“Whiplash in a pandemic”
Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
On the Sunday After the Ascension
May 24, 2020
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day. After his Resurrection on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared numerous times to the remaining apostles, many other disciples, even his relatives, including his brothers. Then, 40 days after Easter Sunday, Jesus hiked up the Mount of Olives with the apostles where he was lifted back up into the clouds, towards heaven from whence he came, and from where, we are told, he will come again.
We tend to think of the Ascension as a really cool special effect, Jesus’ fitting climax to an earthly ministry filled with miracles. Jesus’ Deus-ex-machina way of leaving the scene would be sure to induce oohs and aahs and applause from his audience, in this case, the apostles. But looking at it from the apostles’ point of view, the Ascension was far from an “ooh and aah” moment. Rather, the Ascension to them was about the pain of loss.
It is hard to overstate how much of a shock Jesus’ sudden, dramatic exit must have been for the apostles. Talk about events that cause the psychic equivalent of whiplash! Think of what had transpired in the recent past for the apostles – Jesus was arrested, subjected to a kangaroo court that imposed the death penalty on him. Then Jesus’ passion, death and burial followed in rapid succession. All these events had to have plunged those who loved Jesus into despair the depths of which we can barely fathom – we don’t have blogs or diaries from any of them that describe their grief, their panic, their confusion, and their attempts to cope with these traumatic events in their own words, but we do have hints as to how they felt in their behavior.
Peter and John tried to go back in time to the lives they led as fishermen before they ever met Jesus. But then the women disciples arrive with reports of Jesus’ resurrection; unfortunately the men treat them with almost sneering disdain – Jesus couldn’t possibly be alive; who could survive crucifixion and burial? But then Jesus shows up to the men, too; he appears to ten of the remaining eleven apostles, convincing them that he is indeed alive, yet even the last apostle, Thomas, wouldn’t believe his fellow apostles without his own personal proof! These are all clear signs of the apostles struggling to cope with the sudden ups and downs of the past few weeks. They had been hurt and traumatized so badly by Jesus’ death that they were behaving the way all of us instinctively do when we’ve been hurt – they were trying to protect themselves from more terrible disillusionment and pain.
But just when they finally allow themselves to breathe again, rejoicing in the presence of the Lord back among them, albeit in a new way, just when they are finally wrapping their heads around Jesus’ biggest miracle – rising from the grave – right at that moment, just when their guard was completely down, Jesus leaves, again.
So of course the apostles stood around on the top of the Mount of Olives with their mouths open, staring up at the sky. They were, first and foremost, shocked – and I’m almost certain they were also a little angry and certainly sad. Not again! – they must have been feeling. We lost him once, now we’ve lost him a second time – that feeling of falling right back into the emotional hole that they had just climbed out of must have felt like a punch in the gut. The two angels who suddenly join them at the top of the Mount of Olives – the “men in white robes” – seem to want to help the apostles: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
Well, that’s at least some good news! – Jesus is coming back – but what to do in the meantime? The apostles sensibly decide that the best thing they could do was to go back to Jerusalem, pray and wait. Again seeking the familiar and clinging a bit to the past, they go back to the Upper Room, the very place where they had spent their last intimate hours with Jesus at the Last Supper. There they brought together as many of the faithful as they could find, including Jesus’ mother Mary, other women, various disciples and Jesus’ brothers. They didn’t know exactly what they were waiting for, but there they stay, shell-shocked but hopeful.
What the Resurrection had taught them was that God is not bound by the past. Nor is God even bound by the cruelty we inflict on each other – Jesus was murdered yet he rose. Nor is God bound by our expectations of comfort – comfort is always an unrealistic expectation because of how the world works and how God operates, both of which often shake us out of complacency with sudden change. Nor is God bound by our preference for what we think of as peace, which is basically our desire not to be bothered – God is not constrained by any of that, because God knows that discomfort will not destroy us as long as we stay close to him. The deep lesson in all of this is that the only constant is change, so the very best way – indeed the only way – that we can reasonably live while keeping our sanity and balance amidst constant change is to live by faith.
Sometimes periods of such whiplash-inducing change are spaced far apart with time to recover from one swing to the next, but sometimes the jolts come in rapid succession, as they did for the apostles. When rapid shifts come, they are wrenching, challenging us with both unexpected suffering and new opportunities simultaneously. We are living through such a time right now, a time filled with anguish and loss, yet pregnant with opportunities to remake just about everything about ourselves and the world in which we live. Of course we were shocked when all that we thought of as touchstones of our existence vanished nearly overnight, yet trying to go back in time will lead us, as it did Peter and the apostles, to nothing but a dead end, with nowhere to go but forward.
How do we act during this time, what do we do while waiting for Jesus to come back? Like the apostles who went back to the Upper Room, we can return to the place where we encounter Jesus, the Holy Scriptures. Let’s listen first to the First Letter of Peter. Remember, Peter experienced firsthand the sickening and confusing events we spoke of at the start of this homily. After at first failing to do so, Peter learned from that experience to stay steady in the midst of violent change. The man who was so afraid for his own life that he denied Jesus three times during Jesus’ most dire moments became stronger through that turmoil, so much so that he felt that he could buck up others who were now frightened by the latest danger; that’s why he wrote this letter. In their case the trouble came in the form of a persecution against the disciples. Peter tells them to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” In other words, Peter is saying, don’t be shocked when things take a really bad turn.
Events like these are going to occur, they may surprise us, but they don’t need to take us down, and God remains with us through it all. Here’s Peter’s instructions on how to get through “fiery ordeals”: Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
Let’s apply this counsel to our present day, our present situation. Humble ourselves: this is a wonderful time to work on ridding ourselves of pride. Cast our anxiety on God: this is the perfect time to train ourselves in how not to wallow in our own fears but to give them over to God, because he cares for us. Discipline ourselves and keep alert: remember, this isn’t a “pause” in our lives but a challenge to keep on living, in a new way during this pandemic. After all, time is still marching on, we will not get these days back. And when we are tempted to give in to despair or to the impulse to blame others, or to allow anger or frustration to take over our lives: we must resist with all our might, because those temptations – all of them – are from the devil. Finally, know that our brothers and sisters are going through exactly what we are; we may be physically isolated from each other, but we are all going through this together.
If we need any further encouragement, let’s look to today’s gospel which is part of Jesus’ long, passionate prayer for his disciples – who are us right now. Please read all of chapter 17 in John’s gospel when you get the chance. How could we not be comforted by knowing that Jesus himself is praying for protection for us? These are Jesus’ words: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Circumstances might change from moment to moment, but God cannot change, so God still is not bound by the past nor bound by the cruelties we inflict on each other nor by our expectations of comfort, nor by our preference to not be disturbed. God’s agency is bound by one thing and one thing alone: love. God loved us through and within the Passion, and will love us through and within a pandemic, always promising new life, different life, resurrected life on the other side of suffering. It is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “the end of life” – meaning life’s objective – “the end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”
God’s will is that with live by faith, not by sight. My prayer for all of us on this Sunday after Ascension Day is that we will trust Jesus in these times and all times, that we may come to know and show others the length, breadth, height and depth of his love for us, even, perhaps especially, in this time, in our time.