During dinner on Friday, a guest at my table asked how I had prepared a certain dish. I was thrilled to be asked, and I explained it step by step, waiting until the last moment to reveal a surprise ingredient. I prefaced this information with the words, “believe it or not.” As I concluded, the guest said “I do believe.” My response was a confused “What?” “I believe!” he repeated. I had so casually used the words “Believe it or not” that I had to retrace my words to remember them. My friend, who is rather agnostic, if not an atheist, then said “I believe! Isn’t that what you say in church? Don’t you like it when people believe?!”
The church I served before coming here had a practice rooted in the UCC’s German Evangelical and Reformed tradition and enshrined in their constitution of standing at the end of each sermon and reciting the Apostles’ Creed. They had done so every Sunday for a hundred and twenty-five years. Although I found the practice theologically awkward and not very UCC, there were more pressing matters to address there. I did assure folks that they should feel free refrain from the creed or from any section they could not assent to. The word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo” which literally means “I believe.” The Apostles’ Creed, which I suspect is familiar to many of you, includes these words about Jesus: “He ascended into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
The ascension of Jesus is one of the lesser-known events in the New Testament. Probably because it is so weird. The whole image reflects a three-tier universe where heaven is “up,” hell is “down,” and the earth is flat. It’s one thing to talk about Jesus teaching and preaching and even healing. It’s another thing to picture him lifting off the ground like a balloon or rocket or Mary Poppins and disappearing behind a cloud. It stretches credibility to the breaking point, and it’s somewhat surprising to me that it is included in a historic statement of faith as a “must”. You may have noticed that we do not recite creeds here. One of the reasons is that if people opted out of parts they didn’t like, I suspect the creed with be peppered with some moment of silence. The other reason is that the United Church of Christ views such statements of belief as valuable testimonies of historic faith, but not as tests of faith, of who is in and who is out.
There was a lot of violence in our world this week. Twenty-two concert-goers died in England as the result of a terrorist attack. Thirty refugees, most of them toddlers, drown off the coast of Libya. Twenty-nine Coptic Christians in Egypt were shot to death in a bus on their way to pray at a monastery. Here in the United States, a black man about to graduate from college in Maryland was killed in a racially-motivated attack, and two men were stabbed to death on a Portland train while defending a victim of Islamophobia. A friend of mine commented on all of these deaths in a prayer that said, “Really, God, we need to do a better job at being humans.”
I think that one of the most valuable things that life teaches us is the relative importance of what can seem so very critical at one time in our living or another. I used to think that getting church doctrine right was very important. I spent a lot of time discussing which theological concepts were correct and which were outside the bounds of orthodoxy. I no longer spend much effort worrying about whether I get my beliefs right. I do care a whole lot about whether my actions are right. And whether I love well and completely.
What is the relative importance of the ascension in light of the really big matters shaking the world right now? I’m not sure that the image of Jesus flying through the sky to sit at God’s right side is of supreme importance, but I think there is more to this story that isn’t explicitly stated in the text. The departure of Jesus from his disciples on a hilltop, whether literal or embellished, is about living in the meantime.
The gospels state that Jesus appeared occasionally to his friends during a period of forty days after the resurrection. There’s not much of a record of what happened during that time, but it’s pretty clear that the disciples were relieved that he was back. One day he gathered them together for some last instructions about sharing the good news of God’s love with others. He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit. Then the moment arrived when he disappeared into the sky. The waiting had begun, and they were now living in the meantime.
Jesus indicated in the Gospel of John that the Spirit couldn’t come unless he left. In other words, there is no returning without leaving. There are no “welcome homes” without saying good-bye first. The book of Acts records that the disciples watched Jesus disappear behind a cloud and committed themselves to prayer as they waited and wondered what was next. Because we can look ahead another page, we know that what was next was Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit ten days after the ascension that marked the birth of the church. They didn’t have to wait very long.
Wouldn’t it be great if everything we wait for and wonder about could be resolved in ten days? Have you ever waited for results of medical tests and wondered why it takes so long as you consider all of the grim possibilities of a bad diagnosis? Have you lost employment and wondered how long it will take to find another job? Have you sent a child out into the world to find their way and wondered when and if that will happen?
Living in the meantime is an uncomfortable place. The text says that as the disciples were staring into the sky, trying to find Jesus among the clouds, two white-robed men who we might assume to be angels said, “What are you doing, looking up like that?” In other words, “Don’t you have something better to do?” And they did. Jesus last words are along the lines of “get busy and start telling the good news.” And they did so, even before the Spirit came. They really didn’t know what the future held, but they knew that waiting meant more than doing nothing.
Some of the really big, more important than church doctrine issues right now have to do with our world’s seeming obsession with war. And terror. And protecting what we have from those who have less or who live in danger. We are living in an uncomfortable in-between time as we wait for peace.
A lot of people were surprised this week when a candidate for one of the highest elected offices in our nation body slammed a reporter who asked questions about health care. We should be surprised at that. Violence may demonstrate who is physically stronger, but it can never resolve questions about what is right and what is good.
Many people are having a difficult time waiting these days, not sure when the political and social climate will change. One thing we know for sure is that we cannot hasten a better future by resort to the tactics that we despise in others.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Wendell Berry's great novel titled Jayber Crow depicts Jayber reflecting on the death of his friend Forrest in World War II. He says,
“I imagine that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home — in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses like Miss Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever."
We remember with sorrow and gratitude those who have died in many wars. Each life and each grave and each Memorial Day is a haunting reminder that we are always waiting for peace.
Living in the meantime means adopting practices that renew our hope. It means waiting for the Spirit to stir and blow away the impediments that keep us from realizing the future we long for. It means tearing our eyes away from the clouds and doing just one concrete thing today that will communicate good news to someone who is weary of news that is bad.
Jesus’ ascension means that there is something better ahead. Saying good-bye and letting go was difficult for the disciples, but after a time of waiting it ushered in a new age of the Spirit and ultimately brought us the faith community that we are part of today. The disciples said good-bye and they waited. Just like us. We are often living in the meantime, aren’t we? What have you let go of, and what are you waiting for now? May you wait actively, not just keeping busy but focusing on those actions that will prepare you for what is ahead. We can’t rush the future, but we can open ourselves more completely to possibilities.
As the poet Malcolm Guite wrote in his sonnet on the ascension,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
Trust the Spirit within you, knowing that God has not abandoned you or left this world. We live in the meantime, but there is more to be revealed. Amen.