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Someone asks, "Lord, now that you are no longer physically on earth, who will continue to share the good news?"
Christ responds, "There are 11 who were especially close to me, and I have given them the responsibility of getting the word out."
"O Lord, these 11 must be incredible people - the best and the brightest that creation has to offer!"
"Well, actually no," the Lord responds. "These are average folks with ordinary abilities. Not the 'best and the brightest' by any means."
"But Lord, if these are only average people with ordinary ability, how can you be sure that they will get the job done?"
"Well, to be honest," the Lord answers, "I can't be sure."
"You cannot be sure, Lord? Well, what if they fail to do the job? What is your backup plan?"
Quietly Christ answers, "I have no backup plan."
I wonder if those standing there on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Holy City had any idea that there was no "backup plan." I suspect that they were not thinking much, period. After all, these past three years had been quite a ride. They had seen the teaching, preaching and healing. They themselves had been in danger of the torture and murder. They had been witnesses of their Lord's conquest of death. These past days of close communion may well have given them the idea that things would resume where they had left off prior to the crucifixion. But such was not to be.
During the Passover Seder prior to the Lord's arrest and trial, Jesus had said he would be moving on, but in that new scheme of things, they would be sustained by God's Holy Spirit. Now they have heard the same thing again - instructions to wait in Jerusalem and, "in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
Did they understand? As usual, not really. Thus the question, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" In other words, "Lord, what now? OK, things are going to be different - HOW different? What now?"
My friend Rob Elder ministers to the saints at the First Presbyterian Church in Salem, Oregon which hosted the national Christmas Eve broadcast on CBS this past year. Sometime back Rob recalled being dropped off by his parents for his freshman year at college. He wrote, "Just days before I had gotten myself all packed up, ready to head for school, and asked my brother if he thought I looked like a college man. 'No,' he said, 'you look like a freshman.' There I stood a couple of days later in my ridiculous freshman beanie [some of you are old enough to remember those] at my new school, in a new city, in a new state, where I knew hardly anyone. I waved at my parents and they waved back at me. I continued watching as they disappeared into the distance, over the hill, off into a cloud of mystery as it were, their day-to-day lives now officially separated from mine. An old chapter of my life was now behind me, a new one was opening. Bright as my future was going to be, it didn't feel all that bright at that moment. And all the previous conversations about my future, about the work that lay ahead of me, all the dinner table speculations about the universe of possibilities that waited over the horizon seemed pretty small compensation just then for the certainties of the life of a child and teenager in a loving home that I had known before."(1)
Do you remember being scared that way? All of us have those moments when we are not only curious about the future, but we wonder if there will even be a future. What now? That is the disciples' question. What now? "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
Jesus' response? He did not answer the "restore the kingdom" question; instead he answered the deeper "What now?" Jesus made this promise: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes..." He shifted the emphasis from the restoration of the past to the transformation of the present.
The waiting will soon be over, the coming with power of the Holy Spirit is just around the corner. Why? Work to do. "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jerusalem is "home" - the comfortable and known and familiar. "Judea and Samaria" - those places of our life where we are not quite so comfortable and Jesus' reception here is mixed (perhaps "ethnic" ministries within the Hispanic, Asian, or other communities; or among the homeless, the prisons, or with those recovering from addictions). "[T]he ends of the earth" - the edges of our lives, those places that would stretch us spiritually because we are not normally involved there. It is likely something we would find distasteful or off-putting. But, likely, according to Matthew 25, the place we would find Christ to begin with.
All right, Jesus. Tell us just a bit more. We have some questions. Jesus? Jesus? As the text says, "He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight." Hmm. It always seems to work that way, doesn't it? At the very moment we want Jesus to be most vivid, something obscures him. That is why, in some traditions, the Paschal Candle that was lighted on Easter is extinguished on Ascension Day reflecting the fact that things will not be so obvious now.
Strange as it may seem, I take comfort in that. The life of faith does not lend itself to easy answers, despite what some of our friends at the extremes of the religious right and left might want us to believe. We go about our work with clouded vision, with things not always as clear as we might like...just as the disciples did after Christ's ascension.
Perhaps the "clouded vision" is the reason for the recent controversy over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The question has been posed ever since the beginning of terrorist acts in the Middle East, but more so after 9/11 and subsequent comments by President Bush. At a press conference with England's Prime Minister Blair last November, Mr. Bush was asked his thoughts on how the war on terrorism and his promotion of freedom intersects with his Christian faith. "I do say that freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person," he answered. "I also condition it by saying freedom is not America's gift to the world. It's much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Commission, said that while he respects Mr. Bush he believes the president is wrong. "Like many other Americans I applaud the president as a man of deep religious faith who attempts to bring that faith conviction to bear on public policy issues. However, we should always remember that he is Commander-in-Chief, not the theologian-in-chief. And when he says that he believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken."
So who is correct? For what it is worth, according to a Harris Poll taken last year, a slender majority of Americans - 53% - believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, but 32% think they worship different gods. That is based on a nationwide sample of 2300+ adults.(2)
Again, who is right? The quick and dirty answer, in my estimation, is both. Since both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions, to say that we worship different (or even competing) gods is a logical impossibility - if there is only one God, there is only one God!!! Thus, we worship the same God.
On the other hand, to say we have the same understanding of that God is clearly not the case. The most obvious difference is that Christians believe we come to know God through Jesus Christ; Muslims disagree.
What makes the question more pressing is our understanding of how God expects us to behave. Christians cannot imagine a God who would approve of someone flying an airplane into an office building or blowing up a crowded bus or slashing an innocent human being's head off while shouting GOD IS GREAT!!! For that matter, neither can many Muslims. In a Washington Post article last week, it was reported that a national Muslim advocacy group has announced that it is asking Muslims around the world to sign an online petition condemning terrorism as "un-Islamic" and a betrayal of their faith. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said that its petition, titled "Not in the Name of Islam," is "designed to disassociate the faith of Islam from the violent acts of a few Muslims."
Obviously, there is disagreement within Islam as to what God expects. But to be truthful, there is disagreement within Christianity as well. Thus we have continuing controversies in the church over human sexuality, abortion, capital punishment, the role of women, etc., etc., etc. We continue to deal with the same "clouded vision" as those gathered there on the Mount of Olives so long ago.
What a group! Standing there. Staring into space. Paralyzed like deer mesmerized by oncoming headlights. These 11 were the A-team. It was to them that the Lord entrusted his mission. There was no backup plan. But, as Will Rogers once said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just stand there."
YO!!! "Men of Galilee. 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." He'll be back! Meanwhile, you have his work to do.
Back when the West was being settled the major means of transportation was the stagecoach - we have all seen them in western movies. What you might not know is that the stagecoach had three different kinds of tickets: first-class, second-class, and third-class. If you had a first-class ticket, that meant you could remain seated during the entire trip no matter what happened. If the stagecoach got stuck in the mud, or had trouble making it up a steep hill, or even if a wheel fell off, you could remain seated because you had a first-class ticket.
If you had a second-class ticket you also could remain seated...until there was a problem. In case of a problem, second-class ticket holders would have to get off until the problem was resolved. You could stand off to the side and watch as other people worked. You did not have to get your hands dirty. But second-class ticket holders were not allowed to stay on board. When the stagecoach was unstuck you would get back on and take your seat.
If you had a third-class ticket, you would definitely have to get off if there was a problem. Why? Because it was your responsibility to help solve the problem. You had to get out and push or help lift to fix a broken wheel or whatever was needed because you only had a third-class ticket.(3)
I tell you that to tell you this: men and women, boys and girls of First Presbyterian Church, 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...and you are now proud owners of third-class tickets for the journey between now and then!!! Even with clouded vision, let's get to work.
1. via Ecunet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 05 19," Note #59, 5/16/96
2. Harris Poll, 10/16/03, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=409
3. Larry Warren on Ecunet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 05 19," # 7, 5/13/96