Meditation on Ephesians 1:15-23 and Acts 1:1-11
for Ascension Sunday
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Pastor Karen Crawford
May 17, 2020
Hello, dear friends. I have enjoyed recording outside in my backyard today. I am glad, however, that you can’t see how tall my grass is! I will have to get that mowed on Monday, if it isn’t raining. I have had to do several retakes, including one when I got a bug in my hair. I am not going to show you that! And then there was the time a squirrel hung from a branch above me and made a loud screeching sound. Everyone has a critic. I guess he didn’t like my sermon. Or maybe he just thought I was talking to him and he was going to respond.
This was one of the hardest weeks for me since we first started sheltering in place. The most troubling thing that happened this week, bringing the crisis closer to home, was the loss of one of our members to COVID-19. His wife has tested positive for the virus and is struggling with her breathing. We are holding her and the family in our prayers. Then on the same day, another one of our members, the husband of one of our staff, went home to be with the Lord. She and her husband had endured long separations during his illness, when he was hospitalized and staying in nursing care centers during coronavirus restrictions.
On Thursday, I joined with more than 50 pastors and elders, our general presbyter and synod executive, for a presbytery Zoom video conference to discuss what it will mean for churches when we try to re-open our buildings and restart in-person ministries. Our presbytery is developing a manual of guidelines for churches that will be shared with our Session. These are some of the things we discussed.
Gatherings will be limited in size, perhaps 50 or fewer. Larger churches will have to have multiple services and people will need to make reservations. Someone will have to stand at the door and check reservations and count how many are entering. Masks would be required and if people didn’t come with masks, churches would have to provide them. Some may be administering temperature checks. Others thought it would be too dangerous.
In the worship space, families would sit together, but six feet apart from others, with no one sitting in pews in front of and behind another. The name of every person who attends each Sunday would have to be recorded, so that if someone tests positive for the virus later, even weeks later, contact tracing could be done. In between the services, churches would have to be completely emptied and wiped down, with a thorough cleaning of pews, handrails and door handles, bathrooms, lobby, etc. There would be no shared drinks or food. No fellowship meals—not indoors, anyway.
During the service, there would be big changes. These are the most distressing to me of all. No more passing the peace or passing offering plates or communion trays. Ready-made, packaged and sealed communion cups and bread wafers could be supplied in the pews or bread and juice or wine may be brought from home. We probably wouldn’t have childcare or Sunday school for a while. No gathering of the children for children’s messages. A video clip could possibly be shown on a large screen to the entire congregation, like what I have been doing for virtual worship. But it’s not the same as having the kids coming together, surrounding me, looking into their faces, hearing what they have to say, praying with them. And no more giving out treats.
I would have to preach with a mask or behind plexiglass. With a mask, my voice would be muffled and you wouldn’t be able to see my expressions. Of course, you all would be wearing masks—so I would look out into a sea of faces without smiles.
So many questions remain. What would it mean for congregational meetings? Would we have to do these virtually—by Zoom or at outdoor gatherings? Would we vote through the mail or by email? What would it mean for elder and deacon ordinations and installations? What about Baptisms? Would I be permitted to hold someone’s infant or touch the forehead of a child or adult? Would wearing gloves be enough?
One of the most upsetting things to me that we have learned is that singing is dangerous—both choral and congregational, even while wearing masks. And we are a church that SINGS!! What is worship without singing God’s praise? The pastor from a church in Alliance who led the presbytery’s discussion said his church would not be having choir for a long time-possibly a year.
And here’s another discouraging thought. No matter what actions we take and precautionary measures are put in place, we won’t be able to guarantee everyone will be safe when we gather in person. This is something that weighs heavily on the Session. What a huge responsibility! Because if we open the church, people will come. The fact is that some people, especially the elderly and those with certain medical conditions, should remain sheltering at home. For this reason, I will continue to offer virtual worship services, after we begin to gather in person, once again.
Additionally, there are dangers, other than to our physical health, which concern me at this time. I am worried about our emotional and spiritual health. The stress of isolation and the generalized anxiety and tensions of life with the virus is truly taking its toll. People are more fragile than they have been, more vulnerable to depression and overwhelming sadness and feelings of hopelessness. I have heard people say, “I can’t handle this.” Yes, it’s true. None of us alone, in ourselves, can handle this. But we aren’t going to handle this alone. We have one another. And we have the Lord. As Jesus says in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
His Word is truly a lamp for our feet that will guide us on the right path. He will, when we seek him faithfully in prayer, enlighten the eyes of our heart—give us understanding and clarity when we feel uncertain, fearful, or simply exhausted from dealing with it all.
Here on Ascension Sunday, these Scriptures are especially encouraging. The reading from Acts highlights the promises of our Risen Christ, still giving instructions by the Holy Spirit to his apostles before he is taken up into heaven and during his ascent. He orders them to stay together—in the Holy City of Jerusalem, for they are still Jewish, after all, and need concrete reminders of their faith. He knows they are stronger together, when they pray and reflect on His Words. And the Spirit is coming, he says! The Spirit that will baptize them with fire and give them immeasurable power for ministry in His name.
Yet it won’t be ministry like they have ever known. Where will they go? What will they do? How will they live? What will become of them? They must be thinking of all these things as they watch Christ ride away on a cloud out of sight. They can’t stop looking at the sky! In horror? Fear? Awe? Sorrow? Whatever their feelings, they are stuck, not wanting to move on to an uncertain future, without Christ in the flesh walking with them.
But God doesn’t leave them there—stuck—just like the Lord won’t leave us the way we are today, staring up the sky, wondering and fearing what is next for the church. The Lord sends 2 angels to get them moving. You know there are still angels among us today, right? They just might not be wearing white robes like they were here. The men in white say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This is the promise of Christ’s return! This separation between us and the one whom, the writer of Ephesians tells us, has put all things under his feet and is still in control, is temporary! The separation between Christ’s followers and He who is head over all things for the church, which is HIS body, is only for a time! And though we are separated from Him, listen to this promise—as the Body of Christ, we still have the fullness of him, he who fills all in all.
The apostles will endure separation not only from Christ but long separations from one another and the churches that they love. How do they persevere through years of ministry and prison sentences, often unable to be together, face to face? Through letters and messages carried by other followers across long distances—and by daily prayer. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” says the writer of Ephesians, “and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” And those who pray have faith that prayer can change everything and empower us to do all things God desires for us. When we pray, our connection with God and one another becomes stronger. And with God, nothing is impossible. The apostle writing the letter to the Ephesians prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…”
Don’t you need that encouragement right now? That the power of God is with you? And that God is ready to give us the spirit of wisdom and revelation. And as we draw nearer to him in faith, we will come to know him more and the hope to which he has called us.
There’s something more than this world! We have hope beyond the grave, in something we cannot see! There were witnesses to the empty tomb, witnesses—many convincing proofs of the Risen One. And there were witnesses on that awesome day, when Christ ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father, just as we say in the Apostle’s Creed.
This isn’t the time to be passive, angry, or despairing as we consider the future of our ministry and how different it will be. Because it will be different. The power of God is going to be with us, however, wherever we are! The power of God will certainly always be with the Church, the Body of Christ, “who is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion!” The victory over sin, sickness and death has already been won for us! The Lord is—listen to this—“above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
If the earliest followers could endure the hardship and separations they did with the power of God with them, then we, too, can endure all things with our God with us.
We have a glorious inheritance! It’s a gift! Inheritance isn’t earned!
Keep on loving and forgiving one another. That’s part of love, regarding others’ feelings as more important than your own, having grace for one another. Everyone is going through something hard that we might not know about.
Keep on praying for one another. Draw nearer to the Lord.
And may the eyes of our hearts be enlightened—so that we may see the Kingdom with us now!
May we know the hope to which we have been called, our glorious inheritance among the saints, from the One, the fullness of him who fills, all in all.
Let us pray.
Holy One, we give you thanks for your Son, risen, ascended, and seated at your right hand, coming again, and fully present with us, filling all in all. Thank you for He who has called us and united us as His Body and our glorious inheritance among the saints. This is a gift that we don’t earn. We simply receive by faith. Lord, help us to have grace for one another and live as witnesses to your Kingdom through our loving and peaceful ways. Some of us are feeling very discouraged and perhaps frightened. We are uncomfortable and disappointed with possible changes that may be in store for the church. Help us to be grateful for all that we have, to remember to whom we belong, and to be patient, trust you, and endure faithfully till you come again. We lift up those who are suffering with this terrible virus and other serious illnesses and ask for healing. We ask that you comfort the grieving and those who are separated from loved ones. Make us whole. We ask for protection for healthcare workers and other caregivers. Strengthen them, grant them wisdom and revelation, and bless them. Provide for any people who are struggling in any way, whether it be financial, emotional, physical or spiritual difficulties. Enlighten the eyes of our hearts, dear Lord, so that we know the hope to which we have been called. In His name we pray. Amen.