Why Are You Looking Up?
Acts 1:1-6, John 17:1-11
Rev. Doug Van Doren
Both of the lectionary texts for today have particular significance to UCC folks. Lines from each text are incorporated into the UCC symbol which you can find on the spine of your hymnal. The text from Acts includes, "And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." This is shown in the orb divided by the base of the cross signifying those regions. The text from John contains the line (Vs. 11) "That they may all be one." These words are in the outer ring of the symbol at the bottom. I am intrigued by both these passages. Let's start with Acts.
This text is a description of the Ascension (Ascension Day was Thursday, 40 days after Easter). The writer of Acts, who also wrote/compiled the Gospel of Luke, tells a story of the 12 Apostles, Jesus' brothers, and "some women," including Jesus' mother. They are with Jesus after the resurrection.
In this post-resurrection story the disciples evidently think that Jesus will now, finally, do what they expected him to do during his regular earthly life - restore Israel to glory, to independent and dominant rule. He replies, in a section of the text that Harold Camping, most recent predictor of the end of the world, has obviously not read, "It is not for you to know the times or periods..." Then he says, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." In other words, the issue is not about predicting or waiting for God's grand move. Rather, it is about Jesus' continuing activity in the Holy Spirit. When Jesus departs, the Holy Spirit will come. Jesus offers, NOT escape from the world, but rather the power to be faithful, obedient to God, whatever comes along. He offers the power to witness to the God of love and hope.
After Jesus says this, he ascends. He levitates into the clouds, out of their sight. (Remember that the ancients saw heaven as up. They saw the earth as a plain with three or seven heavens above it. The heavens got better as they went up - thus our expression today, "Seventh Heaven.") I must admit that whenever I think of the Ascension, I remember the story of when the astronomer Carl Sagan called his good friend, Bishop Shelby Spong and said, "I have just been thinking, from the time Jesus ascended, he hasn't gotten out of our solar system yet!" For us, the idea of "up" may not work like it did for the ancients, but existence on a different realm or plain might.
While the disciples are looking up, their eyes popping out and their mouths agape, these two angel visitants come along. They say - under the circumstances, one of the stupidest lines in the Bible (and there are many!) - they say, "Why are you looking up?" "Well, duh! Why do you think?! We just saw Jesus float out of sight!" The visitors seem to think this is pretty matter-of-fact. I guess to angels this is no big deal. They say, "This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." We don't know what that means, but likely, as the next chapter of Acts is about the Holy Spirit which descends from above, that is what Luke means. It is possible, however, that Luke's audience is still holding onto the notion of the Son of Man coming out of the sky to restore the earth.
But let's go back to this stupid question, "Why are you looking up?" I don't think that is really a question, do you? I think it is a statement in the guise of a question. (We all do that: "Are you going to wear that?") What is the writer really trying to say? It appears pretty clear that the writer is saying that the disciples' attention should be out, not up. Jesus' attention was on the earth. This earth is the realm of God's visitation and of God's attention. This will be the realm of the work of the Holy Spirit. The angel visitors are saying, "Look out, look around, look at the world. That is the direction of God's longing and of your work. That is where God wants you."
This idea is in stark contrast to the dominant religious focus of Jesus' day under the Pharisees. For them, religion was only a way to get into the next world, the afterlife. By default they seemed to be saying that God had given up on this world, that God was only God of the next world, not this one. Jesus believes that God is the true God, the God of this world and the next. The disciples do as Jesus says. They go back into the world. They go back to the very center of religious life. They go back to the very city where Jesus was killed and where they were frightened for their lives. They go back to Jerusalem and begin their work with prayer.
This morning's reading from the Gospel of John has two things in common with the one from Acts. That is, the disciples' confusion (nothing new) and their talk about heaven and eternal life. In John, we continue Jesus' farewell address from the previous two weeks' lectionary texts. The writer of John has set up this text so that we are listening in on Jesus' prayer. This is a prayer for his disciples - which includes us.
Jesus is facing the cross. He is talking about being glorified and thus glorifying God. The disciples here, as they do in Acts, think that it is time for Jesus to finally make his big move. They think he will be glorified by some great act of power and restoration. Jesus, however, is talking about his crucifixion. He will be glorified, and will glorify God through the crucifixion. What is it about Jesus' crucifixion that could possibly glorify God? It appears that it is his obedience. That is, his following through, all the way through, on his call to dwell among and live with and on behalf of the people, even unto death. Standing with, but also standing up for, the people is what got him crucified. Yes, Jesus shows us the presence and love of God, but he also shows us what it looks like to be a human as God intends. That is, to be fully attuned to and fully obedient to God. That faithfulness is what glorifies God.
Jesus' connection with the disciples and his connection with God, connect the disciples to God. He says the same thing in John about the work of the Holy Spirit that Acts does. He says that the Holy Spirit will be with the disciples and will give them power. Jesus will no longer be in the world (in person), but the disciples will be in the world as his representatives. Through his Spirit they will have the power to be obedient to God no matter what hardships and persecutions they face. Again, the issue is not being taken out of the world, but being faithful, obedient, representatives of God in the world.
Let's look at what "heaven" or the "reign of God" means here. Often when there is a reference to the "reign of heaven" or to "eternal life" in a text, we immediately think that it is talking about the afterlife-immortality. That is usually a mistake. It certainly is in these passages. Both these texts are talking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is clearly shown to be the Spirit of Jesus active in this world. There is no hint that the work of the Spirit is just to get Christians over to the next world. That makes no sense.
In the Christian Scriptures, the "reign of heaven" is understood as wherever people live in communion with God and one another. It is a present as well as a future reality and state of being. Clearly Jesus, like the Pharisees, assumes the afterlife. He seems to take immortality for granted. That was a dominant belief and assumption long before Jesus' resurrection. Resurrection doesn't guarantee, or even illustrate immortality, it doesn't need to. Rather it illustrates the beginning of a new age. It illustrates the beginning of the age when God's will and way will be done on earth. It makes clear that the powers of darkness cannot overcome the powers of light not only in heaven but on this earthly realm as well. In other words, God has NOT conceded defeat in this world! God has not abandoned us here, only acting as the judge of whether we get to the next realm or not.
We would do well to remember Wesley Allen's description, "It is clear from the opening of Jesus' prayer that John defines eternal life not in terms of the length of life (i.e., immortality) but in terms of the quality of existence." I know several people whose existence does have the quality of the eternal. They have a lasting influence. The quality of their existence changed the lives of many people for the good. However, we are not only talking a legacy or that which will last in posterity. Jesus also seems to be talking about a state of being here and now.
How do you define the word "eternal?" You probably think of existence after death going on forever. We tend to define the word "eternal" like that, going on forever, an infinite number of years. There is another way to think about eternality that is probably truer to the Scripture. That is "timelessness" - existence out of time, when time doesn't matter, or when time seems to stand still. If "eternality" means "forever," or an infinite number of years, it can only be after death, as death is an inescapable part of this life.
Timelessness, however, is something we experience in this life from "time to time." I remember shortly after my wife, Colleen, and I met, we sat in the car in my driveway one whole ni