(Acts 1: 6-14)
If our second scripture today is anything, my friends, it is awkward. That’s the word that keeps rolling around in my head – awkward. I mean, how else can you describe what happens?
There is Jesus with his disciples. It’s some time after the resurrection, and he is with them as he was before, teaching and preaching and preparing them for what was to come next. They are heavy in conversation. They’re talking about whether it’s time to, as the writer of Acts puts it, “restore the kingdom of Israel.” In other words, to finish what Jesus had started. They ask him if it’s time. But that’s not the awkward part.
They ask Jesus if it’s time, and he responds not with a “yes” or “no,” but simply telling them that no one knows the time this will happen. Probably not the answer they were looking for, but that’s still not the awkward part. Jesus goes on to say that, until that time comes, they are to be witnesses – witnesses to all they’ve seen and heard with Jesus; witnesses to those who did not see and hear. They are to carry the torch, so to speak. Keep things moving along. But guess what? Even that’s not the awkward part.
No, the awkward part comes when, after saying all of this, and before the disciples get a chance to respond, Jesus suddenly disappears. When Jesus had said this, scripture tells us, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
I mean, seriously, right? There one minute, gone the next. How awkward is that? It wasn’t like Jesus gave his disciples a heads-up, a little warning – it just happened right in the middle of their conversation. He went up and up and up, and never came back down. And I’ve always tried to imagine what this must’ve been like, you know? I kind of envision it like when you release a helium balloon in the air – which, by the way, you never should do, because it’s horrible for the birds and the environment – but just for the sake of argument, how that balloon rises up and up and up into a crystal blue sky, and how it gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s just a tiny little dot, barely visible. And then at some point you can’t see it anymore – you know it’s there, somewhere up there, but you can’t see it. That doesn’t stop you from looking, though – at least for a little while. You keep looking to see if you might catch a glimpse of it again. Just looking.
How long do you think those disciples stood there, looking up? How long? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? Even the youngest of children knows: when you see something go up, eventually it comes back down! Laws of physic and all that. Do you figure some other folks kind of wandered onto the scene; seeing this crowd looking up and wondering what they were doing? Do you figure some of them kind of joined in, adding to their numbers of those staring up at an empty sky?
Eventually they gave up and walked away. I mean, you can’t look up forever, right? There comes a point when you realize: he’s not coming back! What goes up apparently doesn’t always come down. I imagine they started to peel off, one by one. Although you figure there had to be a few in the mix, the stubborn ones, who kept standing there; kept looking up, like they were trying to find that helium balloon they couldn’t see anymore, hoping it was up there somewhere……
They’re still looking up when these two guys in white show up. This, too, is awkward: we’re not sure who they were or how they got there or where they came from. But they cut through the awkwardness of this upward-focused bunch and ask: Why are you people standing here looking up?
Scripture doesn’t say the disciples answered him, but if they had you know what they would’ve said: Why? Because Jesus is up there! The same Jesus we’ve been following the past three years, who changed our lives forever. He was just here, talking with us, and now he’s gone. Gone up there somewhere. And that’s why we’re standing here staring up at an empty sky – because when you love someone as much as we loved Jesus, you just don’t know what to do when he’s not there anymore.
Do you think that’s what they were thinking? Do you think they had any idea what to do now that Jesus was gone? Do you not think this must have been so incredibly awkward?
Christian history has given a name to this awkwardness: it’s called “the ascension of Jesus.” Merriam-Webster’s defines “ascension” as: the act of rising or ascending: the act of moving to a higher position. That explains the physicality of what Jesus did in our scripture today. But it doesn’t do a whole lot to help answer the question of why – or even more importantly, what it means for us. So we have to live with the awkwardness a little bit; of staring up at an empty sky, looking up there for Jesus.
And you know the funny thing? In a way this is kind of a metaphor of sorts for how our Christian journey can feel from time to time. Like we’re stuck, looking up, waiting for Jesus to come back down so he can tell us what to do, show us the way; because so much of the time we’re not entirely sure what Jesus wants from us.
I mean, wouldn’t it be great if every time we needed to know how we should respond to something as followers of Jesus, he’d come back down and tell us? Or even neon signs – on occasion I’ve been known to ask God to kindly drop a neon sign down with a big bright arrow telling me to go this way or make that choice. Would it surprise you that there’s actually an iPhone app where you can scroll through a list of “what if” situations and problems, and then click on it to get a bona-fide Jesus answer? Would it surprise you that I didn’t spend $2 to download it? We want so badly to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, because knowing that would help us figure out what we’re supposed to do. To be more like Jesus: that’s what we’re trying to figure out, every day of our life. Trying to figure it out as we’re part of that crowd, staring up there, hoping and wishing that at some point Jesus will come down and just tell us….
Or, better yet, we spend all our time looking up there because, in our minds, that’s where we think we’re supposed to be. Not here, but there; so our entire focus becomes securing our place in the life to come rather than living the life we have right now. Do you know people like this? Years ago I ran into someone like this outside the local post office one morning; I was walking in, she was walking out. She glanced at me as she opened the door and looked away, and then immediately looked back at me, locked in on me, as if there was something she wanted to say but couldn’t quite bring herself to. After a moment of awkwardness, she turned to face me and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know you, but for some reason I feel compelled to ask: do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and are you certain you are going to heaven when you die?”
Now I must confess to you, my lovely church family, that when it comes to the slippery slope these kinds of conversations can often lead to, I have a built-in trump card at my disposal that I’ve shamelessly played in the past. So in my response, in which I assured her of what I believe and where I think I’m going, I also casually alluded to the fact that I was a minister. And my experience has been that inserting this bit of information into a conversation can change its trajectory in an instant. Suddenly I was this woman’s best friend! She forgot what she asked me and started gushing praise upon me, this woman who had never met me before! She seemed almost apologetic that she asked what she did; I told her it was no problem and to keep up the good work. And she left with a big smile on her face. I do believe I made that woman’s day!
But here’s the question I asked myself as I walked in the post office, and the question I ask now: is that really it? I mean, is this all just about getting our ticket into heaven? Is that the sole purpose of the Christian journey? Is looking up at an empty sky waiting for Jesus to return all we’re supposed to do?
There are those – many, in fact – who would answer “yes.” But I tend to think that there’s more to following Jesus than just looking for him up there. I believe we are called to look for him down here, too. And so do you! I know you do, because a few years ago you talked about this very thing in the Mission Study your session commissioned. And as I reminded the session at their annual retreat yesterday, there was a particular statement that came out of that discernment process; a key idea that rose to the top:
“TRINITY’S FOCUS NEEDS TO BE OUT AND UP, NOT IN.”
Notice the very first focus? OUT. AROUND. It’s not that UP and IN aren’t important; in fact, we do them pretty well here. But in this new thing God is doing in our church, as we move forward into our future as a family of faith, there is a strong sense that it is time for Trinity to look around. Because that is where Jesus is! Not up there. But down here around us.
Jesus is around us in the ever-increasing number of children and adults in our city who look into their kitchen pantry every night and see slim pickings, or even the ever-increasing number of folks who have no pantry to look in at all, and who are legitimately wondering where they will lay their head to rest that night. Jesus is here among them; and if all we’re doing is looking up at an empty sky, we’re missing an opportunity to fill empty stomachs and souls and provide affordable housing for all.
Jesus is around us in the people in our lives, the people we’re closest to, who are broken, shattered, hurting deeply, despite the smiles and facades and assurances that no, seriously, everything is fine. He is around us in the people who have such a difficult time receiving forgiveness from others because they have yet to forgive themselves. Jesus is here among them; and if all we’re doing is looking up at an empty sky, we’re missing an opportunity to be healing agents of God’s grace and love.
Jesus is around us in a world where horrible things happen, and sometimes even carried out in the name of Jesus – acts of exclusion, words of hate, a gospel that is grace-less instead of grace-filled and comes with strings attached. Jesus is here among them; and if all we’re doing is looking up at an empty sky, we’re missing an opportunity to unite our voices and reclaim the gospel from the clutches of hate and fear.
Jesus is around us as we seek to live and discern, lead and follow, grow and change. As we strive to determine exactly what he wants of us, what he needs from us, what he expects of us. We are surrounded by Jesuses! They’re in the seat next to us; they’re out there walking the streets, they’re in our classrooms and offices and grocery check-out line. They look and act and live like us, and they look and act and live nothing like us. All of which is to say: Jesus hasn’t left us at all. He’s right here. And we miss every bit of that if we are so overly concerned about what’s going on up there instead of what’s happening right here.
You know how author Zan Holmes describes the Christianity journey? He refers to it as a “come and go affair.” We come up to the mountain, he says, but we must go back down again. We come to worship, but we must go to serve.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t know how long those disciples stood there, looking up to see Jesus. I don’t know how long they wallowed in the awkwardness. But this I do know: You and I are called to stop looking up and start looking down and around. Looking for Jesus among us. Because he’s here. And he’ll show us what we need to be doing, with ourselves, with our neighbor, with the world. Jesus will – he already has – opened our eyes to see. All we need to do, my friends, is make sure we know where we need to be looking and who we should be looking for. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.