Jesus Has Left the Building
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!
I remember it like it was just yesterday. I was sitting in the backseat of the next door neighbor’s car on my way to a day as a new first grader at Our Savior Lutheran School. The parent who was driving turned on the radio to the blaring voice of the news announcer reporting that Elvis was dead.
I had no idea who Elvis was, but he was clearly someone important to the lady driving the car, because I remember she pulled over to the side of the road, put her head on the steering wheel and sobbed while all the kids sat there in silence.
In later years, as I watched reruns of Blue Hawaii on the television, I of course knew who Elvis was. I never knew him, however, like the throngs of teenaged fans who crowded concert halls, screaming and climbing over each other just to get a glimpse of the King of Rock ‘n Roll himself. No, I never experienced that, but Rick Goodman proudly gave me this report: “It was one of the top thrills of my life. I was a sophomore in college in 1974. We took a road trip to Wichita Kansas, the thrill center of the universe. Sitting there with a college buddy, we had just seen and heard Elvis live, what an amazing over the top experience. He was such an engaging, entertaining, charming performer, and of course we knew all the words to his songs, and could almost hear them as he sang them over the screams of the teen age girls in the huge audience. Then, it was over. The top performer of rock and roll, for a certain era, the person who defined rock and roll…he had been there big as life (in fact, this was the Fat Elvis era!), ….and then the void, he was gone…..but everyone lingered….until we heard the words over the loudspeaker…”Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building”. We were then freed to resume our daily, mundane, normal, lives…”.
As I mentioned, I am far too young to have experienced this phenomenon in person, but I imagine that it must be something incredible to have so much attention and so much energy trained on the presence or absence of just one person. It wasn’t the first time in history, either. You know that word must have spread like wildfire throughout Galilee after the tomb was empty and Jesus started appearing unexpectedly.
The Gospel of Luke is one of the Gospel accounts that really gives us quite a bit of detail about what Jesus had been up to in the days following his resurrection. Luke includes the two post resurrection accounts of Jesus’ appearance that are not found in the other gospel accounts. The first is the Emmaus story, where Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he breaks bread with them. Today we hear the second account of a post resurrection appearance Jesus when we read about his appearing to the disciples and actually eating a meal with them. After they ate together, they went for a walk with Jesus, which is where we find ourselves in this story.
They listened to him preach that day, not really understanding him, the text tells us . . . but then again, what was new about that? I imagine that they just nodded appreciatively and thanked their lucky stars that things were back on track.
And, just like they remembered, there was a time that afternoon when Jesus would stop preaching and they could ask questions. When that time came, they took the opportunity because, as you might imagine, they had so many questions.
When, they asked?
When would this kingdom come to be?
It was a reasonable question, given all they had been through. They wanted to know: now that you have shown the Roman rulers who’s boss and put the leaders of the temple in their rightful places, when is what we’ve all come to expect going to happen? When will you become the guy in charge and all of us, your faithful followers, distinguished members of your cabinet? When? We saw you conquer death . . . what more could be left?
I can’t blame the disciples for asking what seems to me to be a most logical, reasonable question. We’ve been your faithful followers for some time now. How much longer will we have to live on the fringe of society, believing and hoping that everything you tell us about the kingdom of God will actually come to be? When, Jesus? We want to know . . . we need to know.
But as they asked the burning question of when this would all come to be, and he answered them . . . something about being his witnesses to the whole earth . . . , he suddenly started floating, rising up into the sky, away from them, away from them all over again.
You can imagine their confusion and downright horror. They’d lived through crucifixion, against all odds. They were ready to follow him to whatever was next. And then . . . away he went. Away. Unbelievably, there they were on the hillsides of Galilee hands cupping their eyes, staring up into a brilliant blue sky, trying desperately to understand what Jesus was up to now.
And then he was gone.
Given all they had been through and all the circumstances surrounding that day, I have to admit that if I had been among the group of disciples there I also would have stared, mouth gaping open, at the clouds in the sky and the wisp left behind as Jesus ascended.
And . . . I might have been just a little bit mad.
Where did Jesus think he was going, just as the tide had started to turn and their political hopes were rising? Where did he think he was going after all the grief and pain they had all experienced? How could he leave them after all they’d been through?
This turn of events is commonly known in standard church parlance as a festival called, The Day of Ascension. 2000 years of tradition have led us to turn this event into a feast day. But all I can think of when I read it is how those disciples must have felt when Jesus left—Maybe abandoned? At a loss? Unsure of what to do next?
That’s how I would feel, I’ll admit.
But Luke uses this event to begin his story of the first Christian church, telling the story of the first church in the book of Acts in the form of a letter for his student and friend, Theophilus. What could Luke have been thinking? What could this turn of events possibly mean, other than utter devastation in the lives of people who had already been traumatized beyond reason?
You heard what the disciples want to know: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” For years they had been following him around listening to him talk about the restoration of the kingdom, hope for the oppressed, comfort for those who are living with grief. They wanted to know—we love the message you’ve been preaching. After all we’ve been through, is now the time you have in mind to “show us the money,” as it were?
2000 years later, having heard the message of Jesus and attaching our lives to its promise, we also wrestle with this question. We read these events and beg again, “Don’t leave us by floating off into heaven. Please . . . stick around and bring this kingdom you talk about so often into tangible and stark reality. Please . . . because we are pinning all our hopes on this healing and promise. Please don’t leave us . . . we want to know: is this the time when everything you taught us about God’s healing and transforming presence in the world will really come to be? We want to know . . . we need to know, because believing is hard and we just don’t know how much longer we can keep it up.”
It has become the custom of some Christian traditions to assess the situation in which we find ourselves—2000 years after Jesus’ ascension—and take the position that our obligation as modern-day followers of Jesus is to stand staring up at the sky.
We talk about heaven like it’s the best all-inclusive resort we can imagine.
We pine for a heavenly reality wholly other than the one we live in.
We long grab onto the hem of Jesus’ robe, floating up to the sky to a place in which all our worldly cares will be insignificant.
And . . . because we love to join the disciples in a dreamy, heavenly focus, as an organized church, an institutional expression of what Jesus came to teach us, we have tended to neglect what’s going on right here on earth, staring up at the sky unwilling to believe that Jesus has left the building.
How can we go on without him?
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes movingly about the death of her best friend Pam. After Pam’s death Anne and her son Sam went away for a few days to the beach, where Anne says she cried a lot behind her sunglasses and wished the inside of her snorkeling mask had windshield wipers. The grief she felt was so debilitating she couldn’t imagine how she might ever resume normal life.
During her various forays to the beach and the pool Anne noticed a man also vacationing there who only had one leg. He’d remove his prosthetic leg to go swimming and she’d noticed it lying next to the pool. One day Anne happened to see the man, prosthetic leg laying on the ground again, nimbly climbing a trapeze ladder at the afternoon circus school held behind the haciendas. The man climbed the ladder, she writes, “with disjointed grace, asymmetrical but not clumsy, rung by rung, focused and steady and slow. Then he reached the platform, put on his safety harness, and swung out over the safety net, his one leg hooked over the bar of the trapeze, swinging back and forth, and finally letting go. A teacher on the other trapeze swung toward him, and they caught each other’s hands and held on, and they swung back and forth for awhile. Then he dropped on his back to the safety net and raised his fist in victory. “Yes,” he said, and lay there on the net for a long time, looking at the sky with a secret smile.”
Anne says she shyly approached him, complimented him on his fortitude and asked if he was going to do the trapeze again. He said, “Honey? I got so much bigger mountains to climb.”
The next day Anne saw his plastic leg lying on a beach towel at the far end of the beach, where the wind surfing lessons take place. And she thought of the words of the Persian mystical poet Rumi, who wrote: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” (Traveling Mercies, p. 74-76)
When the Day of Ascension had come, Jesus led the disciples up to the top of a hill and was talking to them about this elusive, strange concept he kept prattling on and on about: the kingdom of God. When they asked him to tell them when, he answered with a rather puzzled response . . . what do you mean when will it come? It’s coming to be right here and now, and after today you will receive power from the Holy Spirit to be my witnesses here and in all of Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. The kingdom of God is not something far-off or other-worldly . . . it’s something that’s coming to be right here and now. How could you have missed what I have been telling you this whole, entire time?
But still, they did.
And still, we do.
All of us, in some form or another, stand there gazing at the blue, empty sky, trying to get our minds around the fact that Jesus, this one we have come to believe is God among us . . . is gone.
For the first disciples it took two angels, the angels some of them had seen at the tomb, to descend from the sky and shake them out of their reverie and tell them plainly that standing around staring into heaven was not going to bring about the kingdom Jesus had been describing this whole time. The angels told the first disciples it was time for them to stop just standing there . . . to stop cowering in fear . . . to stop running for cover, denying they knew him, feigning misunderstanding when he asked them to step up. Why are you standing there looking up into heaven? Jesus has left the building.
And so it is for you and me. We may feel bereft on this Sunday of Ascension, a church feast day commemorating the time Jesus, who came to earth to teach us how to live, left. What’s so celebratory about that? Jesus has left the building.
And maybe its not celebration so much as conviction. Because so much good can come out of situations that seem so painful, and though Jesus had left the building, he’d given the disciples and us, a challenge unlike any we have ever had before. Jesus is gone, but we are the ones here, teaching the promise, living the possibility of God’s kingdom coming to be right here and now.
So, go now. You are witnesses of these things. Amen.