Acts 1:1-11 (Common Jewish Bible)
South Presbyterian Church – June 1, 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
This is a neat story today.
It’s not one that we focus on too often in the Presbyterian tradition … at least in my experience. Oh, we acknowledge it, but we don’t really make a lot out of it. I think a century ago they probably did but once we started getting really scientifically based, some of these stories took a back seat because nobody could explain them.
This is sort of the “now you see him, now you don’t” part of the gospel.
Here’s a trivia question for you … BESIDES Jesus, how many people were taken up into heaven without dying?
The answer is two: Enoch (in Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (in 2 Kings 2:1). And WHY were they taken up that way? We don’t know. Some people speculate it was so that they could have a role in the End Times.
And today we read how JESUS was taken up. But his situation was really unique: he died … came back to life (like other people in the Bible, by the way) … and THEN was taken up.
Today’s reading is all about that experience of the Disciples who had gathered around him … spent time with him since his return to life (post-Resurrection appearances, we call them) and while they’re talking with him and he’s telling them to pay attention because God’s Holy Breath … the Holy Spirit … the Ruach HaKodesh … is going to come upon them, he ascends. He just LIFTS OFF surrounded by light and clouds and angels.
Now, these things are written like that’s just a normal, everyday occurrence … which, I guess if you’ve been hanging out with Jesus for a few years might be the case.
But the part I find REALLY interesting is what follows in the text.
He’s gone … He’s ascended … and then it says: they saw two men dressed in white standing next to them. 11 The men said, “You Galileans! Why are you standing, staring into space?
The Living Bible says, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky?” The Message says, “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?”
MY answer would probably be … “Well … what d’you mean? What are we SUPPOSED to do? Where’d he go?”
And they say, “He will come back to you in just the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” What does that MEAN? He’ll just APPEAR again?
There is so much of this story that is just plain WEIRD, isn’t there?
All through Jesus’ life these weird THINGS happen … his BIRTH (you have to admit … not your average conception or birth story) … the healings … the MIRACLES … and then the whole death and resurrection thing. And now THIS! He not only comes back to life but he continues to TEACH his STUDENTS?
Man, that Roman Empire was DOOMED to fail with a guy THIS powerful. And now there’s no BODY to exhume and prove that they killed him … people are seeing him left and right but never LOOKS the same (a precursor of shape-shifting in the 21st century) … and then a bunch of people see him just DISAPPEAR up into the heavens.
I have to say … as someone who is often asked to be a spokesperson for the church … I can UNDERSTAND why this whole Christian thing doesn’t PLAY well with non-believers. This is pretty fantasmagorical STUFF.
And just like everything else in the Bible, some people take it literally … while for others it’s METAPHOR.
If we LOOK at this as metaphor today and we see it as part of the continuing story of Disciples trying to make sense of their unstable WORLD, I think there are a lot of lessons for us … even 2,000 years later.
Not the least of which has to do with not having the luxury of just STANDING there. We don’t. We don’t have the LUXUURY of waiting around until we UNDERSTAND what’s happening. In the case of the Disciples, they were trying to put EVERYTHING in context and give it meaning.
You’re the Messiah. That’s clear because you rose from the dead.
Does that mean that you are here to restore Israel, they ask. Is now the time?
But he says, “It’s not for you to KNOW the time.”
This is LUKE’s account of the early church. But a few WEEKS ago we read John’s account of the Disciples right after the Resurrection and remember how Peter wanted to know what was going to happen to John. Remember? It was in John 21 after the whole “Feed my Sheep” exchange and Jesus’ answer THEN was similar to his answer here in Luke. He said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you? You—follow me.”
The message is consistent in both of these statements found in two different gospel accounts: each of us INDIVIDUALLY has a relationship with Jesus. We can’t compare ourselves to anybody else. Jesus’ conversation with ONE person has no bearing on what he might say to ANOTHER. And in both of these cases, we are told that GOD has a plan … GOD’s timing is what matters … and that those things just aren’t for US to know. They’re not for us to worry our pretty little heads about.
But when we look at the things that Jesus says here to EVERYBODY … we are left with a pretty FIRM order … a CLEAR mandate of what we are to do. He says in verse 8: You will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth (1:8)
The NRSV translates is as: 8 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.” We are to RECEIVE the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a CHOICE. It’s not something we can say, “Oh, no thanks … I’m not into that.”
No … we are to RECEIVE it and THEN we are to be his WITNESSES. Where? In Jerusalem … in all Judea and Samaria … AND. TO. THE. ENDS. OF. THE. EARTH.
It doesn’t say anything there about “just BELIIEVE, say your PRAYERS, go to CHURCH, have a GOOD LIFE.”
HE says: “BE. MY. WITNESS.”
Boy there are some days I really don’t want to do that.
There are some days when I just want to stand and stare out into space and WONDER … wonder about all KINDS of things like … where’d he GO? Will I ever really see him in this lifetime? Does he REALLY know what I’m thinking all the time? … and a big one for me right now: How do I make him RELEVANT to a generation that doesn’t want to believe?
I want ANSWERS.
I don’t want to have to be a WITNESS …
Being a witness just leads me to have more QUESTIONS!
But maybe that’s one of the reasons why Jesus commands us to do that … to be witnesses. Maybe he knew all along that the more we witness, the more we grow … and the more we GROW, the more questions we have … and the more questions we have, the more he can come and answer them … and the more he comes to answer them, the CLOSER we become.
Did it ever dawn on you that maybe we aren’t supposed to witness to help OTHERS but rather to help OURSELVES?
Think about it …witnessing … (that dreaded “E” word …) EVANGELIZING … sharing the GOOD NEWS … most of us grew up HATING that concept. Many of us still DO hate it but I think it’s because we’ve had the wrong take on it all these years. We have been focused on CONVERTING others … but that’s never been what Jesus was talking about. He just said to bear WITNESS to what he has done … what he has done in OUR LIVES. Bear witness … tell others … tell the truth … NOT to convert or make followers but to shore up how WE feel … to deepen our RELATIONSHIP with him.
THAT’s why we have to talk about our faith.
And how important did he think it was that we do this?
Important enough that it was the VERY LAST THING HE SAID ON EARTH …
The very LAST …
Think of all the things he COULD have said … “Love your mother” … “Don’t run with scissors” … “Give peace a chance.” But he didn’t say ANY of those.
Talk about dramatic effect. This is a majorly dramatic exit and right before he’s “up, up and away” he says: Be my witness to the ends of the earth.
In MY version, I’d be left standing there looking out into space, too.
I’d scream to the now ascended Jesus, “How do I DO that, Lord? How do I witness about YOU? I don’t know how …”
And this voice would come down from heaven ..
“It’s not hard,” he’d say. “Moses asked the same thing, you know … how can I speak to Pharaoh? And God said … you just go. I’ll do the talking.”
And that’s what Jesus says to US … “you just go … I’ll do the talking. But you can’t stay here looking at the sky thinking about what it used to be like when I was here with you. Besides,” he’d say … “I am STILL here with you … just in unexpected ways. So go … teach … witness … and tell ALL about God’s love … for I am with you, even unto the end of the Age.”
“You didn’t really think I was gonna let you get away with just standing there, did ya?” . . .