Our New Testament reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 1, the first 11 verses. Hear these words of scripture:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
So our scripture lessons this morning are a bit different, or should I say, a bit similar. They are the same story, written by the same person in two different “books.” They are not very different or in any way contradictory, but the fact that this story appears at the end of Luke and then again at the beginning of Acts points to the importance of this story for the author. This is the event we call the Ascension — when Jesus literally “ascends” into heaven.
And in many ways, it is a watershed moment — an event by which we measure time or memories. Not unlike the pandemic is for us now. I wonder if for the rest of our lives we will be talking about how things were before Covid, or during Covid, or perhaps now, after Covid. We certainly in the past would talk about the world before 9-11 and after 9-11. The ascension was one of those kinds of events — for the disciples, it changed everything.
After Jesus’ resurrection, I imagine that the disciples thought they would have Jesus back for a while. Maybe they could get the band back together and take it on the road for one final tour. But Jesus didn’t stay around long. In our tradition we believe the ascension occurred on the 40th day of Easter — which would have been last Thursday. Not a long time. Less than 6 weeks after the resurrection.
Before Jesus’ ascension, the story of our tradition is all about Jesus. Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures — the law and the prophets. Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection. After the ascension, the story is all about us — the followers of Jesus. The ones who knew him when he walked the earth, and those who did not. Even the disciples who followed him when he was alive, have become apostles sent to take the good news to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
So, I want you to think for a minute. What differences do you notice in these two accounts?
For me, the biggest difference is the appearance of the men dressed in white. We assume that they are angels, messengers sent from God. And what do they say?
‘Men of Galilee! Why are you standing around looking at the sky? Jesus is not here, and (in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger) ‘He’ll be back.’”
As I was telling the children, BRB (Be Right Back!) Jesus.
Now I don’t know how you see or understand “the second coming.” Maybe you haven’t given it a lot of thought. I don’t know that I have ever preached about it.
Certainly some Christians believe that when Jesus comes again, there will be a rapture, where some will be taken and some will be left behind.
The early Christians believed that Jesus, looking just the way he did when he left, was coming back in their lifetimes.
Christian millennialist groups that have cropped up in the last 2000 years, all believed that Jesus was coming during their life times.
Others are still waiting, believing that Jesus will come again, but they aren’t sure what that will look like — and still others have claimed to be the returning Messiah, in the flesh.
The only common theme here is that — other than the ones that claim that they ARE Jesus — they are all still waiting. Waiting for BRB Jesus, the risen Christ, to come again. Descending out of heaven, just the way he left.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost. And what do we know about Pentecost?
Yes, the Holy Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus, the Jewish followers of Jesus who were gathered for Pentecost, one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals of the year — when devout Jews come to Jerusalem.
Today we remember how Jesus ascended into heaven, and next Sunday we will celebrate how the Holy Spirit descended upon the crowds gathered for the festival of Pentecost.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
I have to wonder. Might BRB Jesus who ascended to heaven, have descended again as the Holy Spirit, just 10 days later?
Throughout Christian history, others have asked this same question, or simply considered it to be true. In the first century after Jesus death, the Apostle Paul uses the language and imagery of the body as an analogy for the corpus of believers. In the letter to the Romans he writes:
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
And in the first letter to the Corinthians:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Many parts, but one body. The body of Christ.
In the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila is famously quoted as saying:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
But what if this is more literal than symbolic? What if we really are the body of Christ? What if this is what the angels meant when they said that he would come back, in the same way that he left?
Yesterday, a number of us were up early and out at the parking lot behind the Hope Health on East Palmetto to distribute items through the Parking Lot ministry. There were at least 100 people there — impoverished or homeless or both. Getting food and clothing. Being prayed with and for. Too many people in need. We had a good deal of things to give away and everything went quickly. We talked to the folks. We saw their need. We met it as best we could. Hopefully we bore witness to the love of God. Hopefully we were the hands and feet of Christ in that place.
I want to leave you with this: where are you being called to walk, how are you being called to serve, what are you being called to truly see with eyes of compassion? This is what it means to be the body of Christ — not just as this church, but as The Church.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
Friends, we have been called for such a time as this.
If not us, then who?
If not this, then what?
If not now, then when?
I believe that BRB Jesus is here, and that BRB Jesus has always been here, whenever followers of Jesus are serving the world as the living, breathing, serving body of Christ.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ has come again.