So 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 toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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 there were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I was sitting in the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Lexington, VA for my first district event as a pastor. The room was filled, as you would expect, with older Christians (lay and clergy) dedicated to the kingdom of God as made manifest in the UMC. We listened to our District Superintendent discuss the challenges facing the church in our contemporary period and how similar they are to the problems that John Wesley faced in England when he initiated the Methodist movement of scriptural holiness.
All of the districts that make up our Annual Conference are required to gather annually for the purposes of restoring our souls for the adventure of doing church, and to discuss business matters as they pertain to our locality. Reports are filed annually for our review and approval as well as a new budget that needs to be considered by the body of Christ gathered together.
As far as I was concerned, the budget appeared fine. Sure, there were a few minor changes; some programs needed more money, and some programs had been receiving too much without being fruitful for the church. The only noticeable and significant change was found regarding the budgetary needs for “district youth.” I can’t remember the exact figures but it was a noticeable decline in funding for the young people of the district.
One representative present noticed this significant change and decided to make it abundantly clear to everyone how upset she was that the money had been decreased. She said, “I want to know why we lowered the district youth budget. The youth are the future of the church, and if we don’t invest in the them, the church will disappear.”
A worthy comment, don’t you think?
Our District Superintendent then calmly responded to her comment: “I appreciate what you are saying. We do need to invest in our youth. But I want to be clear about something; the youth are not the future of the church, they are very much a part of the church right now. The mentality that “the youth are the future of the church” prevents us from treating them as the church in the present. We will gladly restore money to the youth district budget, but for the last few years we have done nothing with and for them. I would love to hear ideas about what we can do right now for them, and then we can responsibly apply money to the District Youth.”
After Jesus’ resurrection, he spent 40 days with his beloved disciples speaking about the kingdom of God. This forty day period was a great pause in the dynamic actions of God in the world; after the resurrection but before the day of pentecost, Christ had fellowship with his brothers and sisters to teach them about the coming days of ministry and service.
When they had come together after Jesus had completed his teaching, some of the disciples asked the question that was still on everyone’s mind: “Lord, is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection, they were so caught up in the drama of Roman occupation that their vision of God’s kingdom was limited to political ramifications alone. So Jesus did what all great teachers do, he ignored their question: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had finished saying this, he was lifted up toward heaven and a cloud took him out of the disciples presence.
The disciples stood transfixed, as any of us would have, with their eyes on the sky, perhaps held is disbelief. Suddenly two men in whites robes appeared and said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return in the same way” So, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer.
Jesus made three promises to his disciples before he ascended into heaven: the gift of the Holy Spirit would come, they would spread their witness to the ends of the earth, and Jesus himself would eventually return. They had been given a job to do before he left: wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem and then spread the gospel, but when he was lifted up the disciples stood paralyzed with the eyes on the sky. Can you blame them? Jesus had come back from the grave, resurrected and clothed in the glory of God to teach them about the kingdom, and now he had left again. Their friend and Lord had departed, entrusting the future of the church and the kingdom to this group of uneducated, poor, and often ignorant community.
While standing with their necks craned backwards two men appear to remind the disciples of their purpose, a reminder that we need to hear as well: “Why are you looking up to the heavens?” You have a job to do. There is work to be done.
When the woman stood up to question the budget as the District Conference I could understand where she was coming from. Reducing the money from the youth budget sounds like a bad thing to do. But her notion of “youth as the future of the church” is just like the disciples stuck with their eyes on the sky. One of the greatest problems facing the present church is our inability to see the present. We become so consumed with the future of the church that we lose sight of our mission right here and now.
It astounds me how often people ask me about the future of the church. And I don’t mean what the church will be doing next year. People want to know the long term hope for the church of the distant future. The questions I hear are regularly oriented to a future that is beyond our ability to grasp or imagine: Where are all the young people? How can we convince the millennials to attend church? How can we build 250 churches in the next 30 years? …
This is how many of us live our lives, consumed by the distant future of all things, not just the church: we think about the next war, the next financial rise or decline, the future of democracy in America and abroad, the survival of the “perfect” family model of a husband, wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. We no longer look at the horizon, instead we want to look over the mountains and imagine the great fields and grasses beyond our vision.
Jesus, however, was of a different mind. Begin now! Get your eyes out of the sky and start focusing on the present. Right here and now our task is to transform the present by witnessing to Christ, to the kingdom, and to his Word. This is not to say that we are forbidden from planning for the future; we can, but not at the expense of the present. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
When the angels reproved the disciples for their transfixed gaze on the heavens, how did the disciples respond? They waited and and they prayed.
In an age of activism and instant gratification, we would expect the disciples to something a little more “useful” than wait and pray. We would expect them to meet together in different committees to implement action plans like: creating contemporary worship services. To ask questions such as:“how can we build 250 churches in the next thirty years?” or “how can we convince the young people to start coming to church?” Yet, when they were told to witness to the ends of the earth, when they were tasked with spreading the Word of the Lord, their first response was prayer. While the world was ready to keep spinning, to forget about the political problem that was squashed when they crucified Jesus, ready to get back to life as usual, the disciples met in the upper room and devoted themselves to prayer.
Gathering to wait and pray are often depicted as the two primary actives of a faithful church. It amazes me how far I, and we, have fallen from this blueprint. When the church encounters a crisis we treat it as such and we immediately implement plans and programs to fix it. When I am asked about how I intend to get more people to start attending church, people want to know what I’m going to change in order to make church appealing immediately. Imagine, if you can, how people would react if, after they asked the question, I responded, “I should pray about it.”
We don’t want to wait. We want things to happen immediately. Thats why people still ask, whenever I introduce myself as the Pastor of St. John’s, “how many people do you have in worship?” We want numbers, and figures, and diagrams, and growth, and tangible results as soon as possible. Christ, on the other hand, wants patience and prayer.
Waiting and praying is a heavy burden for those of us caught up in the technically impatient world of the present. We live in an age of instant everything, and so many want the church to be exactly the same way. One of the toughest tasks that will face us as a church, and I really mean us, the people of St. John’s, will be to be a people of prayer, when the world expects us to be a people of instant results.
In life, all things come and go. Where there is life there is always death, where there is love there is loss, where there is hope there is sorrow, where there is joy there is pain. So too, Jesus came to be with his people, and then he left; he ascended into heaven. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes there is an unrecognized good that comes with the going.
Jesus wants persons, not puppets. We are not here to be controlled by the great puppet master in the sky who moves us to where we are supposed to go. Instead Jesus has left us to be his body for the world, to be true and full persons who are prepared to go and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Sometimes we have to be left on our own to really learn who we are, and whose we are.
A parent can never be there for every single thing their child ever does. If they were, the child would never learn how to grow, blossom, and mature into their true nature. A boss can never oversee everything their employees do, otherwise the business would lack the great imaginative capabilities of numerous minds, rather than a solitary and isolated vision. A pastor can never lead as a perfect disciple for everyone else to follow, because all pastors are like everyone else, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.
Christ ascended into heaven so that the church could become his body for the world, so they we could become his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samara, and to the ends of the earth.
So, how do we begin? How do we live into this call that Christ has placed on our lives? How can we start being his body for the world and have a vibrant and life-giving church?
We begin by waiting and praying.
Like the disciples, we need to be patient before we jump into “fixing” all of the “problems” that we see. Imagine a church that prayed fervently for the needs of our faith community in the hope of meeting the needs of so many on a regular basis. Imagine what this place would look like if we spent the first fifteen minutes of worship every Sunday in silence, waiting and praying to the God who calls us and knows us by name. Imagine what our family lives would look like if we spent five minutes with our children praying for them and their friends every morning before they left for school. Imagine a faith life where we prayed not just for what we want, but for the needs and hopes of the people who bother us the most.
It would be strange. For many it would be uncomfortable. Waiting and praying are no longer natural habits for the people who live in the world today. We have become so habituated into expecting “instant everything” that we rarely relish in the joy that is patience and prayer.
Today, let us become a people of waiting and prayer. As we take the steps to this table we are reminded that even though Jesus ascended to heaven, he never really left us. For he is here with us in the bread and the wine. He becomes manifest in our lives when we participate in his kingdom on earth. Do not let yourselves be burdened by the worries of the future, instead let us all get our eyes out of the sky and start doing the work of the Lord here and now, work that begins with prayer.