Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 28, 2017
7th Sunday of Easter
The last words of famous people capture our attention. Humorous souls often leave us with a reflection of their personality. Take Groucho Marx whose last words were: “Die my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do,” or Bing Crosby who said, “That was a great game of golf, fellers.” And then there are those more thoughtful in nature such as Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “I’ve always loved my wife, my children, and my grandchildren, and I’ve always loved my country. I want to go. God, take me.” A few that are more enlightening to our setting this morning include Thomas Eidson who said, “It is very beautiful over there;” Mother Teresa who said, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you,” and from evangelist, Henry Ward Beecher, “Now comes the mystery.”
While we may find the last words of famous people interesting, the last words spoken by our loved ones are the ones we really cherish. If we are allowed the precious gift of being with a loved one in the last moments of his or her life, we listen carefully; we hang on every word as a treasure to hold forever in our heart.
Realizing the importance of Jesus to our life and faith, as well as the importance of last words in general, let us look carefully at the last words of Jesus—not words before his death, but words prior to his ascension. In a way, they serve as his last will and testament, lending authority to all who will follow him down through the ages.
Easter has come and gone and Jesus has appeared repeatedly, providing encouragement and hope. We are told earlier in this chapter that for 40 days he offers convincing proofs, speaking about the kingdom of God and telling his chosen ones not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father. The 40 days serve as a time of preparation—not for Jesus—but for the disciples—disciples who gather around him for the last time, unbeknownst to them, to ask this question? “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” You can’t blame them for asking. It’s a good question. I mean Jesus has died, he has risen and he continues to promise power. The disciples are longing for a preview of coming attractions.
So what are the last words of Jesus? First, he says, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Through these words Jesus emphasizes the importance of the mystery of God’s plan. The ways that God calls, changes, restores and empowers—it is a mystery. The final days and how and when God’s final reign will come—it is a mystery.
In seminary, a great deal of emphasis is placed on learning to exegete Scripture, translate Hebrew and Greek, and interpret difficult passages through a variety of critical methods—all important skills for the minister to acquire. But I can’t help but wonder if something more is needed. Perhaps ministers should add to the tools of the trade the practice of simply being mystified before God. And to embrace this mystery, to accept the words “it is not for us to know” might provide for us a much-needed dose of humility. There are times when I feel my best work is to sit with you in amazement—in awe of a God too great for any of us to understand or fully explain. Great is the mystery of our faith.
It is in the midst of the Mystery that Jesus provides hope through his last words: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” The Greek word for power, dynamis, is the root from which we get the word “dynamite.” It indicates a force to be reckoned with. And this force, the Holy Spirit, becomes available to all believers soon after Jesus speaks these words.
On this Lord’s Day, we dare to gather here to meet God—to contemplate the Source of our strength, to confess, to sing, and to pray. But do we want to leave worship different than we came in? Do we really want God to be unleashed not just in our worship, but in our very lives?
Annie Dillard once wrote:
[In church] does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we [casually] invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus says, and to this he adds: “and you shall be my witnesses.” A witness is one who testifies to the truth. In this passage, the one who bears the truth carries the divine message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, are witnesses. Maybe we aren’t called to be door-to-door evangelists, but witnessing to the power of Jesus in our lives comes in many forms—a phone call when a friend loses a loved one, a cup of coffee with a neighbor who is going through a hard time, a visit with someone who’s in the hospital or nursing home, an invitation to join us in worship or study, an offer to pray on behalf of the other. These are opportunities to express concern and share the hope that we have found. As believers in Christ, as people baptized by the water and by the Holy Spirit, we have the power, power given by God above—power to make a difference—power to bring people to the knowledge and love of God through our words and our actions.
Jesus speaks his last words and then he’s gone. The disciples watch—mystified—they cannot take their eyes off the heavens. Then two men in white robes appear and ask: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come [back] in the same way.” It seems that the time for sky gazing has quickly come and gone.
I once read a novel in which one of the main characters was a young nun working on the streets of San Francisco after a terrible earthquake. Because her order did not require the traditional nun’s habit, she had the freedom to wear more casual clothing as she ministered to the needy. One day, in an effort to help lighten the mood, she appeared in a T-shirt with the slogan: “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” Doesn’t that capture in a nutshell what the two men (probably angels) were saying to the disciples: “Why do you stand looking up into the sky? There is work to be done. Jesus is coming…Look busy!”
The group obediently returns to Jerusalem together. They realize their need for each other. They remember together. They learn patience together and they pray together. Sounds like important work for a group of people about to become the church—doesn’t it? Sounds like important work for us for still we are a praying, gathering and remembering people.
On the Christian calendar, Thursday marked the Ascension of the Lord—which is why many churches recognize the event on this final Sunday of Easter. As one minister put it: “We celebrate the Ascension because we’re no different from the early church who gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed: the news that they were going to receive power. And perhaps even more importantly, we celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have.”[i]
As believers, baptized by water and the Spirit, we receive comfort and courage from the last words of Jesus. Let us think on them often. Let us store them as treasures within our hearts and let us share them so others may believe.
It is not for us to know, he said…
Some things remain a mystery.
You will receive power, he said…
A power given to us to make a difference.
You will be my witnesses, he said…
Until Jesus returns, there is work to be done! Indeed, Jesus is coming!
[i] Rev. Dr. Catherine Taylor