When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
very week, as we gather at the altar, in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, we stop and say as a community the Memorial Acclamation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It is easy to overlook because it is a simple statement and we do not bow, make the sign of the cross, or otherwise punctuate it as we speak it. Yet, the Memorial Acclamation points to one of the profound realities of the Eucharist—when we participate in the Eucharist, we participate in the past, in the present, and in the promise of the future. The Memorial Acclamation reminds us that the Eucharist exists in sacred time, when what was, what is, and what will be come together.
But this is not a sermon about the mysteries of the Eucharist. Though it is central to our worship, the reality is that we do not spend most of our lives gathered here around God’s table. The reality is that we spend most of our lives out in the world with family and friends, in community with others, in meetings at night here at the church. We spend our time discussing grocery lists, household chores, local politics, and the church budget. We spend most of our lives somewhere between the second and third points of the memorial acclamation, between “Christ is risen,” and, “Christ will come again.”
Today, as we hear the Ascension story, the scripture firmly locates the early Christians in this transition between “Christ is risen,” and, “Christ will come again.” There they were, the disciples of Jesus, standing around talking with him, when suddenly Jesus begins to float up into the air and is swept from their sight in a cloud. Can you imagine their shock and awe that they felt as they watched their teacher and leader, the one whom they had witnessed die and then rise again, rising one more time into the sky? But even more than shock and amazement, I suspect that what was running through their minds as they stared into the sky, was the question, “What now?”
The words of the two mysterious, white-clad messengers seem to confirm this, for their words are not, “do not be afraid,” but instead an answer to the question, “What now?” “Christ will come again,” is their response to the collective bewilderment of the disciples. But Christ has not yet returned, and we are stuck, just as these disciples, in the uncertainty that falls between the certainty of Christ walking among us, and the promise of things to come. It is not uncertainty of whether the promise will come true. It is the uncertainty of a promise not yet fulfilled, the uncertainty of what happens until that promise comes true. It is the uncertainty of “What now?”
So, what did the disciples do? The scripture tells us that these women and men who had followed Christ, upon witnessing Jesus rise into the sky, after asking the question, “what now,” they went back and began to pray together and worship together. What today’s reading does not share, but the scriptures do contain, is that not long after, these women and men had the first committee meetings of the church as they tried to figure out what to do next, who was going to do it, and how they were going to pay for it.
[Now, we know that Acts contains an accurate depiction of the early church, because shortly after the ascension it tell the story of the first budget meeting. And although scripture does not record it, I strongly suspect that it was at one of these committee meetings that the phrase, “We’ve never done it that way,” was uttered for the first time.]
It is a matter of academic debate as to when the early followers of Christ first became the Church. I would venture to offer that it was when the community of the faithful was first forced to ask that question that forms one of the core dilemmas of our faith, “What now?” We are a community in transition, somewhere between the reality that Christ is risen and the promise that Christ will come again. It is the transition between the certainty of what was and the promise of what will be.
In many ways, this is the same question we are starting to ask here at St. Stephen’s. Or perhaps, more accurately, the question we are starting to ask at St. Stephen’s is similar to the question facing the early church. The question we face is a facet, a reflection, of the question of the Church across the ages. Here at St. Stephen’s we are asking ourselves our own piece of the great question, “What now?”
It wasn’t that long ago that this question would have been about the budget. It wasn’t that long ago that this question would have been about how we were going to make ends meet, about how we were going to pay our bills this month. But thanks to the diligent and prudent management of our vestry and the generosity of all of you, the budget is no longer our problem. In fact, this past year, we ended with a small surplus and the vestry, for the first time that anyone could remember, had to come up with a plan of how to use that surplus to position us strategically for a stronger future.
In fact, there are no major crises facing our congregation. In this time, here and now, we find ourselves at St. Stephen’s a healthy and stable community. And yet, I find myself coming back again and again to this question. What now? It lingers at the edge of my mind as I fall asleep at night. It is always there, waiting, when I let my mind begin to daydream. Its words are beginning to take form in the conversations we have at vestry and in the conversations we have as a congregation.
What now? The Holy Spirit is never content with what is comfortable and certain, and these last couple of years, we have enjoyed a certain level of comfort and certainty here. Now the Holy Spirit is starting to trouble the waters and whisper in our ears, “Oh my children, I yet have a vision for you.” Now the Holy Spirit is starting to stir up our hearts and minds. Now she is leading this community into the great question of our Church, asking, “what now?” Now she is leading us into that transition between the certainty of what is and the vision of what the Holy Spirit has in store for this community.
What will be the answer to this question? I don’t know, but I want to find out, and I want to find out with all of you. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we won’t find the answer here, inside this space. We won’t find the answer here, where we are comfortable and where things are certain. The one thing of which I am confident is that God is calling us out into the world. God is calling us out into our communities. God is calling us out into our neighborhoods so that we can find what is next; so that we can find what the Holy Spirit has in store for us.
How will we do this? I don’t know yet, but to start we look to our ancestors in the church, those women and men who first stared up into the sky and asked, “what now?” Following their lead, we keep coming together in prayer and fellowship. In this time of new possibility, we root ourselves deeply in the life of our community, and begin dreaming and listening for the Holy Spirit. And in doing so we will be participating with the whole of Christian history that has come before us, as we face the questions of what is now, in the anticipation of the promise of what will be.
Preached by Adam Yates