In the face of evil, suffering, and our own shortcomings, it can be difficult to see how Jesus has made the world or us new. He promises, however, that the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out onto us in our baptisms, is transforming us and equipping us to complete his work of inviting all people into relationship with the Triune God.
Vicar Emily Beckering; the Ascension of Our Lord; texts: Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The trouble with the ascension is that Jesus leaves us so that we may finish his work, and the prospect of that can feel not only frightening, but impossible.
We, like the disciples, may wonder how and when Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit will make a difference in the world around us and in our own hearts.
The disciples ask, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Whether the disciples are asking for Jesus to free Israel from Roman occupation or whether they are asking him if now is the time when the kingdom that he preached will come among them, they yearn to see some tangible difference.
In the same way, we yearn for some visible sign that God is bringing about change in the world and in our own hearts.
We, too, may stare up at the sky with arms open asking, “Since Jesus was crucified and is risen, and has made all things new, why is there still so much suffering and evil in the world?” People still starve to death. Children are still kidnapped and held hostage. Wars still ravage countries. Those whom we love are still subject to cancer and illness.
The Holy Spirit has been poured out onto us in our baptisms, yet we may still wonder where the change is that Jesus has promised will happen in our hearts. How long do we have to wait until we have this Christian life figured out? How long will we struggle with sin and relearn lessons that we thought we had already learned? When will we finally be able to make the right choices in our relationships and love as we are called?
And yet in the face of these realities—a broken, hurting world and imperfect disciples who still do not understand—Jesus leaves and tells us that we will be the ones who will bring to completion God’s plan of restoring the world.
At which point, we may find ourselves asking Jesus along with the disciples, “Wouldn’t it just be better if you do it? When are you going to fix everything? How can we possibly do this job?”
But in response, Jesus tells us, and those earliest disciples, that God intends to complete Jesus’ work through us and gives us the Holy Spirit to do it.
Even though we know this, the nagging question still remains: if God desires and promises to be with us, then why must the Son of God be physically absent from us? Why can’t the one who was crucified and raised finish the work of preaching forgiveness? And since it takes us a lifetime to learn—and even then we still aren’t perfect—wouldn’t it just be better if God would do this work without us?
We want God to end hunger, to wipe out disease, to force armies to lay down their weapons, to remove militants and set kidnapped girls free, to just destroy the pieces of us that hurt others, and to crush everything about us that prevents us from living as God would have us live.
But that is not God’s way. The way of the cross continues to be God’s way even on the way to Pentecost. Jesus empties himself yet again, and as God did in the very beginning of creation, shares power with us rather than use it to control us or the world.
God could completely end hunger, or wars, or disarm militants by force, or just make you and me automatically who God would have us be, but that would require control and coercion that God is not willing to exercise.
Force and threats are not God’s way because they do not lead to healing or growth.
Only love can do that: the kind of love that God shows through Jesus, who enters into our very brokenness and suffering, taking it all on himself, and now, is made visible in us through the Holy Spirit who equips us to love. Our witness is how the world will be invited into, rather than forced into, relationship with the Triune God.
All this could sound like empty platitudes in the face of real suffering, disappointment, or evil to simply say, “Don’t worry, God is at work in you to make you and the entire world new.”
But the truth is, that that is exactly what Jesus promises us today, and it is no empty promise.
The Spirit of God is with us, transforming us and the world, and we have seen it.
The fruits of the Spirit that have been poured out onto are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whenever we see these in the world, in one another, or in ourselves, the Spirit is at work.
Throughout this last month, we saw the Spirit when congregations around the world joined together to pray for the children kidnapped in Nigeria. As the church prays for all these girls, and we pray especially for Naomi, the Spirit of God is working to turn all of our hearts to our neighbors, and giving strength and courage to those in Nigeria and to governments throughout the world to work for their return.
This last week, when you signed letters for Bread for the World, and next week when you feed community members, the Spirit of God is at work to end hunger.
And when you notice that this time, rather than demanding your own way with your partner, spouse, children, parents, friend, or even someone whom it is usually very difficult to love, you lifted up their needs, gave forgiveness freely, or saw Christ’s reflection in them, the Spirit of God was moving.
Even though it may be slow-going, and we or the world might take two steps back for every one-step that the Spirit leads us toward growth, it is well worth the wait according to God because the value is in a real, authentic relationship that comes from freely choosing to respond to God’s love for us and growing toward God in love and in faith. Because God values this growth, the Spirit is with us and will continue to be at work.
Tonight, just as God did on that original Mount of Olives—first through the presence of Jesus and then through the angels who appeared to the disciples after he ascended—our Lord calls us back from fear of being alone or ill-suited for the task given to us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is forever with us and will forever be working through us to offer forgiveness, to show his love, to invite all people into relationship with him, and to wipe away every tear from their eyes until that time when death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more.