Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 20, 2012

2012.05.20 “Why Stand Here Looking Up?” Acts 1: 1 – 11 – Ascension Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

Why Stand Here Looking Up?

Acts 1: 1 – 11

Pastor David L. Haley

Ascension Sunday

May 20, 2012

 

            Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said good-bye to the apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God.  As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.”

        When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?

        He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business.  What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”    These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud.  They stood there, staring into the empty sky.  Suddenly two men appeared – in white robes! They said, “You Galileans! – why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?  This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.” – Acts 1: 1 – 11, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Have you, like me, spent part of the last few days looking up? Because, with the NATO summit in Chicago this weekend, there is the possibility of seeing some exciting aircraft flying overhead.

I know many of you could care less about such things, but ever since I was a kid, just after I wanted to be a professional baseball player and long before I wanted to be a Methodist preacher, I wanted to be a jet pilot. Ever since, I have been thrilled by aircraft. My family will tell you I have dragged them to Chicago’s Air and Water show more times than they wanted to go. They will tell you that I sometimes run out of the house at the sound of an approaching helicopter or low flying plane. Yes, I have considered climbing to the top of the church for a better view, and often wished we had a taller steeple.

So far this weekend, while looking up, I have seen several large military helicopters and a National Guard C-21 cargo plane. While out on a run Friday morning, I watched for the F16 jet fighters supposed to be patrolling Chicago’s airspace, but all I saw was one high flying seagull and two eagles soaring over the Evanston Golf Club.  What I would most like to see are the VH-60 Whitehawk helicopters that become Marine One whenever the President is aboard, flying two in formation with one as a decoy.  And I would really like to see Air Force One, whose arrival and departure I watch for every time the President comes to town, as it does this weekend. The last time he was here it was so frustrating; I could hear them but couldn’t quite see them. (Ergo the need for a taller steeple).  Who could blame us, at such times, for spending more time than usual outside, looking up?

Interestingly, “outside, looking up” is the posture in which we find Jesus’ disciples this morning. They are not looking for airplanes, (none existed), they were watching Jesus disappear for the last time, as he ascended into heaven. So prominent was their posture, they were called on it by two men in white robes, who suddenly appeared: “You Galileans! – why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?” Perhaps they were the same two men in white robes, who met the startled women at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning with another question: “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” (All I can say is beware of men in white robes, asking annoying questions!”)  What are we to make of this strange story of Jesus’ Ascension, and what does it mean for us, Jesus’ modern day disciples?

To find the answer, let’s revisit the story. There are actually two accounts of it, slightly different, both written by the same author: one at the end of the Gospel of Luke, the other at the beginning of the Book of Acts.  Obviously, it’s a pivotal story, but what does it mean?

Since their resurrection reunion, Jesus and his disciples had had a great time together.  In fact, at the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us just that:

“Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on          everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said          good-bye to the apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy          Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. After his death, he presented          himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things          concerning the kingdom of God.”

But there was more. Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to “wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.”

Well, that was great news, news they’d awaited for a long time. After all, they’d come to Jerusalem packing swords, humming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, expecting Jesus to throw out those nasty Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel. Instead, Jesus had been crucified. Now – finally – it was going to happen. Jesus was going to reign, oh and by the way did I mention they were going to reign with him, on twelve thrones, six on either side, lined up like they are now over the doors of European cathedrals? And so, in anticipation, one of them asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

But Jesus reply was disconcerting: “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you’ll receive power . . .”

The Holy Spirit? Power? Power would do. But what kind of power would it be? Would it be like when the Spirit came upon their ancestors? Like when the Spirit came upon Samson and made him powerful over his enemies?  Like when the Spirit came upon Gideon and made him the champion of the people? Like when the Spirit came upon Saul and made him the leader of his people?  Do you mean to say God will come upon us and we shall deliver our people?

“No,” said Jesus, “You’ll receive power to be my witnesses.”

Power to be witnesses? Who needs power to be a witness? After all, when we appear in court we don’t have to make a speech or share how we feel, we just have to tell what we’ve seen and heard, no more, no less.  We do it all the time when we talk about food or music, or that P-51 Mustang we saw at the Air and Water Show.  Who needs power to be a witness?

But Jesus went on. Power to be my witnesses . . . in Jerusalem. Hmmm, they must have thought.  Everybody knows us here.  They know Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied him. They know we’re from Kentucky (I mean, Galilee) and make fun of us for our accent. They know we’re fishermen, tax collectors, uneducated people. They also know we were with Jesus, and after all, they executed him. Yes, I guess we can be witnesses in Jerusalem; it might take a little courage, but we can do it.

“And Judea.” Jesus added. “Well, yeah, that’s a little larger area, but we think we can do that. We know the territory, we know those people, we speak their language, we can do it.

But Jesus was still speaking.  “And Samaria.” he added.

“Samaria!” they all said at the same time. But Samaria is where people live who are, you know, half-breeds. They speak a different dialect, have different political views, have a different religion, even read a different Bible. Are you sure you mean Samaria? Cause if we have to do that, that will definitely take some power of some kind.

“Yep,” said Jesus. “And not only Samaria but to the ends of the earth.”  Everywhere you’ve ever been or ever will go.

You mean among the Gentiles? You’re saying we are to witness to Gentiles, pagans?

“Yep!” said Jesus.

Are we beginning to understand why this might take some power, some Holy Spirit power, to do this?  At every step of the way there were barriers which would not fall easily, even among and within themselves. At first the members of the church were all Jews, comfortable with each other, that’s always easiest.  Then some were admitted into the church who were Greek Jews, who spoke Greek and were more liberal. Next a missionary baptized a Samaritan. Then Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch; can you imagine? Being Ethiopian is bad enough, but a eunuch? What’s happening to our church? Soon there were Gentiles, Italians, Turks, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Africans, Asians, Filipinos, everybody. There’s no doubt about it, we wouldn’t be sitting here today, Christians all, people from everywhere, if it had not been for the power of the Holy Spirit, breaking down barriers. It’s sure a good thing we don’t have any barriers left today, isn’t it?

I’m sure they thought, “Well, it will be hard, but as long as Jesus is with them, we can make it.” But then the most frightening event in the whole story happened: Jesus left them for good, totally disappeared, up, up, and away, leaving nothing but an empty sky. No wonder they stood there staring up, which is where we first met them.

It’s not difficult to imagine how they must have felt after all this. After all they’d experienced, Jesus was gone for good, at least as a physical presence. They were left wondering and waiting, trusting the spirit would come but not certain when, speculating when Jesus might drop down from the clouds again, as Christians have speculated ever since, standing staring into an empty sky.

Jesus’ disciples found themselves in that uncomfortable space we know as “in between,” when we have to wait for what happens next, when we crave resolution and there is none, when we desperately want to turn the page, but it doesn’t happen. Through life, we experience such “in between” time is so many ways: when we suffer the loss of a loved one, when we are unemployed, when we suffer broken relationships, when we wait to leave for college, when we wait for baby to be born, when we wait for the cast to be removed, when we await the results of a biopsy, when we watch as a parent slips away into Alzheimer’s.  “In between” time is always a difficult time.

But in time, with the spirit’s power, all that Jesus had said would happen. These same disciples would be powerful witnesses to what they had seen and heard, they would powerfully carry on Jesus work, they would carry the good news from Jerusalem to Rome, and to the ends of the earth. Because of them, we sit here today, charged with the same task, of being Jesus’ witnesses in the world today.

And that’s what the story of Jesus’ Ascension is about.  How it is no longer Jesus’ job, but our job, empowered by God’s Spirit, to be Jesus’ witnesses, to do Jesus’ work, to build the kingdom of God in the world.

Jesus’ 16th century disciple, the Spanish Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), said it best:

         Christ has no body but yours,

         No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

         Yours are the eyes with which he looks

         Compassion on this world,

         Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

         Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

         Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

         Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

         Christ has no body now but yours,

         No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

         Yours are the eyes with which he looks

         Compassion on this world.

         Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

         Why stand here looking up? There is work to do.

 

 

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