Luke 24:44-53 (NRSV)
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
God is in the in-between – and so are the disciples in our reading today. The scripture passage today are the very last words of first of two books Luke writes – kind of cliffhanger, an unexpected ending that leaves us wanting to see what comes next – like in a 2-part TV series. The Gospel of Luke begins with the announcement to an unlikely young girl named Mary, that it will be through her, of all people, that God will deliver the next chapter of God’s story. Luke starts his Gospel by dedicating space, unlike any of the other Gospel writers, to tell about months of waiting, pregnant with uncertainty, challenge but ultimately JOY, that lead up to the actual birth of Jesus. It is to Luke more than to any of the other writers that we turn during Advent. Luke’s second Book, the Book of Acts tells us about the birth of the Church (which we will celebrate next week with our Taiwanese neighbors on Pentecost). But it’s the time just before that birth – the transition time between when Jesus’ earthly ministry comes to an end and the new chapter begins – to which our scripture passage draws our attention today. Jesus’ Ascension tells us and the disciples something important about Jesus’ relationship with God, but, as importantly perhaps, we can see Jesus’ Ascension as making a way for the new things to come. The unlikely disciples – who, lest we forget, had betrayed and denied Jesus not long before – are told that through them, of all people, God will birth the next chapter of the plan into being. And the passage closes with the disciples entering into a time of waiting, pregnant with uncertainty, challenge and ultimately JOY, in the time before the birth of the church. Luke gives these times of waiting, between what was and what will be special attention as times requiring trust and filled with Blessing.
LET’S PRAY: Jesus we pray, continuously bless us. Open our hearts and minds to understand the scriptures as you opened the minds of your disciples, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts would lead us down the path YOU set for us. AMEN
When Bob Pazmino (member of our church) and I were in Israel, we went to an orthodox synagogue for Shabbat/Sabbath; The men and women were separated, so I don’t know exactly what Bob experienced on his side of the veil, but on my side with the women, there was a bustle of activity. Somehow word had gotten out that there was one woman in the front who had a little basket of sweets, so the little children, age 3-4, would sneak in from different doors, get a sweet, peek into a cluster of women that were off to the side, and then run off through another door. As I followed the movement of these kids, I saw in the cluster of women a young grandmother, a very young mother and what we found out was 2 week old baby. This is the only egalitarian orthodox synagogue in Israel, and so while the women and men are separated, women are allowed to participate in the service, and it was this young mother who was given the honor of delivering the message that day about the Torah reading. She stood there at a podium almost cut in half by the separating veil, in between the two sides and spoke about the story of the parting of the Red Sea – the people, if you recall the story, leave a place of slavery and suffering, pass through the waters to be delivered into new life – it is often told as the birth narrative of the people of Israel. She talked about how she — as she delivered new life through the suffering and waters of labor and birth – found new meaning and new connection to God as God brought the people through the waters, and new love for the people God delivered. For us as Christians, this same story can have special meaning as we reflect on our baptisms; that act of through the waters into new life and freedom.
As I watched her stand there stand so courageously, right in the middle, addressing the two sides of the congregation — sharing her witness – it brought new meaning to the story to me as well. I tended to think of this story in terms of before and after – we were slaves, but not we’re free; I was lost, but now I’m found; Blind but now I see. But this woman had been through it! She brought me to the edge of the sea, with those scared people of the story – They can’t go back; and God has made a path for them forward, but can you imagine? Walls of water – and anyone who has taken Greg Mobley’s Old Testament class up at Andover Newton Theological School knows – in the Hebrew Bible, water so often symbolizes those forces of chaos still present in our world. Walls of water, chaos, threatening to close in over them; sloshy sand pulling down at their feet, stranded sea creatures wriggling in the path. The only way forward is through. The only way is to trust the path God has put in front of them, however scary it looks, and to trust that God will keep the water and chaos at bay, long enough for them to get to the Promise Land. God is with them in the in between, in that space in between what was, and what will be.
In our Gospel passage, Luke tells us about the days after Jesus’ resurrection. This last chapter in Luke’s Gospel is jam-packed with action, surprise and even humor. Scene 1 in the chapter is when Mary and the other women, and then Peter, find the tomb empty. We cut to scene 2 and the resurrected Jesus is walking down this road to Emmaus with two of his followers who don’t recognize him until he invites himself to dinner and breaks bread with them – in the breaking of that bread, they recognize that he has been walking with them all along. But as soon as their eyes are opened, Jesus disappears. The two are so excited that they run back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples, and we get this crazy Scene 3, where they’re all gathered trying to figure out what’s going on – and in the middle of this swirl of activity, Jesus sort of pops into the middle of it all and says “Peace Be With you?” (stunned silence), and then they launch in with questions, they touch his hands; they’re shocked, scared, confused and excited – and eventually Jesus interrupts them again and says, “Excuse me, do have anything to eat.” (…) They find him a piece of broiled fish, and it’s as he’s finishing that fish that we begin our passage for today. He says, These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – People! “break bread together;” “feed fish to the hungry!” “These are my words, he says that I spoke to you while I was still with you. All that is written about God’s relationship with humans and human relationship with God (that story of Torah, Prophets, the Psalms)– that Story is still unfolding. It’s is a story that is still being written, it runs right through me and my Body – you are witness to that – and the next chapter of God’s story – that Chapter is one that God is going to write through you.
So there they are – with this glimpse of God’s plan on the horizon, ready to join with Jesus and get started! But Jesus’ next instructions are a something of a surprise: “So, STAY HERE – he says, Trust me… Just Wait…” It sounds like simple instructions, but must have been so hard for them; it is hard for us, isn’t it, to just stay and be still in that in-between place. And we shouldn’t forget that when he said, “stay here”; “here” was not a safe or easy place to be. The walls of Jerusalem were not made of water like the walls of the Red Sea, but they contained every bit as much chaos and danger. The powers that killed their leader and friend… They hadn’t disappeared. STAY HERE, he says – that’s the path he gives them. Then, they go to Bethany and he lifts up his hands and he blesses them – almost like a commissioning. With his hands over them, a shield of Blessing – he withdraws, he’s gone– but the blessing remains. The disciples could have broken down in sadness. They could have scattered again – it’s a routine they know – but they have a new understanding of what Jesus was doing and they choose to Trust God, and in that Trust, the blessing continues over them as they enter walls of Jerusalem. God was with them in such a real sense in the person of Jesus. God’s presence will be with them in a powerful way on Pentecost and beyond, but HERE, in the vulnerable stillness of the in-between, God’s presence surrounds them too. It too is precious time, inevitable, maybe, but important; not to be rushed.
As humans we can relate to these disciples – with one chapter clearly behind them, and the next one on the horizon but not quite in view yet. We experience moments like these as inevitable parts of the rhythms of our own lives. We graduate; we retire; we move; we experience upheavals of all kinds; we face loss; we make mistakes that have unknown repercussions; we change jobs; we get a diagnosis; we learn that we’ll be welcoming a child into our families; we sit in that sacred space of saying goodbye at end of a life. There are befores and afters to these transitions – and God is surely in those too – but somehow, sometimes I think it’s in the in-between – those times of waiting pregnant with uncertainly, challenge, and vulnerability – that we most need the blessing of being reminded that God IS trustworthy. At times, it may seem that Trust in God is the only option – like those people standing at the edge of the Red Sea with the army coming at them – At other points, perhaps it feels more like a choice – like Mary’s yes, or the disciples’ return to Jerusalem. Luke brings special attention to these in-between moments – to share the hope that in them, as we Trust, our minds and hearts might be opened to receive as special kind of blessing and joy.
I’ll close with one more reading related to our scripture today. Jesus knows that one chapter of his earthly ministry is coming to an end and that he is leaving to rejoin God. And so he gathers his disciples in our passage to open their minds to understand scripture saying, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Thus it is written… Well… Exactly thus, it is really not written – at least not that we know or can find in the Hebrew Bible. The closest we may be able to come are the word of the prophet Hosea, that Jesus and Luke surely knew. In the prophet Hosea there is a dialogue between the Jewish people and God and it goes something like this: The people say:
“Come, let us return to the LORD; (repentance)
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3 Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
But God Replies:
What shall I do with you, O My people. (redacted)”
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
In some of his last words to his disciples, Jesus is likely referencing scripture that talks about God’s steadfast Love and Trustworthiness being as sure as the dawn, and the spring rains that water the earth. God knows that the steadfastness of us people is like a dew that evaporates when it gets too hot. STAY HERE he says, under the outstretched arms of my blessing as I keep the water at bay, and prepare the birth of a new chapter of the story. God’s Love is steadfast and trustworthy; try your best, not to evaporate, but to be steadfast too. Perhaps that is our prayer, that in all things, and especially in the in-between we would know the sureness of God’s love like the spring rain on our faces; and the joy that comes from Trusting in that steadfast love as we face the uncertain paths in front of us.