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Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

This past Thursday was Ascension Day, the day set aside for remembering the way Jesus was taken up into heaven after the resurrection. Ascension Day is always strange to me because it happens in the middle of the week, largely without our notice. Even though many churches and denominations used to have services on Ascension Day, these observances have become much less common in recent years. And because of that, the day to remember Jesus’s ascension slips away while we are busy doing the stuff of our lives. 

In Acts 1, Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. He commissions them to be his witness in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth — or, beginning where they are and working their way out into the rest of the world. Then, he ascends. He was lifted up. The same Jesus who was lifted up onto the cross and lifted up out of the grave was now lifted up into heaven.

The people stood staring up into the sky as Jesus ascended. Luke tells us that two men in white robes spoke to the crowd and asked, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why stand staring into the sky when there’s much work to be done? 

The fledgling movement was in a strange in-between time. They were not yet the church filled with the Spirit, and they were no longer the people who had Jesus’s physical presence to guide them day by day. One chapter of their lives had ended, but the new one had not yet begun.

In some ways, it feels as though we are in a similar time in our lives, too. The last fourteen months have been a harrowing journey. In some ways, that journey is ending, or at least changing, as health guidelines change, as we understand more about the nature of Covid, and as we fumble our way toward what life is going to look like on the other side. But, we aren’t there yet. We aren’t in a new routine yet. Things aren’t the way they used to be, and for as often as we hear the phrase “the new normal,” none of it feels normal yet– at least it doesn’t to me. 

In that time between what we’ve been through and what will happen next, we are given this strange story from the book of Acts to help guide us. I love the way Jerusha Matsen Neal, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, writes about this story. She relates it to the ascension of Jesus in this way: “These verses are relevant to the moment. They don’t describe the ascension; instead, they deal with the implications of it. They show a church grappling with the what, why, and how of communal life in light of Jesus’ bodily absence.” [1] This isn’t a story about the ascension itself; it is a story about how the church dealt with the aftermath of the ascension. In that time between when Jesus left the disciples and when the Holy Spirit came upon the church, this little story shows us a church grappling with the question: “Now what?”

The first thing the disciples do after Jesus ascends is they acknowledge that they’ve lost something. Peter, stepping into his calling as the rock Jesus would build the church upon, addresses the other 10 apostles and the more than 100 believers gathered together. He says, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus–for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” In other words, one of their inner circle, one of the 12 who had shared in Jesus’s ministry from the beginning” had ended up leaving this role to fill another one. He betrayed Jesus and he left a gaping hole in his place among the 12. 

Peter explains Judas’s actions with Scripture, but I can almost feel the pain in his words when he says that Judas had been “allotted his share in this ministry.” Judas had been their friend. He had experienced miracles and healings, conflict and grace, and in his betrayal and death, he left his friends to grieve not only the loss of Jesus, but also the loss of their trusted friend.

In this in-between time as we figure out what life looks like now, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that we lost something. We’ve experienced stress and grief. We’ve lost routines and a sense of normalcy. We lost many things we previously took for granted – like a hug from a family member, seeing the faces of people we love, going to the store without worry. We may have lost loved ones – either through death or through estrangement due to conflict around political divisions. This last year has been filled with grief. 

Part of the curse of sin entering into the world is that grief and loss are part of the reality of our lives. Once we’ve experienced that loss, it doesn’t go away. It’s not like you can wave a magic wand to make it disappear or will yourself not to feel grief any longer. Instead, as renowned experts on grief Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler once wrote: “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”

The mission Jesus called the disciples to fulfill would go on without Judas with them, but it would be forever changed. The first thing the eleven had to do (and the others who had been with them from the beginning) was acknowledge that things had changed.

Usually I think of grief like the trees in the fall. All of the leaves will fall, but they all do it at their own time and in their own way. Some fall right away. Others cling to the branches until they can’t any longer. But eventually, they all have to let go and fall to the ground. The reason leaves fall at different times is because trees gain a layer of protective scarring over time in response to cold temperatures. The scarring doesn’t happen all at once, but as it happens, the leaves in those areas will fall. I love this example as a way to show that grief affects us all differently. It hits us at different points in our lives, and each loss affects us in unique ways. 

But, there’s a tree that does this differently. In a beautiful devotional book by Jennifer Grant, I learned that the ginkgo tree responds to cold temperatures differently. Yale University botanist Peter Crane wrote a book on the ginkgo tree. In his book he says, “[Ginkgoes have] the most synchronized leaf drop of any tree I know.” The reason this is true is because unlike other trees, ginkgoes form scars across their branches and stems all at once. Then, as The Atlantic puts it, “The first hard frost finishes severing every leaf, and they rain to the ground in unison.” [2]

Most of the time, our griefs and our losses are individual. We are like the leaves that fall one at a time in response to the changing of seasons. But, during this season of Covid, it’s like the hard freeze shocked all of us, and we all fell together. The tough part about this is that none of us have made it through this completely unscathed. The blessing is that when we all fall together, we are all there for each other, blanketing the world as we fall. 

The disciples responded to the ascension of Jesus by acknowledging their losses, and then they looked to Jesus to guide their future. They decided Judas’s position needed to be filled by someone who had been there since the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry–a nice reminder that far more people were following Jesus than just the twelve. They narrowed it down to two people, and then for the first time, they prayed to Jesus. Even though Jesus wasn’t with them in body, they still wanted him to lead and guide them. Beginning with verse 24 it says, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 

After praying, they cast lots, “and the lot fell on Matthias” (Acts 1:26). We hear nothing else of Matthias after this, but presumably he went on to follow the commission of Jesus–to make disciples of all nations and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Just like the leaves of the ginkgo tree, we all experienced the shock and loss of Covid together. We went through it in unison, even if we spent much of it separated from each other and worshiping only online. Today, let’s make space for acknowledging those losses. If you would like a prayer to accompany this exercise, you are welcome to use this prayer: “Interactive Prayer for Acknowledging Our Losses.”

The pains we carry are unique, and we will each move forward with them in our own unique ways. But together, we bring them to Jesus, and together we seek his guidance and leading into the future God is preparing for us. As we breathe out what we’ve lost, let us breathe in what we are finding in Christ and in community with each other. Our losses will never fully leave us, but they can be transformed within us as we move forward together.

The words of the familiar hymn “Lead Me, Guide Me” say it all:

I am weak and I need Thy strength and power
To help me over my weakest hour;
Let me through the darkness Thy face to see,
Lead me, O Lord, lead me.

Lead me, guide me, along the way;
For if You lead me, I cannot stray;
Lord, let me walk each day with Thee.
Lead me, O Lord, lead me.

Lord, I am overwhelmed with the burdens and griefs of the past year. I offer them to you. Take my hand and guide me into your hopeful future. Surround me with your love and kindness. Amen.

[1] Jerusha Matsen Neal

[2] Washington Post article on ginkgo trees. Quotes from both Peter Crane and The Atlantic are included: