At this point Jesus has spent almost six weeks with his disciples since his resurrection. In that time, not only has he given them convincing proof that he is alive, he has also continued his teaching with them. It is clear now that that time is drawing to a close and the disciples have one last question: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ We might blame the disciples for a certain narrowness of vision at this point. It is almost as if they still don’t grasp who Jesus is and what his life and death and resurrection mean. They want Christ to fulfil his promise of restoration. They want see him finish the work that they know he has begun. But the way they phrase their question still suggests that they are thinking in terms of a political restoration for the Kingdom of Israel. They are looking for God’s chosen people to be free and independent once more, free from foreign (that is pagan, unbelieving) domination and interference. They want their people to free to worship God as God has required them to do. And that as a consequence Israel would be able to fulfil its God mission, once more, to be a light to the nations, so that the world could know that their God is God, the only true and living God. In their own, time bound, localised way of thinking, this would be the world restored to “as it should be.”
Clearly the world “as it should be” is always culturally conditioned. How the world as it should be is defined or describe varies from time to time and place to place. The disciples’ question and their vision that prompted it to us seems narrow because we live in a different time and a different place. Obviously our definition of the world as it should be would demand resolutions to the interrelated problems of environmental destruction, economic justice and global conflict. We want a planet that is capable of sustaining life. We want a reduction and even an end to the massive inequalities between rich and poor and between powerful and vulnerable. And we want an end to wars, that still threaten destruction on a global scale. But this vision, this way of defining and describing the world as it should be is as culturally conditioned as the disciples’. It is as tied to our time and place, as theirs was to theirs. And we can see this is so with just a little historical reflection. That environmental destruction heads the list of necessary restorations is a relatively recent change, perhaps it has occurred only in the last decade, or at most the last generation. Half a century ago almost no one was thinking and praying in those terms. The global environment was not on many people’s minds as something that the Kingdom of God would address. At that time Christians perhaps might have more readily expressed their hope and expectation in the kind of vision offered by Martin Luther King. His prophetic ministry demanded an end to the interconnected evils of racism, militarism and poverty. Similar but also different to the way we think now, and who is to say in another 50 years there would not be further change. The specifics of Christian hope, the sense of what needs to change to make the world as it should be, changes from time to time and place to place, from a vision of a restored Israel in first century Jerusalem, to civil rights, economic progress and an end to both the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, in 1960’s USA, to the hope for a habitable planet for all, here and now. Yet in truth all of those are the same hope expressed in the only way it could in those particular times an place. It is always the hope that God will finally restore the world to way it should be, which in Christian technical speech, is the hope for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
The forty day period that follows Easter concludes with Ascension Day. The day which commemorates this scene between Jesus and the disciples on a hill outside Jerusalem. It is something we might almost pass over because it happens on a Thursday not a Sunday. But this scene is the vital conclusion to the Easter story and the Gospel narrative concerning the life and ministry of Jesus. Luke reports: he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. There is no sense in trying to visualise the Ascension as a literal event. Despite all that Christian art has done to make the event visual, it is not something like going up in a balloon, or being blasted into space in a rocket. The Ascension is declared, by Luke, not described. It is yet another of those things that defies our ability to put into words, try as preachers might. The most important phrase there perhaps is “a cloud took him out of their sight.” In the Bible’s way of speaking such a cloud is always a sign of God’s presence, and yet also a sign of God’s hiddenness. As much as God is revealed, God always remains hidden. What the language of the Ascension attempt to express is that Christ is part of God. Not that in the ascension he becomes God, since as Son of God he always was God, so that would be unnecessary, and as Son of Man, a human being, it would be impossible. But what we now find is that when Christians talk about God they must talk about Christ. The same Jesus who befriended, taught, served, loved and suffered for his followers, that same Jesus is in that hidden realm alongside God. The kingdom which Jesus promised, the world as it should be, is guaranteed, because the one who promises it is seated alongside all the creative power in the universe.
And it is that motivates both the hope and the longing. As culturally condition and specific as our image of it might be, it is also always the same thing. It is what we know about what happened at Easter. The disciples and we have seen who Jesus is and what God has done, and therein lies our very solid hope that the Kingdom will indeed come. But looking at the world and its problem, however we currently define them, seeing the world as it shouldn’t be, with that hope, sets off an urgent longing: is this the time…? There is another technical Christian word for this hope of the coming of God’s Kingdom, especially when that longing becomes urgent. It is called Apocalypticism! In our own minds, if we think of that word at all, we connect it with the fringe of the Church. That most fevered overexcited part of the church, or that doom laden “the end is nigh” part of the church. The question which the disciples pose to Jesus, is now the time, is the very definition of an apocalyptic question. “Is now the time when you will bring a close to all of history?” And Jesus’ answer is a reproof, he says: ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority…’ Jesus reproves the kind of speculation that so often typifies Churches that have an apocalyptic mindset, one that constantly scans the details of the latest news to discern the signs of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. Jesus would surely have agreed with the rabbis who lived in his day who said: “Three things come when not expected, a thief, a snake and Messiah. Do not delay his coming by searching for him.” Jesus does not want an overexcited church, that is fevered in its search of the signs of the times. But at the same time, he does not want a stodgy church that has lost all sense urgency motivated by a vision of the world as it should be. As with all of Jesus reproofs and commands his very last is also coupled with a promise, the very last thing Jesus says to his disciple while he is with them is: ‘…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.’ Jesus leaves, but leaves his followers with a task.
That task is witness. And he promises the means to complete that task, the Holy Spirit, of which we we speak more next Sunday at Pentecost. His followers, energised by his Spirit, are to testify that he is the one who now sits at God’s right hand in glory, who reigns with God, and who does guarantee the coming of the kingdom.
Almost immediately it takes a pair of angels to remind the disciples of what Jesus has just told them: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ It is so easy to get caught up in the wonder of what Christianity is talking about. That the one who loves us, is indeed seated alongside. But that hillside near Jerusalem is not the place where the disciples are to live the whole of their live, just as the inside of our churches is not the place where any of us should be living our lives. But we have lived for as long as anyone can remember with an activist church. We know that the world is not as it should be. And somehow we have concluded that it is up to us to put it right. And indeed there is much to be done. The environment need to be protected and restored. Justice needs to be demand and campaigned for. And war must be resisted always and everywhere. And all of those things may form part of our task.
It is an exhausting agenda. But what the first church does, the eleven men that Luke names, the women and the others that were with them, what the first church does might surprise us: All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together… The first task of the church is to be the church. Our witness first of all is that we are here at all. To our activist mindset that might sound about as ineffective as “standing looking up into heaven.” But our first task is witness. Witness to what the disciples had just seen, and the hope and promise that comes with it. As dreadful as the problems that confront us are. And as hard as the tasks that are before us will be. We have a certain hope, that the kingdom will become, because the one who will bring it for us is seated with God.
Another sermon for the Sunday in Ascensiontide (the Seventh Sunday of Easter), based on this same text, can be found here.
The Ascension and the World as it Should Be by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0