What Do You Stand Looking For?
Rev. Patrick W.T. Johnson, Ph.D.
Today we’re coming to the end of our Easter sermon series, and as you listen to this story from Acts, I invite you to put yourself in the place of the disciples. That’s what this series has been about, really, putting ourselves with the disciples: when Jesus gives them his peace and sends them out, when they meet him in the breaking of bread, when we do life together in his name, when they take his message to the world. Today, is Ascension Sunday. Jesus is taken up to heaven and the disciples will stand looking at the sky. Listen for the word of God to us.
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They 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.’
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The disciples are standing, gazing into the sky, because they never planned on doing this without Jesus. They plan was always for him to do it. That was their pattern. He would do, they would help. He would teach, they would ask. He would go, they would follow. They never planned on doing any of it without him. They planned for him to do it, and they would help. But now, before their eyes, he was taken up into heaven on a cloud. He didn’t vanish, like leaving one room and showing up in another. He dramatically exited, like a royal coronation, going higher and higher out of their sight, in a departure that left no doubt that he would not return any time soon.
The disciples had been in Jerusalem since before the crucifixion. They arrived on Palm Sunday, at this exact spot, Bethany at the Mount of Olives, thinking Jesus would take the reins of power and lead a revolution against the Roman Empire, re-establish the throne of David and the kingdom of Israel. When they all marched into Jerusalem, with Jesus’ riding on a donkey and people waving palm branches, they didn’t think, “How cute.” They thought he was going to be a king, and his kingdom was about to begin. But a few days later Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified.
Then after three days, while they were huddled in a room in fear, Jesus showed up in the room, risen from the dead. Even though he had told them repeatedly that in three days he would rise again, they did not understand. They still did not understand, but here he was. So maybe now was the time? Maybe this was the plan?
This is the question they’re still asking him, forty days later, standing here on Mount Olivet, outside Bethany where the Palm Sunday parade started. Is now the time, Lord? Are we going to do this again? Is now the time when you will take power and set the captive free, and give sight to the blind, and help the lame to walk, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? But Jesus redirects their attention again, “It’s not for you to know the time – that is up to God. Instead, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, he was gone, up and out of sight.
So, they stood there. They never planned to do this without him.
Last Sunday, I told you a story about a house on one side of the church that I served in New Jersey, and about the woman who rented the house and placed a Buddha on the front steps. Today, I want to tell you about something that happened at the house on the other side of the church, in what we Presbyterians call the manse, where the pastor lives. The house was built in 1855 and was owned and maintained by the church all that time. In the cellar, there were two light bulbs strung with knob and tube wiring that ran in the floor joists, wiring that had been there almost a hundred years. This seemed unwise, so at one of the regular meetings of the session I mentioned that, if funds were available, Caitlin and I would like to have the cellar wiring upgraded so there could be more light and perhaps a few outlets. One of the elders, Mike, said he would be glad to help.
A few days later Mike came over with a large box of electrical supplies, and we went down into the cellar, and discussed what Caitlin and I had in mind. He took out his supplies, and told me what he was going to do, and he wired up a new outlet. Then he handed me the tools and said, would you like to do one, so I did. When I stood up, Mike said, “That was good. You can keep the tools as long as you want. Let me know when you’re finished, and I’ll come back and hook it all up to the box.” “What!” I said – “I don’t know how to do this.” “You just did,” he said.” “But Mike, I’ll set the house on fire,” I protested. “You can’t, it’s not hooked up.” “But I thought you were going to do it, and I was going to help,” I said. “You’ll do fine,” he said, “just let me know when you’re ready for me to come back and finish.” I stood there looking at the box, wondering what in the world.
The disciples stood there gazing at the sky, wondering what in the world they were going to do now? Jesus told them to be witnesses. That Greek word for witness, martures, was a broad term. For some it would mean preaching, for some it would mean giving possessions, for some it would mean showing up to study and prayer, for some it would mean serving tables, for some it would mean losing their lives as martyrs – that’s where we get that word. For all of them, being a witness would mean – just as it means for us – letting God’s love and the way of Jesus shape and reshape their whole lives, from one end of the earth to the other.
“Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” is not simply a travel itinerary for the disciples. Jesus is naming the political and religious boundaries of their world. He is traversing their traditions and their prejudices, and instructing them to cross over them. He is telling them that being a witness means that we will move our hearts as well as our feet. Being a witness means that we go places in here and out there, as our lives are shaped and directed by the relentless and tender love of God.
This was their calling and their mission, but they never planned to do it without him. Where do you start when you don’t know where to start. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? When you’re in a place you didn’t think you’d be, when you don’t have a plan for where you are? A few years ago a group of business writers tried to answer the question with a book called Just Start. Their advice is, basically, in the title. When you don’t know what to do, take one smart step quickly in the direction of your dreams. Then reflect on it, and do it again, and repeat. That’s the role of the angels in this story, by the way, the two men in white, who showed up to help the disciples “just start.” They couldn’t just keep standing there wishing Jesus would come back, they had to take one small step.
“Men of Galilee why are you standing here, gazing at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” Subtext: Get moving. “But we don’t know what to do.” “He’s given you all the supplies you need.” “But we thought he was going to do it all.” “You’ll do fine. He’ll be back.”
Today we ordain and install new elders and deacons to lead this congregation, and through their ministries of oversight and governance, of compassion and service, their calling is to lead us to be witnesses. We have the supplies we need: scripture and confessions, community and tradition, energy, imagination, intelligence, and love, and, most importantly, the Spirit. The calling of these leaders is to seek the will of Christ as they lead us to be Christ’s witnesses. As we discussed together yesterday in our training, their role is not to do the will of the congregation, but to lead us as a congregation to do the will of Christ. Like the disciples who are named in this story, one by one, the work of these leaders today – each of them by name – is to help us discern what the love of Jesus means today, for us and for our neighbors.
There are no step-by-step guides for this. We have the supplies we need, but we have to do the work of discernment and witness. What should we do when our youth and young people experience a crisis of mental and emotional health? What should we do when our community is convulsed by the pain of racism and discrimination? What should we do when our neighbors are sleeping on the street, and drugs and illness makes the situation incredibly complicated? How do we respond to changes in human understanding that dissolve the boundaries of gender, and change our understanding of human sexuality? How do we respond to changes in the earth’s climate that affect biodiversity and the sustainability of life? There is no step-by-step guide. We have all we need, and we are called to be a witness to God’s love in Jesus.
What should we do when our relationships are broken? When we are broken inside? What should we do when the people we love the most are hurting? What about when we can’t forgive someone, or forgive ourselves? When about when we’re in a place we never planned to be, our feet are stuck in the mud, and we just stare at the sky and hope that God will whisk us away? There is no step-by-step guide. We have all we need. Our calling is to be a witness to God’s love, and to just start.
You have the supplies. The Spirit is with you. “But what if we don’t know what to do?” “What if we make a mistake, or fail?” You’ll do fine. Go be a witness to God’s love, from top to bottom, start to finish, to the ends of the earth, to the ends of you, until every ending is a new beginning. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.