Thursday, May 13, 2010

Passing the Torch

He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1.9)

Phase II

It’s easy to forget interactions between Jesus and His followers are decidedly different after His resurrection. Before Calvary, He’s very much a hands-on manager. After Easter, He moves into a supervisory position. His instructions are more strategic than tactical. During the interim between the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus is also fairly elusive. Unhindered by time and space, He comes and goes. He meets with the disciples, yet He doesn’t keep company with them. We don’t have any post-Easter passages that begin, “Jesus and the disciples…” Any time we see Jesus His followers are already assembled. He appears, says what’s on His mind, and leaves—often vanishing before their eyes.

Obviously, Jesus is passing the torch to His disciples, laying out Phase II in His ministry. Hereafter, Christ’s involvement will originate on a (literally) higher level. While the disciples facilitate daily operation of His work, He’ll oversee it, provide counsel, and intervene as needed. But mundane decisions—the where, how, and when—are up to them. Before leaving them physically, therefore, He eases them into functioning without detailed directions. Once they get the hang of it (or at least grasp the extent of their task), it’s time to go.

Something New

At a glance, Christ’s detachment mystifies us. His disciples have undergone unbearable trauma. It’s not an exaggeration to compare their confusion and uncertainty to the response to 9/11. What happened to Jesus wasn’t unexpected, yet the experience proved far worse than they feared. Much like Americans spent the days following the Al Qaeda attacks waiting for the next horror, the disciples tremble to think what else might transpire in the wake of their Rabbi’s demise. The Crucifixion irrevocably altered their world—the world—and even after Jesus returns to them, picking up where they left off is pointless, if not altogether impossible. Something new is taking shape, which is why Christ’s aloofness makes sense. Were He to resume leadership in the same vein as He led His followers before Calvary and Easter, they would be all the more dependent on Him, constantly worried about His and their security. And He’d be corseted into a role He’s outgrown. Keeping His distance while sticking around is the wisest, most compassionate thing Jesus can do. His gradual withdrawal prepares all concerned for new roles and responsibilities that take effect when He goes.

Revealed in Us

Peculiar discrepancies throw various accounts of the Ascension out of synch. Matthew doesn’t report it all. John alludes to it without documenting it. Mark’s coverage surfaces in a later addendum to the original text, which sets the event soon after Easter during dinner with the disciples. Rather interestingly, the most glaring variation is found between Luke and Acts, also written by Luke. In what reads like a dashed-off epilogue, Luke’s gospel says Jesus leads the disciples to a spot near Bethany on Easter night. “While he was blessing them,” Luke 24.51 explains, “he left them and was taken up into heaven.” Acts also places the Ascension near Bethany—on the Mount of Olives—yet it stages the event 40 days after the Resurrection, or 10 days before Pentecost, the birth date of the Church. According to Acts 1.9, after Jesus echoes the Great Commission, telling the disciples to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will empower them to witness around the world, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”

Nearly everyone prefers Acts’ account for its detail and proximity to Pentecost. (Besides, the Mount of Olives setting makes for much more dramatic visuals, as artists have consistently demonstrated.) But no one can say with full certainty when and where the Ascension happens. So we ask why the writers treat such an enormously significant moment rather indifferently. While we can’t definitively answer this either, the manner in which they handle the Ascension definitely suggests knowing its specifics is less critical than understanding its legacy, i.e., the Body of Christ that springs to life soon after Jesus returns to the Father.

The image of a cloud hiding Jesus from sight is extraordinarily illuminating in what it represents. With Christ hidden from earthly view, it becomes our duty to see He’s revealed in us. The majesty of the Ascension isn’t found in compelling imagery of Jesus rising into Heaven. It’s in we who watch Him ascend. We know Jesus is taken up, not taken away. His presence in us guarantees His presence in the world. This is truly something new unlike anything humanity has ever known. And humanity's knowledge of the living, eternally present Christ rests solely on our shoulders. He has passed the torch to each of us. Once we accept this, it’s up to us to decide where, how, and when we carry its light.

The Ascension marks the moment Christ passes the torch to us. We carry its light to reveal His presence in the world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1.6)

Hung Up on Politics

It’s true. The older we get the faster time flies. Summers that lasted a lifetime in childhood now whiz by like a long weekend. The interminable wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas is now a flash in the pan. At the tender of age of 50, three years—the approximate time Jesus spends with His disciples—seems to me like no time at all. Yet given how much gets crammed into 36 months, it probably feels like decades to them. The eventfulness of their daily lives may be why Jesus sticks to core doctrine without branching into more esoteric aspects of Jewish dogma, the weeds where lawyers and teachers keep trying to lure Him. There’s too much going on and too little time to get bogged down in minutiae. So Jesus keeps drumming the majors: God’s plan, His purpose, and our duty. To the end, He refuses to let politics adulterate His message. Repeatedly, He urges His listeners to lift their minds above earthly affairs. Even when He’s reduced to a pawn shuttled between Pilate and Herod, He won’t be politically pegged. In John 18, Pilate pushes Him to confirm He is the King of the Jews. Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (v36)

Jesus sounds this note from the start—clearly and emphatically, over and over. Despite three years of frenetic activity, the disciples should have it by now. Yet their closing conversation with Jesus reveals they’re still hung up on politics. He’s told them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit manifests Itself in their midst. He meets with them again (though they don’t know it’s their final time) to provide ample opportunity to ask Him anything they’re unsure of before He goes. Do they ask for more details on the Holy Spirit? No. Do they question how to proceed in His absence? No. Do they seek reassurance they can proceed? No. Here’s what they want to know: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1.6) Luke doesn’t describe Christ’s reaction; he jumps into His answer. But if I were He, I’d be hard-pressed to conceal my shock. I hear myself groaning, “Ai-yi-yi! Where have you guys been these past three years?” (A friend of mine would say, “Jesus called and wants His disciples back.”)

Certain Expectations

Although their question reads like a ludicrous non sequitur, we can all empathize with how difficult it is for the disciples to let go of deeply ingrained ideologies. Prior to joining Jesus, they’ve been raised on certain expectations. As a people, the Jews have endured numerous repressive regimes by fixing their hope on a promised Deliverer. As keepers of their faith, they’ve placed full confidence in prophecies they interpret to mean when the Messiah comes, He’ll overthrow Israel’s oppressors and restore the nation’s theocracy. Every disciple brings an earthbound knowledge of Messianic doctrine with him/her when answering Jesus’s call. Old habits die hard, they say, and that’s what we see here. Christ’s teaching of an unworldly kingdom—a virtual reign of love, peace, and justice, if you will—doesn’t compute.

To be sure, what they observe over three years doesn’t square with what they’ve been taught to anticipate. To varying degrees, they struggle with this; one of them—Judas Iscariot—loses the fight completely. It’s been hard to watch their King live in poverty, wrangle with the Jewish establishment, and submit to unjust execution before establishing His kingdom on Earth. Jesus’s talk of “another kingdom” mystifies them. None of this works with their literal reading of Scripture. It doesn’t make sense. Then Easter comes. Physical impediments to Christ’s seizing rule of Israel—and, hence, ousting Roman oppressors—evaporate. And with them go all His perplexing statements about “the kingdom of heaven” (life to come) and “the kingdom of God” (divine Presence existent in all Creation). The Risen Christ has complete command over life and death. Why wouldn’t the disciples revert to old notions of Messianic supremacy? From all appearances, Jesus is now poised to fulfill the Scripture exactly as they’ve always heard it. This business about the Holy Spirit and being witnesses and returning to His Father is confusing, while what seems so obvious makes total sense.

Drop Everything

It would be hard to imagine a better time or situation for Jesus to assert His God-given power and position. That’s why the disciples focus on this. But now it’s their turn to be shocked and frustrated, as Jesus glosses over their question to defer to God and—once again—tell them the Holy Spirit will enable them to witness His Lordship. (The disciples called and want their Messiah back.) In Acts 1.7-8, Jesus answers: “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.” These are His final words to them. It's not what they asked and apparently not what they want to hear.

Tomorrow marks the Feast of the Ascension, with this Sunday’s liturgies in most churches likewise celebrating the marvelous event. Thus today presents a prime moment to reflect on where we are as Christ’s disciples. What did we bring with us when we answered His call? Are we holding on to ideologies that don’t square with His doctrine? Have our struggles with certain expectations deafened us to what He says? Are we misappropriating the power of the Cross and Empty Tomb for political and religious purposes? Are we ignoring our duty to wait on the Spirit and witness Christ’s love and acceptance because we’re trying to force-fit Jesus into an obsolete paradigm? Discipleship is a “drop everything” proposition, including everything we’ve been taught or presume to know about Jesus, His mission, and His message. When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ, John 20.16 says she cries out, “Rabboni!”—Teacher! Expecting Jesus to conform to earthbound constructs inevitably ends in earthbound questions. Instead of discussing what we expect of Him, like Mary, we drop everything we know to learn what He expects of us.

As sensible as many old-school ideas and literal thinking may seem, they’re earthbound. We drop them when we follow Jesus, so we can learn what He expects of us.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Greater Things

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14.12)

What’s Next?

We’ve experienced more rapid change in our lifetime than any preceding generation. In the last 20 years or so, technological advances similar to those that once spanned decades have spun out with such rapidity a medium goes obsolete before we get the hang of it. Track these sequences: network TV, cable, VCR’s, DVD, TiVo, video on demand, streaming video; mailman, FedEx, fax, email, instant messaging, video chat; vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, MTV, CD’s, mp3’s, youtube. And on and on it goes. We no longer ask, “What’s new?” We want to know “What’s next?”

Not long ago, however, “What’s next?” wasn’t such an enticing question. It augured trepidation about a future brimming with unpredictability. Our comfort with change presumes it makes things better, easier, and quicker. (Allegedly.) But from ancient times until the 20th-century, change often harbingered setbacks. For centuries, human progress had this frustrating habit of lurching forward, then falling behind. So it is that Jesus, seeing His death, resurrection, and ascension are imminent, takes on the formidable task of explaining what’s next to His followers. This must be treated delicately, since He’s informing them they’ll soon have to carry on without His physical presence. What’s more, the unprecedented nature of this transition makes it difficult to explain what’s next in cogent terms. As He begins laying out the details in John 14, He tells them, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (v1) They take a deep breath, perhaps let go a sigh of relief—they know things are about to change radically—and then, once Jesus delves into the plan, they panic.

Many Rooms, One Route

We forget Christianity originates as a religious cult and hews to the same dynamics we associate with modern ones. Its Leader defies tradition with His unorthodox interpretation of Scripture. He speaks in parables and mysteries that often allude to “His Father,” Whom He claims sent Him to reunite humanity with God. He performs supernatural feats the religious establishment dismisses as charlatanism. His followers leave their families and jobs to devote their lives to Him. The public knows of Him and His disciples, yet given the volatility of the times, it categorizes this group with dozens of others built along similar lines. Therein lies the problem for Jesus, because He alone knows the work He’s doing will forever change the world—provided His disciples continue in His absence.

The risk goes beyond Jesus’s message petering out after He’s gone. It also includes the very real possibility the disciples will attempt to follow Him in death. Cult suicides are no less common in ancient times than today: for every Jonestown there is a Masada (72 CE), for every Heaven’s Gate there are the Donatists (300 CE), who jump off cliffs to hasten the afterlife. So Jesus makes sure to emphasize the disciples must remain after He’s gone. While they’re busy spreading His message, He explains, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (v2) He promises to bring them to their new home. But Thomas—“the Twin,” the disciple most vulnerable to separation anxiety—is concerned about losing his way. Christ calms his fears by confirming there’s only one route: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (v6)

Big Change

Thomas takes Jesus’s quizzical answer at face value, which I find richly ironic since he’s been tagged “the Doubter.” Here, it’s another disciple, Philip, who demands reassurance. In verse 8, he says, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” This takes Jesus aback. Surely by now Philip should know if he’s seen Jesus he’s also seen the Father. And even if he couldn’t put the two together through observation, wasn’t he listening when Jesus explicitly declared, “I and the Father are one”? (John 10.30) Jesus answers Philip’s doubts with, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.11-12) This is the pivotal moment in Christ’s post-ascension directive. Not only does He warn His followers a big change is about to occur; He teaches them how to handle it. He says, “Don’t lose your faith. Believe in Me even though I’m visibly gone. Do what I’ve been doing. Once I’m reunited with the Father, you’ll do even greater things.”

We’re surrounded by Philips. They’ve seen Christ’s power in our lives, yet not made the connection. Many have even heard Jesus is The Christ, yet not fully understood what that means. They respond to our witness with the same response Philip has: “Show us and that will be enough.” Were it not for Christ’s promise, we’d have no answer. Because of it, however, we know exactly how to handle the big change many around us don’t recognize. We do what Jesus did. We love without restraint. We welcome strangers and outcasts. We heal sickness with our touch and soothe troubled spirits with our words. We do this not because we’re anything special, but because Jesus stands with the Father, empowering us to do greater things. Greater things? Absolutely. After He promises us this in John 14, He reinforces it: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15.7-8) The big change is seen in our faith in Christ’s word. When skeptics and unlearned people say, “Show us and that will be enough,” we show ourselves to be Christ’s disciples. This is more than change for the better. It’s change for the greater.

The big change precipitated by Christ’s ascension enables us to effect greater change.