This Sunday will be our annual Youth Sunday. In our adjustment of the lectionary, we’re also celebrating the Ascension (a week early), reading Ephesians 1:15-23 and Acts 1:6-14. The sermon will likely be a pre-written reflection read by one of the youth, but I’ll probably hold on to the Show and Tell portion.

Where are we?

In Ephesians, the author has stopped for a breath in the middle of the thanksgiving portion of the letter. We still don’t come to the actual subject at hand.

In Acts, Jesus has been with the disciples for 40 days after the resurrection (compare this with the time frame in Luke’s gospel). He has told them that they should stay together and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

What’s going on here?

In Ephesians, the author prays that God will “give you the Spirit,” as if that church hadn’t received it yet. According to the baptism accounts in Acts, and in most of Paul’s own language, the giving of the Holy Spirit is a fundamental part of constituting the church. Apparently, then, the sense here is of a new dispensation of the Spirit for the particular challenges at hand. This is a different sense of divine activity than the popular modernist “once saved, always saved” approach. That’s also true, but it tends to downplay the ongoing dynamism of God’s presence in the world.

“The hope to which he has called you” in Ephesians is the status of children of God, i.e. the gift of union with and in Christ. The power of the resurrection is at work in the worshiping community, which is “Christ’s body.” As that body, the church is “the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere.” The universe is not complete – unified, restored, resurrected – without the life of the church.

In Acts, the disciples anticipate that Jesus might finally manage to restore Israel, which has been living under foreign occupation for some centuries now. That political expectation, and Jesus’ steadfast refusal to fulfill it, represent a central tension of the gospels. In Luke-Acts particularly, the problem of the delay in Jesus’ expected return is central: thus, “it is not for you to know when.” God’s will – on earth as in heaven – is fulfilled in Jesus and the church, but not in a way that we’re generally expecting. Instead, the church is called to bear witness to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is enough for us.

“In Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is the geographical progression of the book of Acts. It’s laid out from the core of the Hebrew world – the Temple – through the surrounding territory, then to the near neighbors, and finally to the farthest reaches. Acts will end in Rome, the capital of the empire, which is spiritually speaking about as far as you can get from the center of Judaism.

Jesus’ ascension and being hidden by a cloud recalls Elijah’s ascension in the flaming chariot, while his successor Elisha watched him.

Men in white (presumably angels) ask the disciples why they’re gaping at where Jesus was, just as they did at the tomb on Easter morning. This time, however, they follow up with the promise that Jesus will return in this way again. So I’m confused; are we supposed to look at the sky or not? And what difference does it make for us that Jesus has not seemed to return in such a way yet? That heaven isn’t literally up there? How does that affect our reading of this highly visual/spatial story? Of course, the geometry is strictly beside the point, but it’s an interpretive question.

At some point we ended up at the Mount of Olives, where Jesus would often go to pray (Luke 22:39). The disciples went from there back into the city, because they were told last week not to leave Jerusalem. It will be several chapters before they venture abroad again.

There are only 11 apostles now, because Judas is no longer with us. Worried about that? Check back next week.

The disciples, including the women and Jesus’ mother and brothers, gather regularly for prayers. In Acts, if the church isn’t preaching, eating, or being martyred, it’s praying. That’s what we do, before all the rest.

Alyce McKenzie reminds us of the significance of the number 40 for dating this event: it’s the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, the number of years the Israelites spent wandering before they reached the promised land, the number of years in David’s and Solomon’s reigns.

So what?

They’re going to come and take away my cynical-postmodern card for this, but the best piece of these readings for me today is the idea that the church is “the completion” of Christ who completes all things. The point of the ascension, whatever we’re supposed to make of it spatially, is that Jesus is gone and now it’s up to the church. We’re not alone, but we don’t have the physical person with us, so what are we to do? Well, we are to embody what Jesus is about.

And we do it, sometimes in spite of ourselves (this is where the cynicism police come in). We may struggle at it, but we do manage to bear with each other in the midst of disagreement and disappointment. We do find our joy in serving others and giving of ourselves. We do often fumble our way to forgiveness and reconciliation, if only for the reason that we know we might have to deal with each other at the next committee meeting.

Maybe it was a good move on the Spirit’s part, founding a religion. I have reason to doubt that’s what Jesus thought he was doing, but that’s certainly what happened. As a religion, Christianity carries this extreme moral weight. We have rituals, communities, and narratives that hold enormous cultural power. Even the militant atheists – in the West, anyway – make their arguments essentially in terms of the Christian message. And the postmodern cynics, when they need to locate their lives inside a grand context, often still default to the Christian story. Our practices, institutions, and doctrines, for all their faults, have held the story  solidly for a long time.

I’m aware of the ways in which that religious supremacy is crumbling. Religious institutions are subject to profound suspicion, the ethical system we used to learn in Sunday School no longer seems to apply, and the relationships that keep people of all generations tethered to the church are diminishing. People don’t know the story anymore, inside or outside the church, and our institutions seem to keep redoubling their efforts to preach morals and rebuild membership lists. Behavior and institutions are not the point. The story is the point. Relationships with people who need a story around their lives are the point.

This is an amazing, grand thing we’ve been given. In living out the story, we become the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. This is our story to complete.