The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Our Witness is Our One-ness
Caught in between time is how you might describe them. This indefinite wait between two ages. After Jesus and before whatever was next. For us, gazing back in time, the time in between those two events, between the Ascension and Pentecost is just ten days. Not terribly long. But for those disciples who watched Jesus go, the waiting might have been forever. There was no time-table. He never said.
Jesus rose out of sight and they just kept staring into what was, eventually, just sky - the same sky that has always been. Just sky; no Jesus. Just them; no Jesus. Just time; and no idea what would happen next or when it would happen.
The first thing that happens post-Ascension is that they are questioned, maybe corrected, by the suddenly-appearing men in white. That probably would have surprised them had they not just watched as their resurrected Lord floated away. I suppose, by this time, they had grown accustomed to weird stuff happening.
I do give the disciples a lot of credit though. After everything, their reaction is to devote themselves to prayer. To stay together, live together, be together. And pray. I am not sure what that prayer looked like; I'm not sure what they said – what would you say after witnessing a crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension over the course of a month and a half? But I imagine Peter, sitting in that large, crowed room, praying through the confusion and absence, channeling indie rockers The National: You said it would be painless / It wasn't that at all / I'm still watching for the signs / If I tried you'd probably be / Hard to find.
Those prayers were prayers sent into the immensity of eternity. Ten days of emptiness. Ten days between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It might as well be forever. They didn't know it wasn't. The absence was open-ended until one day they were lit on fire. And a new age dawned. And there was light in their darkness.
But prayers sent into the immensity of eternity is what the Church has always known. We, like the first followers of Jesus, are caught between looking up at the sky and movement. We have that for which they waited. They waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, for the age of the Church. But the other thing for which they waited, for Jesus to come in the same way they saw him go into heaven, we're still waiting. Generations of the Church have come and gone, lived and died. Waiting an indefinite wait. Waiting for Christ to come again.
“Why not just stay?” is probably what I would have thought as I watched Jesus leave. And then, as I reflected on the event, later, maybe I would come back around, revisit those final words. What were the last words Jesus said? What did he save for the encore? What was worth going out on?
“You will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” It is why the Ascension. It is why he left. My son has these colored bath tablets. They are small and when they are dropped into the water they grow smaller and smaller until they disappear. The tablet is gone but all of the water is changed. The color that once existed as a tiny tablet spreads to the ends of the tub. Jesus left so that his presence would grow – so that the love that once dwelt in a single body might cover the earth. So that the message would spread. So that the gospel might explode.
Jesus leaves that we might go. Action is necessary. The message doesn't move if we don't move. The message doesn't move if the Church stands staring at the sky. We're not meant to die looking up. We're not meant to die just waiting. We are sent. Out. Jesus leaves us with the dismissal.
The pattern is gather and then go. And then gather and go. Week in and week out, we come together and then we are sent. For what Jesus calls us to do, we need each other. But what Jesus calls us to do also pushes us out the doors. The disciples prayed together and then they were blown out into the world to be the witnesses, to continue the work of Jesus. It was the pattern of the early Church; it is the pattern still today.
I am glad this week that we have this Gospel reading from John paired with the Ascension reading from Acts. I'm glad because I think what is meant by “witness” is broadly interpreted in the many Christian traditions. Often “witness” is understood as using words to convince unbelievers to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Or it is understood as doing good deeds so that we don't have to tell others about Jesus.
But in our Gospel, Jesus shows that our witness is told by our ability to love. Our strongest witness as Christians is that we might be one – that we might live our message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Our witness is our one-ness. The prayer of Jesus, our great High Priest, never ceases; his prayer is that his many followers will be one – many parts of his one body.
And so “witness” is both word and deed, word and example. We witness to Christ by speaking the love of Christ and living the love of Christ. Not just beyond the doors of the Church but in the Church – loving each other, loving our brothers and sisters. And not just in the Church but beyond the doors of the Church – loving friends, neighbors, strangers, even enemies. The job Jesus left us as he ascended is to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. And we do that by living Christ – he who offered himself to God for the sake of the world.
Jesus left for the same reason he does everything: because he loves us. Jesus left so that the love he embodied could be freed from the confines of time and space, so it could spread, so that it could be experienced by us and experienced through us. He ascended across space and time – to fill all in all.
And we are the witnesses. Love is his mission and now he entrusts that mission to us. We who have experienced the love of Christ now embody the love of Christ. We who have gathered in Jesus' name also go forth in Jesus' name.
We remember Jesus' ascension. In fact, we celebrate Jesus' ascension. And it can seem like a strange thing to do. After all, Jesus left. But also, he is more present with us than ever before. He ascended to fill all in all. He is as close as a heartbeat. We are in him and he is in us. The ascended Christ is what holds us together. Christ is in me and Christ is in you. And that holds us together – unites us, makes us one.
Our witness is our one-ness. We are sent out to love – to live the love of Christ – so that the Jesus who ascended out of sight might be seen, here and there and everywhere – even to the ends of the earth.