As I was preparing for this service, I came across this interesting little tidbit that I,honestly, had never heard of before. Maybe this is not news to you but it was something new for me – I learned that today is called “Bright Sunday” or “Holy Humor Sunday.” Have any of you ever heard of this? I ended up spending quite a bit of time researching because, truth be told, I learned of this on Friday – which, as you may recall, was April Fools’ Day. Not knowing if my leg was being pulled, I probably did more looking into this than I needed to – I went to more church websites than I’d care to admit to see if this was a joke – and, it seems that this is a legit thing. And, I have to say – I kind of love this tradition. You see, the point of Bright Sunday or “Holy Humor Sunday” is to be happy! The resurrection has happened – we have an incredible reason to be joyful! We, as people of faith, have spent 40 days in the wilderness, journeying with Jesus to the cross, lamenting and repenting and our celebrations cannot be contained to just the one Sunday of Easter – So, this is Bright Sunday!
Churches all around have participated in this tradition of Bright Sunday and they have quite a range of celebrations, though the theme stays the same. Some churches take this day to release butterflies in the name of those who passed away in the previous year. Others, pass the microphone around the congregation and tell jokes. Others have a tradition where either the pastor or congregation members, or both, dress up in funny costumes. But, the no matter the practice, the theme is to be joyful – to laugh, to be bright, to be celebratory and happy! To rejoice that death is not the end, but that there is nothing in life or in death that separates us from the love of God. And we know that even more keenly as we have just born witness to the empty tomb. This is truly a day to rejoice and to be glad in it.
Now, don’t worry – I won’t pass the microphone around an invite jokes from the floor. And, clearly, we haven’t dressed in funny costumes – although, add some Geneva tabs to my outfit and I’m getting dangerously close to looking like a Pilgrim who just stepped off the boat at Plymouth Rock. But, what I do want to lift up here is that worship is a place where we can be joyful. When we sing, we can smile; we can sing loudly – we can sing out an O Happy Day, if you feel so moved. When we come to the table later in the service, we remember that Communion is the “joyful feast for the people of God” and we can lift our spirits, our minds, our hearts accordingly. And, as we turn to our second scripture reading, I encourage you to listen to it joyfully – as if this story brings you happiness, brings you joy. Listen for how God might be delighted to hear it told once again and listen, with a gladsome heart, how you might be a witness for Christ.
Let us pray: God of Joy and God of Laughter, lift our hearts this day. May we be mindful of the truly Good News that he is risen and not even death on the cross can hem in your love. Open our ears to hear your voice and may we happily heed your call. Amen.
Acts 1: 1-14
In the first book, Theophilus, 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 over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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 ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Friends, this is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
So, I realize there may be a bit of whiplash here – last week, the Gospel of Mark ends with the empty tomb and the confused and amazed women heading towards Galilee – and now, we’re already at Jesus’ ascension. Traditionally, the celebration of the Ascension is 40 days after the resurrection but the Narrative Lectionary has us jump right in with it – so let’s back up a second to see why. You see, during the season of Lent, we spent a lot of time journeying with Jesus and the disciples through the Gospel of Mark. We journeyed from Nazareth in Galilee to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, all over throughout his 3 years of ministry and finally making the trip into Judea, through Jericho to Jerusalem. We listened in as Jesus taught about true healing, about the difference his presence in the world makes, about the love God has for the world. And last week, we found ourselves at an empty tomb – expecting to find the crucified Jesus, alongside Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of Jesus and Salome, we didn’t find his corpse but we were told to go on to Galilee and we will find him there. Though the crucifixion, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the pinnacle of the Gospel of Mark, and it leaves us with a sense of confusion and amazement. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t fill out the next scene – it doesn’t tell the story of what the disciples did when they learned of the resurrection or what happened next. It’s doesn’t tell the story of how the church began or the implications Christ’s resurrection has for it. So, this morning, our Lectionary moves us right along in that direction. This second Sunday of Easter, we begin to unfurl the good news of the gospel. We begin to see how God’s love in the world manifests itself beyond Christ’s grave, beyond Christ’s resurrection. Starting today, we are moving along and we begin this journey away from Jerusalem with the Book of Acts of the Apostles.
The Book of Acts starts off referring to its prequel. You see, Acts is understood to be written by the same author as the Gospel according to Luke, and as the second work in Luke’s two-volume narrative, Acts carries forward many of the theological themes and plot developments introduced in the Gospel. “Historically, Acts [is] read by the church in worship during the season of Easter…because it is the only narrative in the New Testament that tells the story of the community that formed in the wake of Christ’s resurrection” (O. Wesley Allen Jr.). You see, these two volumes place the resurrection as the central moment wherein our faith is rooted. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, as in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls disciples together from near and far and gathers a community. From the shores where we fish to the towns where we collect taxes, Jesus calls us to gather as a community and follow him as he journeys to Jerusalem. And, from that pivotal moment of the resurrection, we will see how Christ empowers us to go out to the ends of the earth as witnesses of God’s love for the world.
So, let’s take a closer look at this morning’s passage. In this passage, Luke does three main things to initiate the whole storyline of The Acts of the Apostles. First, the author establishes the timeline as it relates to the first letter by indicating this will be an account of what took place after the resurrection. Second, the author sets up the theme for Acts by using the weight of Jesus’ own words – this is, by the way, the only place in the whole book that directly quotes Jesus. And third, the story of Jesus’ ascension is told in order to get Jesus off the stage leaving room for the age of the apostles to begin (Allen Jr.).
So, feeling like we have a handle on the timeline and recognizing that we are orienting ourselves outward from the empty tomb, let’s jump in with this second movement of the text. Here, we have Jesus, having been with the disciples for 40 days since his resurrection from the dead, speaking to them about the Holy Spirit. He commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them – and this frames the context for the disciples question about whether or not this will be the time to restore the Kingdom to Israel. At first blush, this may seem like a another example of the disciples not quite getting it but, what happens here, with this question, is that Jesus addresses a theological and historical problem. You see, “the earliest believers regarded the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a sign that the end of the world was near” (Michael Joseph Brown). The disciples asking this question on the heels of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit indicates their belief that the timing of the end of the world would be the time for the Kingdom of Israel to be restored – this is what they’ve all been waiting for. But, Jesus reminds them that the timing is not to be of their concern – only God knows the timing. And rather than focus their minds on the end, Jesus redirects focus to what to do in the meantime – to focus on the mission. Jesus redirects their question from “when will it all end?” to “what are we called to do while we are waiting for the end to come?” (Brown). The Holy Spirit, Jesus indicates, will not be an omen for the disciples – rather the outpouring of the Holy Spirit will equip them to move beyond the narrow confines of Jerusalem and the narrow vision of the Kingdom of Israel into a larger, diverse world into which to tell of ‘God’s deeds of power’ (2:11). (Brown) With the Holy Spirit, they and we will be capable of going to the ends of the earth to speak of God’s love.
And then, you can almost picture this next scene. The disciples standing there, confused after Jesus, once again, changes the paradigm on them. After telling them that they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth – whatever that might mean – he levitates up and is drawn up into heaven by a cloud. And just then, two other men, two men the disciples didn’t previously see standing there, ask them, ‘Why are you just standing there looking up?’ I almost wish we could hear a verbal response of the disciples here – I would imagine it to be a bit exasperated and would go something like, “Are you kidding me?! Why are we just standing here looking up?? Jesus, also known as the Son of Man, Son of God, the Messiah – we’ve been with him for years! We watched him die on a cross and then he rose from the dead again 3 days later. That was 40 days ago and now, we just watched him get sucked up by a cloud into heaven. Why are we looking up?! Because of Jesus!” But the author doesn’t include a verbal response of the disciples – just that they were asked the question, were assured that Jesus would return again, and went back to be with their community – perhaps to ponder together what Jesus may have meant by telling them that ‘they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth’ – perhaps to pray about it.
And, this is what I want to go back and spend a little time focusing on this morning – this notion of Jesus declaring that the disciples will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. You see, the tense used here is not in the imperative – Jesus is not commanding them nor is he calling the disciples to be his witnesses – not like he commands them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Rather, he is simply declaring that they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth – as if it is a fact. From the disciples’ perspective, I would imagine this would have been a perplexing phrase to hear. We have seen the pattern of their literal interpretations of Jesus and at that moment, they didn’t have a picture of earth taken from space, like we do. The ends of the earth could not have been imagined. But, at the very least, Judea and Samaria made sense to them – at least geographically. However, Judea and Samaria represented the places known and unknown – they represented places of “us” and places of “them”. Judea – they knew. They were from there. They knew the people. But, Samaria – they were the other. They were different. They worshipped differently and had different customs. Jesus, by naming “Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” was beginning to expand their understanding from what was directly in front of them to what they are empowered to do next. Jesus, began to plant the idea that experiences with Jesus will be made known to the whole world. By the Holy Spirit the disciples are empowered to share and encouraged to spread what they have seen and heard and come to believe – and this applies to us even today.
Our text today tells the story of Jesus reminding us of the expansive nature of God and therefore, the expansive nature of the people of God. Through the resurrection, the boundaries we had once understood to be true have been shattered by God. And now, the ends of the earth now represent something far beyond what could have been imagined. And we, just like the disciples, have a role to play in God’s expansive activity in the world. Jesus reminds them and us that God’s presence in the world, God’s power, God’s memory goes beyond our own – it goes beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire, beyond the bounds of these seven continents, beyond the bounds of generations and we have a place in that. And, it starts by gathering together and praying – just as the disciples did.
I know it doesn’t always seem like it, but what we do here, each and every Sunday, by gathering together for worship – gathering to pray, gathering to hear the stories of God’s love through the scripture, gathering to be fed at Christ’s table, gathering to worship a God of love, a God of joy, a God of abundant life – this is the beginning of our witness to Christ’s resurrection. We gather together as a community of individuals – each of us with different callings of vocation, each with different life experiences – and we gather together as a first step to be healed, to be nourished, to be strengthened for our witness outside these walls, in the world.
And, here, in this community of faith, we begin to put into practice the lessons we have learned from the Teacher. As a community, we speak truth in love. When someone is sick, we visit. When someone needs a meal, we cook it for them. When someone mourns, we accompany them. Here, we don’t say “no, we don’t do things that way” – instead, we ask curious questions and discern together to make decisions. We engage in conflicts without demeaning one another but showing mutual respect. When something good happens, we celebrate together and leave jealousy behind. From the disciples and the women in that upper room to these pews here at Western Church, people gather together to be a community of faith, to be strengthened in our witness to the ends of the earth of God’s love for the world.
So, now, I ask you: what happens beyond these walls? I’m sure this was a question the disciples asked each other in that upper room. In our text this morning, the disciples have yet to experience the Holy Spirit come upon them – but we know the Spirit well. The Holy Spirit – a force within our lives with a likeness of gravity, perhaps. We can’t see it. We can’t taste or smell it. We can’t really touch it but, like gravity propelling us towards the center of the earth so the Spirit propels us out into the world. What will we witness to when we’re out there? Will we find ourselves just standing there looking up? Or will we go out, and in all the places we go, will we bear witness to a story of joyful news? To a story of love? A story of life-giving, boundary-breaking, ends-of-the-earth shattering, good news? Will we go out nourished from this joyful feast and through our lives, will Jesus be made known? On this Bright Sunday, what will your witness be? Amen.
40th day after the resurrection
Though often overlooked, the ascension is filled with theological significance. Christ’s ascension means that in heaven there is one who, knowing first hand the experience of suffering and temptation, prays for us and perfects our prayers. The ascension is a witness and guarantee of our own bodily resurrection, as well as an invitation for us to set our hearts and minds on “things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1-2) to rule over all things in heaven and throughout the universe (Eph 1: 10, 20-23). Finally, the ascension of Jesus serves as the prelude to Pentecost, when the power of the risen Christ came upon all believers through the Holy Spirit.
These stories of the early church are rarely preached about and so we need to fill the story in through the Book of Acts – most of Acts comes from speeches from Paul. Luke’s theology is expressed through speeches
What kind of preaching is needed to pull these stories of the early church out?
The theme verse of Acts (Luke part II) is in verse 8 – Jesus saying, “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 ends of the earth” – concentric circles reverberating out to tell the story of who Jesus is.
In RCL, this is always Doubting Thomas Sunday but we are moving quickly on to the ‘Now What?’ question of the resurrection
God’s promise is expansive
It is not by their own power that they are witnesses – it is by the Holy Spirit.
What is the manifestation of the spirit? Is it something concrete like tongues or snakes or is it vague like being ‘spiritual’ but the principle work of the spirit here is a summons outward. The principle manifestation of the spirits activity is not inwardness but witness – it is turning toward the wider society, turning toward those who have the same need we do to hear the good news as we do.
Like the gravitational forces in our midst, the spirit is undetectable to our senses of smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing – but it is present and with us and known and propels us out as gravity propels us towards the center of the earth.
Women and men together, young and old together – this is how we prepare for being sent out. The power of Christian worship together is what sends us out. It is a place of holiness and a place to be equipped to be sent out to be witnesses of God’s love for the world.
Through Jesus, God came to earth and experienced the joys and the sorrows. God, through Jesus, feasted at meal tables and walked along the same paths we have. God has experience feeling hunger, feeling thirst. God knows the sensations of suffering, of pain, of sadness, of all human emotions – And, as we remember again that Jesus has gone up to heaven again, we can rest assured that even still God knows us, cares for us, has compassion for us, God loves us and has mercy on us because Jesus is not in that tomb. And, God won’t even stop there. God will send the Holy Spirit to be with us always and we, God’s children, God’s beloved community, will then be witnesses to God’s activity in the world – and this is ends-of-the-earth-shattering stuff! (Anyone catch that pun?! OK – well, that was my attempt at the joke here for Holy Humor Sunday…we’ll move on…).
Though we would all like to stay a little while longer with Jesus, it’s time for us to begin to put into practice the lessons he has been teaching us.
Forewarning them that he will not be with them much longer, he reminds them of their baptism, of God’s commitment, to them and he draws their attention to their own empowerment by the soon-to-come Holy Spirit. But, in rather normal fashion, the disciples don’t quite understand what Jesus is getting at. It’s rather sweet, if you think about it – their consistency. The disciples are nothing if not consistent in their attempts to understand what Jesus tells them. Still operating in the same mindset as always, they ask Jesus if now is finally the time to restore the Kingdom of David as they have known it. And, Jesus, in his consistent fashion, redirects their attention and tells them, “…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 ends of the earth” (v. 8).