So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I don’t know about the experience of the young adults who join our church today, but there is one thing I remember from my confirmation day. It was the big moment in the service, the time when we would say the right words and be counted as true believers in the church. And a classmate leaned over and whispered, “Do you think it’s OK that I’m not sure I believe all of this stuff?”
I remember, not because it shocked me, but because I had been wondering the same exact thing.
Who knows what I had really expected as a confirmation student? I was a seventh grader, after all. Maybe someone had planted the notion in my head that, if I went through the class, all mysteries in the universe would be revealed, and all confusing doctrines explained. I can’t recall if that is what I thought, but I can say that did not happen.
Somewhere in the scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah promises the day will come when God will write his teachings on everybody’s hearts. At confirmation time, if God was writing on my heart, it was in pencil. Or in invisible ink.
Years later, I learned this is the way faith works. Understanding does not come quickly. Saint Augustine preached a famous sermon many centuries ago, and said, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
We have to keep at it, if only because we are up against so much. Perhaps in our gut is some dullness of spirit, some spiritual boredom, so it is hard for us to hope. As for me, and for others, it is a dullness of brain, and it is difficult to make the right connections. Sometimes we want to believe, really want to believe, but life is smacking us around, so we wonder if there really is a God, much less a God like the one they have been telling us about.
So it is some comfort for me to hear again this story from the first chapter of the book of Acts. About forty days after Easter, Jesus gathered his friends one last time. They ask him a political question, “Is this when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
It’s the wrong question. They were still looking for a politician Messiah – a nationalist king, a warrior who would demolish the Roman Empire. After Jesus slaps his forehead, he says, “It’s not for you to know. That is God’s business, not yours.” Then he promises they will be his witnesses. The Wind of God will blow on them and they will get power. Then he is taken up out of sight, and they are left standing around.
That’s the part of the story that I like most: they are standing around. They spent three years with Jesus and they didn’t learn it all. They heard he was raised from the dead, and they didn’t believe it yet. They see him risen and alive, and they still don’t understand. If there’s hope for these disciples, there has to be hope for me – and for you.
In the church, we say a lot of things are true. Some of them, we can’t prove quite yet. Certainly we want them to be true. We trust they are true. In the meantime, we may have to wait until the insights seep into our hearts and brains. That’s how it is with faith.
Somebody told me about a lecture at Yale. A teacher from the Orthodox Church was giving a talk on religious beliefs, and how the various creeds developed. A smart student stuck up his hand and said, “What can I do, if there are some things in the Apostles’ Creed that are impossible to believe?” The Orthodox priest replied, “Well, you say them anyway. Keep at it, you may learn it by heart.”
The student was frustrated and said, “But what I can’t believe some of it, like, say, the Virgin Birth?” He got the same response, “You just say it, especially if you can’t believe it. It will come to you eventually.”
The student raised his voice, “But what I don’t believe it?” The priest replied, “It’s not your creed. It belongs to the church. It’s been around for very long time.” The student looked at him, shocked and confused. So the priest added, “Eventually it may come to you. For some, it takes longer than for others.”
Now, I’m sure some would be annoyed at that priest, just as the student was. His demeanor reminds me of the conversation from Alice in Wonderland. Alice says, “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen says, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes, I’ve believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The church has a list of many impossible beliefs, among them from our text that Jesus flew up into the sky and out of sight. Well, at least we can believe that part about being out of sight. Most of the time, he is out of sight.
But notice what happens: two “men in white” appear beside them. (That’s code language for the angels on Easter, who announced the resurrection at the tomb. There were two of them, dressed in white.) They are angels, but they don’t seem to cause any great stir. And with their feet firmly on the ground they ask, “Why are you looking up into the sky?”
And then what happens: the disciples go back to Jerusalem, the same old city. They go to the Upper Room, the same room where they are staying. It’s the same old crowd, the eleven of them, along with Jesus’ mother Mary, and a few familiar women. Same people, same familiar faces. Then they pray, and they pray again, and they keep waiting.
As we wait for faith to gain understanding, as we wait for the Spirit to come and fill us with all believing, as we wait for the Wind of God to blow into our hearts and minds, what do we do? We keep at it. We stay among the same congregation that has shaped us. We remain near the same places where we have learned and grown along the way. And we keep praying. We stay together as church and live out the Christian faith.
We don’t need to have everything in the universe all figured out. Some of what we need will come when we most need to know it. If your faith is anything like mine, there are some truths that I don’t understand, and then the fog lifts and I see clearly and say, “So that’s what this is all about!” And then the fog rolls back in and I no longer see clearly what I used to see.
I have learned that that’s OK. We don’t have to know everything, comprehend everything, or even have the right words for everything. And do you know why that’s OK? It’s because of the central event in our scripture story: Jesus goes up into heaven.
He doesn’t evaporate into the air and go everywhere, as if there are trace amount of Christ in the atmosphere. And He doesn’t float up to an empty asteroid where the astronauts have never spotted him. No, the Risen Christ keeps rising – he “goes up” says the storyteller, up to the place where he rules as the Lord of all things. Nothing can occur in our lives unless he gives it the freedom to happen. Nothing down here can snatch us away because he is “up there.” Jesus rules with the Father God, sitting, in royal speech, “at the right hand of God,” that is, in the place of power and authority. When the time is right, Christ and the Father blow their Heavenly Breath upon us – we call it the Wind of God, the Spirit of God – and then we have our moments of understanding when the faith of our hearts is confirmed by the faith in our brains.
A friend was telling me just this week that he had coffee with a Lutheran. You have to watch out for the Lutherans, he said, for they are so very bright and articulate. This coffee date was no different. My friend Sheldon got into a religious conversation with this Lutheran, who happened to be the bishop of Pittsburgh. They were talking about this Bible story, and the Bishop said, “You know, there is only one line in the Apostles’ Creed that is written in the present tense. Do you know what it is?”
Sheldon started going over the creed in his head. A lot of it was placed in the past: God created the heavens and the earth, Jesus was born to Mary, Jesus was crucified and raised. A little bit is even placed in the future tense: “He will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” There is only one line of the creed that happens here and now: “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
That is where we fit into the great story of Christian faith: we live under Jesus’ feet, with him ruling over all things. We live with him praying for us, and we pray to him on the place of all power. And we don’t worry if we don’t have the whole “faith thing” worked out. All we have to do is trust that he is going to work it out, and that we are part of his present-tense story.
So we gather today, among bluesy guitars and uptight Presbyterians, among patient children and squirming adults. We gather with teenagers both curious and bored, with long-timers and short-termers coming to the Table of God. We come to taste a small piece of bread and to have a hidden banquet opened up to us. We sip from the cup because we thirst for the mercy of Christ.
Maybe this is the day. Maybe this is the moment. Maybe this is the time and place where God becomes real to somebody here. Should that happen, tell the rest of us about it. And we will remember with our hearts what we have heard in our ears: that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.
(c) William G. Carter
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