Rev. Teri Peterson
5 June 2011, Easter 7A
When they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
This is one of those stories that makes those of us who plan worship actually consider the possibility of rigging up a pulley system that would allow Sherri to fly in and out of the sanctuary. Lucky for you (and for her!), we resisted the temptation. But really—what a strange story. It’s one of those stories that demands drama in the telling, and also one that requires us to suspend our disbelief the same way we would in a play or a movie. When I was new to the whole church thing, I remember looking at this story, then looking at my pastor, and wondering what on earth kind of crazy cult of nonsense I had gotten myself into. I mean….Jesus floated away into the sky? It’s almost enough to make me wish that the rapture had been predicted for yesterday instead of two weeks ago, because I could really use that story right now—it sounds almost normal compared to this.
But there it is, right there in the Bible…the opening scene of the book of Acts, which is filled with even more bizarre stories than this one. The full name of the book is “The Acts of the Apostles”—which sort of implies that this prelude we’re hearing now does in fact lead the apostles to do things other than stand around looking at the sky. Lots of people have said the book would be better called “Acts of the Spirit” because everything that happens in the book is a manifestation of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world and the new church…and that’s fair, but since Pentecost isn’t until next week, we have to focus a little bit.
But focus on what? The artwork and iconography depicting this story almost uniformly shows either a floaty Jesus levitating with his robes wafting on the breeze or pictures the disciples staring up at a random pair of feet.
Well, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but yes, I do think we should be focusing on Jesus’ feet.
Just not in the way the artwork shows.
This story begins with the disciples asking Jesus “is this the time you’ll do what we all know a Messiah is supposed to do, bringing down Rome and reinstating the proper political and religious systems of Israel?” In other words, they look at their leader and say “are you going to do your job or what?” We’ve all done this—looked at a leader and expected them to do something for us. We’ve looked at the President and wondered why he can’t solve the country’s, or the world’s, problems by himself. We’ve looked at doctors with “can’t you just fix it” eyes. We’ve looked at our pastors or our session or our deacons and wondered why they won’t just do all the ministries of the church, why they won’t be the Christian on behalf of all of us so we could go about our lives, why they can’t seem to continually offer everything we want by themselves. We’ve even stood on the mountain with Jesus and asked him this same question—“is this the time when you’ll make everything right again?”
But Jesus redirects the disciples’ attention, and rather than giving a yes or no answer to what they expect him to do, he tells them what he expects them to do. “You will be my witnesses,” he says, “throughout this promised land, and beyond, all the way to the edges of the earth—to every place you can imagine, and some you can’t imagine.”
If that was how Jesus answered my question, I would probably stand staring up at his disappearing feet too.
Though, come to think of it, that pretty much is how Jesus has answered most of my questions. Almost every time I read scripture, and nearly every time I ask God to do something in the world or in my life, the answer I hear is more like “what are you going to do about it?” and less like “why yes, I can’t believe I overlooked this problem—thank you so much for bringing it to my attention, I’ll get right on it!” And I suppose if even Jesus wouldn’t fix the world for us, and if even Jesus won’t agree to just be the Christian for all of us, then it’s time for us to let go of that understanding of faith, the one where God just does things for us like a cosmic butler, and start thinking differently. Faith is about more than looking at the sky, whether in fear or in hope.
Then along come the inevitable angels, asking why we’re standing looking up at the sky when there are plenty of footprints to follow right here on earth. After all, hadn’t Jesus been walking around everywhere and showing us what to do? Hadn’t he washed our feet and called us his friends? Perhaps it’s time to go down from the mountain and look for Jesus’ feet somewhere else.
So we walk, slowly at first, down the mountain…heavy with the second wave of realization that Jesus is not going to make everything better according to our specifications…and then heavier with the realization that somehow he had just given us the job of making the world a better place according to HIS specifications. That wasn’t how we meant for this all to turn out. So we head home and fortify ourselves for the work ahead. It’s a long way to the ends of the earth, after all.
Once the disciples got back to the upper room, they did what any good church would do—they had a prayer meeting and a potluck. Which, honestly, is pretty darn close to following in Jesus’ footsteps! He taught us to pray, he taught us to eat together, he taught us to offer hospitality. By gathering in that upper room, the disciples were preparing themselves to look for Jesus’ feet out in the world rather than up in the sky. As they gathered at the table, they told stories—stories they would go out and tell to anyone who would listen. They prayed together—filling their souls for the journey ahead. They ate together—nourishing their bodies and practicing for the many meals they would share as a foretaste of God’s kingdom. They sang—letting their voices ring out so that others might hear the good news of God’s deeds of power. And when the Holy Spirit wind comes rushing in on Pentecost, pushing them out of the upper room and out into the world to be Christ’s witnesses, to walk in his footsteps and to be his hands and feet, all that practice will pay off.
What does it look like to be Christ’s witness, to look for his feet, to the ends of the earth? It might look like being a storyteller at Vacation Bible School. It might look like making PADS lunches on Friday mornings. It might look like Kristen Bauman’s journey to work with children in Vietnam, or it might look like following her blog and praying for her and the people she will meet. It might look like a week spent on an Indian reservation, or a day spent stocking the shelves at the food pantry. It might look like being a confirmation mentor, or teaching Sunday School, or going on a mission trip. It might look like being the best teacher or nurse or engineer or designer or administrator you can be, knowing that each person you work with is made in the image of God.
But in every case, without exception, it will look like watching in the world, not in the clouds, for signs of Christ’s footsteps, and then showing those signs to others. It will look like joining with others in prayer and practice, including at this table and every other table. It will look like keeping your eyes open, and following the feet.
May it be so. Amen.