United Presbyterian Church of West Orange



“Acts of Love” 

 May 12, 2024

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore

        We are fast approaching the end of the Easter season.  Next week we will celebrate Pentecost—the coming of the Spirit with a rush of wind and tongues of fire!  And you are invited to join in this colorful Sunday by wearing “fire” colors—red, yellow, orange, white, or anything else that fire sparks in you.  By that time it will have been 50 days since Easter.  50 days since the that dark morning when people expected to grieve Jesus’ death at the tomb and were astonished by—a stone rolled away, a message of resurrection, and in some gospels, Jesus himself.

        In those appearance stories, after the fear and shock have worn off, after they have been able to see, and touch, and eat together, it always says something like, “Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” or “he taught them many things.”  What things? we wonder (as I imagine people have been asking since those who had the encounters passed on).  Not knowing the answer to that question, we do the only thing we can do, we circle back to what Jesus taught his disciples in the first place, only now, hearing it in light of the resurrection, those stories may take on a deeper meaning for us.

        But even the ones who lived on earth at the time of Jesus didn’t get to have him “in the flesh” (whatever that means after resurrection) forever.  As he said to Mary in the gospel of John, “Don’t hold onto me…”  And so in the gospel of Luke (and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles) we have a farewell picture—what we call the Ascension, when the risen Jesus is with the disciples after some time and then, “while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”  What an exit!  Now the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem until the coming of the Spirit that would “clothe them with power from on high.”



        And that is where we find ourselves on this Sunday—in between Jesus leaving once again, and waiting for the Spirit, waiting for the power, waiting for whatever comes next.  I am fascinated that the story of the Ascension has already expanded by the time the writer of the gospel of Luke does his recap at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.  Here, although he sounds like he is just refreshing his reader’s mind (Theophilus—"God lover” in Greek), by saying “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven…” (pointing back to his other book—what we know as the gospel according to Luke).

        But the story is not exactly the same.  It is as if the writer has remembered some more things Jesus said, like “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  And more importantly for the history of the early church, Jesus now expands upon what he said in Luke, “You are my witnesses of these things… proclaim them in my name to “all nations beginning from Jerusalem.”  In Acts, Jesus says “’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.”
        I was struck by the image in the first accounting found in Luke, of Jesus blessing the disciples, and that being the last imprint on their eyes and minds—Jesus, hand raised in blessing as he was carried up to heaven.  Not a stern warning.  Not blowing kisses.  But blessing them, as we do at the end of almost every service.  A blessing for the journey.  A blessing that we go in his name.  A blessing for our lives from now on, for our witness in the world we touch, for us to hold onto as we move from this moment to the next.


        I wonder if the first disciples went home and spent hours talking about what Jesus meant by being witnesses?  Certainly after Pentecost, many of their tongues were loosened and they preached and proclaimed the good news from Peter and John on the temple steps and to Philip along the wilderness stretch of a road to Ethiopia.  But they weren’t just spouting words.  Peter says to a crippled beggar “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  Philip, along with telling the good news to the Ethiopian, gets down out of the chariot and at his request, and baptizes the Ethiopian in whatever water is at hand.

        The fact that these stories are written down, are memorialized for us, means they were seen as important, as signs of what the disciples were doing in those beginning moments of what would become the church.  They were witnessing, not only with their mouths, but with acts of love.  And this brings us back to what our gospel reading this morning said, 

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

     Yes, what is it that they had learned from Jesus?  What is the story of the Messiah?  But a story of one who was willing to give up his life for his friends.  The story of the God who was so powerful that even death could not have victory.  The story of God’s steadfast love, and an offer of forgiveness that covers all types of sins—a story like that of a father and a prodigal son, an image of a mother hen gathering all her chicks under her wing.  That is what they were to witness to—with their heart and soul and mind and strength—with every breath that they took, with every step that they took, with every action of their lives.


        It was quite a daunting commandment, I would imagine, since I certainly feel that I could barely measure up.  And maybe that is what this Sunday is all about.  Reminding us of who Jesus came to call, reminding us of who Jesus surrounded himself with, reminding ourselves of who Jesus left to carry on.  Not us as individuals—but us as a community.  Jesus didn’t look only for the brightest and the best, Jesus called those who he found along the way—“come and follow me.”  Jesus didn’t take his place on the Met Gala red carpet, or on an episode of the “lives of the rich and famous.”  He touched lepers, he ate with outcasts, he allowed a woman with a dubious pasts anoint his feet with oil.  And who were to be his witnesses—then and now?  Us.  The ones who have responded to the call, however faintly.  The ones who try to have a deeper understanding of the stories of God and God’s peoples, however misty.  The ones who try to obey those greatest commandments of Love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self, however imperfectly.

        Sometimes I think that we get overwhelmed with “the world” and all its problems.  It is like an ocean, and we are such a small speck on a leaky boat with only a faulty compass for navigation.  How can we make a difference in world affairs?  How can we make a difference in the plight of our beautiful earth?  How can we stop hatred or greed or oppression or the inequities that plague the human race, it seems, in all ages?  There is so much to fear.  There are so many who disappoint.  We feel so inadequate.

        And that is why are asked to wait until the Spirit descends upon us.  That is why we are asked to wait for the power from on high.  That is why we are asked to take some deep breaths, grab the hands that are close to us, pray mightily, strengthen our bodies and our minds, tell the stories of Jesus again and again and again, UNTIL… until Pentecost.  When we will be expected to take the next step, to run the next race, to witness in our own way—from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.



        And while we are waiting, maybe we are to dream dreams and see visions.  Of what our world could look like—and how we might be the attempted embodiment of that forgiveness and mercy and grace that was Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  Of sharing ideas and small steps of loving our earth, whether it be recycling or composting or planting or working towards less damaging ways of living.  Of listening to those who cry out in pain or fear or anger and try to see them as beloved children of God whether we agree with them or not.  Of not staying silent, when hope and love need a voice.  Of being willing to share a little bit more of our abundance with those who have not been as fortunate.  There is so much we have to do—so many plans we could make—so needed are our acts of love in our world.

        That is what we have to prod ourselves to remember—that “deeper magic” (as CS Lewis called it in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) that the powers of this world want us to forget.  The ultimate power shown in the empty tomb, the ultimate ending shown in God’s promise of the rainbow in the sky, the ultimate love shown in Jesus’ arms outstretched to us.

        Holding on to that, we gather to support one another—as those first disciples did.  Holding on to that, we go on our way rejoicing, filled with God’s great joy.  Holding on to that, we can start every morning with renewed vigor to do as many acts of love as we can.  Holding on to that, we continually bless one another, because we have been blessed.  Because God is still with us.  The Spirit has been sent to us.  God will not leave us comfortless.  And we, we have so much still to do.

        May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.