This past Thursday was the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It is part of our creed, that we pronounce, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. Sometimes I struggle a little with the physics of how this is possible – remember we confess that Jesus was resurrected in his body, not as a spirit or ghost, so, how exactly did he ascend and where exactly did he go? But I have enough humility most days to say, this is part of the holy mystery I can’t quite wrap my head around but that is okay because I don’t have to understand everything. Yet Even though we have sent rockets and astronauts beyond the sky and seen the space beyond, the idea of heaven being up persists in our understanding somehow.
In this passage from Acts we have the disciples standing there, looking up into the sky as Jesus goes from them. It seems they linger because God deems it necessary to send some messengers to remind them their task isn’t about staring into the sky, they have some assignments to get to work on. They need to return to Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit.
But I can kind of identify with this hesitation of the disciples. They have been through quite a bit- they met this amazing teacher and healer Jesus, who turned out to be the son of God, who was crucified and it hurt so much, it broke their hearts, how he was killed but then he rose from the dead and appeared to them several times but he has been with them through so much and now he is leaving- again. Now that their lives have been broken apart and rebuilt and broken apart and rebuilt again, now it’s going to happen once more. Now they have the daunting task of living out the kingdom of God that Jesus revealed to them, without Jesus.
They’ve been through a lot, now it’s all going to be different, again, so they just stand there, looking up. Can you see his arms anymore, no, I think I can see his feet, can you see his feet- no. He’s gone. They take a moment, a long goodbye, a pause in between how it has been and how it will be.
I think our world is at a different sort of in between moment, because there is a huge difference between how it has been, and how it will be. I don’t like to be a bearer of bad news and I hope this isn’t too surprising to anyone but beloved, this virus, this pandemic, this isn’t a short interruption before we go back to life as usual. As much as people would like to pretend that it is, that we can just go back to our economy as it was, that is a fantasy. Our world has been forever changed and we’re not at the end, we’re not over the hump of a slope that has to go down, it’s all a big question mark and we’re at the beginning of a whole new reality. I don’t pretend to know what it will look like, but I think in our case we might need to actually do a little more pausing and looking up, to acknowledge that things are really going to be different, there is no going back.
But John 17 talks about another kind of looking up. It isn’t a nostalgia for the past, it is a true acknowledgment of the past, present and future. It is Jesus, praying to God, for his disciples.
Now I didn’t notice this detail at first, Jesus looking up. But then I started thinking about it. In my studies I learned at some point that although DaVinci’s Last Supper is a wonderful piece of art, the disciples didn’t sit on chairs at a table to eat like we do. It was the practice to lounge at a low table to eat, leaning to the side. Throughout these chapters of Jesus with his disciples during his last evening with them, that has been his posture. This detail pertains to 13:25, where the disciple that Jesus loves leans back against him, an intimate gesture or resting his head on Jesus’ chest.
So here, when Jesus has finished talking to his disciples, now he looks toward heaven to pray. Jesus prays with his eyes open. But to go from here (leaning) to here-(looking up) I wonder, does Jesus now rest his head on the chest of the next disciple behind him, like the disciple he loved did to him? Or does he readjust and just lay back on the floor? Either way it seems like a true posture of surrender. Completely unpretentious, completely humble, either resting his head on one of his friends, or choosing the floor for his support, laying back and looking up at heaven.
Then he prays this beautiful prayer. Jesus prays for his disciples. Yes the disciples there with him but he even specifies further down that he is praying for those who will later come to believe because of their message. That next generation of followers of the Way Jesus taught. The next, and the next, and all the way up to now. Yes Jesus has prayed for us. And he did not pray just that we might survive. He did not pray that we would barely make it. He prayed some big prayers. That his disciples, including us, would have eternal life. And eternal life, Jesus pauses to define, is knowing God, and knowing Jesus Christ. This is not head knowledge but a knowing of relationship, remember that trusting relationship that has kept coming up in John’s Gospel. Knowing God is life without end, fullness of life, abundant life. Not eking out an existence, but the best kind of life.
Then he prays that his disciples be one. As the Father and Jesus are one. That is a pretty close relationship, a unity that to us is mostly elusive.
When preaching in the past on this passage, I have focused on the denominational divides that keep Christians apart. And while I think it is good to recognize that God doesn’t want us to fight over the finer points of what we believe, but be unified in love, reading this passage this year made me think about other kinds of unity.
Because our nation and our world seem to be more divided than ever before. Trying to Win arguments against the other political party seems to be a favorite pastime not only of politicians but of regular, everyday people. Even as the world is in the grip of a worldwide pandemic surpassing 5 million cases of coronavirus. There is good reason to come together, yet we find ways to be divisive anyway.
And not only that but the socio-economic divisions that were already present, already lamentable are becoming more glaringly obvious and ugly. It seems that certain people are considered expendable, especially if they are poor, especially if their skin has a darker hue, especially if they are immigrants. These times are revealing to us a lot about our many divisions. And none of them are what Jesus prayed for, what God truly wants for us. Which is to be one. To know one another as intimately, lovingly, respectfully as God and Jesus.
What those messengers dressed in white were hurrying the disciples on to, was to return to Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit. When the Holy spirit would come in the book of Acts- what we will celebrate next week on Pentecost- it would make it so people of different nationalities and languages and dialects suddenly able to understand one another. Then they would form a new community where everyone would share everything in common. This is the outcome of Jesus’ prayer, for all to be one.
So it is time, brothers and sisters, to look up. If first we need to look up with longing for of how we used to do things, let us do that, mourn the loss of what we need to let go of, and let it go. It is time also to look up to the heavens and pray with our eyes wide open to the truth of this moment, and pray for God to heal our divisions. Humbly lay back realizing we are not self-sufficient, we need to rest maybe on someone else, maybe just on the good ground God made, and Pray for God to teach us to love each and every person as if we were already as close as God and Jesus. That we might know that God’s will for us is eternal life- fullness of life and knowing God- and to be One. And then that we might act in accordance.
The other day I was privileged to participate in a meeting the DS convened to begin working on a relief fund for the most vulnerable persons in our midst here in the Central Valley. Those for whom a couple of hundred dollars for groceries could make a huge difference. I did not have a whole lot to contribute to the team but I am glad I am on it anyway so I can tell you about it. A fund is going to be established for all of our Central Valley churches to contribute to, along with hopefully a grant or two, and then all of it will be dispersed through our churches to people who have been left unemployed, maybe are undocumented and not receiving any stimulus, people who may not have a job to go back to as restaurants and other businesses close. There are many things we can do on our way to living fully and being united, and this fund is one of them.
Another thing is what our council decided to do this past Wednesday, and that is to join each day in prayer as a church at 11:24am. For one minute a day (ok more if you want) we are invited to pray for all that our world is going through now. For an end to the virus, for our healthcare and other essential workers, for healing. That is one more way to “look up” like Jesus did, in humility and confidence in God.
We’re going through a lot, brothers and sisters. But take heart, for Jesus has prayed for us. Jesus knew things were about to get really bad for him but he trusted that God would hear his prayer for the future of his followers as he looked up. Let us look up with eyes open and pray, and then also act in ways that look up to God, actions of life and actions of unity. Amen.