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From 11 Frightened Disciples: Why Are You Looking to Heaven?

May 24, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
Why Are You Looking to Heaven?”

Scripture Readings

Our first reading will be the guiding passage of this sermon series, a reminder of how the disciples began the evening of the first Easter locked away in a room out of fear. 

John 20:19-20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  

Acts 1:6-11

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 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.”

“From 11 Frightened Disciples: Why Are You Looking to Heaven”

Several years ago, I attended an annual summer event of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ called Theology and Fishing.  

  • It was the first time I had ever been fly-fishing, so it was eventful for that reason. 
  • I got to spend the week camped out in a primitive cabin, heating my meals on my new and tiny biolite stove and getting a sense of what it might feel like to live off-grid, something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. 
  • And it took place in the high country of Northern Wyoming, which was absolutely beautiful in early August.  
  • And I saw a moose in the wild for the first time in my life, which was amazing.  
  • And on the way home I took a bit of a detour and visited Devil’s Tower National Monument, which I have wanted  to see my entire adult life, so I got to check off one more amazing item from my bucket list.
  • And I got to spend that week with a group of men from around our vast Region, along with a few days meeting our new Regional Minister, Rev. Joan Bell-Haynes, for the first time.

But, as it turns out, none of these amazing things was the true highlight of that trip.  The highlight of that trip – for me – was the teaching of Dr. Eric Smith, a professor of Christian History at Iliff Seminary.  Dr. Smith spent the week sharing with us what the early church was like: what it looked like, the kinds of things it did, based on historical evidence inside and outside the Bible.  And one of my big take-aways from Dr. Smith’s teaching concerned the central role outreach played in the growth of the early Church.  By “outreach”, I mean intentional acts of helping meet the needs of people beyond what we might think of as the “walls” of the Church.  Dr. Smith told us that in a time in which the greatest need of the population had to do with not knowing from where their next meal would come or even if there would be a next meal, a movement like Christianity that literally FED people gained significant traction.  

  • Meeting this most basic and desperate need demonstrated the LOVE of the church.  
  • Making food available in a world in which food APPEARED to be very scarce – I don’t think there was a food shortage most of the time so much as the food was hoarded by a relatively small class of wealthy folks – demonstrated the power of God every bit as much as we might be inclined to think a miraculous healing would.  
  • Once helped – given food – people wanted to become part of this loving and powerful organization that had transformed their lives.

Why do I tell you this story about my time at that Theology & Fishing trip?  Because Dr. Smith’s teaching that week is exactly what comes to my mind when I read the words of the angels to Jesus’ disciples in our scripture reading this morning: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

My friends, we come to the close of our Eastertide sermons series entitled “From 11 Frightened Disciples.”  Every Sunday of this series – every Sunday of the season of Eastertide this year – we have read and considered the message to be found in one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  By now, I hope you’ve discovered that there were A GREAT MANY resurrection appearances; there weren’t enough Sundays in Eastertide to consider them all.  And with each new resurrection appearance, we’ve discovered something new about how the disciples were transformed from being frightened and locked away in a room as John portrays them on the night of that first Easter Sunday to becoming a powerful movement that reached the ends of the earth.

Today, we receive one more story and one more learning.  Part of the transformation required the disciples to get their heads off a focus on “heaven” and back on that upon which Jesus focused so intently during his ministry: the needs of this world.

This might sound a little shocking to some of you.  For so many Christians, there is a belief that “heaven” is exactly WHERE we should be focused, that the thing that is lacking most in the world (and maybe even the Church) is a focus on heaven.  I understand – I absolutely GET – this concern, this perspective.  In fact, I AGREE with this perspective.  So, how can I say the scripture reading for today tells us to get our focus off of heaven?  The answer concerns semantics and translations.

When I hear people today suggesting we should be focusing more on “heaven”, they don’t usually say the word “heaven”.  Rather, they use words like “God” and “Jesus”.  This is what I agree with – our society and even the universal Church could use a hefty increase in focus on God, but that’s NOT what the angels of our story were saying.  I don’t think they were using the word that gets translated as “heaven” to be metaphorical.  There are two ways to translate the word in its context.  One is the metaphorical way – that the disciples were looking up to the spiritual heaven, which would mean they were focusing on God.  The other is the literal way – that the disciples were looking up into the sky.  This second makes a TON of sense to me.  Jesus had just ascended, been lifted up into the clouds.  If Jesus had ascended into the clouds right before my eyes, I imagine I’d be spending some time looking, staring at the sky as well.

As a matter of fact, I am certain I would.  Something much less fantastic happened this past week, and I found myself standing and staring at the sky for more than half an hour.  Susan and I had been walking around the track at Grand Junction High School – about a block from our house – and we saw something hovering in the sky below the clouds.  We couldn’t figure out what it was, so we just kept staring, hoping something would happen that would better identify the object to us.  Eventually, I walked home and returned with my binoculars to gaze into the sky some more.  With the help of the binoculars, I discerned the object to be the floating dead carcass of a dragon (not really, but that’s what it looked like to me.)  Susan took the binoculars and, having much better vision than I do, proclaimed the object to be a massive clump of orange and black balloons filled with helium that must have been released for a GJHS graduation party, orange and black being the colors of the school.

Back to the story.  The disciples saw something absolutely amazing, something that hadn’t been seen since Elijah, something that I don’t think has been witnessed since.  And they found themselves staring at the sky…distracted…until God sent some angels to metaphorically whack the disciples on the side of the head to get their focus back where God wanted their focus to be.

By  the way, I do believe the word that gets translated as “heavens” was meant to be understood literally.  But I also think the whole notion of the disciples staring up into the sky was meant to be BOTH literal and metaphorical.  Can you imagine what would have happened if God had not sent two angels to refocus the disciples?

  • In their distraction, the disciples might have spent weeks, months, or even years talking about Jesus’ amazing ascension?  After all, don’t you continue to focus on, talk about, amazing things that happen long afterward?
  • In their distraction, the disciples might have MISSED their appointment in Jerusalem, missed their opportunity to receive God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost?
  • And in their focus on Jesus’ final, amazing, miraculous act of ascending into the sky, the disciples might have FORGOTTEN that Jesus sent them to continue his ministry.

In one way or another, without this question from the angels that re-directed the disciples’ focus from the sky to the earth, the movement of Jesus’ followers might not have left that spot, might have died with those disciples.  But God had other plans.  God had plans for the disciples to continue meeting the needs on the ground, the needs of creation, the needs of people in THIS lifetime.

If you’re still not convinced that the purpose of the angels was to refocus the disciples on meeting the needs of this earth, in this lifetime, consider the words of Jesus before he ascended coupled with the final words of the angels in this passage.  Jesus told the disciples to NOT worry about heavenly things:  “It is not for you to know the times or periods …”  Likewise, the angels gave instructions for the disciples to not worry about such things: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  In other words, stuff pertaining to the future way of things, stuff pertaining to end times, even stuff pertaining to the next life….THAT is not to be your focus.  THIS WORLD – right here, right now –  is to be your focus.

What does that mean for US, right here, right now?

Obviously, it means so much more than I could possibly discuss in one sermon, more than I could possibly discuss in a whole lifetime of sermons, really.  The needs of this world are so numerous, so great.  So instead of getting bogged down in the specifics, of which there are a great many, I’ll offer some general principles, based on the kinds of things Jesus did in his earthly ministry, the kinds of things Jesus and the angels were calling Jesus’ disciples then and us now to do.

Principle #1 – Figure out the needs around you/us.  My friends, before we can meet needs, we’ve got to know what the needs are.  I know this sounds almost too basic, too simple, to be worth mentioning, but it’s not.  Every time I lead a mission trip, I encounter a similar issue with at least one participant.  There’s always – ALWAYS – a person who desires that we would do work that’s different from the work we do.  There’s always a person who desires that we do the work that person enjoys, the work that would fulfill THAT person – the worker – regardless of whether or not what we did would actually meet any need of the people we are serving.

I’m sure there are some in our midst who will think this is an oversimplification.  Maybe it is.  But it illustrates a point.  We’ve got to START with need, not OUR need but the need of those we seek to serve.  It’s what Jesus did, right?  Do you remember Jesus ever giving sight to a person who could already see, giving hearing to a person who could already hear, giving the ability to walk to a person who could already walk, or sending demons out from a person who was not possessed by demons?  In other words, did Jesus help people to fulfill some great need within Jesus, or did Jesus help people to meet THEIR needs?  We must do likewise.

Principle #2 – With regard to the need, figure out what you/we can do about it.  This is another principle that is more than a little obvious, but it’s also one that I fear is more than a little overlooked…mostly because of WHO we follow.  Y’all,  when you think of Jesus, don’t you think of God-in-the-flesh who could do something about ANY need, any problem?  And so this reality of who Jesus was tends to lead the Church to become paralyzed by how overwhelming the needs are relative to OUR ability to do something about them.  We are NOT Jesus.  No congregation can solve ALL the world’s needs.  No congregation can solve all of Grand Junction’s needs.  When it appears that the need is so much greater than our ability to respond, it’s easy to do nothing.  But that’s NOT what Jesus calls us to do.  Jesus calls us, and the Holy Spirit EQUIPS us, to do something about needs.  I would suggest that the Spirit equips every single congregation with a collection of gifts to do something amazing, something miraculous about one or two of the needs in its community.  For larger congregations, maybe that number is more than one or two.  But for a congregation of our size, it’s likely one or two.  Our job as a congregation is to figure out which one or two needs the Spirit is equipping us to meet.

Principle #3 – FOCUS on meeting those one or two needs that God has equipped us to meet.  This principle falls prey to a similar problem to the one I identified above.  Since Jesus could do anything, could do EVERYTHING, congregations tend to think we should be able to do everything, as well.  But we know we can’t.  And by saying this, we’re not admitting defeat; we’re not admitting failure.  Rather, we are actually admitting God’s victory.  Through the apostle Paul, God revealed that God equips people with different gifts according to the needs of the world.  Wouldn’t God do the same through congregations, especially in a society like ours where there are almost as many congregations as there are street corners?

Still, I have yet to see a congregation choose to focus in this way.  We try to be everything to everybody, trying to meet every need and so meeting very few.  I’m reminded of a congregation I encountered in Dallas, Texas, a once very large congregation that had become quite a bit smaller.  At its height, the congregation’s outreach budget was large enough to support dozens of local outreach organizations.  By the time I encountered the congregation, its outreach budget was so small that the congregation couldn’t afford to send each of those organizations more than $1 each quarter, but the congregation didn’t want to cut back on the number of organizations it supported.  So it continued to “help” each one of those many organizations with $1 per quarter, not realizing that its $1 donation was actually costing each organization more than the dollar given – due to the organizations’ requirements to produce and mail “thank-you” letters and other materials to the congregation.

Y’all, we have been blessed with gifts and resources to meet a few needs.  If we spread ourselves too thin, we just might do more harm than good…even with the best of intentions. 

Principle #4 – With regard to everything you do in Principles 1-3 (and everything else you do in life), make sure God is the reason. 

Throughout my ministry, there’s a question I’ve received quite often after I talk to Christians about how God, through Jesus, calls us to help people, about how God, through the Holy Spirit, equips us to benefit “the common good”.  The question takes a variety of forms, but the essence is this: “Pastor, if someone does good, if someone spends her/his life helping people but doesn’t do so for God and doesn’t point to God in the process, how will God view that person when the judgment comes?”  I’m sure you know that I can’t answer for God, so maybe a better way to understand the question is to ask whether or not our call as followers of Jesus, as people called to continue Jesus’ ministry, is just to help or is it to help in Jesus’ name?  There’s a difference, right?

Since Jesus is the One whom we follow, we can answer the question by recalling Jesus’ earthly ministry.  When Jesus helped people, when Jesus met needs, did he JUST help people, JUST meet needs, or did he make it clear WHY he was helping them, that the help really was coming from God?

If you don’t know the answer, I encourage you to go back and re-read the gospels.  Do so as soon as you can.  And read them paying particular attention to how often Jesus mentioned God or Father when he performed miracles, when he taught, when he helped people.  See for yourself.  For the purposes of this sermon, I will simply point out that each of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – present something of a summary of Jesus’ ministry very early on.  And this summary, it combines some elements: teaching, healing, and proclaiming God’s kingdom.  Consider the version from the gospel writer Matthew:

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:23, NRSV

Y’all, to be followers of Jesus means to HELP PEOPLE, to MEET NEEDS, for sure.  But it’s about MORE than meeting needs for the sake of meeting needs.  It’s also about proclaiming the meeting of needs as something from God, as something God desires, as something fundamental about God’s kingdom.  Continuing Jesus’ ministry absolutely, positively, unequivocally means pointing to God…and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here and now.  It’s not simply about doing good, it’s about doing good to usher in God’s kingdom.  It’s about declaring the end of need as God’s desire for this earth, here and now.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Women and men of Grand Junction, Colorado, why do we stare up at the sky, why do we spend so much time staring into the future beyond this life?  This Jesus is waiting for us…no need to worry about that.  Our job in this lifetime is to continue Jesus’ earthly ministry here and now.

Amen.