The risen Christ had been telling his disciples for months that he would one day leave them, and in today’s lesson, the read where time had come. But before he departed, they asked him: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…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.”
With those words, he ascended into heaven and left them standing there, looking up into the clouds.
And while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes show up. They said: “You Galileans, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?”
Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, because one day, God’s kingdom would fully come, and day would come when love would finally win. The disciples did not know when, but they didn’t need to know.
“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that the Kingdom is coming. Love will eventually win, and here’s the thing, you are going help to make that happen! That is, if you get your head out of the clouds and keep loving this world as Jesus loved this world, keep being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
I believe this wonderful Ascension story has much to teach today’s church that seems to have its head in the clouds. I hear it almost every day: that the church seems to have lost its focus, its vision and its purpose in our world.
And there are several clouds that our heads seem to be stuck in these days.
First, there are still too many Christians today whose main, and really only focus as a Christian, is going to heaven. The faith in Jesus that they profess is nothing more than a ticket to escape this world. Thus, their faith is private, something they possess, hold on to, not something that is actually lived or shared with others.
I believe our scripture lesson this morning is a direct command from God to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off going to heaven, and come back down to earth and to do something for this world. Give something, create something, be something that will make a positive difference in the world.
Come back down to earth and go to Jerusalem. Go all the way to Little Rock and Washington DC and be moral witnesses. Why are all of you hunkered up in one place? Don’t close yourself up in a sanctuary of comfort and security. Go into all of Judea. Go all over the River Valley, and even into places that you do not want to go, like Samaria. Go into the muddy, flooded neighborhoods along the Arkansas River. Be witnesses to the ends of the earth to the good news of the love of God that Jesus revealed to you.
Another cloud that Christians have had their heads into ever since the Emperor Constantine wed Christianity with the Roman Empire is the cloud of worldly power and control. But perhaps it started right here at Jesus’ ascension into heaven: “Tell us Jesus, when are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”
The desire and temptation to gain worldly power and control is strong. Today, we see the minds of Christians clouded and their souls corrupted in their embrace of greed, materialism, dishonesty, pride, all kinds of bigotry, even a little Nazism, in order to gain some dominance.
Being in a cloud is perhaps the best way I can describe what is happening today—A follower of the Jesus who emulated love and commanded love, must have their heads in some kind of deep demonic fog for them them to believe that religious liberty in this country gives them the license, not to love their neighbors, but to discriminate against some of their neighbors and cause them harm.
Many are shocked that followers of Jesus think this way today, but I suppose this is nothing new. Our nation has seen this ugly cloud before. It’s the same evil fog that not that long ago blanketed this nation that made it possible for followers of Jesus to believe that religious liberty was a license for them to not only demean and dehumanize people, but to actually own people as slaves..
“Get your head out of the clouds,” said the angels. Stop focusing on any power of this world that dominates, discriminates and divides; and instead, focus on the peculiar power of Jesus, the power that the Holy Spirit will give you, the power that gives generously, serves selflessly and loves graciously.
And there’s another cloud that I fear many Christians have their heads stuck in these days. And when I say stuck, I mean really stuck. And it is perhaps the darkest, most sinister cloud of them all. It is the cloud of the institutional church.
We are stuck in the pipedream of the way things used to be. Our minds are clouded by some hazy sentimental memory of church. And we have fully accepted the delusion that if we put all of our focus on serving the church the way we used to and getting others to join us to serve the church in this same way, then we can somehow get back to the way it was.
Consequently, our focus is on being what we believe is good member of a church, rather than on being a faithful disciple of Jesus.
Our focus is on maintaining and preserving structures, systems and traditions, rather than on following Jesus without any limitations, restrictions or hesitation.
Our focus is on serving the institution, rather than on serving people.
Our focus is on trying to figure out how to get people to come to us and support us, rather than on creating new ways we can go out to them and support them.
Thus, our focus has been on building attractive buildings and on maintaining those buildings, rather than building the kingdom God and expanding that kingdom.
This week, I have heard more than one person say that this historic flood has brought out the best in Fort Smith. I believe that is because, for at least a week, we got our heads out of the clouds.
We left behind our focus on going to heaven by literally and figuratively bending ourselves down to the earth to love our communities affected by the flood.
We left behind our lust for a power that dominates, discriminates and divides by embracing the sacrificial power of Christ that unconditionally and unreservedly gives, serves and loves.
We left behind our churches, temples and mosques. We got outside the walls of our religious institutions, traditions and beliefs, and we went out into our neighborhoods to simply love others as Jesus loved others.
Yes, this week, the focus of Fort Smith couldn’t have been more unclouded. It couldn’t have been sharper, clearer or purer.
The good news is: I believe that the week that has brought out the best in Fort Smith has something holy to teach us about how to bring out the best in the church. It won’t take us back to the good old days when our sanctuaries were full on Sunday mornings, but it will take us forward, out of our sanctuaries, into good new days.
It is the lesson to get our heads of the clouds. It is a challenge to leave behind some of the things that we thought were important, even sacred, to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.
Here’s our challenge:
Are we willing to leave behind our focus on going to heaven? Are we willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, not for some future reward, and certainly not to avoid some form of punishment, but simply because we believe Jesus is the most unclouded, the most clear and the most pure revelation of God’s love? I heard someone once say: “If the fear of eternal damnation is the only thing keeping you from being a bad person, you are already a bad person!”
Are we willing to leave behind our focus for worldly power? Are we willing to transform this world not by imposing our beliefs on others, legislating our morality, but through selfless and sacrificial love— by loving, living and serving the way Jesus loved, lived and served? Are we willing to work alongside, not only those who believe like us and dress like us, not only the pretty and the powerful, but also those who believe very differently, those who are rough-around-the-edges, and those who are poor?
And here’s perhaps our most difficult challenge: Are we willing to leave behind focus on institutional church? Are we willing to leave behind the way we have always done things: old polities of how to be good church members that may be obstructing our focus on how to good disciples of Jesus? Are we willing to leave behind every part of church that is preventing us fulfilling the great commandment to love our neighbors and the great commission to make new disciples?
In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost. He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”
The good news is that I believe we can regain our holy vision and our divine purpose when we redirect our gaze from the heavens, from worldly power, and even from the way we’ve always done things inside the institutional church, and focus on serving people and the meeting the needs of the world.
When we understand that faith in the love of God is not some ticket to heaven, that it was never intended to be coerced or used to control, or to only be experienced inside these walls, but faith is something that is to be lived everyday and shared with all, to the ends of the earth, starting right here in the River Valley with our neighbors who need us right now, then I believe we will regain the power of the Holy Spirit which can transform the world.