I recently read about a day care center in Jersey City that welcomes the children of homeless families. One day the nuns who run the center took the pre-schoolers to the Jersey Shore. The 3 and 4-year olds scrambled up the big dunes and when they got to the top, they could not believe what they saw—water as far as they could see. It was something they had never seen nor could ever imagine.
They chased the waves and played in the tide. At lunch time, they went off to a park for a picnic and afterward, they begged to go back to the sand dunes. One little boy Freddie ran to the top of the dunes ahead of the rest. He looked out at the ocean and turned back to the others and shouted, “it’s still there!”*
So much had disappeared in Freddie’s short life, it seemed possible the ocean could vanish over lunch. Of course, we know that the ocean is still there when we are not looking at it, but sometimes we are more like Freddie than we imagine.
These days, many things feel transitory. Life feels like we are standing on shifting sands and we are not confident about what will remain and what will disappear. What will the future hold? How will the church need to change? Will our new normal life be anything like “normal” used to be?
The truth is that no one knows—even the most experienced public health experts, research scientists, and economists do not know exactly how our lives, jobs, finances or future will unfold. In one of her poems, Adrienne Rich says, “you live in a different place though you have never moved.” We need something with staying power.
The disciples must have felt the shifting sands under their feet, as if they too, were about to live in a different place without moving. Jesus is still with them but is talking in the past tense as though he were already gone: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you.” He keeps talking about going away and really, they just got him back from the dead, so no one is interested in more change.
He promises that they will be “clothed with power from on high,” but what does that mean? What does this power look like? When will it happen? We hear some of their frustration in the verses from Acts. Like us, they too, would like answers to their questions about what’s coming next, what the future holds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” What will the future hold? The disciples wonder what will give them the staying power they need.
Jesus gives one of those answers I that just bugs me—he essentially says Mind Your Own Business! The timing of God’s plan of salvation is not your business. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Even though I do not like being put in my creaturely place, it is true—God’s timing and cosmic plans are not mine or yours to know—and neither is the future for that matter. And that was as true on March 1 before the coronavirus changed our daily lives as it is true today. We may have more questions and more anxiety, but our ability to know or control the future was no greater two and half months ago than it is today. Still, we wonder what will give us staying power.
But Jesus does not leave the disciples or us hanging with our unanswered questions and our anxiety about the future. He gives us the next step, “But 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.”
This is not any old spirit—this is power from on high—from beyond ourselves. This is the Spirit with staying power. Look at the life of Jesus to know what Spirit this is.
• This is the same Spirit that filled Jesus at his Baptism;
• This is the same Spirit that sustained Jesus for 40 days in the wilderness;
• This is the same Spirit that led Jesus to make the lame walk;
• This is the same Spirit that allowed Jesus to calm the storm;
• This is the same Spirit that enabled Jesus to turn 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast;
• This is the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to call Lazarus from the grave back to life.
This is the power from on high that would soon be given to the disciples and even now is given to us.
Jesus blesses the disciples as he ascends into heaven because it is his departure that initiates the next chapter in God’s story of salvation—making Jesus presence and power spread throughout the whole creation. At this moment Jesus’ presence moves from one historical spot on the map to every place in the world moving out in concentric circles from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria to the ends of the earth!
The only way to do this is through the risen power of Jesus’ Spirit coming from on high and enlivening the whole creation. “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. “From now on,” Jesus says, “I will be with you in the power of the Spirit. Though I am leaving, you will not be left alone.” This is the staying power that we need to be Jesus’s witnesses even to the ends of the earth.
In the Creed we confess that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. We often think of the right hand of God being a physical location—a place where Jesus sits for eternity. But the right hand of God is not a physical place, rather it is a description of his authority and his power. To sit at the right hand of God is to reign over all creation. Jesus’s physical ascension leads to his spiritual expansion; his bodily absence gives all of us his complete presence; his departure into heaven signals his arrival in all our hearts. Jesus had to ascend in bodily form in order to descend in spiritual form everywhere. This is staying power.
That is why the disciples needed to go back to Jerusalem to the upper room and wait and devote themselves prayer. The staying power of Jesus’ Spirit was coming and they needed to be ready to receive that Spirit and carry the message of forgiveness of sins, freedom from all that binds us and newness in Christ, to others as far as the ends of the earth.
They did not know what the future held, and they did not need to know the details. Because they knew the staying power of Jesus’ Spirit was with them and that would provide them with whatever they needed when they needed it.
We do not know what the future will hold and how the details will work out. The staying power of Jesus in the Holy Spirit offers us peace and confidence to live into the future in the midst of not knowing. Sands can shift, and plans can change, and we will continue to live in a different place even when we have not moved. All of that has been true through the ages and it will be true once we have a COVID-19 vaccine.
But like Freddie discovered on his first trip to the beach—as the ocean is there even when he does not see it, the staying power of Christ is with us even when Jesus has ascended into heaven. For he has filled all creation, us as believers, and his church with the staying power of Holy Spirit and that is our constant even when all things around us change. Even if you cannot see it today, the Spirit has staying power with you and through you and that is what enables us all to move confidently into every tomorrow.
God has given us each other so that when we cannot see or feel the Spirit, we can be Freddie for one another. One of us will run to the top of the sand dune and shout, “It’s still there!”
*Shared by Barbara Lundbland on workingpreacher.org for the commentary on Ascension for May 5, 2016. I am indebted to her for the ideas and structure behind this sermon.
Photo by Kaylee Stepkoski, unsplash.com