Out of sight, but not gone

Message preached on May 1, 2016
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Acts 1:1-11 and Ephesians 1:15-23

Order of Worship

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            The year was 1772, and a Baptist preacher serving a small country church was called to pastor a large, more prestigious congregation in London, England. As the story goes, this minister delivered his farewell sermon and packed up his family’s earthly possessions, ready to go. It was the tears of his parishioners, helping them load the carts, though, that really got to him and his wife. “I cannot bear this! I know not how to go,” his wife said. “Nor I, either,” he replied “Nor will we go. Unload the wagon, and put everything in the place where it was before.” (The Story of Christian Hymnody, by E.E. Ryden, ©1959, Augustana Book Concern, p. 301)

            This story lies behind the hymn we sang earlier, “Bless’d be the tie that binds,” the words of which were written by that Baptist preacher, John Fawcett, the very next week (or so the story goes). What’s interesting is that “though this (hymn) text is commonly used for farewells, it was inspired by a decision to stay.” (Hymnal Companion, Rebecca Slough, ed., ©1996, Brethren Press, p. 36)

            The New Testament book of Acts begins with an ending. This story of the early church starts out with a farewell. It is like a service of Godspeed, where people gather to say goodbye and launch someone into the next part of his or her journey. Except, in this story of the Ascension of Jesus, it is the One leaving who sends those who remain behind on their way. The “God be with you” is for the disciples, who must stay and continue the work of Jesus. Only, their “staying” is really a “going.” Though, geographically, they stay put for a little while, they are themselves headed on a journey. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they are in for the ride of their life, far more exciting than any roller coaster. No matter whether we stay in one location or leave for another, our life in Christ does not stand still.

            We can only imagine what was going through the minds of those who watched Jesus leave. In essence this was not the first time they had to share their farewells with Jesus. All too quickly, or so it may have seemed, he was taken from their midst and put to death. Did they realize that the Last Supper they shared together - the one we remember today with bread and cup and tub and towel - was a farewell meal? In almost the next breath, Jesus was strung up on a cross and then quickly buried before the sun set. They weren’t prepared for that previous “goodbye,” even though Jesus had mentioned it several times beforehand. Are we ever really ready to let go of those we love? I doubt it. That’s why even the best of farewells involve tears. It’s part of the package, built into our system, something we can’t help - whether we do it in private, or let others in on our grief.

            It may also involve anger, or other strong emotions that we may not have a clue as to why we’re feeling them. Are we angry at someone for them leaving us? Are we angry at ourselves for feeling angry? Are we just angry at the circumstances, or are we angry at God for being a part of those circumstances? Who knows? It’s a part of the package.

            Telling his good friend, Theophilus, about the comings and goings of the early church, storyteller Luke paints a picture with words of the disciples gathered around their Rabbi for the last time. Did they know this second farewell was coming any better than they knew the first? It doesn’t say, even though the clues had been lying around all over the place. Sometimes, though, we only see what we want to see.

            “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” someone asked as they stood around, knowing something was about to happen, but maybe not sure what. In other words, the question was, “Jesus, are you staying or going?” Are you staying to complete what you said you came to do? All those parables about the kingdom of God; all those miracles which you said were but a foretaste of something much bigger; all those promises about what is to come; are you going to stay and make them happen?  Are you staying or going?

            How did Jesus answer? ... Both! ...  “I’m leaving,” he said, in effect, “but I’m also staying.” ... “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age,” Matthew’s gospel records Jesus as saying in his final earthly moments with his disciples (Matthew 28:20b). John’s gospel, which doesn’t include an actual departure scene, remembers Jesus saying these words earlier in the upper room: “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)  Was he referring to his death? Yes.  Was he talking about leaving them following his resurrection? Yes, also.

            So, let me get this straight - on the one hand we have Jesus saying,I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.” On the other hand, we hear him say, “Go ... and I will be with you always.”  Okay, Lord, which is it? Are you staying or going? ... Jesus’ answer is “both.”

            Back when I was a teenager we had an expression to describe something we thought was pretty fantastic. On such occasions, when something really touched us, good or bad, we might reply, “Out of sight, man!”  Or even, “far out!”  Anyone else remember those phrases? Well, what I’m describing here is something “far out!”  Jesus left his disciples. It says that “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight”... From then on he was, indeed, out of sight. And his leaving left his disciples in awe, to which my generation might have replied, “Out of sight, man!”

            However, even if he was from then on to be “out of sight,” he would not be gone. His promise was still true: “I will be with you always.” How can that be?  you might ask. How can he be out of sight, but not gone? How can he go and stay at the same time?  Well, the answer to that question is found in what he said just before he left. “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” he promised them.

            It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is with us today. Yes, he is “out of sight,” and I mean that both in the sense of “eyeball vision” and “awesome reality.” As the book of Hebrews says, he is “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” (Hebrews 8:1b-2) Yes, he is out of sight, and that for us is, as my buddies used to say, “Out of sight, man!” However, on the other hand, he is not gone! He is with us always, as near as our next breath of air. The next chapter in the book of Acts tells of the arrival on Pentecost of the Holy Spirit, which the prophet Joel promised would be poured out ... upon all flesh (Joel 2:28). Not only is Jesus not gone, through God’s Spirit, Christ is very much alive and active in and around us - everywhere we go.

            “Blest be the tie that binds...” It used to be common practice among the Brethren that whenever a time together was coming to a close - a week of camp, a BVS orientation, a conference, or any significant gathering for that matter, those present would form a circle, join hands, and sing a verse or two of this hymn. The intent was not to get all weepy over parting from one another, though I’m sure there was sadness over that. The purpose behind the song was to fix in our minds that which ties us to another. There is no place we can go where God is not with us in Spirit. This is what will bind us together even if we are physically separated from each other by hundreds of miles.

            Think of our Nigerian Brethren. Were they ready for the separations that came their way at the hands of Boko Haram? Are we ever really ready for farewells – to our loved ones or friends, to our homes and possessions, to what we hold near and dear – even when these goodbyes happen more gently? No, we never are fully prepared. But the promise remains. Nothing can separate us from the One whose Spirit ties us together. Not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,” to borrow the words of the apostle Paul (Romans 8:38-39). In Christ, we are more than conquerors over whatever might seek to tear us apart. The Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome. In the words of the old spiritual, “deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome someday.”

            Our offertory video today revealed a bit of that “someday” overcoming, showing the Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria, or the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria embarked on their “long journey home,” rebuilding what terrorists sought to, but could not destroy. From a distance, across an ocean, we have helped our sisters and brothers there to do so with our offerings. We are still helping. However, it is their overcoming work, continuing what Jesus began. We have our own overcoming work, and it is the same Spirit who empowers us as empowers them. Yes, Jesus may be out of sight, but he is not gone. The same power that raised Jesus from death and then brought him to God’s side in heaven, where Christ rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers - this overcoming power is in us as the body of Christ here in this valley. The light shines in us. We are the ones who are sent to continue the work of Jesus.

            This ascension text about Jesus leaving to be with God, is not a mournful “goodbye” story, after which we wonder “what are we going do without him?” That’s not what the disciples did on that long-ago day. A couple angels were there to help them refocus, to get their minds out of the clouds and into what lay ahead. These believers then regrouped in Jerusalem and prayed over their next steps, the first of which was to replace Judas as one of the twelve – to call another disciple to leadership. Like those disciples who remained behind when Jesus left, like our Brethren in Nigeria on their long journey home, we are on our way, as well. And, brothers and sisters, like them, we are in for the ride of our lives.

            Though the slang language of my youth may sound a bit strange today, this is all “Out of sight, man!”  … “Far out!”

©2016  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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