What Comes Next?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ascension
May 9, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: We may feel discouraged in our ministry, as the disciples felt uncertain after the resurrection and discouraged that Jesus hadn't restored the kingdom to Israel. Nevertheless, with the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can live out our ministry in hope and expectancy.

How often do we find ourselves in the place the disciples find themselves in this passage? How often do we stand in their shoes? They find themselves in a place of uncertainty, an in-between time. One thing is behind them; something unknown is ahead of them.

We might think of having just graduated, but not yet having started a job. We might think of a relationship ending, when we are just beginning the healing process, perhaps leading to a new relationship. We might think of moving to a new city -- we've left the old behind, but have not made new friends, have not established a routine.

In-between times. They stand between two powerful events. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, the first half of Luke-Acts, the disciples had seen the risen Christ. We cannot empathize with that experience. It is so far beyond anything we know. Their leader, who had been killed, now stood before them because of the power of God. His crucifixion was not the end. The Roman torture machine hadn't won. After the encounter with the risen Christ, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received power. As Acts opens, they wait as Jesus instructed them. They felt joy at the end of Luke, but they didn't know what would happen next. Seeing the risen Christ gave them hope, raised expectations and generated excitement. That was on one side of their in-between time.

As Acts opens, the disciples experience not only uncertainty, but crushing disappointment. In verse 6, they ask the risen Christ, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" They ask this question out of the ache in their souls. The Judean people understood themselves to be God's chosen people. Nation after nation had conquered and subjugated them. The Babylonians treated them the worst. The Persians let them go back home, but the Judeans had still lived under their thumb. One of the Greek rulers tried to stamp out Judaism.

Now Roman soldiers patrol the streets, for the most part looking down their noses at the Judeans. Just after the people escaped from Egypt, God instructed Moses to tell them, "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation."1 They didn't much feel like a priestly kingdom. Here they were, poor, under the rule of Romans, handing over their hard-earned money as taxes and watching some of their own leaders cozy up to their oppressors.

Now that Jesus has risen from death, defied the power of Rome to kill him, appeared specifically to the disciples and demonstrated proofs of his identity, would he now throw off Roman rule and restore the Judeans to their rightful identity? Would the long nightmare finally come to an end? Would they again feel the freedom of making their own decisions and fulfilling their true place in God's plan of salvation?

The risen Christ gives them a gut punch of an answer, saying in effect, "That's on a 'need-to-know' basis, and you don't need to know." They would continue to live and do their ministry as Roman subjects. Roman soldiers could continue to bully them. They still had to pay taxes to the hated Romans.

With no change in their political or religious status, the disciples continue in uncertainty. In the rest of chapter 1, they busy themselves with administrative tasks. They conduct a job search. They pray, roll the dice and tap Matthias to replace Judas. They worship, but they still find themselves in a time of uncertainty and disappointment. We know what they do not yet know at this point: Pentecost lies just ahead. They will experience the power of the Holy Spirit in astonishing ways. Here in chapter 1, however, it's uncertainty and busy work, wondering what God will do next.

They had thought things would get much better for them -- that the risen Christ would restore the kingdom to Israel, and life would ease up. Instead, for Jesus' disciples, things would become worse. Their opponents would beat them and throw them in jail. They would experience tension and disagreements. Stephen would be only the first to die a martyr's death.

Do we feel discouraged?

We have recently celebrated Easter. Easter lifts our spirits. The music fills our souls; the flowers add beauty to the sanctuary. We see old friends. The sanctuary banners broadcast joy. Easter should push us forward in the triumph of resurrection. Summer awaits us. We often experience summer as down time, with lower attendance and giving. People take vacations. We have no big church days in summer. Will we exist in maintenance mode during the summer? After we celebrate the joy of Easter, does it all just dissipate?

Even more importantly, do we clearly see the effects of our ministry? Many news stories tell us that the church has begun to lose influence. Some people either drift away from the church or turn their backs on it altogether. Do we feel as though we do our administrative tasks, raise the budget, hire staff and elect officers, but do not see results? If we do not live under an occupying army, do we not still shake our heads at the political dysfunction in our country? We have two political parties that barely communicate, let alone work together to strengthen our country. Pastors have disappointed their congregations with moral failure. Congregations have disappointed their pastors by not following through on faith commitments. Denominations have split and fractured. We may wonder about our role in such a world. We want to do more than attend to our own individual spiritual growth, don't we?

We should not expect things in our world simply to become better. Jesus did not change the political fortunes of the Judean people. We should not expect our political parties to come together in harmony any time soon. We should not expect poverty to go away, or the people experiencing hunger and lack of shelter to suddenly have all their needs met. We should not expect war to cease or violence to end. Perhaps we should not expect people suddenly to start flocking to churches again. These things may sound discouraging and disappointing, but that sounds exactly like what the early church faced when they found out the risen Jesus would not restore the kingdom to Israel before he left.

Facing the future

We should not lose heart. We can continue our work, our ministry. We look for God to use our work to make a difference, though we may not see it. We can expect only what the early church received. At Pentecost, in the next chapter, the Holy Spirit exploded into their lives. We will not likely see tongues of flame or hear a rush like a mighty wind. We can expect the Holy Spirit to work within us, to empower us, to teach us. When our resources feel drained, the Holy Spirit fills us. When we don't know what to do next, the Holy Spirit guides us. When we offer our efforts, the Holy Spirit blesses them to make them bear fruit.

The church in today's passage lives in an in-between time, between the resurrection and Pentecost. However, in a way, the church always exists in an in-between time: We engage in our ministry after the resurrection, after the Ascension, but before God's renewal of all creation. We have our work to do, even if the political climate will not just automatically become better. We practice our ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit. We step out in faith to proclaim the gospel, to heal the world's hurts, to fight injustice, to alleviate suffering.

So, we face the future with both hope and uncertainties, but with the Holy Spirit on our side. We await the ministries God has for us. We see what lies around the next corner. We trust that our ministries will accomplish more than we expect and bear fruit we can only imagine. We face what the world throws at us with courage. We muster our creativity, trusting in the Holy Spirit to use our gifts. Even if we are living in an in-between time, we know that God stands on the other side of this time. God's time pulls us forward.

Let us live and worship and do mission expectantly, believing that God takes our work and uses it for divine purposes. Let us continue in hope, knowing that God lies on just the other side of this in-between time.