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Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God. ‘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 God has set by God’s 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.’
It was Ascension Sunday on a college campus. Some imaginative college students had taken one of those life-sized Christmas creche figures and rigged it up with some kind of rocket device. Just as the chapel service was recessing in a cloud of incense, the students lit the fuse on their makeshift Jesus. Those leaving the chapel were met with the sight of the figure sailing up into the clouds before it crashed on a nearby dorm roof.1
The Ascension of the resurrected Jesus up into heaven is a rather odd religious moment, one that doesn’t fit easily into our modern, scientific worldview. The playful college students with their rocket Jesus provide comic relief to a serious doctrine of the church: that the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven until he returns one day to judge the world, to set things right, to complete the coming of the reign of God on this earth.
The Ascension has occasioned some of the most complicated words in our theological lexicon: The eschaton, or the end of the world; eschatology, our theology of the future; the parousia, from the Greek meaning “personal presence;” the rapture: when Jesus returns and believers are caught up into heaven; and Maranatha, meaning “come Lord Jesus,” a liturgical refrain expressing the longing of the early church for Jesus’ return.
Ever since the Ascension, when the resurrected Jesus ascends to heaven, the church has been longing for the return of Jesus. . . For some, the longing is characterized by fear and anxiety, for others, the return of Christ stands as a shining hope to see us through dark days. Maranatha. Maranatha.
The Rapture was in the news a lot last year, perhaps you remember?
Harold Camping of Family Radio fame, he predicted that Christ Jesus would return on May 21st, 2011. Many of his followers gave up their life savings to buy adds announcing the Rapture or sold their possessions or quit their jobs in preparation for the End of the World as We Know It. When May 21st came and went without the Rapture occurring, Camping said he got the math wrong, and rescheduled Doomsday for October 21st. Again, no Rapture. About six months after that, Camping came out with a letter of apology, asking for forgiveness of the sin of predicting the end of the world, and saying that he would no longer make any such predictions.
Students of Church History can tell you that Camping isn’t the first who has predicted the date for the return of Christ. There have been many who predicted that Christ would return on a specific date, people sold their possessions and waited, and were disappointed time after time. Harold Camping’s failed prediction is not original. In spite of the fact that even Jesus said “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the Son of Man, only God in heaven” we have a very long history of people wanting to predict the day and time of the End of the World. Such predictions are anxiety driven and divert attention from the challenging question of how we, the church, live out our faith in the saving grace of Jesus when he is not physically present in our world after his departure in the Ascension.
The Book of Acts tells us the story of the Ascension simply. Jesus is lifted up into a cloud, and they disciples stand there watching, not sure what to do next. They are chided by two men in white robes, angels no doubt, who say “Why are you standing there with your mouths open? Get on with it men.”
They are suddenly faced with what to do next.
How do we live in the in-between times? The already but not yet?
Jesus’ post-resurrection departure was an ending. No longer would the disciples sit around the fire with Jesus talking long into the night. Gone were the days of being eye-witnesses to his healings and teachings. If they had a theological or biblical question, they had to puzzle it out on their own rather than look to him for answers. It was time for them to grow up in faith. Gone was their leader, teacher, friend, and security blanket. One might expect the disciples to be awash in grief as Jesus departs, begging him to return, they had already lost him once. For the grieving heart wants one thing only: for the beloved to come back and for things to be the way they were once more. A grieving heart longs for the reinstatement of life as they knew it.
But the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene in the cemetery: “Don’t hold on to me. We can’t go back to the way things were.”
So the church in Acts chapter 1 knows it can’t go back to the way things were, but it does not yet know what lies ahead. Pentecost is yet to be. The church is in a period of unknowing. So what can we learn from them about how to be the church in the in-between times?
Honestly, what the early followers of Jesus decide to do next isn’t terribly inspiring. They hold a church meeting. Seriously? I’m looking for inspiration here, and the best the author of Acts can come up with is: “I know what you can do while you’re waiting for Jesus to return. Hold another church meeting.” So they have a church meeting to elect a replacement for Judas, who, as you no doubt remember has died. The discourse of the apostles who are left is not terribly compassionate toward Judas, they squabble a bit about who is qualified, and then after much handwringing they draw straws for the replacement.
OK, so, how do we live in the in-between times? Well, in some respects, the church just goes on about the business of being the church.
HOW WE GO ABOUT BEING IN BETWEEN IS IMPORTANT. ARE WE WAITING, GOING ABOUT OUR BUSINESS IN HOPE OR FEAR?
When you can’t go back, and the way forward is not yet clear, what then? What does our faith have to say to us? Do we wait in fear or in hope?
The church we are listening in on in the first chapter of Acts is a church in transition. What wisdom can OCBC in this time glean from the story of the church’s response to the ascension of Jesus into heaven? A church in an interim time resonates with the church between Resurrection and Pentecost. It seems to me that any church in a transition is faced with the same tasks the embryonic church faced: that of trying to clarify its identity and direction and to make its way in the world in the midst of their own transition.
In the book of Acts, Luke, the author, Luke does not articulate the questions that the church in transition was asking, but I suspect they are similar to the questions we have been asking during this transition time. Who are we? To whom do we belong? Where did we come from, and where are we going? How might we use our past as a source of identity and information rather than a place where we might dwell in captivity? How do we prepare for the unknown future that is characterized by the fresh winds of the Spirit?
I turn to the end of the gospel of Luke for a hint. Luke and Acts are Part One and Part Two of the same story. In the version of the Ascension in Part One, Luke’s gospel, we are told that the disciples return to Jerusalem in great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Perhaps your job right now as a church is to be bound together by the power of your worshipping life. Prayer, reflection, singing from the heart, breaking bread together, hearing the scriptures, voicing the Psalms in community, sitting in the silence together… all of these activities may seem rote or even mundane at times, but they are critical to preparing for your future as a congregation. Worship is where we proclaim the truth that Jesus the Christ has taken his rightful place with God, and the deeper reality that “all shall be well” has come to pass. Worship is where we are oriented toward the ascended Christ… for Christ has gone above and beyond us, and even ahead of us. Christ is waiting to meet us in our future, a truth that is cause not for anxiety about the future, but for great joy. Be rooted in prayer with one another. Dare you assume a posture of joy in this in-between time? Dare you trust God through worship when the future is yet unformed? Let us worship our Christ and God, and soon, very soon, you will know what next, you will be called into your future. Christ will be waiting for you there. AMEN
1 William Willamon. On a Wild and Windy Mountain. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1984. P. 100.