a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter on Acts 1:1-14
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on June 5, 2011
For a few days recently, there was a lot of talk about heaven.
Some months ago, Harold Camping, a Christian radio station owner and self-styled prophet, began predicting that May 21, 2011, would be the end of the world. On this day, he said, faithful Christians everywhere would be raptured, taken up into heaven so that they could avoid the trials and tribulations that would follow as the world as we knew it came to an end. He picked the date based on a very complicated interpretation of certain prophetic and apocalyptic texts in the Bible, then he spent millions of dollars from his own pocket to promote his ideas, buying billboards and other ads to warn of impending doom for humanity everywhere and going on and on on the radio about the importance of this coming day – even though he had incorrectly predicted the end of the world once before back in 1994.
The mainstream media started to pay attention as May 21 approached, and soon TV, radio, newspapers, and the internet were all abuzz about the supposed end of the world. Some people took Camping’s prediction so seriously that they sold their houses, quit their jobs, gave away great wealth, or even paid nonbelievers to take care of their pets after the rapture!
We’re now a couple weeks after May 21, and we’re still here – as is Harold Camping. He’s now changed his interpretation of the Bible to say that the world will end on October 21, 2011, although every time he comes up with a new date, I for one will be all the more skeptical, since he’s gotten his prediction wrong twice already! On the whole, I think the strange obsession with the end of the world in recent months reflects a broader trend in our society and in Christianity to emphasize the eternal things over and above the things of earth. To put it in terms of our scripture reading this morning, we like to look up.
Our reading from Acts this morning tells us that this focus on heaven is nothing new, for as Jesus’ time on earth came to an end, he gathered his followers and encouraged them about the life they had before them on earth. He promised them that they would not be alone and would receive the Holy Spirit soon after he departed from them. But they were concerned about things beyond earth – they asked him if his departure meant that the kingdom of Israel would be restored soon. They had their eye on the end of things as they knew it – on an end to Roman rule and occupation, on a new world where pain would be no more – but Jesus knew that God had other plans. He told his disciples that God had that time and place for the end of all things already sorted out, though it was really none of their business! So instead he suggested that they would have the opportunity to bear witness to his message and work to the ends of the earth.
After speaking to them in this way, Jesus was lifted up before their eyes and disappeared into a cloud. The disciples kept staring up into heaven, waiting for Jesus to reappear, but then two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and spoke to them: “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.” They were caught looking up – but maybe they should have been looking down and all around instead.
The disciples, Harold Camping, and others are not alone in preferring to look up. Followers of many different religious traditions organize their belief systems around their thoughts on what will happen after we die. This week’s New York Times bestseller list is topped by the story of a child who encounters Jesus and angels during a near-death experience at only three years old. Christians everywhere keep the focus on things above in emphasizing the personal benefits of salvation and the potential for life after death as they speak of their faith to others. The tendency to look up made sense even for the disciples – they had been through so much in the death and resurrection of Jesus that they had to be wondering what God would be up to next, yet the angels made Jesus’ message at his ascension clear: looking up, longing for a totally new day to come right now, is not the right response.
Even so, some parts of the church over the centuries have even arguing that our primary concern as people of faith is salvation and the afterlife, and therefore the church has no business addressing systematic injustice, hurt, and pain in our own world. Even the southern branch of our own Presbyterian church in the US acted in this way, first refusing to speak out against slavery before and during the Civil War and continuing their silence on social issues well into the twentieth century. They kept looking up, waiting for change to come in the afterlife and refusing to do anything about changing this world along the way.
When the angels suggested that the disciples needed to turn their eyes down and all around, they did exactly that. After the incredible sight of the ascension of Jesus at Mount Olivet, the disciples made their way back into Jerusalem to wait for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. They moved back into their routine and gathered as was their custom in an upstairs room to pray. Yes, they kept looking up, but they started looking down and all around too as they prayed and built the community that would begin the church. The rest of the book of Acts describes this church, where the disciples cared for those in need in their own number and beyond even as they sought to tell others about what God had done in Jesus Christ. They looked up and down and all around as they followed Jesus in their lives and their world.
So how do we follow after the disciples here? Jesus is not among us and is seemingly not coming anytime soon, contrary to anything Harold Camping might predict, so how can we bring our eyes back down to the earth? At one level, the answer seems to be simple: join together in prayer.
About a year ago, we began a weekly time of prayer for our church and our community here in the sanctuary. Three or four or five of us still gather each Wednesday morning here, offering our prayers for one another, for this congregation, for our community, and for our world, hoping and praying that something will be different here, maybe in part because of our prayers.
Over that year, some things have changed. We may not have grown attendance much at our prayer service, but in the last year, we have seen more people in worship regularly, welcomed new opportunities for education for our children, established ourselves as a place for conversation and care about health and wellness in our community, and joined in God’s work in strange and new ways in our midst. We haven’t just kept our eyes turned upward in our prayer – though we certainly have kept our focus on God. Instead, I think prayer has led us to look down and around a bit more than we imagined, to step in for those who need particular care and attention, to stand up for the marginalized and oppressed in our community and our world, and to join in God’s work of bringing justice and peace to every place.
So as we celebrate the ascension of Jesus today, the angels remind us too to stop looking into heaven, to refocus ourselves in the prayer that can renew us, to look to the waters of baptism that shape and form us as we welcome another to the fold today, and to join in God’s work of renewal and recreation wherever we see it taking hold around us.
So may God strengthen us to join the disciples in prayer in these days between Easter and Pentecost, between the first signs of something new and the fullness of its reality in our midst, so that we can see the glory of the Lord revealed above us, below us, and all around us whenever it comes.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.