In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 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.”
Jesus said to the eleven and those with them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
A growing restlessness pervades the United States. Hopes and rumors that stay at home orders will soon be lifted abound. A rolling vortex of emotion about those decisions—joy and disbelief, relief and anger, grief, fear and hope. No one knows what the future will look like. No one knows, with 100% certainty, if lifting the orders will result in greater death and economic disruption, or if our lives will slowly settle back into familiar patterns. Experts and authorities are at odds with one another; opposing messages battle for supremacy. And yet, through the melee a universal question surfaces over and over again:
- Is this the time of our restoration?
- Is this the time when our economic vitality will rebound?
- Is this the time that will force us to bridge our partisan divides and pull together?
As our church leadership thinks through what our communal life might look like in the aftermath of physical distancing I hear the same question and emotions surface:
- Is this the time of our restoration?
- Is this the time when we go back to our beloved buildings to gather together the same way we’ve always gathered, with the same experience of sacrament and space?
- Is this the time when people will return to the church and thus return the Church to its former role as a pillar of society?
- Is this the time when the Church will be restored, once again, to greatness.
Yet even as we ask the question, there is some recognition that the worship traditions we cherish, and the way we’ve always practiced them, will likely have to change.
In some ways, the Church today asks Christ the same question that the disciples asked: will we be restored to our former glory? The disciples, even in the midst of their immediate, personal experience of the new thing God was doing in the Incarnation, got caught up in the religious and political expectations of their time. Expectations that:
- The Messiah would deliver them from the yoke of Rome’s oppression.
- The Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel who had experienced centuries of inter-tribal division.
- The destruction and desecration of the Temple, the Exile and diaspora of the people, and the fracturing of their political independence and self-governance.
Our context today faces a similar political challenge, but the hope of restoration is different. The largest age demographic in most denominations are those who are 65+. As children in the 1950s and 60s, their experience of religious life was as the epicenter of social and civic life. Sunday school classes were bursting at the seams, churches were planting roots in flourishing suburbs, volunteerism was at an all-time high because serving on a religious committee was socially emblematic of being a good citizen. However, in the longer scope of Christian history, what our tradition considers “normal” and what we long to return to is anything but. The dominance of Christian life in the 50s was an outlying blip on the overarching span of church history. What we long to return to as normal never was the norm and, I hope, will not be the vision we hold up as our longing for the future to come.
Which is why I appreciate the scene of Jesus’s Ascension in Acts Chapter 1. I confess that, in this time of physical distancing and pandemic isolation, I hear the words of this text differently than I have before:
when Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father;” that “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…[and] 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.” Then as Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples stare after him in awe.
While they are waiting, in verse 11, two (angelic?) messengers give them the proverbial divine slap upside the head with the question“why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And so the disciples return to the city, where they spend many days “constantly devoting themselves in prayer” with other faithful believers. This period of prayer is followed by God fulfilling God’s promise at Pentecost, sending the Holy Spirit upon them and empowering them in language and deed to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all.
Luke’s context was not a pandemic, nor were the events global, and yet there is a global call to the work God gave the apostles, and us, to do. Which is why I confess it difficult to empathize with the preoccupation to be restored to our buildings, to what we’ve always known, and the grief at how the church must change to adapt to meet the needs of the world around us.
- Hasn’t it always been our mission to meet the needs of the world with God’s love and power working through our hands and our feet?
- Has not God constantly been doing a new thing, shaking the foundations of our human structures, boundaries, and expectations?
- Do we not believe that baptism is our initiation into Christ’s body and a lifelong process of transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us (sanctification)?
Why then, would we expect to return to what we have been instead of anticipating what God is preparing us to become?
Much of my ministry as a pastor has been to encourage communities to ask themselves the hard questions of:
- If and how they are deepening their relationship with God.
- If and how they are listening for and to the Holy Spirit.
- If and how they are ministering to the needs of their neighbors around them in an authentic way.
- If and how they are willing to change in order to become the beloved community that God envisions, that accepts and welcomes ALL people created by God in God’s image.
As much as we declare ourselves to be people of resurrection, resurrection is uncomfortable. Resurrection is hard to define, takes time to come to fruition, and never looks the same. Resurrection requires a comfort with uncertainty and the Unknown that is not an innate human characteristic, but is a skill developed over time as we are pushed into growth situations. Resuscitation to the old life we’ve always known would be much easier and much more comfortable.
Becoming people of resurrection means trying to become more comfortable with the unknown.
- It requires immense courage and adaptive leadership: diving into the wilderness, trying new things, learning from failure, and picking up and trying again.
- It requires all the baptized to reclaim their baptismal gifts, empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission and ministry.
Getting comfortable with the unknown means taking risks and making decisions that may not be popular with those who want to return to the status quo. But risky, daring, bold, courageous leadership is needed from every heart if the people of God are going to survive and thrive in the midst of a “foreign land.”
When did God call the church to become an institution? The church’s call has always been to continue the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ: proclaiming the good news of God’s love, offering healing and restoration to those who seek reconciliation with God, and serving our neighbors as we would serve ourselves. This moment requires of us to take part in the difficult, messy work of creative reimagining. In order to live into the new life of resurrection, we have to die to the old self and let go of the former ways of being. Easier said than done, as our hierarchies and structures have demonstrated, and mourned, for decades now.
I do not believe that the church is dying. I do believe that the institution as we know it is dying. I do believe that religious life as we know it is changing. But I do not mourn these things. This moment, this opportunity for exercising our God-given ingenuity and creativity to rethink our spiritual growth, mission, and ministry models fills me with hope, not dread or grief, or fear. I see a higher attendance rate and far more newcomers dropping in on our online services than before, and that tells me that the world is still hungry for God’s love and God’s presence, and our ability to mediate and interpret that with meaningful and tangible means.
It is my hope that this moment may indeed call us to metanoia, conversion, awakening to reclaim the essentials of our calling and mission. As I have heard other colleagues say, God is going to do what God is going to do, with or without the Church institution. We haven’t managed to kill the church through millennia of human history, so why should it start now? The Body of Christ is the faithful who remember that God has acted before, boldly venture into the unknown trusting the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
It’s tempting to ignore the story of the Ascension altogether, especially in a post-enlightenment world. It’s hard to argue for the plausibility of such an obviously childish story when it’s set against the incontrovertible facts we know to be true about how the world works: The earth is not flat. Heaven is not the realm above our heads, just beyond the clouds. There’s no point in having Jesus float up, up, and away like that.
But maybe there’s another possibility. Maybe this story—and all the other implausible stories that fill the Bible—maybe they’re not there in eternal opposition to the facts, the math, the truth that science has revealed to us about quantum mechanics and general relativity and molecular biology and so on. Maybe taking these stories literally misses the point altogether. These stories are trying to point us toward something bigger than themselves, toward meaning, toward Truth with a capital T. And this kind of truth isn’t always an easy thing to tell in the world we live in.
Jesus was a political truth-teller. His teaching and his life were a rebuke to the powers and authorities of the world in which he lived. Jesus must have known that it was unlikely that he survives—survives the act of telling the truth. Insisting upon the truth is a good way to get yourself killed. Because the people at the top don’t really want to hear the truth. Jesus knew all about that. He knew that telling the truth about the way the Roman Empire was oppressing his people would be dangerous. He knew that overturning the money-changing tables in the Temple so he could talk about economic inequality would not endear him to the leadership. But he told those truths anyway.
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, in his writings, pleads with the church to stop looking up toward heaven, waiting for God’s return or waiting for escape from the chances and changes of this life, and instead to focus on proclaiming the good news of God’s love in the here and now, doing our part in helping to usher in God’s kingdom of justice, love, reconciliation, and peace with the people beside us, part of the church or not. It is time for us to get evangelical, if you will, by which I mean reclaiming that word to its true meaning—proclaiming the good news of God’s love. To reinforce words with action, to do what we profess to believe. So how do we creatively reimagine our models for mission and ministry:
- Teach & Witness
- Trust in the promise by remembering God’s good action and promises fulfilled in the past, and watch expectantly for God’s power to pop up in unexpected times, places, and people.
- Receive the power of the Holy Spirit by remembering “God will work through whatever I offer, large or small, to do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.”
- Finally, and most importantly, Pray—for our church leaders; for God to show us the people and needs God wants us to minister to; for God to show us the gifts for ministry present in ourselves and in our faith community,
These are not new and innovative tools, but they are essential to braving the unknown with courage, gaining clarity in discernment, and getting our heads out of the clouds into the work God has given us to do right in front of us. I hope our faithful vision will be open, even amidst change and uncertainty, to the new thing God is doing in our circumstances, and the new life that will come out of it.
At the root of apostolic faith (and the word, apostle) is an expectation to be sent out, to the ends of the earth, but also in our own communities to proclaim God’s love, God’s power, God’s justice, and God’s peace. The world is hungry for those promises. What are we waiting for?