This pandemic, and the measures we continue to take in order to be safe, have been horrible. But there have been for me a few silver linings to this very dark cloud.
One silver lining of this whole experience has been a new freshness in how I see Scripture. Week after week I have been struck by how directly our readings speak to our current situation. Week after week, things I have never noticed before have popped out at me and helped to make sense of what we are going through and of God’s call to us in the midst of it.
That is true once again for this morning’s reading from Acts. It is the story of Christ’s ascension into heaven, Christ’s return to his heavenly Father. Over the years, I have read this story dozens of times. But until this year I never read this story while sheltering in place to avoid a pandemic, and it makes a difference. As Christ and the angels talk to the disciples about Christ’s departure, it is like they are talking to us about life in quarantine.
Just before our passage begins, Jesus orders the disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there” (Acts 1:4). It’s the story of our lives right now. We are not to leave home except when necessary. We are to wait there.
But it’s not easy to stay in place and wait, not for us and not for them. By the time our passage begins, the disciples have gotten impatient. They have been through the trauma of crucifixion, and they have come out on the other side. They have met their risen Lord. They want to get on with it. They are ready for action.
So they ask Jesus, Is now the time? “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Our question is a lot like that. We have been through the trauma of a sudden shut-down. Admittedly that is not nearly as bad as witnessing the crucifixion of our Lord! But it has been hard. And now we are coming out on the other side. We are beginning the long process of reopening our economies.
And many of us are ready, indeed impatient, to reopen our Churches. We ask ourselves, we ask each other, some people ask me, we ask our Bishop, we ask God: Is now the time? Is this the time when you will restore our Churches? Is this the time when we can get back to what we love? Is this the time when we can return to doing what we feel called to do?
So far the answer to us is exactly the same as Jesus’ answer to the apostles: Not yet. In our case, not until specific “public health indicators” have been met. We can’t know when that will be. Apparently it is not for us to know the times or the periods, any more than it was for the disciples all those years ago. Like the disciples, our calling at the moment is to wait, as patiently as we can.
Thankfully, especially for those like me who are impatient, Jesus keeps going. Now, Jesus says, is not the time for the disciples to act. But Jesus assures them that the time for action will come. They will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and they will be Christ’s witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, where they were at that moment, and extending all the way to the ends of the earth. That’s a lot of action!
For us, too, the Holy Spirit is swirling around. And we, too, will spring into action as soon as we can. There remains plenty of work to be done witnessing to Christ, both here and to the ends of the earth.
In fact, of course, we are still doing what we can. Our building is closed but we, the people of Saint David’s, are the Church. And we remain active in worship, prayer, study and service even in this time.
But what we can do is limited. For now, and this is likely to continue for some time, our primary task is not to act as much as it is to wait for the right time, for God’s time.
That brings us to the ascension itself. And our passage continues to speak to our situation.
Watching Jesus ascend to heaven must have been startling! Understandably, the disciples just stand there, staring up after him.
But Christ won’t come back, at least not in that form, until the literal end of time. So God helps the disciples out. It’s a good thing. Otherwise, who knows how long they might have stood there?
God sends a pair of angels to tell the disciples that they can’t keep looking for Christ in the form they have always known him. After this moment, their lives with Christ will never again be the same.
Their lives with Christ will continue. They will find Christ in Scripture, and in the breaking of the bread, and in the midst of their gatherings, and in the faces of the people they serve. But they won’t see Christ in the way they were used to seeing Christ.
That is probably true for us, too. Our common life will continue to be shaped by the pandemic in one way or another for the next several months at a minimum. And even when the last of the restrictions are finally lifted, things will almost certainly look and feel different. Just as one particular example, I doubt we will ever do the Peace the same way again.
Going forward, Christ will still be with us. Christ will continue to invite us to share in God’s mission. We will still be Christ’s people. But Christ seems to be calling us—I mean us here at Saint David’s but not just our parish; ALL of us—Christ seems to be calling us into a future which will differ from our old, familiar ways.
For me, and I suspect for most of us, the prospect of change is a little sad and a little scary. But it is also a little inspiring. We are not limited by who we have been. We are in the process of being made new by Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. That is good news. And that is kind of exciting!
But that is still the future. For now, we wait. We wait for God’s time. We wait for God’s call. We wait for God’s direction.
And while we wait, we can do exactly what the disciples did while they waited, all those centuries ago. They went to the room upstairs where they were staying. And they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
For now, we, too, remain in our rooms. And we too can devote ourselves to constant prayer.
Inspired by the example of the disciples in our passage, I invite everyone to make this week between Ascension and Pentecost a special week of prayer. Ask God for patience. Ask God for guidance. Ask God for the gifts of faith, and hope, and love. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to us in a new and more powerful way.
And when the time does come, when God calls us back together, we will be ready. We better be. Because there will be plenty of work to do in loving service to God and our neighbors.
And so my prayer for us today is that we can wait patiently for now, and then be ready. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan