[Begin by standing still, staring toward the ceiling. Hold this until it seems that the majority “gets it” or gets restless.]
Did you ever notice this phenomenon before? Someone stares up at the sky and eventually everyone around stops and stares too. Logically it makes no sense, but we are curious creatures; we want to know what he’s looking at. What’s interesting about this behavior is how it demonstrates a “follow the leader” instinct and proves how the actions of a single individual can influence the behavior of others. When I was preparing to go on my first trip to Israel, a friend who had been there before said: “Be careful not to see The Holy Land through your camera lens.” At first I missed the point; then I realized how much a camera limits your vision. As you focus on preserving the perfect moment as a lasting image, you risk missing the vibrant, ever-changing scene right in front of you. Pictures are nice, but the memory of an event as it happened is so much better. When you are driving, where you look is very important. Obviously, looking forward has priority, with peripheral attention given to your mirrors. Certainly, looking at distractions such as cell phones is a very bad idea. And imagine how well you’d drive if you looked only in the rear-view mirror.
The Ascension story is not about figuring out how Jesus was lifted up on a cloud and flew out of sight. It’s not about where he went physically at all. This is a story about the absence of Jesus. How do we live as followers of Jesus without his visible, physical presence? We are challenged to wonder if we should be looking where we last saw Jesus, or somewhere else where he is yet to be revealed.
The Book of Acts is really an extension of Luke’s Gospel; it functions sort of like Volume 2 – or “Luke: The Sequel”. The Gospel begins as Luke writes what he calls, “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke says he has done extensive research and now presents his results, “so that you may know the truth.” That is Volume 1 and it tells, “about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” Like the Book of Acts, the gospel is addressed to Theophilus – a common Greek name that means “lover of God.” It is possible Luke intends to send his writing to a specific individual; it is more likely that he dedicates his book to anyone who is a “lover of God”. As the gospel narrative ends with a very brief nod to the Ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:50-53), Acts begins with a longer exposition of that story. To better understand the story, we are obliged to imagine the disciples’ state of mind.
- A little over a month ago, Jesus was arrested, executed, and buried in a tomb.
- The disciples were devastated; overcome with grief, they had no idea what to do next.
- Three days later Jesus is raised from the dead.
- The word spreads and the disciples gather together again and Jesus appears to them.
- The empty tomb offers them hope and joy.
- Over the next 40 days, Jesus reminds them of everything he has taught them and he encourages them for the mission ahead.
- The disciples are energized and beginning to see what’s coming; they are looking forward to the work Jesus has commissioned them to do.
- But, in the end, he is taken from them again in a totally unexplainable cosmic event.
- The disciples have been through the wringer!
- Can we really blame them for standing there, staring off into space without a clue?
- The final blow comes with the Mystical Messengers who offer this: “People, wherever you are, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven? It’s time to move on!”
- Really? – “Move on”? – give us a minute to breath here!
This is the disciples’ last chance to figure things out. Jesus did not come here to restore the nation of Israel within the socio-cultural-political context that they expected. The Messiah was never about the Roman occupation or any of the other historical realities through which the Chosen People lived. Messiah has always been about restoring the spiritual relationship between God and all the people God loves. Neither Caesar nor any other earthly power can rob us of God’s promises. The two messengers ask the same question here that was asked at the Empty Tomb:
- EASTER: “Why are you looking for Jesus here? He has risen and reminds you to go meet him in Galilee just as he said.” “Go!”
- ASCENSION: “Why are you looking up at the sky to find Jesus? He is not here and he has told you what you’re supposed to do now.” “Go!”
And so we come to where we are as we look again at this familiar story. The question we face is: Have we gone so far in our criticism of the disciples that we can no longer see how the Risen Christ transforms our context? When the message is clearly “GO!” – do we imagine how to engage both popular culture and church culture in new ways so that we may transform our context? That leads us to ask: “Why do we sit in our pews on Sunday morning gazing up to the heavens?” What are we looking for and where are we looking? Sitting here in our pews on Sundays can often see our focus to be like those first disciples. We get stuck on a pre-conceived idea of what God’s kingdom should look like. The disciples saw it as the political reconstruction of Israel. The two messengers told them to look again in a different direction and try to grasp what God imagined. We need to wonder what our vision of God’s kingdom is.
- Kingdom of Survival: A small church that needs new young families to save and preserve the institution.
- Kingdom of Activity: A church that stays busy with much to do, but lacks real spiritual vitality and growth.
- Kingdom of Consumption: A church that constantly seeks to be bigger, better, and more entertaining to attract more people.
- Kingdom of the Good Old Days: Following the way that has always suited us. Doing things the way we remember doing them back when church was the center of our social life.
This story moves us from passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix everything for us, to actively participating in the work of the Holy Spirit right now. If we sit staring off into the heavens looking for Jesus, we cannot be God’s faithful witnesses here and to the ends of the earth. The Ascension story asks us to examine where we are looking as we seek to discover our role in the kingdom of God as it is manifest in the world today. Are we looking in the right direction? Are we even looking for the right thing?
We also need to consider that “follow-the-leader” behavior of looking at something and causing others to look as well. When we look in the right direction, for the right things, other people may follow our leadership and look there too.
In the absence of Jesus as a visible, physical person, can we look beyond our notions and see the future that God has in mind. Can we persuade others to look for Jesus in the right places as well? When we look in the right direction we will see how to bring hope to people who have struggled with being distant from Jesus. Where are we looking? In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.