Marc and I have been watching a series from the PBS archives called “Poldark.” It’s a British drama that takes place in the 1700’s. This happens to be when the Methodist movement was new, and Methodist preachers actually show up in the story line pretty frequently—although not always in a flattering way. Each episode begins with the announcer saying, “Previously, on ‘Poldark,’” and each one ends with the announcer saying, “Next time, on ‘Poldark.’”
It used to be that announcers would say “stay tuned.” The phrase stay tuned” was coined in the early days of radio and then TV, when you needed to carefully adjust your dial to clearly see and hear what was being broadcast. I’ve been reminded of those days recently, since I’ve been using an old portable radio out here in the parking lot to hear Linda’s music. A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t have my radio tuned in so well, and I kept hearing a sports cast along with our hymns. Eventually, the phrase “stay tuned” became so common that we now use it in any situation where we are expecting additional information or updates about any given subject.
Our scripture passages for today—Ascension Sunday—are something like those “previously” and “stay tuned” messages. You probably remember that both the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by the same person. You could call Acts “Luke Volume 2.” Luke had explained his intentions right at the beginning of the Gospel—that he was going to investigate and then write down an orderly account of what had been reported by the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
He addresses both books to someone he calls Theophilus. Some scholars believe that this was just a literary device of Luke’s. The name “Theophilus” means “dear to God” or “friend of God” and so, they say, Luke was addressing anyone who was God’s beloved in Jesus. But, more scholars believe that Theophilus was a particular person—likely a wealthy patron of Luke’s who was new to the faith and perhaps had some questions about what he had been taught and what he was hearing from others. It’s rather lovely, though, that now, two thousand years later, we can read that name and imagine Luke writing to us as ones who are also “dear to God.”
If Luke’s two volumes were a TV series, our Gospel passage would be part of the “Easter Day” episode. Before the events of our passages, the women had reported the empty tomb. Peter had confirmed the vacancy. Two disciples had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus and then hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others. In the very midst of their story, Jesus had appeared among them, startling and terrifying them. He had a had a bite to eat and then spoke to them, which is where our passage begins.
He basically repeats what he had been telling his disciples all along, about how the Scriptures pointed to him as the Messiah, about his suffering and resurrection, about how his message of repentance and forgiveness would be proclaimed by them—his witnesses—throughout the world, beginning in Jerusalem. He reiterates the promise that he had spoken in John—that after his death, he would send them an advocate, a comforter, a teacher, a companion. But, he tells the gathered disciples, they need to stay in Jerusalem until that advocate arrives.
This feels like a good place to end the episode. But there are a few more verses. They are the “stay tuned” verses. They read as though they happen right after Jesus’ visit, but we know from Acts that the event of Jesus’ ascension happened forty days later. So, if the Gospel of Luke were a TV series, this might be where the announcer says, “Next time, in Luke Season Two…” and we would see a brief scene with Jesus and the disciples in Bethany, with Jesus raising his hands in blessing as he’s carried into heaven, followed by a snippet of the disciples joyfully returning to Jerusalem and the temple.
Now, we’re grabbing our ice cream or our popcorn and settling in for the next episode—the first episode of “Acts.” It opens with the announcer saying, “Previously, in the Gospel of Luke…” We see scenes from the previous forty days of Jesus’ appearances and teachings. We hear again his promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and his instructions to the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. “Oh yeah,” we’d say, “I remember this.”
The show segues into a scene of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. They’re having a conversation. After their forty days with him, they obviously now accept Jesus as the Messiah. But, they still haven’t fully grasped what kind of Messiah he is. They’re still looking for a military savior who will unseat the Romans and restore Israel to its former glory and power. Jesus brushes off their questions; that’s no concern of theirs. They have a more immediate concern—that they will soon be baptized by the Holy Spirit and receive the power they need to be Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world. It will happen “not many days from now,” Jesus says. In other words, “Stay tuned.”
As they watch, Jesus is lifted up, whisked out of sight by a cloud. And with that, Jesus’ earthly ministry ends. Jesus has been exalted—lifted up, not to a place but to a position. Jesus takes his place at the right hand of his father where he re-assumes his Lordship over all creation. John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” but now the Word has returned to the place—no, to the One—from whom he came. As someone quipped on Facebook, “Ascension Day is the day when Jesus began to work from home.”
The episode seems to close with a shot of the disciples gazing up towards heaven. Jesus—their friend, their teacher, the one they now recognize as the Messiah—is gone, and all they can do is stare at the place where he’d been. They have his promises and they have some instructions, but what they really want is for Jesus to turn around and come back and make things the way they used to be.
What they want is for things to be the way they used to be, just like we want things to be the way they used to be. We want to be able to walk into a store and find the shelves fully stocked, like they used to be. We want to go into a store, or out to dinner, or back to school, like we used to do. We want to worship in our sanctuary, shake each other’s hands, and hold each other in our arms, as we used to do. We stand, gazing at what used to be and want it to come back.
And it’s not just the things that have vanished since the virus took hold that we long for. Our gaze often goes further into the clouds of time. We wish the days when there were no sports events competing with worship would come back. We wish the days when our Sunday School rooms were packed would come back. We may even wish the days when people dressed up for church would come back.
We wish the days when no one talked about uncomfortable things like racism or income inequality or climate change would come back. We wish the days when we could comfortably ignore those who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t believe like us, don’t live or love like us would come back. Like the disciples, we stand looking at the life that used to be and wish it would come back.
The disciples wished Jesus would come back, but what they didn’t realize at the time was that it was Jesus’ very departure from earth that opened the way for their own ministry. He had given them a job to do and promised they would do works greater than his own. His wasn’t talking about more miraculous healings. He wasn’t talking about telling more compelling stories. He was talking about announcing his message of repentance and forgiveness in places and times he never could have.
Because the fully-human Jesus was only one person, who could only cover so many miles in a day or a lifetime. To carry the message throughout the world would require many messengers. And so, he returned to be with his Father and opened up the possibilities he had equipped his followers for—to “be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
But he wouldn’t leave his followers to figure it out on their own. He would send the Holy Spirit to empower them, teach them, and inspire them in their work—our work. Jesus’ ascension—his departure from his earthly ministry—is what enabled the greater works that his disciples would do.
Returning to the way things used to be means turning our backs on the way things can be. There is certainly much of what used to be that I want to return to—face-to-face worship, complete with singing and praying together and looking into your eyes as I hand you the bread of Communion. I want people to be able to return to their jobs, and children to return to their classrooms, and families to have access to their loved ones in nursing homes.
But, friends, there is much that we should not return to. We should not go back to the days when we ignored the minimum wage workers we now describe as essential—workers who are still paid so little for forty hours of work a week that they can’t afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in any county in these United States. We should not go back to the days when we ignored those who are still making gut-wrenching decisions about whether they should go to the hospital if they’re sick, because they know that, if they are diagnosed with COVID, their care will be paid for but if they’re lucky enough to have escaped the virus, they’ll be saddled with medical bills they have no way to pay.
We should not return to the days when we could ignore the fact that 14% of American households with children don’t have access to the internet at home, and that most of these households are poor or rural or both, putting them further and further behind in our connected world. We should not return to the days when we ignore the lack of healthy food and healthy living conditions among some communities, especially communities of color, that makes them more vulnerable not just to coronavirus but to other physical and social ailments as well. Coronavirus didn’t cause these problems, but it has parted the clouds of inattention and complacency that have allowed us to look away.
Instead of gazing wistfully at what has disappeared, we need to stay tuned to turn to what is to come. The disciples were alerted to this by the appearance of two men in white robes—men who looked suspiciously like the ones who appeared to the women in the empty tomb. The men ask the disciples a pointed question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”—a question that is suspiciously like the one that was asked in the empty tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Jesus’ disciples have work to do. They have a message to announce. They have a risen and exalted Lord to serve by carrying on his mission of bringing justice and compassion and healing to the world and all its peoples. And we are among his disciples.
It’s a daunting task. I’m reading a book right now called The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittester. In it, she details many of the world’s problems and calls on Christians to commit themselves to more than just applying band-aids to the wounds of the world. She calls us to demand of our nation’s leaders that the issues of poverty and injustice be addressed in meaningful ways and to undertake that work ourselves. I have to tell you, what I’ve read so far has made me feel discouraged. The problems are so big and so many, and I am only one and I am so small.
The good news is that, while we are small and few, our Lord is great and powerful, and he has bequeathed his power to us. Christ is exalted, but that doesn’t mean he’s aloof or far away. Like the disciples, we were promised the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide, to empower, to teach, and to encourage us. Unlike the disciples, we have already received the gift that we will celebrate next Sunday—the Spirit’s binding us together with all believers to be the Church—”Christ’s body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We have already received the gift that Jesus promised to those who would carry out his mission in the world. Just as his ascension made the ministry of the Church possible, the departure of the way things used to be opens the door for us to undertake that ministry in new ways in our world today.
How do we do that? We stay tuned. We stay tuned, partly in the sense of waiting for what is coming, as the disciples did when they returned to Jerusalem. But we also stay tuned in the sense of zeroing in God’s wavelength. We adjust our thinking and our attention so that we are tuned in to the mind of Christ and the will of God. We tune out the static—the static of self-interest and apathy and learned helplessness. We tune out the distractions in our lives. We stay tuned to Jesus, so that we see the world as he saw, speak truth to the powerful as he spoke, and link our hearts and hands with the people he did and does as the living Lord over all the earth.
We may not know exactly what lies ahead of us. But we do know who is ahead of us. It’s Jesus—crucified, risen, and ascended, exalted to his place at the right hand of God, where he is now “above all rule and authority and power and dominion, in this age and in the age to come.” It’s Jesus, who delivered on his promise to bind us together as the Church and to empower us to carry on his earthly mission. It’s Jesus, who continues to call us to “stay tuned.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young