By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
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?’
We’ve met these guys before – these two men in white robes. Remember Luke’s account of the resurrection:
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
At the resurrection, and now at the ascension, Luke brings into the telling of his tale two men in white robes – two men who ask ‘why?’ In the garden outside a tomb emptied, it seems, of its meaning and its purpose, the women stand perplexed. They came with a task in mind, something they knew how to do, something the religious rules sanctioned and even demanded; and now they can’t do it. And, because they can’t do what they were expecting to do, they don’t know what to do. And they’re asked ‘why’. They’re asked what they’re doing there at all. ‘He’s not here, he has risen, he has moved on,’ they are told; ‘so why are you still here when he is not?’
At the ascension, there is the same pattern of behaviour. Jesus disappears, and his followers are left staring into space, not knowing what to do, where to turn, how to think or act; and two men appear beside them and ask ‘why?’ ‘Why do you stand staring up into heaven?’ ‘Why are you still here, when he is not?’
And, amazingly, the church has struggled ever since to know what to do with a Christ who refuses to be tied down, to be pinned down, to be owned, to be defined, to be walled in, penned in, shut in. Like the very earliest witnesses, the very earliest followers, the church has tried to understand its lord and master as one that we own, rather than as one who owns us; one who sticks to the religious traditions we invent, rather than one who breaks out of them on a regular basis.
Maybe we can get an idea of the way things progress if we put ourselves in the place of the people of Ephesus, to whom Paul was writing in our first passage this morning. Paul starts off as he often does with praise – maybe even a bit of flattery: ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.’ And we read that, and we think that those who first read it, or had had it read out to them at public worship, must have felt pleased: faith, love, thanks – all good words, all words that make us feel warm inside.
But then Paul continues in a way that suggests he thinks they have a way to go: ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.’ And now they’re beginning to think, ‘hang on a minute’. Because in one sentence he’s thanking God for their faith – and in the next he’s praying that they may be given a spirit of wisdom, and that they may come to know God. And he goes on to talk of their enlightenment (and they may well have thought they were already enlightened); he goes on to talk about their arriving, future hope (and they probably reckoned that they were already there); and he speaks of the power of God being revealed (to people who no doubt were fairly sure they knew that already as well).
And there’s a phrase that seems to be hanging around in the background of all this – and it’s got something to do with a faith that gets stuck when God has moved on; a faith that thinks it has it all worked out, when there is always more to discover. And maybe the phrase begins with the word ‘why’. It’s those two men in white robes again, the ones who appear beside the followers of Jesus and question them about why they aren’t moving on, why they’re still stuck staring up at the sky, why they are looking for the living among the dead: ‘why are you still here, when he is not?’
Because Paul goes on to explain what the power of God is about – that it raised Jesus from the dead, that it placed him in the heavenly realm, that it made him impossible to pin down: ‘and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ And the followers of Christ struggle with all that, and need men in white coats to bring them back to their senses.
There is no rule, or authority, or power, or dominion, that can enslave or imprison or enchain Christ; Christ is above all that. But that, we need to be constantly reminded, includes religious authority, not just secular; religious power, not just secular; religious rules, not just secular. And religious people down through the ages have needed the white-suited questioners asking them ‘why’ every time they have tried to limit Christ to their interpretation, their dogma, their particular human understanding.
And Paul goes on to tell the church at Ephesus that Christ is all in all – and I have a suspicion that the church has never truly grasped the enormity of Paul’s interpretation of its task. And its task is intimately connected with what is meant when we talk of the ascension. At the ascension Jesus Christ is lifted up not so that the earth and we may be abandoned, but that we may be included. Jesus is no longer to be identified with one tradition, one place, one people – Jesus is for everyone, the unity and the fullness of all things – and, Paul says, the church is to be the place and the people where that is made manifest, where that is displayed, where that works.
And I have a wee question about whether the church at any time in its history has done that – or even properly understood it. There is here a great, stupendous, universal understanding that it seems to me we have always been doing our best to domesticate and tame and limit. Here’s how William Barclay describes it:
This is one of the most tremendous thoughts in all Christianity. It means nothing less than that God’s plan for one world is in the hands of the Church. It was God’s purpose to make a world where all the warring elements were welded into one with each other, and one with him. To make that plan possible he sent Jesus Christ. In Jesus is the secret of unity. But the message and the power must be taken out to all; and the Church is the body of Christ, the instrument through which Christ acts throughout the world. It is on the Church that the fulfilment of God’s plan depends.
So that explains it! It all depends on the church – no wonder it hasn’t happened. And, in spite of many people within the churches over all these years, the church as a body has continually thought of itself not as the place where warring factions are reconciled, where unity is achieved, where peace is performed; but instead as just another warring faction – indeed, as a whole series of warring factions.
We (and it’s important that we say ‘we’, not ‘they’) have time and again, in place after place, gorged ourselves in images of warfare and battle, imagining that we are called to carry out this great commission by conquering everyone, bringing them to their knees. And some of that imagery is still in some of our hymns – and some of it comes from occasional verses in scripture. But wherever it comes from it gets in the way – it ignores the Jesus of Nazareth in whose life all of this is revealed, upon which all of this depends.
Jesus of Nazareth, we need to remember, was a great disappointment to those of his followers who expected a warrior leader, who would defeat those who disagreed with him, who would drive out those who got in the way. That, he says to them and to Pilate, is not my way, not my world. And yet the church has either, at times, seen its role as fighting (literally) for what it saw as the gospel; or, more often, seen itself as trying to conquer in other ways – but still seeing itself as another warring faction. Even worse, perhaps, the church has continually divided itself into several warring factions, over disagreements large and small – and through the tendency to identify God with ‘our’ side, or ‘our’ nation.
And time and again we have needed a couple of men in white robes to come and stand beside us and ask us ‘why?’ Why have we done that? Why have we not noticed the call to be the place of meeting, the place of understanding, the place of reconciliation and peace? The ascension marks the universalisation of Christ Jesus, the refusal of God to be identified with one place or one time or one people at the expense of others – and one day, we pray, we will notice the men in white coats calling us similarly to our senses.
‘Why are you still here?’ they ask us. ‘Why are you still caught up in divisions, when your job is about unification? Why do you still obsess about who is allowed in, who might be excluded, when your job is to gather all together? Why do you still think in terms of war and victory, when your call is to bring people together in peace? Why are you still here? Why have you not moved on?’
They may ask us, but we don’t have much of an answer. But, Paul tells the Ephesians and tells us, there is more to learn, more to experience of hope and love, more to know of the power of the one who is above all power, more to accomplish if we can only grasp the power of forgiveness and reconciliation – and live it as the body of Christ.