An Awkward Departure
You know how you get a hit movie that stands perfectly fine on its own. And then someone has to make a sequel to it. And it’s not so rare for a sequel to begin with a transition scene that is at pains to take us from the perfectly fine old plot to a new two hour story. You see where I’m going with this? There’s detailed analysis on the web of what’s called sequelitis. John McClane is back at Dulles Airport on another Christmas Eve and once again runs into terrorists? Thus Die Hard 2. Biff of Back to the Future II steals the Delorean to make his younger self rich, changing world history, worst of all, making future Marty (Michael J. Fox) into an uncool dad. The transition that starts off a sequel often requires kooky details. What matters, of course, is whether, despite the kooky details, the sequel can continue a story you thought was complete, and bring us along too.
So Luke takes it upon himself to write the sequel to the gospels that we call Acts of the Apostles. It is based on the real story of the church after Easter. The original hero, Jesus, withdraws, and a new hero, the Spirit, is about to show up. And yet this first scene that we just read does look a little kooky. If it sounds perfectly fine to you, great. I need to apologize in advance, because I just can’t preach about Jesus catching the Cloud Express to heaven with a straight face. I’m going take this one as an imaginative story, but I trust it is there for a good reason; and then we’ll see where this cloud trip takes us.
Now, Luke uses his transition scene to address an important question that no other gospel writer had answered. Namely, if Jesus is risen from the dead in the body, what happens to the risen body? We know Jesus is no longer visible and present to us in the way he appeared to his disciples. (Luke, remember, has Jesus eat a piece of fish.) The other gospels are content to be vague on this question. “He has gone to the Father,” as John puts it (without any mention of the Cloudmobile). But Luke “the historian” has “carefully investigated” the matter and provides us the definitive missing scene. (For what it’s worth.)
And you can picture it as a scene in a movie, can’t you? As Jesus finishes his final promise, that the disciples will be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth,” a cloud whisks him away as they watch, heads tilted up, fingers pointing, mouths open. The camera cuts back and forth from the agape disciple to Jesus on his cloud, as he goes higher and higher, appearing smaller and smaller.
And then—I warned you, I can’t take this too seriously. I can’t help imagining Luke writing this far and saying, “That’s awesome. I’ve got this dramatic, sustained farewell shot. But how do I get out of this scene? Got it! Angels.” <Bing> “Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.” (White robes just scream angels, right?) “Men of Galilee” (snapping, closing mouths) “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
If you have treasured these stories since your youth, again: forgive me. But seriously, we’re in a post-Christian culture now. We who have grown up with these stories have to be able to read them through the eyes of those hearing them for the first time. And I myself don’t want anyone new to church to feel ashamed for thinking that a cloudsurfing Jesus is a little ridiculous.
Once we get past that, I think the angels, while they seem forced on the scene, give us some insight into what the cloud is doing there. Their general message, paired with Jesus’, is an important one: stop staring up at heaven. And stop speculating about a future kingdom. Set your eyes on the horizon, on the ends of the earth, and on the big thing you are going to be doing next.
Not that Luke and his angels are denying that Jesus will come again. It seems the whole New Testament believes Jesus is coming back, and probably soon. We talked in Bible study about what to do with that; that’s for another sermon. Let’s just note what the angels say, that he will come again asyou saw him go into heaven. “Coming on the clouds” might sounds familiar. Take a look sometime at the weird and fantastic vision in Daniel 7, starting at verse 13: “I saw one like a human being (or Son of Adam, Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven….To him was given dominion and glory and kingship.” Bingo. The Son of Man (as Jesus called himself) will come with the clouds from heaven, therefore Luke sends him off with the clouds to heaven. And now it all makes sense.¡ Luke’s sequel, Jesus Christ II: Cloud-rider, is in fact on perfectly solid ground.
But I don’t want to leave it there. Our passage goes on to talk about what the disciples did after this spectacle. And maybe that’s where we should ask ourselves a more serious question: where do we fit into this story? Where are we on this Ascension Sunday? The seven weeks of Easter are coming to a close. Our lament and regret over the passion and death have been lifted into joy, and yet Jesus isgoing away. He has promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and even that we will do greater things than he. But not until next Sunday do we attend to the possibility of a power from on high that breaches the walls around our souls to unite us as one body, and bursts the boundaries of our church to catch the whole world on fire. / Some Christians feel this kind of Holy Ghost power. But is that us? Or is it more like this: Jesus is far gone; but the Spirit, at least with that kind of power, is not yet upon us. Isn’t that how our life often feels? If so, then Ascension Sunday in fact describes where we are pretty well. We are disciples gathered in hopeful but anxious waiting for something big to happen.
How is it with us, old-time members and new members, gathered in this room upstairs from our city street? There is so much good happening here that it blows me away. New members, gifted leaders, beautiful music, important projects. And I don’t want the opportunity of having a guest pastor go by without noting that we have a very gifted pastor and on top of that, we have enjoyed years of pastoral leadership of the highest integrity—these are blessings all too rare. So far, I’d say we’re a hit.
But here’s the question that I think this text hits us with, old and new Christians, right between the eyes: are we all finding, welling up from the gospel of Jesus, the power from on high which makes our coming together as one and going out to all effective and energizing rather than work? Involvement in whatever community can feel like an awkward, painstaking dance, where we try not to step on each other’s toes. That’s the Spirit that Jesus has promised us. And without that power, how are we going to do what Jesus did? How are we going to defy domination and death and bring healing and unconquerable life, from here to the ends of the earth? How are we going to reconcile the world to God, without some extraordinary power?
The suggestion from our reading might sound as corny as Jesus on a cloud. Luke tells us that the disciples in their gathering “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” adding a word that our translation practically leaves out: homothymadòn, literally, “with the same inward passion.” We don’t want to leave out that word. What does it look like for us to pray together with the same inward passion? Luke doesn’t say they were only doing one kind of prayer. Does it look like Common Ground? Or Centering Prayer? Or does it take the form of song? Or maybe some other form we haven’t discovered yet? Or maybe it happens simply in the Pastoral Prayer we are about to enter into together. Maybe the form isn’t as important as a desire in our minds and hearts to be overtaken by the Spirit of God that alone can make our ministry here not only effective and unified but deeply satisfying and unconquerable. For now, until next week, let us pray, however we are able, from that hunger and longing awakened by Jesus’ promise, come Holy Spirit. Amen.