Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension of the Lord
You can’t blame them for being anxious.
After all they had shared with him, since He had called them from their boats, since they had left everything behind to follow. And they had fished for people, as the crowds gathered, as he healed lepers and slaves, raised a poor widow’s son from the dead. Through parables told, demons cast out, five thousand fed with a five loaves and two measly fish. 1 Even that terrible week in which He was arrested, beaten, nailed to a cross to die. And then He was alive, again, the tomb empty, and He appeared to them on that road to Emmaus, showing them hope was real. Luke’s gospel ends in triumph: “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” 2
And so you can’t blame them when the scene changes. Volume one, Luke, ends with the celebrating. Volume two, Acts, by the same author, opens quite differently. Luke gives us a few introductory words linking volumes one and two, and in verse four has Jesus give clear instructions: don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait. Wait for the promise of God, the Holy Spirit, in not too many days, he says. Waiting is hard enough for the small things, for a ride to show up, for school to end. Commercials advertise immediate downloads on our fancy phones so we don’t have to wait five whole seconds for a video to play. What about waiting for that return call about a job, for that pathology report to come back? And so you can feel the confusion in their question, there in verse six: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is it now? Things are getting complicated down here, Jesus, you see how hard things are. Could it be soon?
And Jesus doesn’t answer the question. You will not know, he says. But as you wait you will be given great power when the Spirit comes, so you can be my witnesses here, and not only here, but in other places, like Judea, like Samaria, people you don’t get along with, disagree with, you will be sent out even to them, to the ends of the earth. He gives this troubling benediction, and then is gone, Luke says, lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
One could see how this might not go over well. Jesus gets them all excited, and then leaves them there, seemingly abandoned, to wait. And this anxiety builds, and continues to build centuries later. As families fall apart, as tornadoes blow through, as troops fly off to war and come back in boxes. As people we know and love, young and old, get sick and die, we want to know. Lord, what is going on? Why do these things happen? Jesus, when are you going to come down here and do something about all of this? Don’t you SEE?
And this breeds so much anxiety, that the church deals with in different ways. One way is by trying to escape. Someone, like this gentlemen who put all those billboards up that the world was going to end a couple of Saturdays ago, looks through the bible, reading it like a code-book, pulling numbers from Genesis here, Daniel there, some Revelation, spitting out a number. 3 If we know Jesus is going to parachute down and get us out of here, we can hang in there through the hard things, knowing it will end soon. It also, conveniently, gets them out of working to improve this life. Why take care of creation, some Christians say, when it’s all going to end soon, anyway? Every generation since Jesus has had people who have made these calculations. And in their anxiety they miss that the bible is far more interesting than something you unlock with invisible ink and decoder ring. And that the incarnation, Christ coming into the world, is God blessing the world, warts and all, and calling us to do what we can to improve things down here.
Others seek certitude through the way they construct their religious system. Every single thing, they say, is a part of God’s will for each of us. And while I certainly believe that God is intimately involved, I am troubled by a God who is pulling the trigger on every decision, or that makes hard things happen to me so that I can learning something later. Many of us have know people who endure terrible pain and come out stronger, who come out with a remarkable wisdom, who were sustained by God in that deep darkness. But most of them I know would trade all of it, in an instant, to have their loved one back for just one more day. I don’t believe in a God that has us for little more than entertainment.
Another way that anxiety gets worked out is a combination of the first two. My neighbor handed me a book called Heaven is for Real. 4 Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan pastor in Oklahoma whose three year-old son Colton nearly died because of an infection from a ruptured appendix. He comes back and begins to tell his family about his time with Jesus, showing impressive knowledge of things he shouldn’t be able to know about, that, naturally, line up with some verses in the bible about Jesus and heaven. While I would never doubt his claims or his faith, it is the worldview that is hard for me to swallow. While they don’t give a date for the rapture, part of what they are trying to do is to prove something that can’t be proven. Heaven is real, they say. These bible verses prove we can get there, and experience confirms it. The assumption underneath is that if you KNOW heaven is real then, surely, you will profess faith in Jesus the way they want you to. You won’t be able to do otherwise. Which is not the worst thing in the world, except then, it seems to me, it’s no longer faith. Faith is not something to be proven, it is something felt, known, much more deeply than old scrolls and archaeological evidence and impressive philosophical reasoning.
Because faith, trust, is what Jesus is calling the disciples to here. Anxiety has a tendency to make us close in on ourselves. Lord, is this the time you will solve my problems and heal my wounds? Is this the time you will give me strength, prove me right, tie it all up in a bow? And Jesus promises POWER to them, and to us, to be a part of the in-breaking of His kingdom, and they, and we, are sent beyond Jerusalem, beyond where we live, to those places that are filled with violence and hunger and pain, those places in our lives that scare us to death. That is where Easter faith works – not where things are going well, but where and when we worry that sin and divorce and regret and cancer might have actually won. He promises them this power, and flies away, leaving them, standing, mouths agape, filled with fear.
But one more thing happens. It is a replay of a scene from earlier. In Luke’s resurrection account, the women come, in the morning, and find an empty tomb. Two men look at them and say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” The angels tell them to go find Him in the world. The same thing happens here. 5 As they are gazing up, Luke says, two men in white robes, angels, tap them on the shoulder. Guys! Why are you looking up there? He will come back, He has promised, and you won’t be able to miss it. What Luke is doing, again, is pushing us back into the world, back to each other, to the people who are in the pews right next to you, the coworker or the neighbor you really need to love. In the midst of the excitement of graduations, as one adventure ends and another begins, as families in Joplin dig through the rubble, as turmoil reigns in the Middle East, as we raise our kids and care for our parents. Sure, He’s up there, the angels say. His promises beyond this life undergird all things. But for you, for the church, now, as long as there are people to be fed, homes to be built, as long as there are lonely people in need of care. The church must be at work in those places. Bring your heads down they say. Look around. Trust here, and now. Believe.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Largely from Luke 5-9.
- Luke 24:52-53.
- Harold Camping’s response is in this Washington Post article: http://www.washingtonpost.com:80/national/preacher-says-saturday-was-a-spiritual-judgment-day-world-will-actually-end-in-october/2011/05/24/AFid4IAH_story.html
- Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent, (Nashville: Thomas Vinson, 2010).
- I was reminded of this connection by Justo Gonzalez, “Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit,” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 24. “In both cases, what they do is point the disciples in a different direction.”