Preached on Sunday, 28.05…2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
It’s not the first question asked in the story of the Ascension; in some ways it’s the answer to the first question. The first question, you will remember was this: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ It’s the equivalent of the children in the back of the car who, after a short time on the journey, ask: ‘are we there yet?’ And the question has not gone away for the church over the centuries: are we there yet? is this the time? The church of Jesus Christ has spent the last two thousand years saying the same thing, asking the same question – and the answer is what the answer has always been: why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
So it’s worth looking at what happens in Luke’s telling of this tale; it’s worth looking at what the interactions are between the disciples and Jesus, and then between the disciples and these mysterious representatives of the heavenly realm. It’s worth looking at them because we might just see ourselves, see our weaknesses, see our vanities, see our impatience – and see how often we think we can replace faith with knowledge.
So look first at the exchange between Jesus and his followers. They ask him: is this it? is this the time? They’re asking with bated breath; they’re excited, they’re expectant, they’re ready to go. This is what they’ve been waiting for, what they’ve been looking forward to. Isn’t it? Isn’t it? And Jesus, basically, says ‘no’. What he actually says is: ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’ So not just ‘no’; the answer goes further than that – the answer is that they shouldn’t even have asked the question. It’s Jesus’ equivalent of what comes later: why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
And then there’s a ‘but’ – and the disciples must be relieved. They must be relieved because the first part of the answer is actually quite harsh, quite cutting, quite a put-down. So there’s a but to ease the pain: ‘but you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit’.
It sounds wonderful, of course, until we realise that they probably had no idea what those words meant – not immediately, not at first. And even today the meaning of those words might receive a wide variety of interpretation. Paul, more than once, attempts to give them the widest possible meaning – using them to describe the wide variety of gifts that go to make up a church. Even in Paul’s day there was an attempt by some to narrow down what were interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit, and Paul was having none of it.
But here, in Luke’s account, the words are given a very specific meaning by Jesus – the power of the Spirit is the power to be witnesses for Jesus. In other words the Spirit’s power is about being set to work; and it’s about communication – communication, as Paul again emphasises, that means something, that carries and conveys meaning, that makes a difference for those who hear – not only for those who speak.
Of course, witnessing need not always be about words; the way we act, the way we live, the way we relate, all these ought to witness to the Christ we follow. And the Greek word for ‘witness’ is the same word as the word for ‘martyr’ – and for the early church, for the first of Luke’s readers the two meanings often coincided.
So the disciples are told by Jesus that they are to be witnesses, starting in Jerusalem, but certainly not stopping there – they are to move. And this movement is not about staying in your comfort zone, it’s not about staying safe, not about staying where you feel ‘at home’ and unchallenged. If the message is to spread, then the spreaders have to move – if necessary, to the ends of the earth. So Jesus, in his last words, speaks about earth, not heaven. The disciples are not called to become angels – they are called to become the church.
And yet, when we come to the second encounter, with the men in white, they haven’t yet quite got the message. ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ Why do they stand, when they have already been told what to do?
They are to start building the kingdom of God on earth, but they still think it’s in heaven – ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth – as it is in heaven’. Those two phrases are not separate; they say the same thing twice – the kingdom of God comes with God’s will being done – on earth.
So now they return to Jerusalem; now they realise that, as with the Mount of Transfiguration, there is no staying on the mountain-top, no hanging on to holiness, no having a sacred sit-in; the work of Jesus is to be done in the everyday life and the everyday streets and among the everyday problems and difficulties that any city, any place, has. And so we have a list of the people who are there; the story is to be one of particular people in particular places doing particular things. This is not to be a story of vague generalities, of ethereal principles or disembodied spirits. The power of the Holy Spirit will be a power at work in ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds doing sometimes extraordinary things.
Luke obviously thought it was important to begin the second part of his writing with this story, to begin with the temptation of heaven replaced with the call of earth. He thought it important because, as I said earlier, the temptation has not gone away. The early church was continually struggling with the temptation to look in the heavens for signs of the end – and the crops were in danger of not being tended, the flocks were in danger of being neglected, the jobs that need to be done were in danger of not being done – because what was the point? What was the point of fixing the roof if the end was nigh? Even Paul gave in to the temptation on occasion – suggesting that, for example, you could stay married if you were already married, but there was no point getting married because there wasn’t much future in it.
So where is all this eschatological expectation now? We clearly do not go on the basis that the world is about to end – or we at Wellington would not be putting up scaffolding tomorrow to fix the stonework, and the Deeper Life Bible Church would not be buying new premises of their own. We are both, in our different ways, investing in a future we believe is likely to be there. We are investing in the call to go to the ends of the earth, and to witness when we get there.
When Jesus prayed to his Father, he prayed that all may be one. His prayer saw a future in the unity of God’s people – a unity expressed in the life of earth. So our witness is to a life where we are not divided, where the glory of God is expressed not only in the heavenly realm, but in the life of humanity here and now. God’s kingdom comes when God’s will is done on earth – and that will is expressed in unity, not in division. It is not expressed by setting ourselves apart, hiding away, looking up to heaven; it is expressed in the way we come together, and the way we bring people together. So how do we do that?
It’s a question that ought to be right at the front of our minds right now. It’s a question that arises every time that religion is used as an excuse for violence and hatred; it’s a question that arises every time religion is used as a way not to bring people in but to keep them out; it’s a question that explodes into our lives every time a bomb explodes in the name of God. And it is of no use in the current climate to comfort ourselves with the thought that it is ‘them’ – ‘they’ are doing this. Because in centuries past Christianity has attacked populations with the same barbarity as was shown in Manchester this past week.
We need, it seems to me, to understand the mistaken religious instinct to look up to heaven as if earth does not matter, as if earth need not exist, as if the people of earth are an unnecessary encumbrance, getting in the way of our first-class ticket to paradise. God calls us to one another, not away from one another; God calls us to live the life of peace that creates peace, not war; the life of love that creates love, not hate. And all the religions of the world, all the paths of faith the world has found in their reaching for God, have at one time or another succumbed to the temptation to think that earth does not matter.
And so we need to recommit ourselves to a life that believes in God’s future, that believes that God’s kingdom comes through God’s will being done, that witnesses to and incarnates the things of heaven in the heart of earth. We need to live that life together – for it cannot be lived apart. So every little sign of unity is important; every seemingly insignificant way in which people are brought in rather than being kept out is to be treasured.
Those little signs are witnesses to the oneness that is a precondition of God’s reign; they are glimpses of how things ought to be, symbols of the way in which different ways of doing things can be seen as part of the tapestry of God’s way, the rainbow of God’s covenant. In a world which finds it so easy to hate, so easy to resent, so easy to ignore or to oppress or to suspect, every sign that points in a more hopeful direction is worth highlighting.
It is my hope that the last few years, years in which our two congregations have learned to share space and time and faith, have offered those kind of glimpses, and that kind of hope, and have offered a witness to the uniting ways of Jesus – ways that the first disciples learned as they were sent back from the top of the mountain to the streets of the city – and from there to the ends of the earth.