Texts: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-21; John 17:20-26
This week, we also celebrated Ascension Day. Ascension, 40 days after Easter, is the day when Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven. It marks the end of Jesus’ physical presence among his disciples, which we recognize by extinguishing our Paschal candle. He leaves his disciples with the promise that he will return, but he leaves them all the same. 43 days into Easter, 3 days after the Ascension, here we are, waiting.
I think that this is the question that, whether we recognize it or not, is at the center of the Church’s identity crisis right now. The world is becoming more secular and the Church is becoming less important. I think that this is because our understanding of how we are waiting for Jesus and what we are meant to do while we wait is changing.
In America, for example, religion (especially Christianity) has come to be understood as necessary for morality; that is, in order to be good, upstanding people, we need to go to church to learn right from wrong. America has been shaped by a number of different religious groups who all felt that they were called by God to create a moral society based on religion. English Puritians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, and Shakers as well as many others hoped to establish a pious and righteous society. Their belief that the path to true morality lay through religion is in our cultural DNA.
Now, however, times have changed. We have come to believe that people can be good and upstanding apart from religion. We have come to mistrust institutions because they have been known to abuse their power and lead people astray. We have come to understand enough about our world that it no longer seems necessary to believe that there must be a God who created everything. The Church has become like a hammer without a nail, a landline in a world of cell phones. We are left to ask, “What are we doing? What is our purpose?”
We may feel alone in this, but this is nothing new for Christians. The early Church once faced much the same situation. Those first disciples thought Jesus was due back any day. Some of them gave up working, refrained from getting married, even fasted so that they could be ready for Jesus to show up at any moment. The Church became a community where people gathered to wait and prepare for Jesus’ immanent arrival, but the longer it took for Jesus to come, the more it looked like he would be coming much later than they first thought, if at all. The Church was largely ignored by society at large or viewed with suspicion for their strange religious beliefs. Like us, they also began to wonder, “What are we doing? What is our purpose?”
This is why I love the book of Revelation. For all its inscrutable symbolism and fanciful imagery, it was written as and still remains a book of hope for those who are waiting for Jesus in a world that seems not to care about him. Revelation reminds us that the job of the Church is not just to wait idly until Jesus may or may not return, and not just to teach children right from wrong. The message of Revelation is that the Church waits for Jesus by preparing and practicing for what he will bring with him: the reign of God.
The book of Revelation points again and again to Jesus, the Lamb who was Slain, as the one who conquers. He stands in stark contrast to the forces in the world that seem much more powerful, forces like Caesar and the Roman military, like ISIS or the United States or the Soviet Union, or like certain special interest groups or presidential candidates. It reminds us that he overcomes the powers of the world not through force or violence or charisma, but through selfless love given in service to the world. Because he is victorious over all things, we are assured that—as improbable or distant as it may seem—God’s reign is coming. The world is turning.
Revelation concludes with repeated invitations to us the readers to “Come.” The words remind us that this isn’t just an invitation to some future event, but that we are invited even now into the new reality God is creating. Christ is not portrayed as coming someday in the future, but immediately. Even now, we are told, he stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3.20).
In our reading from Acts, we see Paul and Silas continuing the work Jesus started by baptizing and making new disciples, even when, like him, they are arrested and beaten. Jesus’ own prayer from John’s gospel reminds us that we are one with Jesus just as he is one with the Father, and that the love we share with him is one way that he is present among us, continuing his work of revealing God to the world.
When I read these texts, I am reassured that even though Jesus sometimes like a character from a story set long ago in a galaxy far, far away, he is as close as the person sitting next to me in this room, as close as a bite of bread and a sip of wine, as close as the baptismal water running down by head and the cross forever inscribed on my brow.
I can’t help but notice that when I read the last verses of Revelation, Jesus’ promise, “Behold, I am coming soon,” comes before our prayer in response: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Luther writes that when we pray, ‘Your will be done on earth and in heaven,’ “God’s good and gracious will comes indeed without our prayer; but we ask in this prayer that it might also come to us.*” When we join in the prayer, ‘Come, Lord Jesus,’ I might paraphrase Luther and say that Jesus indeed comes with or without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that he might also come to and through us.
As we wonder together as the Church what our purpose is, I hope that we remember that God’s reign is not just a far-off hope for the future, but an ever present reality. Jesus has ascended into heaven, but he has already begun to return. Just this morning, as we have for all of Easter, we sang: “God has come to dwell with us, to make us people of God; to make all things new.**” He joins us at this table and through the mystery of this meal we become his body. He brings with him the reign of God that is shaking the foundations of the earth to establish peace and justice forever. Our calling as Christ’s Church while we wait for the fulfillment of this promised reign is not just to strive to be “good” people or to learn to recognize it when it comes, but to practice God’s reign, to do God’s reign, to be God’s reign. Alleluia! Jesus Christ is risen! He is here in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, and he is even now bringing this reign, this New Jerusalem to earth. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
** These words come from the service music we sing as part of our liturgy, specifically in the song referred to as the "Canticle of Praise." For most of the year, we sing the "Gloria" for this canticle, which echoes the song of the angels over Bethlehem at Christ's birth. However, during Easter, we sing "This is the Feast" for our canticle, in which these words remind us of the heavenly worship described in Revelation. This specific line comes from Marty Haugen's Now the Feast and Celebration; but these words, or something similar always occur in "This is the Feast." The more common variation in many musical settings of the liturgy is: "The Lamb who was Slain has begun his reign."