May 17, 2015 | Acts 1: 1-12 Rev. Nancy Talbot –
By now at least some of you have seen last week’s episode of Second-Regard on the CBC’s French Language station in which our church was profiled during a segment on the decline of the United Church of Canada. We were chosen to be filmed for this program as an example of a congregation attempting to adapt to our current context in positive ways. Our building renovation and our focus on community outreach primarily through the Thrift Shop were highlighted. And although the program presented us in a favourable light, I know that for some who have watched the show, and for those of you who will see it when it comes out in English, those opening scenes in which the extent of the decline in church membership is graphically portrayed with an arrow that just keeps going down, down, down and down until about 2026 there is no more church, were quite startling.
So I thought it would be important to share with you this morning that over the course of this week I have received a few different emails from people across the country who watched the program, telling me how encouraging it was to see a church like ours making changes to the way we understand ourselves as church and looking towards the future with hope. When so many congregations are closing their doors, anticipating the death of their church, people were happy to see one congregation anticipating its rebirth.
But are we really anticipating the rebirth of our church? Do we really believe that God and we have the capacity to bring something new into being? And if we are anticipating a rebirth, what do we think that’s going to look like? Will it look pretty much the same as what we look like now only better, perhaps with more people in the pews? Or will it look like something very different?
On Thursday of this week, the church universal officially welcomed what has come to be known as Ascension Day in the church calendar. Celebrated 40 days after Easter and 10 days before the Festival of Pentecost, Ascension Day marks that moment in the Easter story when according to the book of Acts, after 40 days and 40 nights of teaching his followers about the Kingdom of God, the Risen Christ ascended into heaven.
In the account we heard read this morning, when Jesus was finished with his teaching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. It’s a bit like when Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are teleported back to the Starship Enterprise with the addition of levitation. But we don’t really need science-fiction to paint this kind of picture for us because over the centuries countless artists have portrayed this scene and in most of them Jesus is seen rising up into a cloud while the disciples look up after him in wonder.
Now in the Protestant church we have never been very big on the Ascension. I have no recollection whatsoever of anyone even mentioning it to me when I was a child growing up in the United Church. There are lots of theological and ecclesial reasons for that. But whether you grew up with a tradition of celebrating the Ascension or not, it’s become another one of those awkward doctrines of the church. Even those of us have found a mystical and metaphorical way to wrap our heads and hearts around a virgin birth and a resurrected Jesus, struggle with this scene in which Jesus is taken up into the heavens. This three tiered universe with heaven above, earth here and hell below just doesn’t cut it in our post-modern world.
I can’t read this text without thinking about John Spong who points out that if we take this piece of scripture literally, given our current scientific understanding, Christ is either caught up in orbit circling the universe, or still on his way “up to heaven” travelling through galaxy after galaxy after galaxy. At this rate we shouldn’t expect him back here any time soon.
This ancient worldview may have worked for early Christians, but it doesn’t really work for us today.
So I’m grateful for the commentators on this text who remind us that for as much as this piece of scripture is about Jesus and how it is that he has entered into the heart of God, however and wherever we imagine that and understand it to be, this piece of scripture is also about us and how we are called to live as a post-easter people.
And one of the things this story tells us is that post-easter people are to live with a posture of anticipation. Now that might sound like it’s in contrast to the popular thought that we should live in the moment and receive each day for the blessing it delivers, but I think a posture of anticipation actually helps us to embrace the now even more fully because it beckons us to bring to each present moment a curiosity about the more that is inherent in it.
What am I receiving now that is more than I am aware of? What is happening here at the church that is more than we might actually realize? What are we really anticipating here?
What is it that the early followers of Jesus were anticipating in those original post- easter days? According to our scripture reading this morning not much or at least not as much as they could have anticipated. Right at the beginning of this passage, just before Jesus is lifted into heaven, the disciples ask him a question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The vision the disciples had for the kingdom of God was a narrow one. They wanted to go back to the good old days, the glory days when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the crowds were gathering and the promise that he would rule the nation with justice and love was on everyone’s hearts and minds. “Is this it?” They wanted to know. “Is this when Israel will finally be restored?”
“It is not for you to know the times or the periods when one thing or another will happen” Jesus says “ 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.”
The disciples were asking about the restoration of Jerusalem, but Jesus was talking about the restoration of the entire world. The disciples anticipated one thing, but the Risen Christ anticipated much, much more.
How often has your narrow vision of who and what you could be impeded your capacity to grow and to flourish and to experience something more?
One of the things that is going on in this story is that the disciples are stuck in their original vision of what it meant to follow Jesus, the vision to restore Israel. For 40 days and 40 nights Jesus has been teaching them about a new vision, a vision that is much broader a vision that reaches to the ends of the earth, but they seem deaf and blind to this new thing God is doing. They can only see what’s familiar. And who can blame them? When you’ve sustained a major loss, when you’re in the midst of decline, when you’re feeling anxious about the future, it’s pretty common to want to stick to the rivers and streams with which you are familiar, you actually crave routine. You want to stay the course.
A while ago I read an article about Fresh Expressions of the church. That’s church lingo for new models of being church. The writer said very clearly that if you want to start a fresh expression of the church, the last people you should ask to help you are the members of your congregation. Why? Because in this day and age if you are showing up to church on a Sunday morning, it’s probably because you are getting something out of it. You like things the way they are so why would you want to change them? Our imagination is limited by what we already know.
A few years ago when we started making changes to our worship service and more people started show up on Sunday mornings, one person said to me on the one hand they were excited about the new energy at the church but on the other hand they were kind of frightened because they didn’t want to lose what they had come to love. They were aware that new people meant new ideas.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to anticipate something new, because we are so attached to the way things have been before.
But from the very beginning, the purpose of the church has always been about a broader vision of the future. So persistent is the Holy Spirit, that when that vision gets stuck, it stirs things up, it even breaks things apart to offer something new and it empowers us to be a part of it, especially if we are open to the movement of the spirit.
And like the very first disciples, we cannot know when that stirring up is going to happen and exactly what that new thing is going to look like when it arrives. But we have been given some clues about what to do in the meantime, what to do while we are waiting.
Near the end of this morning’s reading, while the disciples are gazing up into heaven, two men in white robes stood among them and asked “Why are you looking up?” It’s an echo of a similar question asked on Easter morning “why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Go back to Jerusalem, watch and wait, for Christ will come again.
What follows in this story is the formation of the first congregation of the church, a group of women and men who gather together to break bread, to pray, and to wait upon the Spirit to direct them in their living. Community that gathers to pray and eat and study and then reaches out to the ends of the earth for the sake of the restoration of the world is at the heart of what it means to be the church.
The movement in the scriptures is away from looking up at the sky, having our head in the clouds as it were, and towards the formation of community, for the sake of the world.
It should come as no surprise to us that the movement of the church in our day and age is also towards the formation of new communities. House churches are becoming popular once again, places where people gather to eat, pray and reflect on the scriptures but also to take action for the sake of justice and peace in our world. It’s not just community, but community with a difference, what some are calling authentic community. It’s about calling upon the Spirit and being the Body of Christ in the world in a very intentional way.
When I was in the middle of writing my reflection for this morning I received an email from Katie to say that her baby had been born. When I received it, I couldn’t help but think back to that Sunday morning when the CBC film crew was here and we were doing everything we knew how to do to make ourselves look presentable. With the exception of the camaras it was all very familiar, until the unpredictable happened. Those of you who were here that day will recall that as our beloved Kay lay in the pew recovering from a fainting spell, very pregnant Katie, who happens to be a doctor, stood at her head tending her patient. Dara, another young mother from the congregation was at her feet, and some of our more mature nurses were around her. You’ll remember that Rev. Donna who was about to lead the prayers of the people when all the excitement ensued, quietly went to the foot of the pew where Kay was lying and said a prayer. Then we prayed some more, we sang, we took up the offering, and we were commissioned to continue to pray for Kay and to go out to love and serve the world.
After the service, Francis Plourde who was interviewing me for the documentary, reflected on that moment. He was reverent in his tone. He said that after three days of filming here at the church, that was the moment when he really saw what we had been talking about. He experienced us being Christian community together. Unscripted and unplanned he saw us lean into what easter people anticipate, that in the midst of the present moment, even when there is loss and confusion, decline and disorientation, there is always something more.
What are we anticipating as we look to the future of our church? How open are we to the movement of the Spirit, to things being stirred up, to our own lives being broken into by the Spirit? How ready are we to welcome a new birth?