wrongs would be righted, where all would be welcome at table and in community, where they could experience a relationship with God firsthand. How many of us think we are losing or have lost our chance at seeing the vision fulfilled?
Maybe, just maybe, we're missing something. The disciples thought they lost Jesus, lost their vision, that day outside Jerusalem. But a question raised by Nancy in bible study this week got me thinking. The writer of Acts left us a clue in that first chapter - a clue that all was not lost. The disciples felt bereft, alright - but the fact is, that they had not really lost Jesus! The clue the author has left us is in the cloud. The cloud that hid him from view rather reminds me of the cloud which cloaked God's presence on Mt Sinai, the cloud in whose form God went before the Israelites to lead them out of Egypt. The cloud is a little piece of heaven, a cloak for the majesty of God. In this first chapter of Acts, the writer has given us a subtle hint of what is to come - that while God-in-Christ is no longer accessible to mortal touch and sight, that the incarnate God, the God we know in Jesus of Nazareth, continues to be made known in the life of the church. The cloud is a foretaste of the fire of Pentecost. Jesus is not gone, the hope of the kingdom is not lost - it has merely taken another form: perhaps less tangible, but no less real.
There is gospel for the church here, if we are willing to hear it. I believe we in the United Church of Canada, in the Anglican Church, in the church worldwide, are in a waiting time - not a stagnant time - but a time in which we are seeking the guidance of God for a renewed vision of the Church. We can't go back to the old vision. We miss it, we think of it with sorrow for it's passing, but we cannot remain gazing into heaven, waiting for it to come back to us. We must follow the imperative of the Christ and wait, and pray, and be open to the Spirit for new direction, a new vision, a new experience of Christ. We are the body of Christ: the old body may indeed have to pass away, to make room for a new witness to Christ, a new body for the Lord we look to.
When I first looked at these passages, I had another sermon in mind. It was a sermon about witness - a sermon which would have taken us into Pentecost and beyond. But sermons have a life of their own, and so do the texts we choose to preach on - or which choose us. The text leaves us waiting, and praying, and seeking a hope for the future and a path to a new way of being the church. I have some ideas, and the text has some ideas, and God has some ideas - but for now they will keep. We are mourning now - and that is good; for until we have mourned we will not be able to move forward to the new possibilities God has in store for us. In sorrow we look back, in faith we look forward, trusting in the knowledge that God is with us, and that we do have a future as the people of God. Let it be so. Amen.