In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Earlier this week, I got on my computer to look up what the lectionary had in store for us this Sunday. And I will admit, I was not overly enthusiastic to discover that this Sunday was marked to be the observance of the annual feast of the Ascension— one of the lesser known liturgical holidays of the Christian faith. Actually, for us Congregationalists, who tend not to pay much attention to liturgical holidays apart from Christmas, Easter, and maybe Pentecost, there is a good possibility that for some of us, the feast of the Ascension is not only a lessor known holiday, but a completely unknown holiday.
Add to that, that the ascension narrative itself sounds so very strange and otherworldly to us now— with our more sophisticated, 21st century understanding of the world. After all, we all know very well that heaven is not “up there in the clouds.” We know this, of course, because of science, but also because most of us have actually been “up there” plenty of times ourselves. And I’m telling you right now, that when I’m on an airplane that’s flying up there in the clouds, and things start to get bumpy, I am quite certain that “up in the clouds” is absolutely notwhere heaven is.
Anyway, the point is, as a preacher, the story of Christ’s ascension into heaven would not normally be my first choice. And I suppose I could have chosen something else. But as I read through the text a couple of times, there was one line that stood out to me. One line that made me wonder if maybe the author of the book of Acts understood more about the world than I initially gave them credit for. Which then led me to wonder if perhaps this strange little story about Jesus ascending into the clouds holds within it a more sophisticated kind of wisdom than I thought.
The line that caught my attention actually comes after the main event. Jesus offers his disciples some final words— letting them know that even though he is leaving them, their work is just beginning, and that in fact, some powerful help is on the way. Then, just like that, he is gone—lifted up and out of sight. It’s such a dramatic moment, that it’s easy to miss what comes next. As the disciples continue to gaze upward—either in disbelief, amazement, confusion, or maybe all of the above— two strangers approach. “Men of Galilee,” they say to the disciples, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This was the line that caught my attention. “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” It caught my attention because something about it sounded so familiar. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between this line, and the line from the end of Luke’s Gospel, when the women visiting Jesus’ tomb are similarly confronted by two strangers in white who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
It’s worth noting here that most scholars believe that the book of Acts was in fact written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. And so it’s actually not terribly surprising that these same white-clad strangers from Luke would show up again in Acts in very much the same way. And while we never learn who these men are, their purpose in the narrative is crystal clear. When the disciples are stuck in old ways of understanding, when they can’t see beyond the present moment, or when their vision is limited by past experience, these two strangers appear to redirect their attention, and to expand their vision. “Why do you look for the living among the dead,” they ask Mary and her friends, when they have yet to understand the nature of Christ’s resurrection. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven,” they ask the disciples when they have yet to understand their future task.
Richard Rohr, in his book “Everything Belongs,” observes that for most of us, “the last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God.” I think this a startlingly accurate description of what’s going on with the disciples in this story. At this point in the narrative, they’ve been witnesses to some pretty dramatic stuff. With Jesus by their side, they’ve seen lepers healed, storms calmed, food multiplied and dead men walk. Up until this point in the story, this was their experience of God, and that’s some pretty powerful stuff. So we can’t really blame them for not immediately understanding what had just happened. The disciples stood staring up at the sky, wondering where their leader had gone, and wondering when he would be coming back. But what they didn’t yet understand was that Jesus’s body wasn’t really gone. It had simply changed form. From that moment on, they were to be Christ’s body on earth. They just needed a little bit of help, a little redirection, to get them moving in the right direction. The question that the strangers asked the disciples implied that by gazing up towards heaven, the disciples were looking in the wrong place. God’s power wasn’t somewhere “up there.” God’s power was to be within them. They had to get beyond the obstacle of their last experience of God, in order to move on to their next experience of God— which of course was the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Over two thousand years later, I think we humans still struggle with this. We have an experience of God, or we catch a glimpse of how God moves in the world or in the church, or in our lives,
and we try and pin it down, codify it, or build systems and institutions around it. On a smaller scale, maybe we build our own personal worldview around it. And I’m not trying to say that it’s a bad thing to let our experiences of God influence our worldview, but I think what we have to be careful about is allowing ourselves to become so stuck on those one of two experiences of God that we become blind to all of the other ways God’s Spirit is moving in our world, resulting in a faith that is rigid and static, never changing, and never growing. “The last experience of Godis frequently the greatest obstacleto the next experience of God.”
I think this observation is particularly accurate when it comes to how we think about the church. I think that nostalgia for what the church once was is frequently the greatest obstacle to our ability to see how the Spirit is moving within it today. I think when it comes to how we experience God in the church, we can be very much like Mary in the garden—looking for the living amongst the dead-- only to miss out on the new life that is standing right in front of us. Or we’re like the disciples post-ascension—staring off in the direction where we thought God went— which for us church folk often seems to be somewhere in the past— only to miss out on the fact that God never actually left, and that God is just taking on a different form. My observation of the church, at least as an institution, is that we’re always chasing after what’s next— we’re always looking for solutions to what we perceive as problems— things like smaller numbers, less money, old buildings, or shrinking cultural influence. We’re always looking for that silver bullet solution— that thing that will save the church and return us back to what we once were. Well, to be honest, I think that as 21st century Christians, maybe we could use a couple of those strangers from Luke and Acts to interrupt our reveries, and to call our attention to the fact that maybe the thing we’re looking for— whether that’s new life for the church, or new life for our own faith— is in fact, already here among us.
Earlier this morning, Jess mentioned that he and I recently attended a workshop focused on the potential and vitality of smaller churches. One point that I took away from that workshop was that there’s actually nothing wrong with being a small church. Obviously being a smaller church has it’s own challenges, but just because there are challenges doesn’t mean that God is not at work. And you know, larger churches have their own challenges too, and sometimes those challenges can be just as frustrating, if not more so, than the ones faced by churches like ours.
Furthermore, not only is there nothing wrong with being a small church, there are aspects of being a small church that make it much easier to respond when the Spirit calls us to move in a different direction. We are more nimble and flexible than our large church counterpoints. It’s easier for us to make decisions, and quite frankly, we don’t have as much to lose when we decide to take risks. Hopefully I don’t have to tell you that following Jesus is all about taking risks. And so in my view, smaller churches tend to have an easier time responding to the movement of the Spirit among them. Now please understand, I’m not trying to diss large churches. Large churches have their own particular gifts and do lots of amazing work that smaller churches can’t do so easily. I’m just trying to make the point that maybe we don’t need to gaze outward at what others are doing, or look backwards at what we used to be, in order to discover what God is doing in our midst. Maybe all we really need to do is redirect our vision, and to look around at what is already here.
Back to Richard Rohr for a moment. He writes that oftentimes, “God comes to us disguised as our lives,” and that “the world is the hiding place of God and God’s revelation.” As human beings, we are seekers and explorers. It is in our nature to want to search for truth and seek answers to the questions of who we are, and why we are here. It’s a quality that distinguishes us from other creatures and it is often a good thing that can lead to extraordinary discoveries and works of profound beauty. It can be problematic though, when we are so focused on searching for what’s next, so intent on seeking what’s beyond us, that we fail to see the value of what is right in front of us. We fail to see where God is hiding in the everyday moments of our lives. And when we fail to see where God is hiding in the everyday moment of our lives, we also fail to understand just how much power our own everyday actions can hold. And this brings me to one last observation that I want to share with you this morning.
In the church, we often talk about “building up” the kingdom of God. I know I’ve used this phrase countless times in sermons and in prayers. But I wonder, that if by talking about building upthe kingdom of God we only further this illusion that the real deal is still somewhere else, not here and now. But didn’t Jesus say that the kingdom is already at hand? Why do we have to build it up if it’s already here among us? Maybe our job is not to build the kingdom, but to redirect our vision so that we can see the kingdom. And if we can see the kingdom, which already exists and will continue exist without our constant searching and striving for it, then maybe then we can understand more accurately just how we are called to be usable within it— even in the ordinary moments of our everyday lives. And maybe then God will be revealed to us in completely new and unexpected ways, and maybe then we will find ourselves smack in the middle of our next experience of God.
Brothers and sisters of the church, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? God’s kingdom is already present. God’s Spirit is already in our midst— she is moving among us and she is inviting us to respond. May our eyes and hearts be opened. And may we find our way to that next experience of God. Amen.