If you’ve ever been outside at night in a remote area – far away from street lights and city lights – you have undoubtedly experienced the sheer awe of looking up at an impossibly dark sky filled with stars. I can think of a handful of these experiences off the top of my head: laying outside on our sleeping bags in a church parking lot in Taos, New Mexico in high school on a mission trip; sleeping outside on a dock north of Duluth, Minnesota; going on a night hike at church camp in Wisconsin; watching the stars and the sky during a lunar eclipse on a family vacation to Door County…
And if you’ve ever been outside like that, amazed by the stars, caught up in counting shooting stars, keeping your eye out for planets or for slow-moving satellites, you know that it’s hard to do anything BUT keep your eyes lifted heavenward. It’s hard to convince yourself to go inside and go to bed, it’s hard to pull yourself up off the grass, you keep saying “one more shooting star, and then I’ll go to bed.” Sometimes, looking heavenward is so amazing that it’s hard to come back to earth.
There aren’t a whole lot of places in the Bible where we hear about people looking up into heaven. We know about the Magi at epiphany, who were star-gazers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels all record Jesus looking up into heaven as he blesses the loaves and fishes, and then uses that small amount of food to miraculously feed thousands of people. Mark’s gospel tells the story of a deaf and mute man who Jesus heals by looking up to heaven and saying “be opened.” Two weeks ago in worship we heard about the martyrdom of Stephen, and how “he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
And that’s about as many places as the Bible talks about someone looking into heaven…until you get to today’s readings! Two of our three readings this morning involve someone looking up to heaven. Jesus looks up to heaven and prays for his disciples. And in our ascension passage from Acts, after Jesus has been taken up to heaven, the disciples stand, gazing up into the clouds.
Can you picture the scene with these disciples, standing dumbfounded, looking up into the sky and scratching their heads, asking themselves “whoa…what just happened here?” Jesus was just here…and now he’s gone. He levitated and rose into the clouds…
And you can just see them standing there, looking at the sky with furrowed brows as two men in white approach them. If I were making the ascension story into a sitcom, I’d certainly have the disciples so caught up in staring at the sky that they didn’t notice the two men joining them. And I’d have these two men look at the disciples questioningly, and then look at each other, shrug, and look up to heaven along with the disciples to see if there’s anything to see.
It’s a funny picture – a whole group of men staring at the sky…staring at absolutely NOTHING. And then, one of the men in white would nonchalantly, “so what are we looking at?” I mean, that’s just about what they say: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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." These two men expose the silliness of the situation. Jesus has gone up into heaven, that’s it, why are you just standing around?
It’s interesting…nobody cared in those other stories that Jesus and Stephen looked up to heaven, so why would these two men in white show up and shake their heads at the disciples looking up to heaven in today’s first reading?
The Magi looked up into the sky, saw an amazing star, and followed it all the way to Jesus. Jesus looked to heaven in order to bless the loaves and fishes, and then went on to feed a whole crowd of hungry people. Jesus looked to heaven with his fingers in a deaf man’s ears, and then healed this man, restoring his hearing and his ability to speak. Jesus looked to heaven and prayed to the Father before being taken off to be crucified. Stephen looked to heaven and saw the glory of God and the face of Jesus and shared this news as his last testimony before he was stoned.
The disciples looked to heaven, where Jesus had just ascended…and then stood there, gazing at the sky.
Do you see the difference here? It’s sort of like playing the “one of these things is not like the others” game on Sesame Street. All of the rest of the stories involved someone looking up to heaven and then doing something – and doing something amazing. Everyone else looked to heaven and then DID something. But here at Jesus’ ascension, the disciples stood, dumbfounded and amazed, keeping their eyes lifted to sky, showing now inclination to do anything but stand there. They were in no rush go anywhere or do anything. This is why the men in white have to give them a nudge. Don’t you know that Jesus is gone? He’ll come back someday, but he’s not gonna’ come right back down, so there’s no sense in standing around! For goodness’ sake, get going!
And so we read on a find that the disciples went back to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer. Those who were blessed to have walked with Jesus were now to continue to be disciples, even in his absence. Waiting for Christ was not something that was to take place camped out on a mountain. Waiting was supposed to be active.
A big part of our experience as people of faith is waiting. In Advent, we wait and prepare for Christ’s birth. In Lent, we wait and prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection. In our daily lives, we wait for Christ to come again. And as we, like the disciples, wait for Jesus to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead – as we wait for him to come down in the same way that he ascended, we have two options:
We can sit, gazing at the sky, standing still, waiting for Christ’s return. Or we can come down off the mountain and be God’s hands and feet in the world while we await Christ’s coming.
Next week, Pentecost, we will hear about the birthday of the church, we will hear about God giving the Holy Spirit to the community of faith, we will hear about how the church became the body of Christ in the world, we will hear about how God called together the earliest community of faith and commissioned it to be a community that prays and learns and baptizes and shares a meal and spreads the good news of Christ and forgiveness and takes care of people in need. We are no different than that first church. In the same way that God’s messengers pulled the disciples off the mountain and helped them become active agents of God in the world, so also does God call us beyond the mountaintop, to be active in faith until Christ comes again.
We are people who have been given God’s free gift of grace – we are people who have been redeemed and saved and claimed by God. We are people who have met Christ in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine. We are people who have heard the word of God and who proclaim the living Christ. We are people who have looked to heaven and seen God; who have looked to the skies and have come face to face with God. But the thing about looking up toward heaven is that God never means for us to get stuck there.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus is praying for those whom he will leave behind on earth – praying for us! He says, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” He’s praying for all of us who will continue to live in the world in order that we might transform it. He’s praying for all of us who will act in faith for the sake of the world. Don’t get me wrong - we aren’t active in the world because it will save us. (Because it won’t!) We act because we ourselves have been saved!
Two weeks ago, we had a meeting of all of Trinity’s boards: the church council, the TLC (The Learning Center) building board, the Trinity daycare board, Cornucopia, and the Trinity House board. Over the course of the morning, we all learned more about each other’s ministries – about the ways that Trinity and its ministries are out there in the world, serving others. We have a couple hundred kids in the daycare, and a couple hundred more on the waiting list. La Voz Latina is expanding its services and is thus expanding its presence in the TLC building. Trinity House continues to partner with organizations that help those who society often overlooks. Cornucopia continues to feed the hungry. We as a church continue to invite people to faith and to a greater understanding of God’s love and salvation. We are already doing many things out in the world that fulfill God’s call. We are not standing idly by, removing ourselves from the world while we wait for heaven.
And we know that it’s not always easy to be out there in the world, acting on God’s behalf. Our reading from 1 Peter reminds us that the ways of God are not the ways of the world, and that being Christ’s hands and feet in the world is a risky endeavor. But even when it’s hard to liv out God’s vision, even when we suffer for our faith, we are reminded in this reading to remaing “ steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
May first, just a few days ago, was designated Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the world was asked to commemorate the the genocide of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. On this day, it is appropriate to remember the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who publicly renounced the rise of the Nazi regime. Out of faith, he stood up against them, suffering arrest and death at their hands. Not many of us are asked to make such a sacrifice out of faith, but people like Bonehoeffer remind us that we are called to live our faith in the world no matter what the consequences. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he talks about the church – the community of faith – and how we are to live as disciples. As people of faith, he says that we "wander on earth and live in heaven, and although [we] are weak, [we] protect the world; [we] taste of peace in the midst of turmoil; [we] are poor, and yet [we] have all [we] want. [We] stand in suffering and remain in joy, [we] appear dead to all outward sense and lead a life of faith within"(270-271).
Nobody said that living a life of faith was going to be easy. But we have seen the glory of God, and are called to respond to God’s grace with lives of faith and discipleship. We are called to cast all our anxieties on the one who will sustain us in our work. We are called to live beyond ourselves and our interests. We are called to go into all the world.
When we share in our Lord’s Supper, we do not do it only for ourselves. We do not come to the table in order to hoard the bread. We do not receive the cup and hide it away. Our table is not Trinity’s table, it is the Lord’s table. The feast is not private. We leave the table, fed and nourished to fight injustice, to free the oppressed, to bear one another’s burdens, to feed the hungry, to care for the poor, to act with charity and compassion, to help our neighbors, to tend to the needs of all of God’s children. The table launches us into the world. Indeed, when we leave worship, we have just agreed with a hearty “Thanks be to God!” to go in peace and serve the Lord, to go in peace and feed the hungry, to go in peace and share the good news, to go in peace and proclaim “Christ is risen!” Christ has gathered us together in faith, and now sends us out into the world to live lives of witness and service, all for the glory the one who has died, who is risen, and who will, indeed, come again.