Today is Ascension Sunday. In the liturgical year this is the Sunday we read the accounts of the first disciples as they said a final . . . really final, this time . . . goodbye to their friend Jesus. This is also the last Sunday of the Easter Season, during which we have been looking for the ways in which the resurrection story impacts our lives in real and tangible ways . . . in other words, how is the way we are invited to live, as followers of Jesus Christ, different from the way our world tells us to live?
Today we are scripting the transformation, looking at the way in which this strange man Jesus calls us to live expecting and facilitating transformation rather than blindly accepting the world’s invitation to accommodate, accommodate, accommodate . . . to change our lives and to water down our faith, to paraphrase and clean up the gospel of Jesus Christ so that we don’t rock the boat too much, so that we float along as part of the overall order of things, so that we “fit” the expectations of the society around us.
This morning our central passage for consideration is the Acts 1:1-11 passage printed in your bulletin. This is the second account of Jesus’ lift-off into the sky, the first account being found right before this passage in the book of Luke. Scholars feel fairly certain that the same author wrote Luke and Acts, and we can see this morning as we look at the passage that even Luke considers Acts a continuation of the story.
The thing is, there are a few more details in the Acts story, details that give us a jumping off point to consider what we might learn from the experiences of the first disciples as they watched Jesus fade away up into the wild, blue yonder.
It seems right that we start with putting ourselves in the disciples’ shoes. After all, we say we are disciples of Jesus, too, and all through this Easter season we’ve been stepping along in the footprints they left behind, trying to imagine, starting Easter morning, what it might be like to try to process something so profound.
By the time of the ascension you would think they were starting to figure it out. As if Jesus were a star athlete back in the game after a crippling injury, I imagine the disciples recovering from the shock of the arrest, trial and crucifixion and finally getting up the courage to feel confident about their futures. Can’t you imagine them going around announcing, “He’s baaaaaaaack!” with a glee and excitement they had not felt for some time?
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As Luke reminds us, Jesus had been showing up increasingly frequently. Sure, he was different than before . . . something about walking through locked doors and showing off his crucifixion wounds for anyone who needed to see them. But he was also showing up for meals, participating in road trips and interacting with the disciples again. While Jesus was always one for turning the expected on its head, I’ll bet by the 40th day after the resurrection the disciples were busy trying to figure out what this latest turn of events would mean for their lives. They were probably anxious for things to get back to where they had been, and with the added resurrection from the dead it seemed like the sky was the limit for the potential popularity and power of Jesus and his gang. He was back!
Yes, they’d thought all was lost, but Jesus came back. Everyone had seen him crucified, but he was alive again. What would this mean for their future, they wondered? There would be no more amateur speaking circuit; the disciples must have been sure that, when everyone figured out the Jesus who had healed them, fed them, taught them, and physically triumphed over the cruel torture of the Roman government . . . when everyone figured out he was baaaaaaack!, then it would all change for them. No more shoe string budget; no more sleeping outside. They were headed for the big time.
If they had been listening . . . (isn’t that always the lament with those disciples?) . . . if they had been listening, they would have heard the wrenching goodbye in Jesus’ words to them and in Jesus’ prayer we read this morning, called his High Priestly Prayer, where he prayed for those disciples as if he knew they’d be left hanging out to dry.
But the disciples weren’t listening, as usual.
They had it in their heads that things were back to normal . . . well, if not normal, exactly, then some sort of hyper-speed catapult into superstardom, finally starting to feel that–despite a rather large setback with the whole crucifixion thing–the decision they’d made three years before was finally starting to pay off. I’d like to think that maybe a few of them had some niggling suspicion in the corner of their minds, some little bit of wonderment about exactly what Jesus had in mind, but remember, they all suspected from the get-go that he was here to really make a big splash, you know, to release Israel from foreign domination and to restore the monarchy, political power and prestige of the Jewish people.
Yes, in fact we know that’s what they were thinking when they gathered together high up on a hill that afternoon 40 days or so after resurrection. Luke tells us in the Acts passage, in fact, that once they’d assembled around him, they asked him again . . . can you imagine the enthusiasm and anticipation in their voices? “Lord, are you NOW restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
When I was much younger I used to cross stitch a lot. Cross stitching, as you might already know, is a handcraft that looks like it is hard but isn’t really. The task involves following a pattern and sewing stitches in the shape of “x’s” all over a piece of fabric. The pursuit of such an activity was part of a domestic phase I lived through and, if I do say so myself, I produced quite a few really nice pieces.
It was in the middle of my domestic phase that I first met my mother in law, Virginia Butler. Turns out that she is quite a talented domestically inclined individual and far more advanced and experienced in the art of cross stitching than I ever was.
I specifically remember visiting her house one day and sitting in the living room stitching, probably while the whole family was watching some very long and boring sports event on television. I got to a point in the pattern where I had to do a special stitch that I could not seem to figure out–as I recall it was some kind of knot stitch. I remember asking my mother in law how to do this specific stitch. She came over and talked me through the process until I understood it. I still wasn’t confident in my ability to do the stitch so I offered her my fabric and asked her to show me.
To this day I remember what she did. She looked at me and said, “I just told you how to do it; I am sure you can figure it out yourself” and then she continued with whatever she was doing. She didn’t say this in a mean way, she just knew in that moment that if I was ever going to learn how to do this specific stitch I’d have to do it myself.
The same thing happened up on that hill to the disciples when they asked Jesus that question: “Lord, are you NOW restoring the kingdom to Israel?” See what he said? Probably after sighing rather dramatically, for I am sure by now he had about had it up to here with these lame brained disciples, Jesus said, “That is an irrelevant question that really does not concern you. But let’s talk about what is going to happen next: YOU will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. YOU will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (v. 8).
I came to empower YOU, Jesus told them . . . and then up into the sky he went.
Well, you know what happened to the disciples. They watched in amazement as Jesus was carried up into the sky. Their necks were bent and sore, their hands shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun as they stared, open-mouthed into the sky. “What is going on NOW?” they must have thought.
And they stood there. And stood there. In silence, staring up at the sky as Jesus disappeared from their view.
Well, in case they were not, in fact, listening to Jesus right before he left, they certainly listened a few minutes later when two men in white robes suddenly appeared before them and said, “You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” (v. 11).
Why are you standing around hurting your necks like that?
You’re not accomplishing anything just standing there! Weren’t you listening to Jesus? It’s time to get busy . . . YOU are the witnesses, and, in case you still had any doubts whatsoever, this whole adventure of following Jesus is not about accommodating to the expectations of this world; nope, it’s about being witnesses, so that the transformation going on in you can go on in those around you, in this city, in this world. No more looking up to the sky in expectation of a show. YOU are my witnesses, and YOU should be busy about the business of transformation.
It was June, 1989, and you probably remember it. For months there had been organized protests by students, intellectuals and labor activists in the People’s Republic of China, protests calling for reform of government policies limiting freedom. Early in the morning of June 4, the People’s Liberation Army sent troops and tanks into the middle of the protests, into Tianamen Square to crush protests and disperse the crowds.
The massacre was heartbreaking.
Reports vary on the number of protestors who died that day in Tianamen Square, but most put numbers in the thousands. Organizers who had worked to ensure peaceful protests were stunned and the whole world watched in horror as the situation unfolded.
Early the next morning, June 5, Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener was looking off his balcony on the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel. He suddenly saw, about half a mile away, a column of four army tanks making their way down the Chang An Da Jie, the ” Great Avenue of Everlasting Peace”. He pulled out his camera, attached a very powerful lens and trained it on the scene unfolding in front of him. The picture he took, called “Tank Man” by some, was broadcast all over the world just a few hours later.
Do you remember the picture? It’s a stark picture of four huge army tanks lined up in succession on the road. Right out in front of the first tank there stands a man, one lone man, wearing a white shirt and black pants and holding a bag in his hand. As the tanks came to a stop it appeared that the man was trying to wave them away. The front tank then tried to change course and steer around the man, but he kept moving to stand in front of the tank as a statement of resistance. Witnesses say the man finally climbed up on the top of the lead tank to talk to the driver. “Why are you here?” he reportedly asked. “My city is in chaos because of you. Go back, turn around, and stop killing my people.”
If you were to look at this picture you would see such a striking image. You would see a long line of formidable war machinery lined up and ready to attack. And you would see very clearly the form of one man . . . one lone man . . . blocking the progress of the violence.
This is an image of the kind of transformation Jesus was inviting his disciples to participate in.
The disciples thought Jesus meant to take over the palace and ensconce them in lives of powerful position and lavish personal wealth. But Jesus was inviting them to throw those old ways of thinking to the side and to offer their voices to be like his voice: a lonely herald calling out over and over and invitation to be part of the change.
For the disciples and for us, it’s rather tempting to stand around gazing open-mouthed into the sky, isn’t it? But if we do that we’re liable to be presented with the question, “What are you doing, standing around? What are you doing waiting around for the advent of an earthly kingdom? Why are you standing here expecting the message of Jesus to be just like everything else this world has to offer?”
If we say we are followers of Jesus, though, then we cannot afford to stand around. We cannot afford to spend our time, energy and effort perpetuating old ideas, repeating old patterns, creating and recreating old institutions. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the way of transformation, and the invitation we’ve received from Jesus is to be different, to live our lives ushering in the reign of God’s kingdom.
Nobody’s going to do it for us; we’re the ones Jesus empowers to change the world. So be sure that you don’t get caught standing around staring up into space, because there’s far too much we’ve got to do.
How are you living your life? Do you choose to spend your time ushering in the Kingdom of God? When people come to know you, will they know instantly that you are a disciple of Jesus? If that’s not the case in our lives, well we have some work to do.
First order of business: stop staring open-mouthed into the sky expecting the way of God to be the way of this world.
No more accommodation. No more expecting the same old thing. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior has left us in charge of scripting the transformation of this world . . . and it’s about time we got busy.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.