May 12, 2013
Those of you who have experienced grief know that it can leave you feeling disoriented. You forget things like dentist appointments or how to get to the grocery store or your next-door neighbor’s name. So maybe you understand how, despite the fact that the disciples have been told, over and over, that the day was coming when Jesus would return to heaven, when it actually happens they are shocked and confused. Jesus, who has made several appearances since his resurrection, goes with his disciples as far as Bethany, and then blesses his friends, and disappears. The disciples are left staring into the clouds as if they’d just lost their best friend. Which they had.
Even though Jesus had promised that they wouldn’t be alone, that the Holy Spirit was coming, that didn’t mean much to them at the time. They didn’t know the Holy Spirit. They had had no experience with the Holy Spirit. They only knew Jesus. They knew that when they spent time with Jesus, they were better people. From him they had learned about justice, mercy, compassion, generosity and forgiveness. They didn’t know who would show them what to do or how to be now.
“While they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'” Why are you looking at where God used to be, when it’s clear God is not there anymore? This question sounds a lot like the question that two strangers in white asked the women at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, doesn’t it? “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” As I said on Easter morning, the women must have felt like answering, “We aren’t looking for the living. We’re looking for our very dead Lord.” But it turned out Jesus wasn’t there and he wasn’t dead. Now, the strangers show up again, and this time their question is, “Why are you looking up toward heaven?” The disciples must have thought they were idiots. We are looking up because that is where our Lord was just a minute ago! We are looking up because we have just lost all we know of God.
The disciples have temporarily forgotten how Jesus never stayed where he was supposed to. When he was 13 and his parents couldn’t find him, he was teaching grownups in the temple. When he was teaching, he was seldom found in the temple, like a good Jewish boy. Often he was out on the mountain or in a fishing boat or socializing with the crooks and streetwalkers on the wrong side of the tracks. On Easter morning, Jesus was not in the tomb, like any ordinary corpse would have been. And now, these strangers remind them that—yet again—Jesus would not be where they were looking. Nothing about our Savior is stagnant or stationary or predictable.
“Why are you looking up toward 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.” The God who went up will just as surely come down again! He just told you he would! You and I know, because many of us have the advantage of having heard the rest of the story before, that sure enough, in the next chapter of Acts, the disciples will gather in a marketplace, and the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of fire, will ignite a movement that has never ceased. But the disciples don’t know about that yet. So they are anxious. Let that be a comfort to us. God comes to people who are anxious, as well as to those who seem to have unshakable confidence in God.
When the disciples finally stop looking up to see Jesus, they are forced to look around. What do they see? Suddenly, with their focus outward, rather than upward, they are forced to find Jesus in one another. Jesus had told them that they were to be witnesses to all they had seen and heard. They were to announce to the whole world what Jesus had shown them when he opened the Scriptures to them. But my guess is that they are dubious, as they take stock of one another. This little motley crew is going to represent our glorious Lord? But we are fishermen and tax collectors! We are not very bright or very faithful or even very clean. We are going to be God’s voice in the world? Really?
I sometimes wonder what Jesus meant when he told the disciples that it was good that he was going away. How could it possibly be good? When Jesus wasn’t with them, they were just working class folk living under an occupation. When they were in his company, they were disciples! When Jesus was there, they were able to feed multitudes, and heal people who were sick. How could it possibly benefit anyone if Jesus left them?
Recently I had two conversations that helped me understand what Jesus might have meant. One was with a woman whose husband is recovering from surgery. She was talking about how hard it was for her to let him do things around the house for himself. It was so much easier for her to go get the milk out of the refrigerator than to make him take feeble steps toward the kitchen. But she was well aware that if he didn’t practice moving around, he would never fully heal. Because she loves him, she has to leave him alone sometimes, and let him do the hard work of moving around without her help.
The other conversation I had was with a mother of young children. One child is learning to tie his shoes these days. It is often frustrating and time consuming to let him do that in the mornings, when everyone is rushing to get to school and work on time. It pains her to watch this boy wrestle with knots and frustrated attempts at looping the laces in just the right order. But she is aware that she must let him struggle through the process in order to master it. There are some moments when the most loving thing to do for someone, after you have shared what you can, is to stand back and let them do it alone.
Perhaps that is why Jesus says he has to leave the disciples. Like a good mother, he has shared with the disciples all he can in word and deed. He has modeled faithful living and taught them to read the Scriptures with an eye for the poor and weighed down. He has broken bread with them, forgiven them, and healed them. And now, if the church is really to live into its capabilities of witnessing to all the world, he has to let them try it when he’s not around. He has to let them stretch their own ability to listen and to speak. The disciples will never know what it’s like to be Christ to the world, when Christ is right there. And so he ascends.
And yet, as bereft as they might feel in that moment—as bereft as we feel when we grieve the loss of someone we love, or even when we have to do something alone that is hard for us—our mothering God will not leave them without some support. Yes, Jesus leaves the scene, but not totally alone. To be who you are called to be, he says, I know you’ll need some help. I am sending the Holy Spirit to be with you. You will receive power from on high. You will be able to be my witnesses to the whole world because I will help you. Look around you. God is not up there in the clouds, far far away. It is true that Christ is not in the flesh with us anymore, but God absolutely is here, in each person who loves God. Listen to your breath. Listen to the people next to you breathing. “Why are you looking up into heaven to see God?” God is right here—as close to you as your next breath. God is in the people sitting near you. God is in all of creation.
Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider