In the early 1880’s,
the Second Industrial Revolution was changing everyday lives
with everything it touched;
a new type of building—the sky-scraper—began to appear;
the electric light began production.
This was the heart of the Gilded Age
that saw the assassination of President Garfield,
and then, 18 months later,
the massive, unprecedented eruption of Krakatoa
in the Dutch East Indies.
The world was changing so radically and quickly, that in 1884
Edwin Abbott struggled to find a scientific metaphor
for religious experience appropriate to his day.
The result was Abbott’s story,
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.[i]
In the story, the two-dimensional square, who is narrating the tale,
encounters, for the first time, a three-dimensional sphere—
–and, just like that, the square’s perception of reality is CHANGED.
Now, in a bit of a PANICK, the square cries:
“Either this is madness, OR it is hell!”
“It is neither,” calmly replies the voice of the sphere,
“It is KNOWLEDGE—it is three dimensions:
Open your eye once again and try to look…”
And after getting used to this new reality, the square finally responds:
“This is a beauty which, until now, I thought could only be dreamed.
NOW…it is REAL!”
The same might have been said of the followers of Jesus
in the days and weeks immediately following Easter.
This was a time of massive ADJUSTMENT for followers of Jesus.
PENTECOST –the gift of God’s lively and empowering SPIRIT is blowing next week.
BEFORE we get to that, the Bible records the strange scene
of Jesus ascending into the clouds—
–with the instruction to WAIT for the Holy Spirit.
Jesus departing from the earth through the clouds…
…Why isn’t this a BIGGER DEAL?
I mean, Ascension—as a holiday—has never really caught on…
NOT the way Easter has—with the bunnies and bonnets and eggs.
Certainly NOT the way Christmas has.
There are no TV specials on “Home for…ascension.”
There are NO songs…”Have a holly, jolly…Ascension…”
Going to a store—there aren’t signs for Ascension sales.
One significant problem is…we no longer believe
in a triple-decker universe.
The clouds are NOT the ceiling of human experience anymore,
not like they used to be,
of course we know that.
And, the ascension story is NOT for everyone–it is for people of faith.
Accounts of the ascension are found in Matthew, Luke, and Acts—
–and in all three versions, ONLY followers of Jesus
watched him disappear through the clouds,
or heard angel voices.
During the forty days after Easter,
the risen Christ appeared to THEM many times—
–but Jesus does NOT go to the Scribes and Pharisees,
–he did not appear to random crowds,
attracted by some wonder worker.
In this post-Easter time,
the risen Jesus prepared the disciples to go out and serve.
It was a select group, NOT the general public,
who was told to WAIT in Jerusalem for the promise of God.
It makes sense, then, that at the end of the forty days,
ONLY the insiders were eyewitnesses to his earthly departure.
But as we see from today’s text, Jesus’ departure—
promises or not,
instructions or not—
–left his followers struggling to figure out their next steps…
We have something in common with that small band of disciples.
Like them, we gather to hear the words of life from Jesus.
We, too, hunger to know Jesus more deeply,
as we wonder, as we ponder how we step into an unknown tomorrow…
And, like the disciples after the ascension
—WE do NOT see Jesus face to face.
The walk of faith, for us, like them
now means experiencing Jesus only in Spirit.
Still, where does this story intersect with our lives?
…Maybe it’s in that question asked by the angel
to Jesus’ followers immediately in Ascension’s wake:
“Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?”
In other words–let go of that distant spot in the sky, now fading from your vision.
Don’t try to live off your wits, or “conventional wisdom”
or, goodness, sweet memories of the past,
as though God has nothing for you in the future.
In the 8th century, English monk Saint Bede
wrote about the reluctance of the monks
sent with St. Augustine to preach the word of God to strange new lands:
“On their journey, these most faithful of the faithful—
–they were seized with a sudden fear,
and began to think of returning home,
rather than proceed to a barbarous,
and unbelieving nation—
–to whose very language they were strangers;
this, they unanimously agreed, was the safest course.”
It almost ALWAYS feels safer to look backward rather than forward:
back to a time,
back to a good event,
back BEFORE some bad event,
back to some good, safe situation,
back to what has worked before,
BACK…essentially…to anytime OTHER than THIS TIME.
But it can be really hard.
We know this.
…A woman I know named Helen
rarely misses a Sunday in the church she has attended for over 35 years.
Once it was bursting at the seams, a spiritual and social center
of her New England city neighborhood.
Her children were baptized there,
her friends married there,
her husband buried from that church.
Now, however, there are rarely 20 people in worship.
Plastic sheets are taped over the smashed windows.
Most of the building is rented to outside groups.
The organ broke down two years ago, and there is no money to repair it.
The future seems grim and inevitable for that church.
…Jack was called to his boss’ office three months ago
and told to clear out his desk by the end of the day.
In middle management for a company he has been with for 11 years,
Jack was a casualty of a corporate buyout.
The new owners want their own people, right.
Without warning, Jack’s financial security,
and dreams for his kids’ future have vanished.
…A few years ago, Susan returned to the nursing home
after the funeral of her husband of 62 years.
She is paralyzed on her left side from a stroke.
She stares out the window and says to me,
“What reason do we have to go on.”
And then there is us…We are KIN to Helen and Jack and Susan…
Perhaps YOU have some other memories of a better day,
a relationship with a friend or family member now separated from you.
A place you treasured.
A sense of purpose now absent.
A safer time yesterday than tomorrow promises to be…
It can be really hard.
We know this.
We want to preserve such memories, hold on to them tightly—
–NOT let them vanish for what seems like forever.
So maybe we get it, the disciples,
staring into the void. Wondering if Jesus might come back a third time!
And we know:
God does not forbid us from remembering with thanksgiving and joy.
Not at all!
But the angels, they ALWAYS WARN us against standing still,
as though the work of God is over,
the glory past–with NOT much ahead–
Jesus didn’t tell them to spin their wheels:
Those first disciples were commanded to GO somewhere: into Jerusalem.
They were told to DO something: WAIT for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
With that as the instruction,
and a GOSPEL to spread into ALL the world—
–there’s just NO time to stand, staring up into the sky,
toward where something USED TO BE…
BUT, the words of the angels are not only a gentle rebuke
and instructions for disciples; they are also a PROMISE.
But here’s the thing, PROMISES are hard to trust…and harder to follow.
Transitions take trust
And transitions take grounding in the work and the movement of God.
But take Matthias as an example of transitions gone awry:
Matthias stands for every time we think we can just “take it from here”
and we try to go-it-alone.
The disciples had a problem—Judas had betrayed Jesus and was dead,
and now 12 disciples are down to 11.
Eleven isn’t good enough. They’re supposed to be 12
Twelve was an auspicious number. The right number.
Now, on the one hand, they were told to go back to Jerusalem and WAIT.
But certainly God wanted them to clean up this little problem first? Right?
No one told them to, of course,
that wasn’t part of the instruction.
Not to worry—they could take care of plugging that open spot.
Through a long committee meeting using their best group process…
they chose Matthias.
You know, Matthias, that famous Apostle!
Matthias who, of course, went on to write several books of the New Testament? Matthias who founded many churches in his journeys?
Matthias who had religious orders named after him?
Matthias who was lifted up over and over again as God’s living example?
Actually…No! Matthias is NEVER heard from again…Not once!
But these Apostles figured they knew how to take care of business
on their own, and could just work out that detail rather than wait—
–what could go wrong?
One modern commentator and theologian, Justo Gonzalez,
suggests that what went wrong here
was that the eleven Apostles
placed issues of organizational structure
over those of the mission of the church.
They worried more about saving the structure they were used to
than about what that structure
was supposed to enable in the first place.
Here’s a truth: the needs of organization can NEVER be placed
before the needs of MISSION.
Their failure to wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit
made the disciples preempt the authority of the Spirit
by focusing on matters of church structure
rather than the new mission to the Gentiles—
–that is, to those who needed the good news of Jesus,
but lived a different approach to life and faith
than the disciples were used to…
The problem, as Gonzalez argues, is that the apostles
sought to choose one like themselves,
and this is often NOT the way the Spirit works.[ii]
The Church would do well to remember Matthias—
We always seem to pass by Matthias between Ascension and Pentecost.
The Church would do well to remember Matthias—
–a hallmark of our futile efforts to arrange God’s work on our own…
without grounding or discernment.
…to choose our experience,
our priorities as the NORM for the church
and God’s work in the world.
We’ll end up looking for people like us…with needs just like ours.
God has radically different ideas for us…
…and is ready to move us into God’s new future!
I once saw a young boy try to fly a kite on a windless day.
He stood on a long grassy stretch,
laying out the tail,
adjusting the cross pieces,
seeing that the guide string had the right amount of slack.
THEN, he bolted over the ground as fast as he could.
The brilliant red kite climbed and climbed.
The boy got to the end of the grass and stopped…
…and the kite fluttered to the ground.
The boy wound his string around a stick and returned to study the kite.
Again, he checked the tail,
the cross pieces,
the guide string.
He hefted the kite in his hand
and decided it was too heavy,
so he made the tail half as long.
ONCE MORE he took off across the field and the kite began to soar.
But as soon as he stopped, it fluttered back to earth.
Still NOT discouraged, he went through the same examination as before,
you know, this time increasing the bow in the cross pieces.
That kid was bound and determined to get that kite up,
and he obviously was an expert at how to adjust things for better flight.
And so, YET AGAIN, he poised himself on the edge of the grass,
and then CHARGED across the field at full speed.
The kite lifted higher than before and when he stopped it seemed,
for a second, to lift higher!
Then it made a papery jiggling sound and swished to the ground.
A girl with her own kite,
who had been watching all this
finally called out, in exasperation or maybe in mercy:
“Don’t you know–you’ve got to wait for some wind!”
Jesus had been RAISED from the dead.
He ascended into heaven in front of their eyes—
–and they were left wondering what might have been…
And still they were told to WAIT.
That’s NOT an easy thing—waiting for the wind.
But it’s a better thing—in God’s eyes—it’s a FAR better thing
than staring where Jesus used to be,
OR, trying to do it all on our own…
We can’t fix the past.
We can’t control the future.
Anything we try—all by ourselves—will pathetically flutter the ground.
And NOTHING will happen by staring at the past.
But the thing is…with the Living God,
there is always MORE FUTURE than past.
In the most challenging of times—
–with a past we want to cling to,
–with a future that looks just plain murky—
–Jesus leaves us—NOT to our own devices, but to God’s great purposes.
Because Jesus Christ is Lord—there is always MORE.
Maybe, facing whatever we are facing in life,
including an uncertain future—that is all we need to know:
Because Jesus Christ is Lord—there is always MORE.
[i] Gratitude to Mark Ramsey, who drew this analogy in his sermon preached to Grace Covenant Presbyterian in Asheville, North Carolina. The structure of this sermon follows Ramsey. Flatland is explored related to Ascension in Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction by John Jefferson Davis (Intervarsity: 2012) and Flirting with Universalism: Solving the Problem of an Eternal Hell by Dennis Jensen (Wipf and Stock Publishers: 2014).
[ii] Justo L. Gonzalez, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), p. 31 as cited by Noel Leo Erskine in Feasting of the Word, Year B, Volume 2