I’d like to make the case that Jesus is in that intersection between prayer and action.
First, think back to these opening words from the letter we heard from the community that had gathered around Peter, the leader of the Apostles:
“Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings.”
Those sound like some words we can relate to in our era.
Now think about those final words from Jesus with his closest followers at that meal they had the night before he was killed. We heard them as John told the story in the Gospel. They were words addressed to God as a prayer:
“I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you.”
Wait a minute. Jesus is no longer in the world? That must have been hard for the disciples to hear, a reality made even harder the next day when he was executed.
We talk on occasion about the sense of dislocation Jesus’ followers must have felt on that Saturday after his execution. He was gone, they were both sorrowful and afraid. Even though he has said some things about coming back, who could believe something like that?
Then, of course, there was the experience of Easter. Jesus was back among them in a whole new way. Yes, that was also confusing, but it was an experience filled with hope. At least until 40 days later when it seemed like he had left them again.
We talk about that moment now as Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The immediate sense of his presence was gone again. “I’m no longer in the world,” he had told them at the Last Supper. It certainly seemed that way, maybe with even more finality than his execution.
Now what do we do?
That was not only their question. It is our question as well.
Is Jesus missing? Have we lost sight of him?
Did his message fade away with his ascension?
Can we go on in the midst of those fiery trials if he has vanished?
Once again, we are in a space like Jesus’ followers were on the day after his death. That day that has come to be known as Holy Saturday, although the “holy” in that name seems a lot more like a hole in our being than the holiness of the divine.
Once again, the disciples were on the Jesus roller coaster – he’s with us, he’s not, he’s with us, he’s not.
Once again, they take refuge together, trying to avoid both the religious and civil authorities, trying to figure out their next steps.
There is a cool phrase in the Acts of the Apostles in the description of Jesus’ ascension. Listen to the set up for it – and consider how this whole scene might frame not only what they do next but what we do now.
First, the followers are still thinking that Jesus is really on a nation-building mission. They ask him, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
They never quite figure out that this is not a political power trip that they are on. Once more, Jesus shifts their focus with these words: “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 end of the earth.”
It’s spiritual power. It’s witnessing to Jesus’ words and work. It’s not about overthrowing the Romans.
And then Jesus vanishes from their sight and they do what we might do in that situation. They stare up at the sky.
Then there is that cool phrase from two beings in white robes standing next to them, asking pointedly: “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”
There’s work to be done. Get on with it. But get on with it by letting prayer and action reinforce each other.
And I’d like to make the case that that’s where Jesus is – in that intersection between prayer and action.
In part, what Jesus’ followers did after that last event was head back to a secluded upstairs room. They picked a replacement for Judas, their colleague who had betrayed Jesus. And they waited.
They knew what Jesus’ instructions were. Be his witnesses in Jerusalem – his home turf, but still dangerous territory for his followers; in Judea, where they had relatives and friends; and in Samaria, which was enemy territory for Jews. And then go to the ends of the earth – places you cannot even imagine.
And they remembered what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He prayed. He prayed for them. Addressing God in that most intimate of terms, Jesus said, “Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.”
A little later in that prayer – beyond the part we heard today – Jesus will say:
“ I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one…Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth…
“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me…
“I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.”
They knew how he prayed for them. Now in these days in the upstairs room, I imagine in the midst of their uncertainty, they were praying as well. And waiting.
Next Sunday, not only will we celebrate Memorial’s 100th anniversary, but we will also celebrate what is known as Pentecost, often called the birthday of the church. We are a mere 100 years old. That community that Jesus formed is 2,000 years old.
But at this point in the story, Jesus’ followers were still at that in-between point, praying, waiting. Then they were propelled by God’s Spirit into action. They would be those witnesses to Jesus, they would live out his message in breaking down barriers, healing those in distress, caring for the poor and the outcast.
They even showed how to live out Jesus’ example of forgiveness and love. The first one of the Jesus’ followers to be killed was named Stephen. As he was being stoned to death for his advocacy of the way of Jesus, his last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Listen again to those first words we heard today from the letter of Peter: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you.” If Jesus was praying that God would protect his followers, Peter knew the harsh realities of the world would not always make life smooth. He wrote: “If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory—indeed, the Spirit of God—rests on you.”
Do you hear a little echo of the Beatitudes in there?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake,” Jesus said. “Blessed are you when people revile you.”
Sometimes, taking a stand for righteousness comes with a cost. Sometimes just being a follower of Jesus comes with a cost.
Just a few days ago, 28 Coptic Christians on a bus in Egypt were gunned down on their way to prayer. This was not an uncommon event in Egypt these days. The fiery trials are not strange occurrences.
Our nation reeled in horror just two years ago when 21-year old Dylan Roof, a self-declared white supremacist, went into Emmanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Caroline and gunned down nine African-Americans in the midst of a Bible Study. The fiery trials are not strange occurrences.
Just last week, 22-year old Sean Urbanski was charged with killing Richard Collins III on the University of Maryland campus. Collins, 23, was due to graduate from Bowie State University last Tuesday. He had just been commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Oh – and he was black and Urbanski had a Facebook page filled with what the University of Maryland police chief said showed “extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith, and especially African-Americans.” The fiery trials are not strange occurrences.
And then on Friday, two brave men were stabbed to death and another severely wounded when they tried to stop a man on a train in Portland Oregon from spewing hate at two Muslim women on the train. The fiery trials are not strange occurrences.
This weekend, we are honoring all those killed in wars, those who gave of their lives on behalf of others, on behalf of their nation, leaving behind grieving families and friends. Memorial Day has its origins in the time after the Civil War, a time when Americans killed each other in a war over whether some Americans could own and degrade other human beings. The fiery trials are not strange occurrences.
Peter’s words of hope this morning may seem shallow in the midst of all that we experience. But it’s worth recalling that things were not all that great in first century Jerusalem either. Here are his words once more:
“Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.
“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.”
We might want to answer, “Sure, but how long, O God?”
We might wonder whatever happened to Jesus? Are we just staring up at the sky? Did he just fly off and leave us to figure it all out for ourselves?
Well, yes, sort of.
He left us with an example of prayer. He left us with the idea that we can step aside from the turmoil and let our spirits connect with God’s Spirit. If God is going to “restore, empower, strengthen and establish us,” we need to open the spaces in our lives for that to happen.
But Jesus also left us with an imperative for action. Peter, in the passage from the letter just before what he heard today, offers some concrete examples.
“Be self-controlled and clearheaded so you can pray. Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins.
Open your homes to each other without complaining.
And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts.
“Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word.
Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes.
Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen.”
Not bad advice in the first century, not bad advice in the 21st century. Prayer and action. Love and forgiveness. Service and thoughtful speech. Those are all useful ingredients as we walk the paths of our era, our nation.
Here’s one more example of someone living in the times of fiery trials. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and professor. He spent some time in this country in the 1930s and saw up-close both the barriers facing black folks in America and the richness of a spirituality that gave them strength in the midst of oppression.
It would enrich his spirituality as he returned to Germany as Hitler’s power grew in its scope and its evil. Bonhoeffer became an important person in the resistance to Hitler. Ultimately, weighing the evil of violence and the evil of Hitler’s policies, he chose to become part of a plot to kill Hitler. It failed and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned.
Just before New Years Eve of 1944, he wrote a poem that was later set to music. This was just a few months before his execution on Hitler’s orders by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, just 21 days before Hitler’s own death, just one month before the Germans surrendered to end the European phase of World War II.
Listen to these words and see if you can hear the echoes of what Jesus said to his followers at the Last Supper and what Peter wrote to the early Christians a few decades later:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.
That song is #413 in our hymnals. Let’s sing all the verses from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.