Meditation on Acts: 1-11
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812
May 16, 2021
I don’t usually do this. But I looked back at one of my messages that I preached a year ago—on Ascension Sunday. Just because it was last year and 2020 was SUCH a struggle. I had a feeling that if I looked back a year ago at what we were experiencing, I would find encouragement for today.
The same feelings of sadness, dismay and frustration washed over me as I read my message. I remembered how I felt when the reality of the pandemic and what it would mean for our ministry sunk in! It was like staring into an abyss.
I had come back to the church to record my message to encourage you, I said, and help me to feel closer to you. I was missing you! “This was one of the hardest weeks for me since we first started sheltering in place,” I said. “This building is a reminder of the happy days we have had together, worshiping and loving one another in this place—and the happy days that we will have, once again, in the future, when we are together face to face.”
The most troubling thing that happened that week, bringing the crisis closer to home, was the loss of one of our members to COVID-19—Bill Timmons. His wife, Mary, had tested positive for the virus and was struggling with her breathing. “We are holding her and the family in our prayers,” I said.
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 of that difficult week last May, I joined with more than 50 pastors and elders, our general presbyter and synod executive, for a 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 was developing a manual of guidelines for churches.
Some things that were talked about were limiting the size of gatherings, sitting 6 feet apart, requiring masks and providing them for those who didn’t have them. Taking attendance for contact tracing—things that have become our “new normal” since we began re-gathering for worship some last fall and then, after we closed again, in mid-February 2021.
Other things would change. No sharing of food and drinks indoors, no fellowship meals or funeral receptions. Baptisms and weddings would be indefinitely postponed.
“One of the most upsetting things to me that we have learned is that singing is dangerous,” I said, “both choral and congregational, even while wearing masks. And we are a church that SINGS!!”
I was 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,” I said. “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,” I said. “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.”
These feelings of dismay, discouragement, sorrow and perhaps frustration are experienced by Christ’s first disciples on the day of the Ascension of our Lord.
He had come back! They had had the Risen Christ for 40 days, with them in the flesh, presenting himself “alive to them with many convincing proofs.” Eating bread and fish. Revealing his scars to those who doubted. Sharing his peace. Telling them not to be afraid. Teaching them how what had happened—his death and resurrection—was for a purpose to be revealed—like his ascension is part of God’s plan for salvation. Teaching them how to find him in the Holy Scriptures—the Hebrew Bible—when he is gone. Speaking about the Kingdom of God. And preparing them for the baptism of the Spirit “not many days from now,” he says.
What’s interesting to me is how, when the disciples come together, they reveal their misunderstanding of why the Risen Christ had come. They ask a political question, wanting Christ to be an earthly king, with themselves in positions of power, says one theologian.
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” they ask.
Jesus gently corrects them, as he has done so many times before. “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
The ascension does have a political aspect. It points to Christ’s rule over every power and authority. But at the moment, when the disciples are gaping at the sky—their beloved Jesus passing from their sight—they can only feel the pain, sorrow, and confusion. They can only think, “What now?” They are wondering, “What else is going to happen to us?”
Aren’t you glad that God sends his angels at the precise moment they are needed to guide God’s people? They 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.”
Words of comfort, encouragement, promise. But also words to shake them from their inactivity and wallowing in misery and stir them to faithful action. They return to Jerusalem to pray and wait, together, on the Lord—for the baptism of the Holy Spirit AND Christ’s return as he promised—by the same way that he left.
We had some good news from the CDC and our governor this week for people who are vaccinated. The CDC said that we don’t have to wear masks or remain physically distanced from each other, except when required by law. Governor DeWine announced this week that on June 2 the COVID-19 health orders, including the mask mandate, would be removed. Our Session is meeting Wednesday night to discuss how this will impact our congregation’s worship, fellowship, and ministry to the world. I’ll let you know what Session decides!
It has been a long journey, hasn’t it? As we move toward a return to a more normal existence, I urge you not to hold onto the painful memories. I have said this often, but this is a time for grace—for yourselves and others. Don’t get stuck as the disciples were tempted as they gazed at the sky as the Lord Jesus disappeared from their sight. The angels were there to correct them—and remind them of their hope—and our hope—that Jesus is coming again, soon, the same way that he left!
There are many things, mysteries in this world, that we leave to the Lord’s understanding. Amen? God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways not our ways! As Jesus told his disciples when they misunderstood the Risen Christ’s mission—preparing them for their mission when he is gone. And they ask a political question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” The Lord welcomes all our questions but won’t always answer the way we want Him to. This is how it was when he tells the disciples, “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
There may be times that we feel, as the disciples did at the Ascension, as if we are separated from the Lord— that He is a long, long way from us.Maybe you have felt that during the pandemic, when your trials seemed so unfair or your suffering or the suffering of a loved one too much to bear. Or perhaps it seemed like God was silent and you longed to hear God’s voice—booming like He did at Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”
Or maybe you who felt a long way from the Lord before the pandemic are now experiencing a rekindling of your faith. You have seen evidence of the hand of God in your life! The Spirit is opening your heart to new ways of being and believing. Possibilities and opportunities for ministry await you!
The Ascension reveals that Christ’s separation from his flock is only temporary and with good reason. One theologian says that the author of Luke-Acts seems to be telling us that the very same Jesus whom the disciples experienced bodily (as a human being) is still very much with them. (Lance B. Pape).” In fact… Jesus must leave them in order to truly be with them.” Ascending to the Father leads to a new and more powerful presence with the followers—the Holy Spirit! With the Spirit guiding us in the Father’s will as we seek Him, Christ’s followers are able to fulfill our gospel mission to the world.
While I remember the struggles and divisions that brought hurt during the last year, I also remember many times when I sensed the love and grace of God surrounding me. Do you recall times when you sensed God with you? Praise the Lord. And here’s an answered prayer from a year ago. Mary Timmons, who was struggling to breathe when she and her husband had COVID, is doing well today. Thank you, God!
This building is still a reminder of the happy days we have had together, worshiping and loving one another—and the happy days that we will have in the future, in here and out ministering as Christ’s Body for the world. I look forward to the day when we are no longer wearing masks, seeing the expressions on every face! Giving hugs. Shaking hands. It’s coming, friends! The one who has been with us and has helped us thus far is with us now and will be faithful to build, rebuild, and strengthen His Church. For we belong to Him!
Because of his love and grace, we are forgiven and empowered to forgive.
The one who loves unconditionally and desires to bless us is coming again soon—the same way that he left!
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we long for your Son’s return in glory! Prepare our hearts and minds so we are ready when he comes again—soon—the same way that he left. Lord, thank you for the Ascension of your Son, whom you raised up in the heavenly places to be seated at your right hand and praised and exalted by all Creation. Thank you that you have a plan for our salvation and the Ascension is part of it, coming before the arrival of the Holy Spirit that gave birth to your Church! Lord thank you for sending your angels when the disciples were gazing too long and mourning their loss. Send angels to guide us, Lord, if we lose our way or get stuck in our journeys of faith. Help us to hear your voice, see your works of grace in our lives, and be an instrument of your grace and peace to others. Open opportunities to share your gospel with people whose hearts you have already prepared to receive the good news, but don’t yet know you Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Give us energy, creativity and joy for your gospel mission to the world! Amen.