“Strength in Suffering”: Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching, Week 6
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
24 May, 2020
Easter 7A
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-13, 5:6-11

You may have heard the story of the man who drowned as he insisted, “Leave me alone; God will save me!”  It goes like this: In an unusually wet springtime, a dam burst in a certain man’s town.  Flooding was imminent. A neighbor knocks on the man’s door and says, “A flood is coming, you’d better take this life preserver and get out with me while you can!”  The man says, “No, I’m a man of faith—my God will save me.”

An hour later, as the flood waters continue to rise, a rescue worker paddles by in a boat.  He tells the man, “Get in this boat and ride to safety!”  The man again replies, “No, my faith is strong. I know my God will save me.”

The waters overtake the house and the man climbs out onto the roof.  A helicopter hovers low and drops down a line saying, “Grab hold of this rope and we will fly you to safety!”  The man again replies, “I’m fine, my God will save me.”  The waters consume the house, and the man drowns.  When he gets to heaven, he says to God, “I had such faith in you. Why didn’t you save me?”  God replies, “I sent you a life preserver, a boat, and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Thank God the original apostles didn’t take the foolish man’s approach, watching the sky for some sort of magical appearance, an individualistic salvation plan that disregarded the realities of others, with a response that lifted up only the proud pious one.

Luke—the author of the Gospel bearing his name, who continued his account into a second book called The Acts of the Apostles where he narrated what unfolded after Jesus’ death and resurrection—opens his second volume this way: “In the first book, Theophilus,” (the name Theophilus literally translates to mean ‘God-lover’; Theo=God, philus=love), “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”[1]

The resurrection is at least as much of a mystery to us today as it was to Jesus’ earliest disciples.  But Luke wrote that Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs.”  He doesn’t detail all the convincing proofs, but based on the things that happened, the apostles’ vision of the world underwent another transformation.  Although they had recognized Jesus’ power when he was alive with them and fully-clothed in flesh, they began to see clearly in retrospect that God’s power had also been at work in and through him in ways they hadn’t yet recognized prior to his crucifixion.

Now, having been through the trauma, the fiery trial, of watching their beloved teacher – this One in whom they had invested everything and whose life they sought to emulate – having seen him humiliated, tortured, and killed; having lived through that distress, only to be greeted by him again as they grieved?  They were transformed.  Their experience of his resurrection convinced them that God’s power and movement in this world has been and is constantly happening at levels unseen by most human eyes.  Their entire way of reading and understanding the world, its power structures, purposes, and ultimate truths, was turned inside-out and upside-down.  They were saved; their eyes and souls were opened, wide-awake and cleared of confusion.

Luke continues, “‘This,’ said [Jesus], ‘is what you have heard from me; … John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”[2]  And what follows is where Jessica began our lectionary reading for this morning.

Remember what she read, how the apostles asked Jesus whether this was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.  A constant thread throughout our Judeo-Christian narrative and through human history more broadly is the constant question of timing: “Are we there yet?”  In the words of the Psalmist and the prophets, “How long, O Lord, how long?” “Is it now, Lord?  Is now the hour of your ultimate salvation, of our ultimate victory?” the apostles were asking Jesus.

Their spiritual eyes had been opened, but the apostles were still living according to the narrative of their childhood, thinking that God’s work of salvation was intended for only one tribe of people.  Now, they had glimpsed a bigger picture, and a new awareness was dawning on them.  They now saw layers of reality and divine power that most of the world did not see, because most people are so committed to the world’s materialistic constructs and power structures.  We’re so often blindly committed to the ideologies, teachings, and categories we’ve learned from the world, instead of the Biblical teachings that create new habits and ways of engaging a more eternal reality.  Our lectionary passages this morning invite us to re-commit ourselves to a more excellent, more eternal way of interpreting our lives, our purpose, our story.

As Luke tells it, the apostles were stunned and absorbing the moment, when two men in white robes shook them from their reverie, asking them why they were just standing there gazing up to heaven.  “This Jesus,” they said, “who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  This is a spiritual observation, not a material one.  Because, of course, Jesus’ ascension to the place of highest power and authority in all creation was only revealed by the work that he had done among them on earth: his healing, his persistent concern for and dignifying of the poor and the marginalized, his willingness to undergo great suffering for the sake of love – so that others could experience a more abundant, eternal life.  This is how Jesus’ divine greatness had come to them; it was in mundane ways, by the power of a fellow human being (albeit one inspired and motivated by the Holy Spirit’s power) greeting them, honoring them in humble ways, helping them to feel elevated themselves, lifted by the transforming power of love.

It’s also how it comes to us; because how do you or I experience the divinity of Christ, the God-ness, the exalted greatness of Jesus’ life, except by the ways it continues to live in the world through the self-sacrificial lives and witness of his followers, generation after generation?

For the apostles, including the author of 1 Peter, having experienced and reflected upon Christ’s power – his life, death, and resurrection – personal suffering was no longer something to be avoided.  Especially when that suffering represented a sacrifice for the greater good of others.  Instead, it was something to be endured for the sake of God’s greater purposes.  And, God would give them (and us!) the necessary strength to endure the refining fires of suffering, just as Jesus himself had received it!

Too often, we think that “normal” life is defined by being carefree, happy, healthy, and successful.  But as you read the Bible, if you absorb Biblical Teachings, it’s clear that this has never been the case.  What’s normal is to struggle.  For people of faith, especially, the struggle is where growth and transformation happen.  Part of being Christian, if we’re doing it right, is enduring some kind of alienation and rejection from the wider culture.  This in itself makes for a constant struggle, especially as we strive to live in this world but not buy into its seductive ideologies, idolatries, and self-centered ways.

We shouldn’t minimize suffering, or pretend that it isn’t real, though.  Jesus’ ministry was all about recognizing and alleviating the suffering of others, even as he accepted the suffering imposed on him as a part of the cost; this is the inevitable and generous sacrifice of love.  As our lesson from 1 Peter encourages us, as those empowered by the spirit that was in Christ Jesus, we’re called to focus not so much on our suffering and alienation, as on the power and love of God that sees us through these fiery trials.  We cannot let ourselves become so weighed down by struggle that we have no room left for our relationships with God and one another.

Friends, we are not alone.  Unlike the proud, foolish man so certain that God was going to come to save his righteous self in some magical show of force and wonder, we have one another … and a God who has promised always to be with us – who abides within us, and works through us.

That’s the dawning awareness that came to the apostles as, in Luke’s description, they experienced Jesus “lifted up”, taken by a cloud to heaven.  Clouds have long symbolized that which veils or conceals God’s fullness or glory; heaven is where God’s presence and power is fully accepted and adored.  This fresh awareness of God’s abiding presence was what prepared them, 40 days after Easter at Jesus’ Ascension, for the Holy Spirit’s power, which Jesus had promised would soon baptize them.  With that, they continued to move forward in faith and confidence, changing the world and participating in God’s plan of salvation for all people.  Having observed God’s ability to do new things through human lives, they were eager to put into practice what they’d learned.  Ready to move forward with confidence in a new direction to tackle the needs of the world, in Christ’s name.  That’s how the Church has been built and re-built from the very beginning.

So much has happened since we celebrated Easter!  Although many congregations, including ours, don’t have a strong tradition of remembering it, the Church liturgical calendar always marks Ascension Day on the Thursday that falls five weeks after Easter Sunday, making it the 40th day of Easter.

How might our story be or become a re-telling of the account Luke gave two thousand years ago, regarding the response of Jesus’ devoted followers?  We, like they, are living at a time when the world is changing rapidly—both expanding and contracting exponentially, with massive paradigm shifts underway.  There’s a desire now, as there was then, by many to go back to the old “normal.”  But there’s also a recognition that the old “normal” wasn’t healthy or, for that matter, actually very “normal” for a whole lot of people in the first place.

How have we grown and changed?  How has our vision of the world and God’s work with us shifted in the past 40-some days, since we celebrated and reiterated our confidence in the power of Christ’s resurrection?  Are we gazing up at the sky, hoping for our salvation to come riding down in the clouds?  Or are we confident in the promise Jesus made, that the Holy Spirit will empower us, too – and so, like the apostles, we are setting our energy toward “Jerusalem”, toward the needs of the world accumulating around us, doing whatever small or big thing we can with God’s help?  How are we revealing that God is and has been with us all along, working through willing human vessels of love and compassion?

Friends, here’s the truth: We are not alone.  We are grappling with a virus that’s laying bare the inequities in our social structures: the ways we have too benignly accepted the suffering of the poor, the aged, communities of color, people we call “foreign”, and the desperate and the destitute in our society, as being acceptable while so many of us avoid substantial pain or sacrifice of our own.

But amidst all that this global pandemic is revealing, there is a clear and powerful reality: We are not alone.  We have each other – the communities that have suffered long and greatly, and those who are suffering in new and unfamiliar ways – all of us together.  And God is with us all, working through us individually and collectively.  We have technologies created by human beings employing their God-given gifts and inspiration that allow us to gather in creative new ways when being together in person is not safe.  In response to voices demanding that their individualistic rights must be respected, I hear calm, clear voices reminding us that we are all members of one body.  Reminding us all that love is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way but going out if its way as Jesus did, to focus first on the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized.  Although it’s not yet a perfected art, I see faithful people finding creative ways to reach out with love and concern in safe and respectful ways to embrace those who are feeling most isolated, learning new ways of being as they discover strength amidst the suffering.  On this Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who have sacrificed everything so that we might enjoy expansive freedoms, may we all be mindful of the call each one of us has to be prepared to sacrifice personal comforts and preferences for the greater good, for the lifting up of those whose circumstances do not make them as privileged as we ourselves are.

The message of our Biblical Teachings today, as well as the message of Jesus’ life in its entirety, is that there is strength in suffering when we pay attention to and submit to God’s Word – to the power of Love – at work in all things, refashioning and redeeming this world through our own human lives, so that everyone might know the joy of salvation. Glory, hallelujah!  Amen.

[1] Acts 1:1-3, italics mine.

[2] Acts 1:4-5

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC