Galilean Gaze, by Pastor Fred
My brother and I stood looking up at the old elm tree, in wonderment and awe, at its towering majesty, its branches reaching up to the sky – and mostly its proclivity to produce so many leaves – that had once again fallen to the ground, that crisp fall Saturday morning. We dared not to curse aloud our friend, Old Mrs. Elm, but we certainly thought it – in the middle of our task to rake up all her leaves, now covering the lawn!
Our breaks from raking, as young teenagers, were increasingly more frequent the longer we stood out there in the back yard. And it must have galled my mother no end, as she usually had to come out and break our Trans, as we gazed heavenward, and remind us of the task at hand. Or, when lunch would be served soon, she had to come out and cajole or threaten us, that if we just finished the job, then we could come to the table and eat!
But there always seemed to be so much to ponder out there in our back yard, looking up toward the sky, at Old Elm. There was so much to figure out at that young age. Not just the tree, how she got that big, or the leaves, why they fell each year around the time of the first frost. But, you know, girls! – what they said to you and why, or playing a pick-up game of round-ball with the guys and making the play of the game, or cars, or The Beatles. But none of that got the leaves raked, or got us any closer to lunch time!
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” On Ascension Day, last Thursday, as we celebrated when Jesus was bodily taken up – completing his incarnational journey, which began with coming down, of course, and being born in our likeness, taking on our lot in life. On Ascension, Jesus leaves for good. Or does he?!
The whole High Priestly Prayer we’ve been reading from in the Gospel of John these last few weeks, is a preparation for the disciples – and us – that just the opposite of, being left behind, or abandoned, is what Jesus is making us ready for. Barbara Rossing says: “The great prayer of John 17 evokes longing in us to be fully “one” with Jesus, in the mystical communion of prayer, so that his prayer of love for us, becomes not a farewell but rather a homecoming.” (Blogging Toward Sunday, Jesus prays for us, John 17:20–26, May 09, 2013 by Barbara Rossing)
Jesus ascends, not as a farewell, but rather as a homecoming. We have now arrived at home, at the time and place that Jesus has been preparing for us, all along.
It is tempting to be led into a sense of mourning, as when we lose a loved one in death, whether in old age, or more suddenly before their time. Isn’t Jesus taken from us, unsuspecting? Aren’t we like the disciples? The followers of Jesus who after 40 days of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, were still confused about the restoration of the kingdom? Or, are we in a better place, able to see that Jesus has been preparing us for a homecoming all along?
In the eastern orthodox church there is a tradition that one mourns for a loved one for a period of 40 days after death, the same amount of time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. During those 40 days, the tradition is that you prepare a table setting at each meal, for your deceased loved one, knowing that their spirit is still with you. And then, by the 40th day, when you’ve had time to adjust, to shake at least some of the cobwebs out or your head from this life changing event, a time when we often see apparitions of our loved ones, you begin to make peace with their “passing on.” Your grieving may still take months and years and maybe forever in some ways, but hopefully you’ve had time to get one or two full nights of sleep again – and so, the tradition is, on the 40th day you have a party with all the family and friends of the deceased. You invite them over, they bring the food, and after eating, there is a dramatic breaking of a window in the house, to let the spirit of the deceased “be taken up.” And then for the first time you begin to give away their possessions, as an act of charity, and as a token of their lives, for all to remember.
On the 40th day, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. This story has actually been something of a post-modern embarrassment for many of us believers. But I think that’s only because we look at too much like fundamentalists. And even the first believers probably didn’t take it literally. Their conception of up, and heaven, did not mean they believed Jesus was somehow defying gravity, or flying on some theatrical trick stage cables. They didn’t believe that Jesus was going up to some designated place above the clouds or the moon somewhere, as if they, or we, were going to go after him, and find him there.
Their belief in a 3-storied universe – though it seems scientifically silly to us in a post-Copernicus world – was richer theologically, illuminating the story of a universe created by God in which the world here below was the realm of human creatures and all created things, and the clouds and skies above was the realm of God. But they were always “two interlocking spheres of God’s reality.” (N.T. Wright) And through the prophets, the ancient Hebrews came to know that the arc of justice, to bring heaven and earth into one reality, was bending closer to each other. Jesus continued this bending of the arc, opening up the long held Jewish belief, that God desired to include the Gentiles in God’s saving covenant, at some point.
The prophet Daniel is a good example. He is also a ‘Son of Man’ figure, who will come again in the clouds. And this Son of Man will be given kingly powers over the nations, and over the beasts, i.e., the evil powers among us, the powers sucking life out of our social, political, and economic institutions, turning us against one another, promoting greed and violence. Jesus is a figure, like a Son of Man, who brings a kingdom, God’s kingdom, more fully on earth, and calls out the evil spirits and defeats them.
So it’s no wonder that after 40 days, as Jesus is gathering his disciples, men and women, and people from the ends of the earth, they are wondering if this is the time when he will restore the kingdom of God to the chosen people Israel? Now that it has been 40 days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when they are starting get a hold of themselves, their eyes are starting to clear, and they have been waiting patiently for him in the upper room – they know what Jesus has come to do, that it has something to do with his overcoming the cross, and restoring the realm and kingdom of God. The arc of justice and peace have bent noticeably closer to the chosen people, in Jesus. Heaven and earth are united in this Son of Man-Son of God, this Messiah of Israel, the prophet preaching to outsiders and those on the margins.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Quit staring, and standing frozen in your tracks! Stop glaring up, as if you have lost your Savior. Jesus is not up there, as if the answer can be found in the cosmic ether world above! He calls you home, where you have a job to do – that is where he is now! Jesus goes up bodily, only after he has prepared us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the formation of the church, and a sign of trust and compassion that he will infuse us, in bodily fashion, with the full power of his Spirit. We are not abandoned, but have received the gifts of heaven, here. Lunch is ready – the table is set! Quit staring into space and come to the banquet, the meal of salvation is prepared, that you may be filled with the power to live the Gospel good news in the world, in your neighborhood and community.
Where is God calling us as Unity Lutheran Church? As the Edgewater Lutheran Churches Together, as the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, and ELCA? Where are we being called to – to pick up our rakes, and finish the job that has been laid at our feet?
As the two men in white robes, the angels, said to the Disciples: Jesus will return, just as he is leaving now. For the Judeo-Christian tradition does not believe in ghosts and disembodied spirits. The Second Coming of Christ will be the very day that heaven and earth bend fully into one reality, when the kingdom and realm of God that Jesus showed us, is fully restored, and the new beginning of creation for the whole world, our world, is accomplished.