The events at the close of the Gospel of Luke and the first chapter of Acts make up the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his final commandment to the apostles. It also sets the stage for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As I was preparing for this morning’s reflections, I found myself in a bit of a panic. Thursday night I paced around my living room and watched the final episode of the miniseries “The Bible” hoping that I’d be inspired. In the episode, the scene of this morning’s readings took all of about 10 seconds...so, that wasn’t much help. Friday as I sat in the Diocesan Council meeting, I kept ruminating on the gospel text hoping that something would come to the surface. By bedtime at midnight I had resigned myself to preach a sermon written by someone else on the internet.
And then it happened...Saturday as we continued to do our work in Council, as we listened to each other’s concerns and reviewed the materials gathered from the various churches in the diocese, in my mind’s eye the scriptures were opened up to me...and like the angels in the story from Acts, I wondered “why am I looking up”...in other words, what was it that I was looking for?
In reading the texts for this morning, a couple of phrases and ideas stood out to me that I would like to explore with you. Let’s begin with the gospel.
Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. This idea seemed important to me because I wondered if the disciples finally understood all the parables and teachings that Jesus had given them? Or was there something else going on here? When Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, was he really helping them to understand all that they had been a part of…the healings, the teachings, his death and resurrection…and what was to come with the gifting of the Holy Spirit?
Jesus blessed them. Before Jesus ascends into heaven, he blesses the disciples. I have this image of the disciples standing near Jesus, perhaps in a circle, in this final moment, and that he goes around to each of them, lays hands on them in some way, and tells them he loves them. It’s this image of unconditional, trusting, confident love that Jesus has for his followers, who for better or worse, haven’t always understood their mission and ministry, but who have been called together for a common purpose, that I find so endearing and inspiring in this moment of departure.
And finally…moving to the book of Acts, we have a recounting of the events of the ascension, but with a few new details.
Jesus tells the disciples “You will be my witnesses”. It’s not the great commission, it’s not the sending out two by two, but it is the command that the disciples will carry on the story of Jesus, proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, and continue the mission and ministry that Jesus began.
So what happened in the midst of Diocesan Council meeting that opened up the text for me?
Even in the midst of this wonderful and compelling story and the 10 second video clip from the miniseries, Jesus didn’t give really specific instructions other than to wait. As a person who organizes my days by to-do lists and schedules, as a person who sees a problem and wants to immediately find a solution, as a person who is a “doer”, waiting is one of the worst things I can be asked to do. I want the answers now. So it made me wonder--were some of the disciples like me in this respect? Is this why Jesus says that it is not for us to know the times and purposes of God? Is this why he tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit?
In the Council meeting this weekend we wrestled with the questions about the future episcopal leadership in our diocese. While some answers presented themselves, not all things were resolved. We left the meeting with the directive to return to our congregations, listen and pray...to wait on the Holy Spirit...and that we’d reconvene in August.
I believe this day reminds us that while we too have been blessed by Jesus to serve as witnesses and continue his mission and ministry of bringing about the Kingdom, we don’t always know what comes next. So we have a choice...we can panic, become impatient and worry about the unknown, or we can do what the disciples did...we can wait with joy and hope, and continue to be Christ’s hands in the world, knowing that due time the Spirit will guide us in new directions and ministry.
For over a week now, I have had a troubled heart. My heart has broken with the death of my good friend and our sister in Christ, Mae Kniskern. In the minutes preceding her final breath, I sat with Mae and her family, offered prayers and anointed her. Together we celebrated her final communion, knowing that she would soon be with God. On Wednesday, as we celebrated her life, it was this gospel from John that Mae had chosen to be read for her funeral service…the beginning of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. “In my father’s house are many rooms”.
The gospel for today (John 14:1-14) is located pre-crucifixion. Jesus is preparing his friends for what is to come—his death and eventual departure from the ministry they’ve been participating in. And Jesus begins this farewell with the words “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. He knows that his absence from their lives will be heart breaking, and he tries to offer words of comfort and consolation—he is going to prepare a place for them, a place with God, and that he will always be with them through prayer and service. Yet Thomas and Philip do not understand. Words of consolation are not enough to heal their grief and worry about the change at hand.
As I sat with Mae and her family in her final moments, the room was filled with grief and worry. Would she suffer long as she moved from this world to the next? What would be the appropriate procedures? Who needed to be contacted? How does the dying process work? Of course we were all too polite to ask these questions in the moment, and yet, our hearts were heavy and our minds unclear. No matter how many deaths I attend, these questions are always there—spoken or not. Rationally, we understand that the body begins to shut down, vital processes slow, and eventually breathing will stop. Spiritually we may say things like “go home to God” or “God is waiting”. Emotionally we may feel some relief when there is no more pain for our loved one. Yet, in the deepest places in our hearts, we wonder…what is on the other side? Will we indeed find that God is waiting for us and our loved ones? We are not that different from Thomas and Philip…there is a lot we do not understand.
Often scholars have criticized Thomas and Philip for not understanding Jesus in his farewell discourse. Scholars point out that Jesus’ question “I have been with you all this time and still you don’t know me” is a rebuke to Philip’s not only misunderstanding the situation, but also who and what Jesus was about. But really, Philip is human…with flaws and conflicts, with grief and anxiety…and in this moment before the arrest, trial and crucifixion of his friend, perhaps he just doesn’t want to say good bye. Imagine for a moment that when Jesus says “Believe me” that he is looking lovingly into Philip’s eyes. Imagine that when Jesus says “I will do whatever you ask” that he is holding Philip’s hands, trying to comfort him in a time of sadness.
Not only does Jesus try to offer words of comfort to Philip and Thomas, he also empowers them to continue in their ministry. He tells them that by believing in the work they have already done together, by believing in the divine connection between Jesus and God, they will continue on in the ministry of healing, teaching and preaching. They will become part of the household of God here in the present Kingdom, as well as in the life to come. This is Jesus’ blessing to his friends.
This blessing extended to Christians for centuries, and is for us and our children and grandchildren to come. It is not just a commission to continue in the work of the Kingdom, but a reminder that we are all part of the household of God. It is this blessing that helps us to move through times of grief and worry and heals our broken hearts. It is this blessing that helps us to understand all that is still a mystery of our faith. This blessing of Jesus during his farewell discourse helps us to say with confidence: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Unlike Philip and Thomas, we know how the story ended, and we still have hope because it wasn’t truly an “ending” but rather the beginning of the next phase of Christian life.
What we know from the post-resurrection stories and the stories of the early church is that this little group of friends chose to accept the commission and blessing of Jesus and continued in the ministry of the Kingdom. We too have a choice to make. We can remain in a place of confusion, worry and grief over the things that have changed, the things that have been left behind, and the times that have passed away, or we can live into the blessing that Jesus bestowed on us and continue to do our ministry. We can take comfort in God’ never-ending “promise to love us, make room for us, to know and be known to us” (Cynthia Jarvis).
Yes, my heart has been troubled this week. I miss my friend that made me laugh and gave me hope of growing old gracefully. But Mae taught me a lot about my own ministry—about patience, kindness, and presence—and for that I am grateful. And while I may be grieving, I also know that ministry continues on.
May our lives be as rich and as blessed as those members of the household of God that came before us, and may we be a blessing to others as they seek to know God more fully.
Part of my training for priesthood included hospital chaplaincy. For 15 weeks, 40 hours a week, I served at a hospital just outside of Berkeley. The chaplain staff was small--there were 4 of us plus the supervising chaplain--and we were each designated certain areas of the hospital. My designated areas were the Emergency Room and the D4 wing. Since we weren’t a trauma center, most of the patients in the Emergency Room were there for stitches and broken bones...pretty routine stuff. Occasionally we’d have a car accident or some other crisis. Most of the folks on D4 were repeat visitors to the hospital because after being discharged the first time, they would not go to follow up appointments or take the prescribed medications, or follow doctors orders for self care. So they would return, sometimes multiple times, usually angry that the staff had not “fixed” them. D4 was not a particularly happy place; it was pretty mundane and routine.
Often during those 15 weeks I would find myself jealous of my fellow chaplains. One chaplain had been assigned the ICU as well as the birthing center...that must have been interesting and fun. Another had been assigned to the Oncology department...in my mind I believed she was having the most “spiritual” experience praying with all those who were receiving cancer treatments and second chances on life. The other chaplain was assigned to hospice...again, a very noble and spiritual placement. Me...mundane D4 and the ER.
One day during our chaplain staff meeting, I shared that I was rather miffed that I had been given such a spiritually unfulfilling assignment. While I was quite convinced that God was in the ICU and the Birthing Center, with the cancer patients and those who were dying, God was not with the broken bones or the man who refused to follow doctor’s orders.
The supervising chaplain, a Buddhist monk, reached over to the bookshelf in the chaplain’s office and brought the Bible into the center of our circle. He asked me if I was familiar with the story of Jesus meeting the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Of course I was. And then he asked if the disciples recognized Jesus. I said, “well, no, not at first”. Finally he asked what it took for them to recognize Jesus, and I said it was when they shared a meal together. He said “that’s right...in the middle of the most routine, mundane experience of eating, the disciples recognized Jesus”.
I share this story with you because we all have those moments when we feel like Jesus isn’t with us. We imagine that Jesus has more important things to do, people who need his attention more than we do, or that he just isn’t there at all.
So let’s put the Road to Emmaus story in context. After the crucifixion, Mary and the other women have gone to the tomb to care for Jesus’s body, but it is not there. According to Cleopas and the other disciple, the women had seen angels who said that Jesus was alive, but they themselves had not had this experience, and so they were on their way home. They were returning to their fishing nets, their daily tasks and the appointments they had missed. They were returning to their mundane and routine lives.
And it is here, in this journey from Jerusalem to home, that they encounter a stranger who asks what they are talking about. And when the two disciples hear this, they are stopped dead in the tracks--the text says “they stood still, looking sad”. How could anyone have not heard the story of Jesus’s crucifixion? And yet, this is where Jesus interrupts their lives once again. Even though they don’t recognize him at first, the disciples engage in a dialogue with the stranger that will not only recall salvation history and the story of the prophets, but that also includes dinner.
In the meal shared between Jesus and these two disciples, not only do we get a glimpse of what will later be known as the Eucharist--the thanksgiving, the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the meal--but the eyes of the disciples are opened. In the mundane and routine events of a meal, they recognize Jesus in their midst.
Over coffee recently a friend shared with me his idea of evangelism. Now before you roll your eyes or stop listening altogether, let me say that my friend demystified the word evangelism for me. For him, evangelism is all about welcoming another. No where in our conversation did he talk about knocking on doors or handing out pamphlets. Instead he said there are three things to know about welcoming another--inviting, including, and enabling.
This got me thinking...was Jesus an evangelist? Throughout the gospels we hear about him inviting people to join him--”come and see”. He invited Matthew the tax collector to be a disciple. He called people by name. He invited the unclean and the unwelcomed to be in his company. They knew they were welcome. Jesus also included people in his ministry; he wasn’t out there on his own talking about the Kingdom of God--he told his friends to go out two by two and continue on in the healing, teaching and preaching of the Kingdom. And he enabled them to do their ministry through the outpouring of gifts of the Holy Spirit.
And in this story of the Road to Emmaus, Jesus invited, included and enabled Cleopas and the other disciple. He invited them by joining them on their walk and in their conversation. He included them by accepting their invitation to dinner and then revealing himself in the breaking of bread, and in his revelation, he enabled them to return to Jerusalem to share the good news. In the mundane and routine lives of these two disciples, Jesus welcomed them back into new life...a life that we were reminded of in this morning’s other readings...a life of promise and mutual love.
After that day in the chaplain’s meeting, I never complained again about feeling cheated that God wasn’t on D4 or the ER. My supervisor had reminded me that in the mundane and routine--the stitches, broken bones, and neglected follow up care--Jesus was there. He had, as Cynthia Jarvis said, assumed our condition and accompanied us in life. But that’s not all. Jesus was there welcoming me to see him in the face of the patients...inviting me to deeper listening, including me in their sorrow and frustration, and enabling me to be more empathetic and compassionate.
On this third Sunday of Easter, this Sunday when we know that the tomb is empty, but we might not be sure what’s next, I invite you to consider when you’ve encountered Jesus in the mundane and routine. What is your Road to Emmaus story and how did it enable you to see the Risen Christ and share the good news?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.