The Spirit of God Breaking into the World

Lessons for the 7th Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; and, John 17:1-11 

Alex, my nephew, was around four-years-old; I was the twenty-five-year-old “fun” uncle whom he had just convinced to play hide-and-seek. Alex went to hide! Now, meanwhile, someone had approached me with a question and conversation, asking me something that engaged me so much that I completely forgot to go look for my nephew. Don’t judge me too harshly and don’t pretend that it hasn’t happened to just about every parent, grandparent, and uncle out there. In any event, after a few minutes had elapsed (it honestly couldn’t have been more than five minutes – I mean he was a four-year-old boy so he wasn’t waiting that long) I felt a tug on my jeans and heard the chattering voice of small child but I was engaged in a conversation that I just didn’t want to abandon. My mind was otherwise occupied but the tugging and chattering continued. 

“Excuse me Uncle Rob, this is important, I need you to pay attention.” 

There’s nothing quite like the ire of a four-year-old to bring you to attention. With my head in a vice-grip, Alex announced with great flourish: “I’m here! I’m right here!”

THE POWER OF ABSENCE
A few years ago I had the opportunity to join the Maryknoll Brothers in ministry in eastern Kentucky. One day, returning from our day’s work, Brother Alfred took a detour and brought our little group up the mountain to, in his words, “see something that speaks to the history of the place.” When we got to where we were going, what we saw was a complex of three or four buildings – weedy and overgrown, rusty, rundown, and rutted. We were told that the buildings were once home to a thriving church but when the people left there was no one to take care of the buildings.  Churches and monasteries and complexes like this dot the landscape of the Christian world. Shells of great Cathedrals, ancient churches, and modest chapels now serve as soccer fields, sheep pens, and (at least in one case) garbage dumps. You can find their wreckage, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “poking up thru the canopy of trees like masts of stranded ships.” They were destroyed by a powerful force: ABSENCE. Have you ever thought about that: absence as a powerful force? But, yes indeed, in the absence of their animating force, walls crumbled and buildings decayed.

I think that this might have been the nagging concern at the heart of the disciples coming together one last time with the resurrected Jesus. The disciples were still hoping that Jesus would definitively establish Israel as a sovereign people – that he would definitively fulfill their messianic hope with the restoration of the kingdom. 

THE MESSIANIC HOPE OF THE DISCIPLES
The disciples ask Jesus,

Is this the time?

Acts 1:6

Now, notice Jesus’ response,

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

Acts 1:7

Jesus says that their (our concern) concern should not be a question of when. The real question that Jesus answers is how it would happen, and this had to take them by surprise.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 1:8

This kingdom advances through the power of the Holy Spirit poured into the lives of the disciples, into their lives. It spreads by their witness, not by soldiers or war but by the witness of disciples living and proclaiming the message that Jesus proclaimed, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

And then, just as Jesus tells them all this, he is gone, “lifted up,” and taken “out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9) Can you imagine? Jesus tells them that they are the ones who will spread the kingdom and then he leaves. They are left “gazing up toward heaven.”

Barbara Brown Taylor offers an intriguing image of the divine presence in the world, comparing it to a four-tiered fountain. Imagine such a fountain: God’s glory overflowing into Christ. Christ’s glory overflowing into the church. The church’s glory drenching the world. How could it possibly still work when Jesus was gone? Without Jesus, how would God’s glory continue to flow? What would become of the gospel community and of the message that Jesus preached now that their animating force was gone? Jesus’ presence had meant everything; it changed them; iit animated them. How would the gospel continue to move forward?

POWER AND PRESENCE
And this is where we return to Jesus’ response, his utterly shocking response:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 1:8

There are some big theological concepts in that verse – receive power, the Holy Spirit, witnesses. And I used to think that one or a combination of them were pivots – the hinges that opened the door to the rest of the book of Acts  and the mission of the Church.  Now, I still think that those ideas are important, vital to the work of the Church, but now I think the whole verse and the whole of Acts turns on one word: YOU. That’s right, the second person plural pronoun (humas in the Greeek) is the hinge.

How will God’s presence continue on in the world? How will the kingdom advance in Jesus’ absence? The Holy Spirit will come upon YOU. You will receive power. You will be my witnesses. Somehow the power of God, the Spirit of God that was always present in the life of Jesus, it was going to come upon them in a new way, and Jesus’ absence wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Barbara Brown Taylor continues the analogy of church ruins, saying it this way: 

The roof may be gone, and there may be sheep grazing in the nave, but Christ is still there – half a face, with one wide eye looking right at us, one hand raised in endless benediction – still giving his blessing to a ruined church. He cannot, or will not, be separated from his body. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, 139

So the 4-tiered fountain still flows: God into Christ; Christ into the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit; and the church into the world.

So, in Jesus’ absence, there was a promise to fill the void with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the power which would continue the work of upbuilding the kingdom. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is nothing short of the power & presence of God unleashed in the world, unleashed in YOU

PROMISE AND MISSION – THE TWIN EXPERIENCE OF ASCENSION
That’s the promise! And with the promise, comes the mission. That’s the twin experience of the Ascension. First, Jesus’ absence means the gift of the Holy Spirit, the ongoing power and presence of God, the spirit of Christ living on in the world through you and me, drawn into a new community like living stones filled with the presence of God. 

And second, and this is the twin experience of Ascension (one fulfilled at Pentecost): The power and presence of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is a hope that we are invited to share – even to the ends of the earth. There is a sense of undaunted expectation that Jesus’ ascension brings, the divine present in a new way that transcends space, time, and history, but is always there in our story. 

The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated and the message that he proclaimed advances still, even in his absence, as the spirit of God comes to live within the hearts of the people and of this community, as we bear witness through our lives to Jesus, Messiah and Lord, Savior of the world. 

In small and maybe incomplete ways God is doing in and through you what God did in and through Jesus. Just as Jesus bore witness to God’s redemption, now you and I bear that witness. Just as Jesus bore witness to justice, peace, joy, and love, now you and I bear that witness. Just as Jesus bore witness to eternal life, so now you and I bear that witness – to the ends of the earth – in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And when we live in light of this presence, it produces in us the overflowing hope that God is still working on our behalf; that God is still coming for us; that it won’t be too long until we are in God’s presence once again, because the kingdom of God is breaking into the world.


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