"Why are you standing there?" - Acts 1:1-11; 2 Kings 2
I wonder what other bible stories this passage brings to your mind.
Perhaps the first connection you made is the most obvious one—this story of Christ’s ascension sounds a lot like the story we heard from 2 Kings, where Elijah is swept away by a chariot and Elisha gazes after him, before he stoops to pick up his mantle.
Another connecion is with the Easter story—did you catch it? Like the scene at the empty tomb, here we have two messengers who appear in shining robes and say, “Why are you here? Jesus is gone!”
We also have a reference to forty days. Forty is the number in scriptures used to signify sacred time, a time when God’s work is being done. Moses went up on the mountain on Mt. Sinai for forty days. Elijah went up on Mt. Horeb for forty days. The ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before arriving at the promised land. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. You can probably think of other references to the number forty in the scriptures.
These connections are not just cool coincidences. The writer wants to show that, no matter how the disciples might feel in the moment, they are not on their own, abandoned, left without resources. Instead, they are part of a narrative of faith that spans a couple thousand years. They might see Jesus leaving as the end of a book. But the writer of Luke and Acts wants us to see that this is more like the turning of a page. A whole new chapter of the church awaits. Yes, this new chapter will look and sound different from their previous chapters-- Jesus is gone from bodily form, the spotlight has swung—but the story will continue. Like Elisha, the disciples need to pick up the mantle and carry on the work. They need to leave their tight-knit community and go out into the world.
The work will be tough. However, they must remember that they do not do it alone. Jesus has promised them a helper, an Advocate, coming in the Holy Spirit. And spoiler alert: the Holy Spirit does come, next week, in a fiery way.
So, for forty days, the disciples have been listening and learning from Jesus, talking among themselves, sharing their stories. Now, Jesus has left. What is next?
In the passage today, the disciples are standing around looking at the heavens and again, messengers need to show up and remind them what they said at the tomb: “Jesus is not here, people. You will know when he comes back, we promise. He’ll come back in the way that he left...In the meantime, what are you doing there? Why are you still looking up to heaven? Why are you just standing there?!”
We can understand this inclination of the disciples. And we should be comforted by the fact that the disciples still haven’t quite figured out what it means to be the church, following Jesus.
Even these disciples who have spent 40 days with a resurrected Christ, they who have received abundant proof of his resurrection, they who have heard Jesus praying and talking about a kingdom of God--a kingdom that is more like a kin-dom, a kin-dom that pushes the boundaries of love and relationship--even they who have heard Jesus talk about how this kin-dom is not the possession of one people or one race but how it is for the whole world, a world that will include Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, even they need to be reminded what it means to be the church. Even they need to be reminded that worshiping Jesus doesn’t mean just standing around gazing longingly at the sky, talking among themselves.
So, yes, we could find some comfort in the fact that the disciples still don’t quite get it. Still the disciples think this is about them. They think that Jesus is only there to help them return to power with their own little kingdom. In their last moments with Jesus, before he leaves them, we hear them say, excitedly: “Oh, great! So is THIS the time when you’ll bring back the kingdom of Israel? Is this when we can get our own king and judges and prophets to our self again?”
I can imagine that Jesus must have just stared at them, incredulous. In fact, I believe that if you listen closely, you can even hear Jesus Jesus smack his forehead with his palm.
“No, no no, you all. That is not it. Repeat after me: The kingdom of God isn’t about Us. It isn’t about this little cozy group of believers. The kingdom of God is about sharing the story of what I, Jesus, have done here, where I’ve visited, the people to whom I’ve talked, how I’ve broken bread with the stranger and the foreigner, the Pharisee and the prostitute. The kingdom of God is about leaving behind this cozy group and going out to the ends of the earth and witness, tell my story, share my love, offer my healing.”
Then Jesus leaves. And the disciples stand there, trying to figure out what is happening. They need an extra prod. They need to realize that the spotlight is swinging, starting to focus on them. They can no longer just watch and be awed by Christ’s amazing signs and loving wonders; they must now go forth themselves and do such amazing, loving signs and wonders out in the world, in Christ’s name, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The spotlight is swinging, swinging from what Jesus says about himself to what the disciples will show and tell about Jesus.
As preacher Will Willimon puts it, the disciples are not supposed to be “wistfully looking after their departed leader, setting up a memorial society to a dead Jesus.” The spotlight is swinging, swinging from Jesus spending time with this cozy little community to how the disciples will go forth and embody Christ’s love and community in the world.
We all know that, at times, Christians have fallen short of living out the true message of Christ. We all can write a long list of horrific atrocities done in the name of Jesus. Indeed, even if it is painful to face, we must remember that, in the last two months, here in the United States, white Christian terrorists have stabbed and killed black men like Timothy Caughman and Richard Collins III. Two years ago a white Christian terrorist shot up a church in Charleston. Last Friday, a white Christian terrorist harassed two teenagers—one black, one Muslim—on a train and then stabbed the three men who came to their rescue.
When we turn horrified attention to the Islamic extremist in Manchester who reaps evil in the name of Muhammad, we must not forget our own track record, of the horrible ways people have chosen to use the name of Jesus to justify their own way of seeing the world. For example, we all know people in our city of Richmond, down the road in Charlottesville, in Washington DC, and beyond, who use Jesus to justify their cozy, closed-of group of white supremacists.
We must not let these people be the only ones carrying forth the name of Christ into the world. And we must confess that this is our tendency, similar to the disciples: we want to stand around with people who look like us, gazing nostalgically at the sky, longing for our own little kingdom of power.
But then we hear Jesus say again, “Your job is NOT to talk with authority about when the Kingdom is coming and who gets in. Your job is to tell my story and witness to my love and grace and healing. Your job is to remind people of how I welcome them, how I sit and heal, talk and eat with them.”
The disciples have spent 40 days with Jesus since Easter. These are important days. These are important days for them to listen and learn from Christ, and from each other. It is important for us to come to worship and share the story of Jesus among ourselves—even in the summer months. It is important to embody the peace of Christ to each other even if it means shaking hands with a stranger. We need this time to remind our selves what we believe, what Jesus has said and shown to us.
Still, we cannot stay here forever, remaining comfortable in our beautiful building. We must listen when two messengers in shining robes show up and say “Wait, why are you still standing here just talking among yourselves? Get out there and start meeting new people! Go! Get!”
I have a friend from college, Mel Baars O’Malley, who served as a leader in her Greek sorority and as an army chaplain in Afghanistan. Mel is still the only person I met who easily changes clothes from pink, pearls, and high heels to camouflage--and back again.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I think about Mel and the ministry she has done with our women and men in the armed forces. She has walked with them through many tough and trying situations, challenges that test our understanding of faith and ethics and healing.
Mel has written about her experiences with this community, the joys and challenges that she faced there. Here is one of her reflections:
“Nothing about seminary had prepared me for this. For three years, I had been one of many women studying for a divinity degree at Duke Divinity School. In fact, more than half of my classmates were women, and regardless of gender, almost all the students shared a similar understanding of theology and Scripture, pretty squarely within the bounds of mainline Protestantism.
Imagine my shock when, a few days after graduation, I arrived at Fort Jackson, S.C., for my basic training as an Army chaplain. Of the more than 150 students in my class, most came from religious traditions very different from -- and far more conservative than -- mine. Only four were women.
Any anxiety I felt on my arrival was confirmed hours later when we all boarded a bus to go to an event off the base.
“What are you doing here?” one of the aspiring shepherds asked me. “Women aren’t supposed to be chaplains.”
It was my first real desert experience…
That first training experience -- officially called the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course -- was exactly 40 days. Looking back, I see that even that was significant, for this was my own version of the wilderness.
Like my Israelite ancestors, I complained a lot. I buried my head in the sand, refusing to see the manna that God provided despite my ingratitude.
But also like the Israelites, toward the end of the journey I learned new ways of community. With imaginations reshaped by our training, I and my peers, despite our radical differences, became more willing to embrace each other.
The night before we graduated, my squad -- the Army’s version of a “small group” -- went to a local Chili’s to celebrate. As we broke bread together, I saw my companions in a new light.
Yes, they were still conservative evangelicals who disagreed with me about almost everything. Yet because of our time together in the desert, we shared more than our disagreement. We now knew one another intimately, and somehow that knowledge helped us transcend our theological differences.
During the meal, one of my colleagues, a new chaplain who had been one of the most vocal opponents of women in ministry, told me about the imminent birth of his first child, a daughter, and his excitement and fear about the prospect of becoming a father.
He showed me her ultrasound photo and, with tears in his eyes, confessed that he hoped she might one day be like me -- in his words, ‘strong and sure, a willing servant of God.’
I never knew if he officially changed his mind about women in ministry, and I could wait the rest of my life before he would ever tell me. But that wasn’t important. It was his acknowledgment and acceptance that really mattered. In our role as chaplains, the Army had room for both of us.
...As an Army chaplain, I was used to colleagues questioning my presence. But their disapproval was not the end of our collective story. After months of working together, experiencing and supporting one another in the throes of ministry, those same doubters often had a change of heart. After all, the Army ensures that soldiers from every religious background may practice their faith and be led by capable chaplains who can create an appropriate sanctuary.
It is in military chaplaincy, perhaps more than anywhere else in the religious world, that people from every theological background are thrown together and forced, because of our Constitution, to find a way forward. I can’t imagine a more pertinent challenge for the church today, especially when so many denominations are struggling to address these same issues.”
We can spend a lot of time looking longingly after Jesus, trying to get back to a past time—when the church was full to the brim with people who looked just like us, when America was great for white Christians, when our belief systems and community weren’t challenged in the slightest, when everything was cozy and we could stay hunkered down in our upper room.
But that is not what this story of Christ’s Ascension tells us. This story tells us that the Spirit doesn’t come when we’re standing around, feeling nostalgic for the way things used to be. The Spirit comes when we start a new chapter, start to do ministry.
“Why are you standing here?” the messengers call out to the disciples.
The Holy Spirit is coming, and we must be out in the world to catch it.
The Holy Spirit is coming, and we must be around other people to embody it.
The Holy Spirit is coming, and the only thing that is unsurprising is how completely the Spirit will surprise us.
We are not alone. Christ has prepared us for this new chapter.
“Why are you standing here?” Let us follow God out into the world.
Kathryn Lester-Bacon preached this sermon at Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA on May 29th, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.