“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus 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.”
I was talking with a good friend of mine when she asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question, “How do you think the church will look after this? Do you think it will be able to come back?” If I knew the answer to that question, I really would be able to retire with a tidy sum of money! We are all grappling to find that answer; we are all looking for the way forward; we are all wondering when things are going to return to normal.
And nobody knows. That is the problem with this whole pandemic. Nobody has any good, solid answers. After two-plus months of self-isolating, the only thing we know for sure is that we slowed the rate of infection enough to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We slowed the spread of this virus to the point where there are enough beds, enough ventilators, and ultimately enough PPE to get us through this particular time. We discovered some better ways of treating the virus. We discovered that children are not immune as we thought early on. We learned that even the sickest among us can survive. Many people have lived. Close to 100,000 souls have been lost.
In the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples did not have any good answers, either. They did not know what they were supposed to do next. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples are together with Jesus and they are asking him whether he is finally going to do what they expect him to do. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The disciples are doing what we are all doing right now. They are asking Jesus to bring everything back to normal. After all, that was what they thought the purpose of the Messiah was – to restore the kingdom to Israel – to bring back political power to the people of Israel. Imagine their surprise when Jesus replies, “Ah, no. Nope. Not going to happen.”
I think that might be the same answer for us. Even when we can gather in our Sanctuary again, hymn singing may be more like hymn humming. We will not be passing out bulletins or offering plates. It will be a long time before we have communion, unless we decide to do a BYOE (Bring Your Own Elements). Our choir will not be in its usual spot. I think it is going to look and feel very different. That thought worries me and I feel sad about it. I think the disciples felt the same way when Jesus answered them.
However, the significant part of Jesus’ answer comes in verse 8. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” The disciples are not abandoned. Things were not going to be as they hoped; however, they are not left to despair. They will receive the Holy Spirit. With the power of the Spirit, they will go into the whole world as witnesses to Jesus. The kingdom will not be restored to Israel. Instead, a new kingdom will be built.
The question is not so much “When will the church go back to normal?”, rather, “How can we be the church today?” Where can we already be at work building the kingdom? How can we witness today to the love and compassion of Jesus? These are the questions we can always be asking of others and ourselves. And the answers to these questions are as varied as the gifts of the Holy Spirit. By the way, we received those gifts in our baptism. We can be the church right now. Today. In different ways. In life-giving ways. In meaningful ways. May it be so for you and for me.