Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension of the Lord Sunday).
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Following Jesus can give you jet lag.
I came to this conclusion about 3AM Thursday morning, as I lay awake, my internal clock still six hours ahead, convinced it was time to wake up.
There is something both frustrating and funny about jet lag. On the one hand, my brain knew that it was 3AM; I could look at the clock, I could see how dark it was outside. I knew I should go back to sleep, to start adjusting to eastern standard time. On the other hand, my body knew that it was more like 9AM, and I was going to miss breakfast if I didn’t get up and at ‘em. And there’s nothing more frustrating than when your brain decides to argue with your body, because it almost always loses.
Which is how I found myself making scrambled eggs at 3AM, and thinking about Jesus’ final words to his disciples: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about time zones or the disorientation of jet lag. He was responding to a question by the disciples. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they had just asked.
It must have seemed like the right time to them. Jesus had risen from the dead, hung around for several weeks doing miracles and, you know, being a miracle. What was left? Just the miracle they’d wanted from the start: Israel as the beacon of God’s kingdom, the place where God’s way of life was most truly and beautifully shown.
After all, Jesus has been promising them the kingdom for years now. Surely it’s time, right?
Because here’s the thing: if God restores the kingdom, if God waves a miracle wand and changes the entire political, economic, social, and religious landscape, they don’t have to do the work anymore. Once the kingdom is restored, the disciples can hang up their hats. Game over. And they’re eager for that—who wouldn’t be? Jesus, tell us: is it time now for God to fix everything? Is it time for us to step aside?
Jesus’ answer must have been a disappointment. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Not only is God not about to swoop in and fix everything, but the disciples are getting a whole new set of marching orders. Easter wasn’t the end of their story, like they’d hoped; it was only intermission. Now they have to go witness to what they have seen. Now they have to go share the hope of God’s kingdom even beyond Israel’s borders.
It must have been jarring, but nothing compared to what happened next. Jesus ascends.
Now we’ve heard this story a bunch of times, most of us, and it’s easy to kind of gloss over this moment. Jesus ascends, it’s what he does, and now he’s off to go be king of heaven, isn’t that nice? But slow down a second, and put yourself in the disciples’ sandals. Here they are, talking to their friend, when all of a sudden he lifts off from the earth and floats up on a cloud, getting smaller and smaller until they can’t even see him.
This is weird, guys. The disciples are bewildered. After all, they might have known, with their brains, that Jesus was God, and prone to miracles, like walking on water and through walls and out of tombs. They might have known with their brains that he was going back to his father in heaven, and that (as far as they knew) that meant going up. Their brains were probably going, “yes, okay, Jesus is ascending to his father, this is as it should be.”
But their bodies know differently. Their human bodies know the rules, of gravity and physics and what is possible and impossible. Their bodies know that people do not float into the sky.
And so they stand there, brains and bodies arguing with each other about what they could possibly be seeing, and it has to have been so disorienting, like jet lag times a thousand.
Luckily, there are two angels on hand to cut through the confusion for them. It’s kind of a funny scene, honestly. There the disciples are, mouths agape, necks craned back like turkeys in the rain, trying to reconcile what they just saw with what they know to be possible. And here come the angels, all cool and collected, to ask them what exactly they’re doing.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they ask. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
I have to wonder if these are the same two angels who asked the women at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning who they were looking for. If not, they were plucked from the same peanut gallery. Of course the women at the tomb were baffled by the resurrection; of course the disciples were baffled by the ascension.
Jesus’ story flies in the face of everything we are trained to believe is possible. God’s kingdom flies in the face of how we think the world works.
To choose to believe this story—Jesus’ story, God’s story—is to choose to live in two different worlds, two different times. It is to choose to live in the kingdom of God that is yet to come at the same time as we live in northern KY in 2017. It is to choose to live with the disorientation of knowing that we are being called to a different way of being in the world than the one the world suggests to us.
It’s been a tough week in global news—bombings in Manchester, Egypt, Syria. But it is always a tough week in global news—there is always violence, and hunger, and fear, always cruelty and posturing and arrogance. And every once in a while, I can feel myself starting to glaze over, starting to grow numb. My adaptive brain wants to adjust, wants to shut it out. My brain knows that violence has always been part of humanity’s arsenal, and always will be, and I should just get used to it, and not care so much.
But something else—we’ll call it a soul—my soul knows just as strongly that this is not how things are supposed to be. My soul knows that Jesus has laid out for us a different way, a way of loving our enemies and seeking peace. My soul knows that Jesus has called me to care, to grieve with those who grieve, to never grow accustomed to cruelty. My soul knows that all is not lost; that there is work each of us can do to foster love and acceptance in our circles. My soul knows that there is another world coming, a world without end, and it is not a world where teen girls have to worry about being killed at concerts, or parents have to worry about their children not coming home from war, or young women have to be worried about receiving abuse on trains. My soul knows that I have to live in both worlds, both times—the time I have been given here on earth, and the time that Jesus has promised us, a time when the kingdom of God will be restored, not just in Israel, but in every bit of land and sea on this earth.
And that, friends, can lead to some pretty serious jet lag. My brain knows that violence is inevitable. My soul knows there is another way.
But the good thing is, just like my brain lost to my body at 3AM on Thursday, it doesn’t fare much better against my soul.
Being a person of faith is, in some ways, learning to live with confusion, discomfort, disorientation. It is learning to be okay with the fact that not everything Jesus promises has come to pass yet. It is learning to understand why we feel compassion for people we’ve never met, why prayer is so powerful, why we are so sure that love is stronger than hate, when evidence seems to point in other ways. Being a person of faith is learning to learn in a constant state of jet lag, and refusing to adjust. Being a person of faith is living with a foot in two worlds, and learning to balance.
And so we come together on Sunday mornings, to carve out a space for God’s time, to seek God’s reassurance that the kingdom is still coming, to reorient ourselves to God and what God is sending us to do: to witness to all peoples the power of God’s love. To go out into our time and space and show people how to set their clocks differently, how to turn their watches to God’s time.
Jesus ascended, and the disciples were baffled. And I have to think that for the rest of their lives they stayed baffled. As they went through the world, preaching and healing and showing people that they didn’t need to be separated by wealth or gender or race, showing people that life was better lived in unity than in hostility, I have to think it baffled them to see how people warmed to their message. How they were able to change the world, were able to heal, were able to unite. That flies in the face of everything they thought they knew. But they did it all the same. And 2000 years later, we carry on their mission.
Jesus ascended, and so did the disciples. Not in the same way, not in a grand way, not floating into the skies on a cloud. No, they climbed the back stairs, knees creaking, one flight at a time, till they reached an upper room, where Jesus’ friends and family had gathered, men and women who looked at each other and remembered what Jesus had asked them to do, and said:
This is weird. This is confusing. This is impossible.
Let’s get started.
May it be so with us.