May 16, 2021
Poet Nikki Finney quotes a postcard that fellow writer Toni Cade Bambara sent from Philadelphia in October of 1995 as Toni was lying in her hospice bed during the final days of her life. She wrote: “Do not leave the arena to the fools.”
Do not leave the arena to the fools. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s what Jesus thought to himself during the time between his resurrection and his ascension. He knew that he must leave his disciples – or at least his flesh and blood self must leave them. He knew that he had work for them to do. And he loved them. He loved them more than we can understand. But he also knew them. He knew that they had run scared the night of his trial and crucifixion. He knew they had pretty much been hiding in fear since his resurrection. Even before all of that intensity, he had heard them squabble among themselves about who would be the greatest. Did he ever shake his head and wonder if he was leaving the arena to the fools?
The word “fools” might be a little harsh. More likely they were all still traumatized. Even from their hiding places in the shadowy corners, the disciples had seen the brutality inflicted upon Jesus, the whipping and the driving of nails through his hands and feet and the piercing of his side with a sword, blood and water running out. They had seen truly awful things, things that you don’t just forget. Their trauma has made them uncertain about what to do next.
The trauma hasn’t completely made them forget their earthly ambitions. We hear those in the question they ask Jesus just before he floats away: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this when you will finally give us what we need to be a powerful nation that can conquer our enemies and be free of the Roman Empire?
Jesus dismisses those ideas but promises them that they will receive a different kind of power. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for that power to appear. In the Acts story his final words to them are these: “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.”
And that’s when Jesus ascends. He is carried up in the sky. Up, up, and away. Who can blame the disciples for looking up? It’s what any of us would do.
The Spirit is about to show up in wild and unexpected ways. That’s our story for Pentecost next week. But for now the disciples wait. They wait. They watch. They wonder.
The disciples are in a time of transition. It’s a turning point from the season in which they had watched the ministry of Jesus unfold. They saw it up close. How he healed people with a touch. How he brought Lazarus back from the dead. How he fed thousands with crumbs. How he calmed the storm. They heard his stories – of reckless sons forgiven, of lost sheep found, of water that would never run out.
Now it’s their turn. They’re the ones who will have to do the teaching and the healing and the seeking out of the lost and the lonely. They must now become the storytellers – of all they have seen Jesus do and of all that the Spirit will now empower them to do in Jesus’ name. They must be his witnesses – in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Starting from Jerusalem and heading out into the whole world with a kind of spiritual centrifugal force. They will tell the story of the messiah who was not at all the way they expected the messiah to be.
No wonder those strange men dressed in white robes say to the disciples: ““Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They’re reminding the disciples that Jesus has told them what to do. They have their assignment. Wait here for the Spirit. Get ready to head out to every corner of the world to share the good news of the One who lived and died for all of us, the One who has defeated death.
I find it so fitting that we are reading these particular texts on this particular weekend. We are at a turning point too. After a long period of worry and fear and trauma, we are now able to anticipate the next season, one that we believe will be more hopeful and healing. Like the disciples, our fear doesn’t immediately go away. Nor does the grief or the worry. We all know people who have died during this time, either from COVID or from something else. Our ways of grieving for these beloved people – our rituals for burying the dead – have been disrupted.
But we have a job to do, Jesus says. We’re called to tell the story, the story of hope in the midst of fear. We are called to live the story, the story of this limitless love that Jesus has shown us. Jesus reminds us not to let our vision be too narrow.
Things will be different in our world and in our lives. Some things will be different at church. We’re not yet sure about all the ways that things will be different, but we can’t help but be changed by what we have been through. The story of Jesus ascending reminds us not simply to stare longingly at what has been, but to get ready for what will be, even if we can’t yet imagine it.
Jesus knows that the transition from the crucifixion life to the resurrection life is not an easy one to make. He’s patient with the disciples, and he’s patient with us as we learn from him how to live in a new way. Theologian Willie James Jennings observes that we are always drawn by God to our future. He writes, “For some of us that drawing will not take us away from what we have lost or what we feel or what we see. But for others that drawing will mean leaving behind such loss, if it would be an obstacle to our moving toward what God wants to do in and through us.”[i]
Think for a moment about a loss of the last year. Something you can never get back – time with someone dear to you, milestones in your school or work or family life, trips and celebrations that had to be postponed or canceled. It’s OK still to grieve what has been lost.
Now think about a gratitude from the last year, however large or small. Something you never could have imagined would emerge as a gift but has in fact touched your heart. It’s OK to honor what has been a blessing, even though an uninvited one.
I for one share Paul’s gratitude as he writes it to the Ephesians when he says: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
The hope to which he has called all of us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Acts by Willie James Jennings (from the series: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 20.
“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