A Sermon by The Rev. James E. Eaton ©2021
Ascension Sunday • May 16, 2021
I suppose every parent acquires little verbal exclamations that really mean, “You’re about to be in trouble”. My father’s was to stand, hands on his hips, and thunder, “What do you think you’re doing?” This worked on me for 14 years and on my middle brother for 10 years but when my youngest brother was four and my father delivered his line, “What do you think you’re doing?””, David replied sweetly, “I have no idea” and walk away scot free. When I think about the scene from Acts we read today, I can’t help thinking of my father standing over us with that line, “What do you think you’re doing?”, because when I imagine the scene and I think of the disciples standing there, staring into the sky, where Jesus has gone, I visualize the heavenly visitor saying loudly, “What do you think you’re doing”—”Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?”. I can’t help wondering if a similar heavenly visitor wouldn’t say the same to us: why are you standing around? what do you think you’re doing?
What do you think you’re doing? Most churches have a great diversity of people. Some have worshipped there all of long lives; some are newly beginning to worship. Some have come from other churches, some have never been involved in a church. How many of us know what we’re doing when we come to church?
All the gospels agree there was a moment when the disciples had to face life without Jesus present in an earthly body. Imagine what church life would be like if this were not so: suppose you had Jesus Christ leading the church instead of a minister. He would never go to the dry cleaner because his clothes would always shine. He wouldn’t need health care, because he would be self- healing. He would be infinitely patient, endlessly forgiving, always understanding. You wouldn’t have to wonder whether he had the right idea because he’s Jesus Christ—who are you to argue? You wouldn’t have to wonder if he got the Bible right because what is the Bible but what he says? But of course that’s not what church life is and church life has never been that. All the accounts agree that a few weeks after his resurrection, Jesus left, and when he left, there was a period when his followers didn’t know what to do.
Luke sets the scene just outside Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples are impatient; maybe they are just curious. One of the disciples asks, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” This is as big as their vision is: all they expect is for Jesus to be a super hero, a super David, a new Judas Maccabeus, the leader who threw out the descendants of Alexander the Great. All they want is for him to overthrow the Romans, get rid of the Herodians, set himself up as king and them as his assistants and run a nice new kingdom. “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel, Lord?” They are getting impatient. They’ve asked before and he’s told them: not yet. Not now: we’re on the way to Jerusalem. That made sense. In fact, they get to Jerusalem and you remember what happens: everyone parades into town. Surely the disciples were thinking, “This is good, this is good, this is going to work, he’s going to do it now”. But it doesn’t work and the next thing you know he’s hanging on a cross, they’re running for their lives, and wondering no doubt, “What happened to restoring the Kingdom?” But then he is resurrected; well, for someone who has come back from death, restoring a Kingdom would be small beans.
But he doesn’t do anything about the Kingdom. What does he do? Well, he eats with people. He has a fish dinner, he holds a breakfast. He shows up when the disciples are gathered for dinner. But he doesn’t get to work, he does not restore the Kingdom. The Romans are still in charge, the Herodians are still collecting taxes, nothing has changed. Naturally, the disciples are a little concerned: “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”. You can hear their impatience. This is what Jesus says: “None of your business—it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.” The disciples have this little vision in mind, restoring the Kingdom, but what Jesus tells them is don’t worry about that, you’re going to be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, to the ends of the earth.
Now let’s review who these people are: small businessmen, fishermen, farmers, who have never been out of town before until he brought them to Jerusalem. They’ve never been anywhere but he’s talking about sending them to the ends of the earth. In 1971, I worked in a church in northern Idaho and there was an old woman who had never been out of the county. Ninety miles south, where Idaho gets wide, there’s a beautiful resort area with a lake called Coueur d’Alene. One day I visited this woman and she wanted to hear about the rest of the world. She said, “have you ever been to Coueur d’Alene?” I said “Sure”—to me, Coueur d’Alene was a backwater. But to her it was the ends of the earth. In New England, the ends of the earth is Los Angeles. But if you live in Los Angeles, the east coast is the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth is where you haven’t been and it’s hard to imagine going.
Jesus tells the disciples, first, I’m going to make you a witness. And I’m going to send you to Jerusalem—that’s scary to begin with!—and secondly to Judea, back home, third to Samaria, to a bad neighborhood that scares you and finally to the ends of the earth, to some place you never thought of going. And that is exactly what happens. Every one of these men whose story we know ends up at the ends of the earth. Take Peter; he’s a fisherman. Fisherman know tides and currents and depths and where to find fish in one place. They know that one place deeply and well, they know how to find what’s hidden in one place. I’m willing to bet Peter had never been off that one body of water before Jesus came along. Peter ends up in Rome, the biggest city of his day, hundreds of miles away from home, among Gentiles. Nothing would have predicted he would go to Rome. Why do you think Peter ended up there? Because Jesus sent him as a witness.
This is what we are intended to do, be a witness. It’s simple and it consists of two parts: seeing and reporting, seeing and reporting. It means going out and looking for where God is working and reporting what you’ve seen. It means looking where God is loving and sharing that, looking for where God’s grace is active and telling someone about it. That is what we are doing when we are the people Christ intended.
Now we could spend days talking about how to do it. But the first and most important way is quietly, simply, with your own life. In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two seniors cut class and go to Chicago. Ferris Bueller is a kid who decides to show his best friend a good day. So he takes him to the Chicago Art Institute, to a fancy restaurant, to a baseball game and to a parade. At the end of this ideal day, Ferris says to his friend, “What did you see?” and the friend replies, “Nothing good.” Ferris lists off one by one the great things they have seen. It is not whether there is something to see, it quickly becomes evident, but whether you choose to see its goodness. There is no lack of sights; there is occasionally a lack of vision.
Once when Jacquelyn was visiting North Carolina, she found a beautiful small town park. The grass was green, there were flowers and benches; it was like a picture from the North Carolina Board of Tourism. Tired from walking, she could easily imagine just sitting down on the little bench and resting. Then she saw the sign: “No Loitering”. No Loitering in the park—we’ve all laughed about that sign since; after all, isn’t that the whole point of a park? You go there to loiter; you go there to slow down, stop, appreciate. Drive by appreciation doesn’t really work; you have to loiter, wait before wonder kicks in. A park where you can’t loiter? It’s like a pool where you can’t swim, ice cream you can’t lick or a church where you can’t find God.
Let’s not be a park with a no loitering sign or a church that forgot how good the God we’ve seen is. Right from the beginning, from the moment Jesus left this stage, his followers have been faced with two choices: stand around gazing into heaven waiting for him to come backs or look around and see the world here, see the people around, and go tell them about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. Tell them by living like it’s true. Tell them by showing them it is possible. Tell them by continuing to make this church the body of Christ, moved at his command, healing and teaching his way. That’s being a witness, and that’s just what Jesus told us to do. Who knows where it may lead?