“Why Are You Standing Here?”
Ascension Sunday at Epiphany UMC, Vienna, VA
17 May 2015
17 May 2015
Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11
It’s a pleasure to be invited to preach here at Epiphany while your pastor is traveling in the Holy Land. As it happens, I’ve spent some time in Palestine and Israel as well – from 2007 to 2008, I lived in Jerusalem as a young adult missionary with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. And for much of that time I lived at the Lutheran World Federation hostel at Augusta Victoria, at one of the sites often associated with the Ascension stories that we heard this morning. As with most places associated with the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there is a big church at the site; and as with most such places, different sects and denominations disagree about the exact site, so there are multiple heights and corresponding multiple churches associated with the Ascension just as there are multiple churches and tourist booths associated with Jesus’ birth, baptism, burial, and just about anything else you can think of.
I share this not to denigrate pilgrimage to the land where Jesus lived and ministered, died and was raised. I have a deep love for that land and for its people, including the Palestinian Christian community that invited me into communion and shared ministry during my time there. Rather, I thought about the proliferation of holy sites while reading this morning’s passages because I think it’s characteristic of a very natural human reaction to the experience of the divine. We want to hold on to holy moments and spectacular happenings. We want to commemorate, to memorialize, to keep our eyes directed toward the times in which it seemed so clear that God was present in our lives.
This very human desire to hold on shows up in the scriptural accounts of the Ascension, which we heard this morning. Now, we have to remember that Luke and Acts are written by the same author – so our texts this morning blend into each other on purpose. First, we heard the final verses of Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus gives a summary of his time with the disciples. He interprets scripture to them, charges them with a ministry of witness, grace, and transformation, and affirms the promise of the coming Spirit. Then, he leaves them. The beginning of the book of Acts, addressed to the same person as the gospel of Luke, gives a fuller account of that leaving, what we have come to call ‘The Ascension.’ In this second telling of the story, we get a number of fascinating tidbits, including two people dressed in street clothes who show up and say to the disciples:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Or, in a more modern translation:
“Galileans – why are you standing here?”
A bit obtuse for heavenly messengers, aren’t they? I mean, you can imagine the disciples reacting: “Why are we standing here? Well, that was Jesus, who we saw perform miraculous signs and healings, then watched him get tortured and killed, and then he sort of was alive again and talking and walking and eating, and now he’s been whisked out of sight by some sort of magical cloud. What do you mean, why are we standing here? That was spectacular! Maybe we should build a shrine or something…”
I sympathize with the disciples here. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do, to stand there, staring up toward the heavens.
And yet – and here’s the rub – the perfectly natural thing to do isn’t always what the church is called to do.
There is work to do, the mysterious messengers seem to be saying. And it seems obvious, for folks who are familiar with the story of the early church as told in Acts, what that work must be. They are to get out and preach the gospel, to spread the church to the ends of the known world – right?
Well, actually, not exactly. Not yet.
You see, in both Luke and Acts, what the disciples are ordered to do first is to go back into Jerusalem and to wait.
Before they rush off to spread the good news and grow the church, they are to hang out in the city, praying and sharing with each other and waiting for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.
It’s a strange, in-between time that we, as modern disciples, are invited into this morning – a distinctive pause between the definitive end of Jesus’ ministry on earth and the new beginning of the church, the latter of which we traditionally celebrate not on this Ascension Sunday but rather at next week’s festival of Pentecost.
I think this in-between time is important, and often overlooked. As much as we have a tendency to stand still, to stare up at the heavens or back at the glorious accomplishments of the past, we also have the opposite tendency – to rush frenetically into the next thing without taking a moment to pause, to breathe, and to be mindful of the change that has taken place.
The author William Bridges, who writes about life transitions, puts it this way: “First,” he says, “there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between.”[i] This fallow or in-between time, according to Bridges, will be perceived by many as “apparently unproductive,” when in fact it is a time for “the important business of inner self-transformation.”[ii] It is thus of vital importance to give the in-between times their due, to honor them as periods of disorientation, discernment, and rest.
Recently, we’ve seen this dynamic play out in the U.S.American church. This past week, for example, the Pew Research Forum released an annual report on the state of religious attitudes and beliefs in the U.S.[iii] For anyone who’s been paying attention over the past decade, the report contains no surprises: a smaller and smaller percentage of our population identifies as Christian; more and more people identify as religiously unaffiliated; the drop is particularly notable in the mainline Protestant denominations and among young adults; our own United Methodist denomination continues to age and shrink. But what has been fascinating for me to watch is how we react to such news.
Some of us want to stand exactly where we are, to stare up at the heavens or backwards at the ‘good old days’ of packed church pews and societal prestige. We’re not ready for a new beginning. We want to hold on.
Others of us want to rush off to start new programs or new ministries, to try to do something – anything! – to stop the trend of decline. We don’t want to admit that there’s been a fundamental shift in our society, a definitive ending of the way thinks once were.
What is very, very hard for all of us, I think, is to sit with the in-between time. To return to our version of Jerusalem – I don’t mean some holy city, but rather, our own communities, our own neighborhoods, here in Vienna, VA or in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area. To neither close ourselves off in the past or anxiously try to alter the future. It is hard to sit with the in-between times, because we are afraid.
“Why are you standing here?” the heavenly messengers ask the disciples.
“Stay here in the city,” Jesus tells them.
If we have eyes to see underneath the spectacular nature of this morning’s texts – with miraculously disappearing saviors and magically appearing messengers – we find something that is actually quite surprising: a call to start at home. To take time to pray for the Spirit of God to fall afresh on us, so that our witnessing – whether it be in the DC Metro area, or across the United States, or to the ends of the earth – is not empty talk and frantic activity but rather a cooperation in God’s activity and God’s mission.
At the conclusion of this morning’s worship service, we will sing a hymn called “Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service.” One verse of the hymn begins like this: “As we worship, grant us vision, till your love’s revealing light in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight.”[iv] It’s this connection between worship and loving service to the world that the words from Luke and Acts call us to this morning. When the disciples want to rush off to the next thing, Jesus says: “Stay in Jerusalem. Wait and pray.” When they want simply to stay on the Mount of the Ascension, staring in awe, God’s messengers ask them, “Why are you standing here?” We live in between those two messages. We return to Jerusalem – to Vienna – to Washington, DC. We dedicate ourselves to prayer and to discerning the signs of the Spirit. We participate in communion and community. We share with our neighbors. We do the slow, patient work of learning the ins and outs of our communities, paying attention to what God is most assuredly up to, right here in our midst. It seems very simple, and it’s all, as it turns out, quite challenging. As the pastor, author, and Biblical translator Eugene Peterson once wrote that dedication to the spiritual disciplines – of prayer, worship, scripture reading – “has not been tried and discarded because it didn’t work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little bit tedious).”[v]
And so I offer a prayer, today, for the space between Ascension and Pentecost. Between the definitive end and the remarkable new beginning. I offer a prayer, this morning, for the fallow times. For the invisible restoration of the conditions necessary for future growth.
[i] William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2004), 17.
[ii] Ibid., 135.
[iii] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population, Unaffiliated and other Faiths Continue to Grow,” 12 May 2015, available: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
[iv] Albert F. Bayly, “Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” United Methodist Hymnal 581.
[v] Eugene Peterson, Living the Message: Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life (New York: HarperOne, 1996). 86.