May 28, 2017
William G. Carter
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
I don’t know about you, but if I saw a man fly up into the sky, I would stand there and watch him too.
It’s not the sort of thing that you see every day. Back when I was a little kid, I remember seeing the movie “Thunderball.” James Bond needs to escape from a chateau. So he straps on a rocket pack and flies up and out, where his car is parked and a pretty girl was waiting. A rocket pack - that was cool.
Just imagine Jesus, lifting up, disappearing into the clouds. I think I’d stand there and watch. Wouldn’t you?
Just imagine the spectacle of the occasion! Like the church in Tennessee that noticed the crowds had dropped after Easter. So they announced that they would re-enact the ascension of Jesus. They put out press releases, invited all the neighbors, brought in television cameras. On the appointed day, they brought in a crane, put a vest on their pastor, and yanked him into the air. Everybody looked up! It was an impressive occasion, one I hope is never repeated..
But I’m intrigued by the retort of the two men in white robes: “People of Galilee, why are you standing there, looking up towards heaven? It’s an unusual line, so unusual that it’s neglected by the Bible commentators. They don’t say anything about it.
Symbolically, we can understand what else is going on. Jesus has risen from the dead. Now he is returning to his Father. Where’s his Father? Up there, somewhere. Isn’t that what we think about heaven? It’s taller than us, bigger than our understanding, just out of sight. We can understand the symbolism of Christ being lifted up, even if none of the cosmonauts saw him when they flew into outer space.
It’s not just a spatial matter. It’s a description of authority: Christ rules over the kingdom of God. He watches over us. He reigns over all the nations and their crazy leaders. That’s very good news. And the Psalms talk that way. Like Psalm 47, a coronation psalm: “The Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (47:2).” It does say “over.” Then the psalm says, “God has gone up with a shout (Psalm 47:5).” We all know what “up” means.
And as Jesus goes up, it gives an extra emphasis to his final words. He’s not singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.” No, his final words are a promise: “The Spirit will come and give you power to be my witnesses.”
And as he departs, two men in white robes are suddenly present, just as they were on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:4). They are standing with their feet firmly on the ground. And they say, “Why are you looking up?”
I’ve been giving some thought to that this week. As I’ve reflected on it, there are at least three reasons why looking up is not always a good idea.
Here’s the first: if you’re looking up, you might be tempted to think that what’s up there is better than what’s down here. If this world has problems, maybe you want to get off of it. There’s no overpopulation on Mars, and if you could go to Mars, you wouldn’t have to deal with the problems down here.
Now, I know that sounds fantastic, even a little bit crazy, but there are a lot of people who think Christian faith is about going to Mars. That faith should be an escape from all the troubles and travails here on earth. There are some people who even think that someday the trumpet will blow and all the true believers will float up into the sky. They believe they will get to escape, and leave behind all the poor shmoes who aren’t as enlightened as they are.
Biblically speaking, that’s nonsense. It’s contrary to everything that Jesus says and does. He speaks truth, he heals the sick, he feeds the hungry – because this life matters, because these people matter, because this world was created by his Word and it matters. According to the Gospels, he says, “The kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17:21).” It’s not up there, but down here, in our midst, waiting to be found. And there’s no escaping the hard work of being a servant to others in the name of Jesus.
Besides, down here on the ground is where the action is. The heavenly witnesses in white can tell us that. We don’t get to escape by going up. Rather, God is coming down here in Jesus Christ. He came down once, and the witnesses say one day he will come down again. So there’s no escaping this planet while there is Christian work to be done.
There’s a small cemetery over on Lily Lake Road in Dalton. One day I was over there for a graveside service. After finishing the prayer and giving the blessing, my friend Bud, the funeral director, said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” We walked a little bit, and then he pointed to a blue headstone shaped to look like the Starship Enterprise. Apparently the deceased was a Trekkie. According to Bud, his final words were, “Beam me up Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”
I guess you can live that way, but it’s not really living. It’s escaping.
Here’s the second problem with looking up: it entices you to believe that the only power in the universe is trickle-down power.
Now certainly, God is greater than we are. There is nobody here who is qualified to create a solar system, nobody here with the power to create a new species. Those abilities are above our pay grade. We pray, in no small part, because we wish to be in communion with the Holy God who can do all things.
But here’s the problem. That Holy God has often been represented by a kind of vertical theology. God is way up there, and we are way down here. God is holy and beyond our comprehension, and we are thoughtless worms who don’t know very much at all.
Diana Butler Bass describes this as an “elevator theology.” God hands down words of instruction to the clergy, who hand down the heavenly wisdom to the rest of us. The clergy, she says, are professional elevator operators. They go to professional elevator operator school, they learn the right terminology, they learn how to splash baptismal water and dispense bread and wine as gifts that have descended from the elevator. And if people follow their instructions, they could ride the elevator up to heaven when they die.
Her research as a church historian suggests that this vision is outdated. We have different understandings of science, technology, and politics that are not top-down. Communication doesn’t only come down through news authorities; a single tweet will ricochet sideways (even if you don’t know what a tweet is). She says people are increasingly seeing God as part of the web or ecosystem humans inhabit rather than as part of a vertical structure. That is, God is not in some faraway place but much closer to us.
I think she’s right about that. The future of religious communities will not come from reaching toward the heavens, but recovering the mystical reality at the heart of our faith. What’s this mystical reality? It’s looking for the work of God among us. It’s the prayerful perceiving of God in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our struggles, even in the middle of our pain. It’s what the adults on mission trips or kids at Camp Lackawanna call “the God moments.”
It’s making a move from thinking God is detached and indifferent (high and lofty), or worse, thinking God is always ready to spring a trap on us and say “gotcha” (holy and angry), to asking, “God, what are you doing right here? What do you wish to do in my life?” It’s a different set of questions, not seeking top-down answers, but welcoming God’s holy presence.
And that leads me to the third problem with always looking up: if you’re always looking up, you miss what’s going on all around us.
This week, in the aftermath of that terrorist attack at the Manchester concert in England, somebody remembered some wisdom from, of all people, Mister Rogers. You might know that Fred Rogers was not only had an Emmy award-winning show for children. He was a Presbyterian minister, and a rather remarkable human being.
So here’s what he said. "When something terrible happened, a tragedy like an earthquake or a hurricane or something really awful, I would wonder where God was. Where is God? My mother used to say, "Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if they are on the sidelines. That's where God is.”
Fred said, “To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing there are still so many caring people in this world. If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.
And if you’re only looking up at the sky, shaking your fist, and saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing something?” you are probably missing what God is already doing.
So we don’t look up to escape. And we don’t look up in the hope that God might dribble down a little grace if we’re good enough. We look around here, and pay attention, asking to see afresh that Christ is alive and working among us, around us, and through us.
And when we see him, or when we perceive where he is and what he is doing, we will have something to say to the world. We will be his witnesses. You and I – we’ll have something to say.