Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ascension of our Lord
We and the disciples are stuck between a rock and a high place. Especially on Ascension it feels like we are stuck between a rock and a high place. When we witness and observe Jesus ascending into the highest heaven to be rightfully confirmed as the name above all names, the authority over all in heaven and on earth, we feel stuck between the rock of harsh reality and the high place of unrealistic hopeful expectation- stuck between where we are and where we wish we were.
When we are between a rock and high place as the disciples were, there is always a temptation to focus too much on one or the other. We may feel tempted to direct our attention toward the harsh reality of our world, the rock beneath our feet, and live without courageous hope toward the promised heavenly future. Or we may feel tempted to direct our attention toward the great heavenly promise of God without seeing the presence of God on the ground around us.
The disciples were in danger of focusing too much on holding onto the glory of our world and lacking the imagination to see the new ways Christ’s spirit could be bringing life to the church. Jesus ascended into heaven and before he did, he told the eleven disciples that they should wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come. Then, they will be sent out and empowered to proclaim the Good News. The disciples were left with a bit of a puzzle. What do we do while we wait? So the eleven disciples decide to restore their numbers to twelve- not exactly the most innovative and exciting ministry opportunity… Before Judas had killed himself, there were twelve disciples and the remaining eleven figured that that was how things were supposed to be. The eleven cast lots (similar to throwing dice) until chance would have them induct Mathias into the exclusive club of the twelve disciples.
The disciples get it wrong here. The text shows the disciples’ biases and their lack of holy imagination. They could only imagine the ministry of Jesus being continued with twelve men as it had been during Jesus’ earthly ministry. But when Christ Ascended and his Holy Spirit shows up, something much greater than the disciples’ limited vision occurs. At the first Pentecost, not only the twelve disciples, but thousands of Jewish pilgrims receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered to share the Good News of Jesus. Some time later there is a second Pentecost, when many more Gentiles are added into the mix. Other leaders of the church are empowered throughout the book of Acts including Paul who is named as an Apostle (bringing the official number to thirteen, not the expected twelve) and including Dorcas/Tabitha who is a woman and also called a disciple (now muddying the waters of who is an “official” disciple or not).
We are often tempted to think like the eleven disciples. When we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to act in our lives and send us out to do the work of God, we often look to the past of how we have always done things and we are often not prepared for the wild and unexpected ways in which the Holy Spirit will direct the mission of the church. I have seen churches scramble to restore the numbers of their Sunday School because they have always had 4 classrooms of children, but the Holy Spirit inspires them to pursue an intergenerational learning model in which 80 year olds and 8 year olds are learning the stories of God together. I have seen churches try to build up a traditional food pantry only to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to start a food truck feeding and worship ministry. I have seen churches try to start an Easter community meal only to find themselves sent out to the local Home Depot to share in the Lord’s Supper with day laborers. As we wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and as we move forward into the vision to which God has called us, we will not be limited in mission to restoring the number of disciples from eleven to twelve. God’s Holy Spirit falls on many more people than that and her mission will be greater than we can imagine. Where and to whom will we be sent? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.
What would you do if you had one day left to live? If you knew this was your last day on earth, what would you do with your precious remaining time? When we are tasked with making the most of a single day, we can really hone in on what our priorities are. We cut out the things that don’t matter so much and focus on what really matters. When thinking about this hypothetical question, we tend to focus the activities of our final day on earth around either experiencing the most joy we can in a day or leaving the greatest impact or legacy in a day.
Brent Stoller of medium.com wrote extensively about what he would want to do on his last day on earth. He wrote:
I’d need energy for my big day, so I’d sleep as late as I can, until I wake up on my own. Which, at my age, is about 7 a.m.
My wife… and I would get up together and go for a walk around the neighborhood. That’s probably something we don’t do enough.
He went on to describe his ideal breakfast (fast food or Krispy Kreme donuts for him) followed by a round of golf with his dad.
After [lunch], schedule permitting, I’m watching a Texas Longhorns football game.
UT athletics have been such an important part of my life … it’s hard to imagine anything better than sitting around with my closest friends and family, and watching the Horns play.
[At the end of the day] I’d say my goodbyes to everyone but my wife and immediate family. I’d need some quiet time with them, so we could laugh and reminisce together.
I’d ask my brother, who’s a rabbi, for tips on making it in the afterlife.
I’d thank my dad for all his support and the incredible example he’s always set for me.
With my mom, I’d decide on where, if all goes to plan, we’d one day meet again in heaven.
Brent Stoller detailed his last day on earth and every step of the way he focused on two things 1) Maximizing the enjoyment he gets out of this day with his favorite food, entertainment, etc. 2) Leaving a good legacy behind through quality time with his family and being candid with his feelings.
How about you? What would you do if this was your last day on earth?
First Sunday in Lent
Alternate histories are fun explorations of what could have been. Artists and storytellers propose the question, “What if…?” in regard to the major events of our history. Sometimes these explorations are whimsical and entertaining and sometimes they are thought-provoking and enlightening. For our honeymoon, Emily and I went to Natural Bridge, Virginia. While we were at this beautiful locale we took time to explore The Dinosaur Kingdom, an alternate history amusement park that explores what the Civil War would have looked like if the Union Army had discovered a dinosaur colony and attempted to incorporate the prehistoric beasts into their forces. This alternate history is certainly more of the whimsical and entertaining variety.
Liu Cixin wrote a science fiction novel called The Three Body Problem that explores an alternate history in which the Space Race of the mid-20th century also included a race to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Ye Wenjie is one of the scientists involved in China’s attempts at interstellar communication. She makes contact with an alien race when she is warned by a pacifist dissenter from the other planet not to respond or else this alien race will take over and likely destroy Earth. Ye, who has witnessed great cruelty and suffering, has given up on humanity and responds to the message inviting the aliens to come take over Earth. Now, this aggressive, highly advanced alien race is on its way to Earth to destroy us when they arrive in about 400 years.
Alternate histories can help us better understand our actual reality. They help us explore what values we hold as a society and what kind of future we want to make for ourselves since there are an infinite number of “alternatives” to pursue. In The Three Body Problem, Cixin invites the reader to think about whether or not Ye Wenjie was right for giving up on humanity and invites us to try to find the redeemable qualities of human society. With humanity facing almost certain annihilation in 400 years time in the fiction, we are invited in reality to explore how we as a people can foster hope in the midst of deep despair. Cixin’s alternate history gets his readers thinking about what future we want in our actual reality.
Let’s look at an alternate reality with the temptation of Jesus in wilderness. Imagine if the story turned out differently. Imagine if instead of refusing to turn stones into bread, refusing to worship Satan and receive authority over all the kingdoms, and refusing to make a spectacle and put God to the test by jumping off the Temple for all to see, if Jesus gave in and did those things. How would that change who Jesus is as the Son of God and how would this alternate history change how the church were to follow Christ?