Text: Acts 1:1-11
It is a simple fact that in any story or drama not every part can be the lead and not every line can be Shakespearian in quality. Sometimes a character is assigned the necessary task of saying or asking the obvious in order to keep the action moving. And when it comes to the Bible, angels are the ones who get to speak these odd lines.
For example, when Hagar and her son Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness by a jealous Sarah, the moment comes when Hagar gives up as dehydration saps the life of her child. She places him under a bush to die and then goes off a distance to weep. Just then the angel of the Lord appears and asks, “Hagar, what’s the matter?” (Genesis 21:17) Yes, ladies, I do believe the angel was male.
Another bizarre angelic question appears in our scripture reading today. In Acts 1 we get a recap of the forty days following Jesus’ resurrection. At the end of this period, Jesus takes his followers outside of Jerusalem where he is suddenly lifted by a cloud into the heavens. As the disciples stare up into the sky at the strangely airborne Jesus, two angels happen by and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Of all the unnecessary questions ever uttered in the annals of literature, asking why people are looking up at a man who has just taken off like Space Shuttle, without the shuttle part attached, would rank right at the top of the list. Only creatures who can fly themselves would find the ascension of Jesus such a humdrum affair.
The truth of the matter is that these angels have a purpose behind their seemingly ridiculous question. They want the followers of Jesus to head back down the mountain and get on with the mission they were trained for during their three years with their rabbi from Nazareth. The time had come when the leader had departed for good, no more encore performances, and those who remained had to move on.
Which means, in some strange sense, that from the moment Jesus disappeared from sight in the stratosphere until now, not much has changed. We, like the Galileans who trudged back into town after the ascension, have the challenge of figuring out what it means to follow someone who is absent. What is our job? What is the mission of the Church? Exactly what was it that Jesus seemed so intent that his followers grasp before he left them? These are the questions that have challenged Christians since Jesus took off like a rocket man.
And it doesn’t take long after a transformative leader is gone for her or his message to get distorted. Indeed, it happens so swiftly that within a generation the message can be changed dramatically. Which means those of us who live more than fifty generations after Jesus walked the Earth have a lot of work to do. Because the variety of answers that the Church has thrown out in the last 2,000 years as the main teaching of Christ is enough to confuse the most devout of believers.
To illustrate the difficulty of twenty-first century Christians discerning the message of a first-century Jesus, think of the contemporary fight in our culture over church-state separation. Though it is barely 200 years since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others penned the documents that shaped our Republic; though it is explicitly clear from these multitude of documents that our founders were intent on creating a nation where “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; (first sixteen words of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights); even so millions of people in this country believe the founders’ intent was to create a Christian nation based on biblical laws. How could such an obviously erroneous view set in for so many people? Because contemporary Christians with an agenda and a poor grasp of history have gone to great lengths to “prove” that Jefferson, Madison, and others wanted to found a Christian theocracy instead of a free Republic. This hoax has set into our culture wars and caused tremendous conflict even though we are only a few generations removed from our founders and have their explicit writings detailing their clear intent.
With that in mind it becomes obvious why it is difficult for all post-Ascension Christians, especially those living fifty-plus generations later, to get to the core of Christ’s teaching. After all, people with various agendas have been popping up in the Church since the Apostle Paul hit the missionary trail and Christianity has headed into dozens of different directions. The Church of the new millennium is that place where Jesus is either the champion of the empowerment of women or the voice telling women to be quiet and submit to the men; we are an institution that says Jesus is either the voice affirming all people are children of God and welcome in this place or the voice saying some are an abomination not worthy to sit with the pure heterosexual believers; the Christian Church in the south during the last century was both the seedbed for the greatest civil rights movement in history and the weed patch for the murderous ideology of racial dominance and hatred. In these few examples we see quickly why the fight over Jesus’ real message is the fight worth waging over and over again. Much of what we bicker about in church is nothing more than personal preference masquerading as objective reality (the color of the carpet, the tempo of the hymns, the metallic material on the outside of a building to name a few local examples). And while personal preferences are not meaningless, let us not confuse our tastes with the core struggle that we must engage repeatedly if the Church of Jesus Christ is to come close to reflecting the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So, what are some of the agendas that infiltrated the early church and continue to be sold to Christians as the core message of Christ? Let me speak to three that seem obvious to me though there are certainly others we could call attention to. The three distortions of Jesus’ message I want to name fall under the categories of convenience, power, and money.
To be frank with you, being a follower of Jesus in the first century was a terrible inconvenience. Jesus was a spiritual leader with an obvious social and political agenda. Except that he had no interest in taking political power in a world dominated by the mighty Roman Empire. Instead, he wanted his followers to join him in the mission of establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth. How did he propose that they do that? By loving everyone, including your enemy; by confronting the abuses of powerful religious and political leaders and shining a light on corrupt practices; by always taking up for the underdog and reminding people that Judaism was a faith focused on the needs of the widow and orphan. You see, the Kingdom of God Jesus kept talking about wasn’t some mysterious entity that was difficult to figure out; it was just a great inconvenience to actually live in this fashion. So, within just a few years after Jesus took flight on Ascension Day, Christians started to back away from the more challenging parts of this inconvenient message. Instead of working to establish the Kingdom of God where justice and love were the key features, Christians started talking about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. And now, centuries later, if you wander into most Christian Churches in the world what is the primary message you will hear? How you secure you personal salvation and guarantee yourself a place in heaven. Do you see how much more convenient it is to pray a simple prayer asking Jesus into your heart than trying to confront injustices in society and love those who are difficult to even be around? Somehow, some way, the teachings of Jesus went from “take up your cross and follow me” to say a prayer and guarantee a one-way ticket to paradise. I’m not sure these two emphases could be any more different from one another, but I do know one is far more convenient than the other.
Another agenda that was introduced into the early church and continues to haunt us revolves around power. To fully grasp this distortion of Jesus’ teaching you must remember what happened in the last days before Jesus was crucified. As he heads for Jerusalem with his disciples, clearly intent on confronting the abusive practices of his own religious leaders, he continually tries to show his followers what is important to him. Only they don’t get it. In fact, they get obsessed about who will be in charge when he is gone or who will have the most powerful seats in heaven. Jesus gets exasperated with them because while he is trying to teach them about giving their lives away for the sake of the powerless they can only think of how to become more powerful than one another. And from that moment until now, an addiction to power has undermined the Church’s ability to promote the real teachings of Jesus. Now to be clear, let us not confuse the necessity of leadership with this addiction to power. Every institution and movement requires clear, qualified leadership. The gift of leadership is a gift God has poured out on all kinds of people who come in every conceivable human form. The Church, however, has revealed its addiction to power and control by saying only straight men have the requisite divine blessing to be in charge. Such a distortion of power has served either to reinforce the domination system in families and societies, or even worse, helped establish those domination systems. And now, virtually every cultural and legal framework is drenched with assumptions about who should have power and who should not. We have come a long way from Jesus’ words to his followers, “the one who wants to be greatest must be servant of all,” to an institution that claims the name of Christ but refuses to acknowledge its addiction to keeping power and control in the hands of a few people who look remarkably similar.
The final agenda that continues to distort Jesus’ message and mission is so obvious that I almost hesitate to mention it, yet in some ways it is the most insidious aberration found in American Christianity. The issue is money, the true god that our culture bows down to. And for a religious leader who taught us the story of the widow’s mite, who challenged the rich young ruler to sale all his possessions and follow him, who said to consider the lilies of the field and not worry about what you wear, who said its easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, in spite of this evidence you would think that Jesus actually taught that the more we have the more obvious it is that God is on our side. Because, frankly, that message is so ingrained in American Christianity that you can find it not only among the sleazy television prophets, but in your run-of-the-mill churches on every street corner. The spiritual Ponzi scheme that is continually pushed by ignorant Christians is that if you give to God in the form of contributions to the church then God will return your investment many times over. And while most of us view the absurdity of this message with disdain, we ourselves are not free from defining our happiness by how much our bank statement says we have. So whether we contribute to the church thinking of it as a financial investment from which we will reap dividends, or we refrain from contributing to the church out of fear that we won’t have enough to lead the life we feel entitled to, we are all in the same boat. We have fallen for the lie that our security rests in our stock portfolio even as we claim to follow a spiritual guide who we are told did not even have a place to lay his head at night.
Yes, from the moment Jesus ascended out of this world Christians have proposed many different agendas that have taken us far afield from his teachings. And while it is no simple task to discern the message of any person two millennia after he or she lived, there is one simple rule all Christians should follow when interpreting the teachings of Christ. In the medical community there is a saying when a physician is trying to diagnose an illness. The saying is “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses before you think zebras.” In other words, go for the most obvious explanation before you get more exotic in your analysis. When it comes to the message of the Gospel, I challenge you to find those zebras where Jesus said pray a prayer and get to heaven, or power is meant for a select few, or store up riches in this life so you can be happy and secure.
On this weekend when we are invited to remember as a nation, let us do the same as followers of Jesus. Let us remember what he actually said, and how he actually lived, and devote ourselves anew to his strange ways. After all, maybe those angels weren’t so dumb for asking “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Looking up into heaven has been a preoccupation that has distracted the Church for too long. It’s time to head back down the mountain and do the work Christ gave us to do