Rachel Held Evans
“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. Acts 1:8-9
We say it every week. Every single week. “He ascended into heaven; he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Each week I keep expecting one of you to stop the proceedings and say, “Hold up just a minute…What does this even mean??”
I think we get that Jesus was born. At least that story we can do a Christmas program about. We understand that he died – though we don’t like to think too much about how he died. And even though it’s difficult to grasp, we can stumble through the part about how he rose from the dead. There are some good hymns about that story to help us out.
But this business about ascending into heaven? There aren’t as many catchy songs about that.
The author of Luke and Acts paints quite a vivid picture for us. First, Jesus, right in the middle of blessing his disciples, “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” The retelling in the first chapter of Acts is even better. Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, gives them a mission, and then “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The disciples stand there gazing up into the sky where Jesus has floated away.
Heaven help me, but I almost always think about Mary Poppins when I read these Ascension stories. She, too, arrives in mysterious fashion to fulfill her mission of taking care of the Banks children and helping their family reconnect. And, mission accomplished, she floats off into the sky when the wind changes.
I’m not suggesting that Mary Poppins is Jesus – or vice versa – but if Mary Poppins were in this Ascension scene, you can bet she would say to the disciples as she once did to young Michael Banks: “Close your mouth please…we are not a codfish.”
The two men in white robes who appear to the disciples don’t quite say that, but they say something that I always hear as a little bit accusatory: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Maybe it’s my own discomfort, but I hear their question as something like this: “Don’t waste time lollygagging and staring at the sky. Jesus has told you what will happen next. There’s no point in hanging around with your mouths open. Get ready for the mission.”
You would think the disciples would have figured it out by now. You can’t pin Jesus down.
You want him to stay in the temple, but look. There he goes, wandering off outside the temple walls, and beyond the city gates into the wilderness, into the river, into all of those backwoods, out-of-the-way places that no one else wants to go.
It’s time for dinner. Has anyone seen Jesus? What do you mean he’s at the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has cheated nearly everyone he knows?
Oh, so you want him to give you exactly what you want exactly when you want it? A healing, a blessing? But look! There he goes by himself to have some quiet time and to pray. And then he’s getting into a boat and heading to the other side of the sea.
When he dies, you think as you grieve: “Well, we know where he is now. He’s in that tomb.”
Except when you go to the tomb, you find a stone rolled away and two men in dazzling clothes who ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
And now, just when you’ve gotten used to having him back from the dead, there he goes floating off into the sky. For a moment all you can do is look up at the clouds through which he has disappeared.
We try to pin Jesus down too. We want to domesticate him, reign him in, pull him down on the end of a kite string and keep him to ourselves. We try to make him our private good luck charm, our savior-on-demand, ordering him up like the latest Netflix special when we want him and conveniently ignoring him when we do not.
But that’s not how it works. He’s given us our mission. We share that mission with the first disciples. Do you remember what he tells them? “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.”
Jesus might say it a little differently for us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Chatham, in the Township, in the Borough, in all of New Jersey and the United States, and to the ends of the earth.”
The point is the same. We cannot contain Jesus. We can’t pin him down. No amount of staring up at the sky will change what he has called us to do – to go out and bear witness.
We have a mission. We are stirred up by the Holy Spirit to do those things he has shown us how to do – to go to the places where “holy” people have stopped going, to have dinner with the folks who aren’t getting all the best dinner invitations, to forgive the people who have hurt us, to take some time for stillness and prayer, to do whatever it takes to make the world safer for the most vulnerable among us (and that includes figuring out how to stop the gun violence that takes more lives every day). We have a mission to keep telling God’s story…and our story…and how these stories come together in a way that only God can make possible.
I told you a few weeks ago about the death of one of my favorite writers, Rachel Held Evans. Yesterday I was able to watch Rachel’s funeral via a livestream from the church in Tennessee that hosted the service. It was one of the most beautiful funerals I have ever witnessed. All of it – the music, the prayers, the eulogies, the sermon – testified to the revolutionary power of being resurrection people.
Rachel’s sister Amanda spoke about her sister so powerfully. She shared a poem that Rachel once wrote, admitting that Rachel did not consider herself a poet and would probably be furious at her for reading it at her funeral.
I want to share that poem with you because it seems fitting for a day when we ponder Ascension, when we struggle with the push-pull between looking up toward heaven and getting to work here on earth.
Rachel’s poem is titled “Deep and Blue”:
Flying a kite,
like fishing upside down,
I gaze into the infinite dizzying blue
and wonder what’s swimming around up there,
currents of air
that tug and tighten up my string.
I’m glad we live in in-between
not at the top
or bottom of anything.
That’s where we live – in that in-between. Between heaven and earth. Between what is and what will be. Between what Jesus has promised our future will look like and what Jesus has given us to do in the meantime. A time between what God gives us now and what God has in store for us – which is beyond anything we can imagine.
I don’t understand it all. The good news is that we don’t have to understand it in order to look down and take the next steps.
People of Gloria Dei, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There’s so much more that awaits us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am so thankful for the generosity of Rachel’s family in making the livestream of her funeral available. It was one of the most moving services I’ve ever witnessed. I was especially touched by the eulogy and song offered by Rachel’s sister Amanda. I have no idea how Rachel formatted her poem, so I hope that she will forgive me for sharing it and for taking my best guess at how it might have been shaped. If you’d like to view Rachel’s service yourself, try this link: https://rachelheldevans.com/funeral
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” John 21:12
Yesterday morning one of my favorite Christian writers died. Rachel Held Evans was only 37 years old, and I can’t yet fathom that the world has lost her voice. In her most recent book Inspired, she shares some wonderful wisdom about many fascinating stories in the Bible. Today’s gospel comes up in a chapter on fish stories. Rachel tells about a time when she was enjoying a meal at an Episcopal church after an event. As she often did, she asked the strangers around the table what their favorite Bible stories were. One young mother said, “The one where Jesus meets his disciples on the beach.”
Rachel agreed. She said she liked that one too, and then Rachel proceeded to share a theory that in rabbinic numerology the number 153 – the number of fish the disciples catch – might represent completion or wholeness. Or it might correspond to a specific prophecy in Ezekiel that describes a great river full of all kinds of fish flowing out of a restored temple. Rachel also noted that the net is full but not torn, so the net might represent the church, holding a great diversity of fish together in unity.
That’s the challenge of these curious stories in scripture. There are countless ways to read them, and I’m grateful for the scholars and thinkers who help me find all kinds of meaning in these texts. But sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the heart of scripture.
This one is full of delicious, weird details. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus standing there on the shore, even though he’s been with them twice since his resurrection. There’s the fact that they listen to this supposed stranger when he tells them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. And then once Peter realizes that it’s Jesus, Peter – oh, Peter – Peter, who is naked, puts on his clothes before jumping into the water and scrambling the 100 yards to the sand. Peter leaves the rest of his friends on their own with those 153 fish.
But in the midst of all those crazy moments, there’s this: Jesus beside a fire, cooking some fish and warming some bread. “Come and have breakfast,” he says.
It always moves me that the disciples are trying to fish in the first place. I say “trying” because, as you may recall, it doesn’t go very well for them at first – until Jesus shows up. When the resurrected Jesus has been with them before, it’s been behind the doors of a locked room where the disciples had huddled together in fear. In that locked room Jesus has said to them over and over again “Peace be with you.” He has breathed the Holy Spirit into them. He’s told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples know that Jesus expects them to do something big. Something worthy of what they have learned by watching him and listening to him. There’s a mission on the horizon, although it’s not yet clear what it will be.
They must be so scared. And confused. Where is he sending us? How will we know what to do or what to say? What if people don’t listen? What if we get hurt, arrested, killed?
All of those questions. All of those living, breathing, logical questions.
So they go fishing. It’s what they used to do for a living. They know the smell of the salt air on the open sea. They know the rhythms of the waves. They know how the nets feel in their hands. It’s what they know.
That’s what we often do when we’re looking at an uncertain future. We get scared. We huddle up with people we trust. And we turn back to what we know.
I remember standing in front of the building where my PhD-level statistics class would meet. It was the first day of the quarter, and I was scared. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the desire to be back in the high school classroom. Being a teacher was crazy hard, but at least I knew how to do it. Statistics, not so much.
I remember the day that I was ordained as a pastor. I felt the Holy Spirit so powerfully that day – and yet a part of me wanted to go back to being sixteen and sitting in the pew and asking questions about the pastor’s sermon. It felt daunting to be the one now responsible for preaching that weekly sermon.
But going backwards doesn’t get us anywhere. It certainly doesn’t get us closer to the future into which God is leading us.
When the way forward is unclear or overwhelming, what do we do other than going backward?
We have some hints in the exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus keeps asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times, in fact. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I do.”
And then Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “Wait until everything is clear and certain before you do anything. Wait until you get to know the sheep and like them and decide that they’re worthy of your attention.” He doesn’t even say love the sheep in this moment. He tells Peter to feed the sheep.
And Jesus has already done just that. He has gathered his friends around a campfire and fed them breakfast.
Jesus seems to be saying, “No matter what uncertainty or fear you might feel, try doing something. Act as if you believe that wonderful things can happen when you step into that unknown. Act as if the kingdom of God is already fully here on earth. Act as if you believe resurrection is possible.”
Do something. Feed people. Take care of them in the way that God would take care of them. They still belong to God. Feed my sheep, Jesus says.
Imagine that ragtag, half-dressed group of fishermen on a beach at dawn, chomping on some fish and bread. These are the folks who will soon be sent out with the power to change the world with their message. They’re going to tell people the story of a God who loves us into life and whom death could not defeat.
But first – before all of that – they eat.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”[ii]
Come and have breakfast. And then say yes to the life God opens before you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ