It Starts Now
It Starts Now
Well, here we are, on the seventh Sunday of Easter, thinking about what it means to build a church. We’d expected that Diana Butler Bass would be here, however, due to Amtrak tragedies and airline delays, you’re stuck with me today, on ascension Sunday.
Today’s passage from Acts is the very beginning of the book, Luke’s starting story. It invited the first disciples and it invites us to understand that one very essential quality of a church, this community we’re called to build, is the quality of courage.
A quote from Annie Dillard on writing—
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.
Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.
Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.
Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”
I always imagine it was a beautiful day.
I imagine that, more than a clear blue sky, there must have been a breeze off the Sea of Galilee, wildflowers blooming everywhere they looked . . . that day was a day of starting over, getting back (finally) to the way things used to be before all the recent and horribly dark events of the last few weeks. They’d lived through, don’t forget, political controversy, Jesus’ arrest and torture, a violent crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Unlike most humans who grieve a death, however, Jesus’ disciples must have felt like they’d won the lottery. They’d lived through it all and carried their heavy, heavy regrets until, unbelievably, Jesus had risen from the dead.
He’d appeared to them in their hiding place, their locked upper room; he’d met them on the beach; and according to Luke’s report here in Acts, he’d given them “many convincing proofs” and talked to them over and over for forty days about the same thing: the coming kingdom of God.
And now, on this day Luke recounts, Jesus finally walked with them again, up and down the rolling hills of Galilee, with the breeze blowing and the sun shining just enough for everyone to begin to believe that the pain was all behind them . . . that even with the trauma they’d just lived through, maybe, possibly, hopefully . . . things just might begin to get back to normal.
And, according to Luke, it seemed that that day on Galilee’s hillside was starting out to be just that.
As they walked along behind Jesus, they must have smiled knowingly and reassuringly at each other as they collectively hoped that things were finally returning to what they’d known before, that they had somehow, inexplicably, cheated death and could move on to whatever was next for their dynamic leader.
They listened to him preach that day, not really understanding him . . . 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?
When my children were little, we had a list on our family bulletin board, tacked up every fall and listing what seemed every year an interminably long recitation of school days we’d have to survive. This list included all the things that animated our shared life as parent and child of elementary school age: soccer practice, science projects, field trips…. It became a ritual in our house that, first thing upon returning home from school, one of the kids would take a pen and cross out the day that had just been finished. And, little by little, one by one, the days disappeared. I was thinking about that this week when I realized that there are 24 days left until high school graduation for my current senior. 24 days! All of those carpool schedules and nights of homework and we’re almost there, it’s almost over.
I love knowing how much more I have to endure, so 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 . . . , then 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.
Had I been there, I would have been among the group of disciples staring, mouths 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? Was all the grief and pain they’d experienced for nothing? 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 about it is how those disciples must have felt when Jesus left—Maybe abandoned? At a loss? Unsure of what to do next? Scared to death?
Luke uses the memory of this event to begin his 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?
William Loader, an Australian Baptist theologian and Biblical scholar, suggests that Luke starts with this story because the poignant image of the disciples, crowded together on that mountaintop, is a strong representation of the ongoing question of modern Christ-followers, a question that must be answered over and over again with every generation that dares to embrace the Christian message.
You heard what the disciples want to know: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
But 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 starts now. How could you have missed what I have been telling you this whole, entire time?
But, they did.
And, we do.
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.
I wonder just what we need to stop all the rhetoric about the “not yet” and get busy with Jesus’ invitation to change the world, little by little, starting right here and right now? If Annie Dillard had been standing there, she probably would have said—it’s time to start spending it—all that he taught you, all that he showed you. You can’t save it. You can’t keep it to yourself.
It’s a strange way for Dr. Luke to start the story of the first church, but come to think of it, everything about Jesus, God come to earth, is always taking us by surprise. The core of Jesus’ message was one of turning everything we expected on its head. He taught us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, to love our enemies. He said when this kingdom started to come to be, the weeping would dance with joy and the oppressed would experience freedom and those who lived crippled with an absence of hope would begin, unbelievably, to anticipate the future.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that what we expected—what even the first disciples expected—was not in any way what God had in mind.
No waiting around for the coming of a lofty reality we can only imagine.
No grandstand view from the sidelines, during which we debate who among us would be the most important of all.
No standing there, gaping at an empty sky, wondering what miraculous fix Jesus will pull out of his hat this time.
The kingdom of God starts now. It starts now.
I don’t know why Jesus had to leave. I suppose in some ways it would have been reassuring to have him here, even now, walking us through the reality of his message and hoping, like the first disciples, that despite our seeming denseness, eventually we might catch on.
But maybe it was with an empty sky, with Jesus’ handing of the baton to us, that the story of God’s kingdom come to earth finally, really began.
And begin it did, as those disciples swallowed their fear, and set out to start bringing the kingdom Jesus taught them about into full and tangible reality.
The question for us is, then, the same question they faced that day. Will we just stand there, gazing at an empty sky, wondering who will come to bail us out next?
Or . . . will we turn from the wisp of smoke we see, remember the strong message of Jesus, then use our own lives, our collective life, to make it happen?
Courage. It’s going to take a whole lot of courage to build a church in the way of Jesus. But this is our mandate: not to stand there, slack jawed, staring at the clear blue sky…but to summon all the courage we can, and get to work. God’s coming kingdom will not wait; it starts now.
 Annie Dillard, The Writing Life.