|Today’s scripture readings:
“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
I felt a little like the disciples in that reading from Acts on the day my parents dropped me off to begin my first year of college. I don’t remember everything that happened that day. I do remember working with my dad to put together the loft that boosted my bed up near the ceiling and created a little more floor space in my cramped dorm room. I remember my mom climbing up there afterward and putting the bedsheets on for me. I remember going to the college bookstore and buying an overwhelming number of textbooks for that first semester of school, along with some college swag for good measure. And at the end of that long day of unpacking and starting to get settled, I remember walking my parents to their car with this sinking feeling in my stomach. I was not ready to see them go. I wasn’t ready to be on my own. I remember standing there in the parking lot, watching, waving, and crying as they drove away.
“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
Maybe some of you have similar memories of moving off to college yourselves. And I know many of you have more recently been on the other side, driving off—sometimes gleefully—while your own child stands crying in the parking lot. I’m pretty sure I remember my parents telling me that they stopped for celebratory cocktails on the way home that day. Anyway, seeing my parents pull away and ride off into the sunset, I remember thinking, “Well, this is it. I guess I’m on my own.” For me, that was not a good feeling.
But I discovered pretty quickly that I wasn’t on my own. For one thing, my roommate was in the same boat. In fact, all of us incoming freshmen were in the same boat. We were all figuring out for the first time what it meant to be on our own. But we found we had each other, and that we could learn from one another—you know, the essentials, like, How do you make ramen noodles? or, How does this washing machine work? Actually, I really wasn’t that clueless. It turns out my parents had prepared me pretty well for this new phase in my life. They had spent 18 years teaching me how to take care of myself, how to be a responsible person, and how to make good decisions.
For as scary and traumatic as it was to be left behind there at college, on my own for the first time in my life, it turned out I had everything I needed to survive. I was part of a community that was in it together, taking care of each other. And we had been given just what we needed to do that.
I think the same could be said for the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven. For as scary and traumatic as it must have been for them to see Jesus floating off on that cloud, they, too, had been given what they needed. The future was in their hands.
It really must have been a difficult day for the disciples. Unlike us, they didn’t have the benefit of 2,000 years of theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. They were just a bunch of everyday folks doing their best to follow Jesus, and they were doing it all in real-time. Think how frustrating that must have been for them. At every step of the way, just when they thought they knew where they were going, Jesus would point them in a different and totally unexpected direction, presenting them with a whole new set of impossible challenges. They think Jesus is going to be a king, and then he is killed. They think Jesus is dead, and then he is living again. They think Jesus is going to stick around awhile, and then he is taken up to heaven on a cloud. It’s one curveball after another.
So it’s not surprising, at the end of today’s first lesson, that the disciples are standing there dumbfounded, mouths hanging open, looking up to heaven, as Jesus is taken away. After all they’d been through, after all the upset expectations and unforeseen changes, this was just one more unwelcome surprise. And at the heart of all their anxiety seems to be one question: How could they possibly go on without Jesus?
That’s a question that has lingered for almost two millennia: How can we go on without Jesus? The ascension was a definite “Elvis has left the building” kind of moment. Jesus has gone away; he’s not here anymore. How are we to go on without him? The challenges our world faces seem too tough for us to tackle on our own.
But we are not on our own. Just before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry on the work he has begun among them. They will be on their own, yes, but they will not be alone. They will have the Holy Spirit, and they will have one another. Together they will be the Body of Christ, even in the absence of Jesus.
I think that’s the message we’re supposed to take away from today’s reading from Acts. While Jesus is being raised up on a cloud and the disciples are gazing up toward heaven, two angels appear and rebuke them. “Men of Galilee,” they say, “why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?” These angels don’t offer pastoral care or try to comfort them in the wake of Jesus’ departure. Rather, they prod them into action. “Don’t just stand around gazing up into the sky waiting for Jesus to return. He’s gone. And now his mission is your mission. It’s time for you to get to work.” The angels are pointing the disciples toward a new era. They’re urging the disciples to get busy with the work of ministry. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they will be the ones doing the work, telling the story of Jesus, and emulating his life and work for the entire world.
When it comes down to it, this is what the Christian life is all about. As Christians, our task is to carry on the ministry that Jesus began while he was living among us on earth. The ELCA tagline sums up this idea nicely: “God’s work, our hands.” Through Jesus, God was doing a new thing. After Jesus’ ascension, we continue what God began in Jesus using our hands, our skills, and our resources.
And the world is desperate for us to get our hands dirty doing God’s work. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece recently in which he provides his analysis of the social ills plaguing our country. He points out that the suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high, that a record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach, and that more young people than ever distrust their fellow citizens. Many people feel betrayed by corporate greed, by their employers, by those who game the system at others’ expense. We’ve learned that we can’t trust anyone, and that has led to a politics of suspicion. It’s a bleak assessment, but does it ring true? “Up until now,” Brooks says, “America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story… But that story isn’t working for people anymore.” We need a new national story, something “less individualistic and more redemptive. [Perhaps] it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from [mental illness,] addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today.” “Maybe the task,” David Brooks concludes, “is to build a ladder of hope. People across America have been falling through the cracks. Their children are adrift… We can start at the personal level just by hearing them talk… meeting the neighbors who have become strangers, and listening to what they have to say.”
I wonder if this isn’t exactly the work we are called to do as the people who carry on Jesus’ work in his absence. We’ve been working hard to build a more caring community here at Gloria Dei, to become a community of people who know each other, pay attention to each other, and really listen to each other. This morning during communion our Prayer Teams will be available, as they are every month on the second Sunday, to hear your prayer concerns and to offer a healing prayer for you, for a loved one, or for the world. Throughout the year our Mental Health Ministry and Hope in Recovery Team have pushed us to talk more candidly about mental illness and addiction, showing the rest of us that being open, honest, and vulnerable is how we learn to trust one another and to have each other’s back. More recently, members of Gloria Dei have shared how they have struggled to get by without paid sick time, and next week, as the St. Paul City Council prepares to debate an Earned Sick and Safe Time ordinance, Councilmember Chris Tolbert will join us here at Gloria Dei to hear some of those stories for himself. More information about that is in your bulletin announcements today. How can we continue to listen to each other and build deep relationships, here at Gloria Dei and beyond, so that we can rebuild trust, care for one another, and heal our communities?
“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Jesus has left us, but we have received his spirit and inherited his mission. And that work is more important than ever.
David Brooks, “If Not Trump, What?”, in The New York Times, April 29, 2016, accessed May 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html.
The featured image for this post, “looking-up,” is copyright (c) 2010 Zorislav Stojanovic and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license. Image has been cropped.