Brief synopsis of the readings: Today I had the choice of preaching on the ascension or the seventh Sunday of Easter. Frankly I chose the ascension because I found the readings more interesting. We begin with the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus met with his apostles. While speaking about the kingdom of God they asked him when he would restore the kingdom. Jesus told them that it will happen at a time they don’t know. As he said this he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight. Our Gospel comes from the end of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim and baptize the whole world. After that he was taken up into heaven.
I’m not entirely certain who set up the lectionary, but it’s assumed that the first reading and the Gospel are somehow related. There are times when I wonder how different readings are paired, but today I chuckle because both readings cover the same event: the ascension. Both the end of Mark’s Gospel and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles describe how, forty days after his resurrection, and in the middle of a conversation, a cloud came and took Jesus into the sky.
As many of you know I’m a hospice chaplain. I spend my days with good men and women who have been through ranges of emotions: devastating news followed by horrific fear followed rays of hope followed by more bad news followed by….well, you get the point. When they come onto hospice they find much the same: fears that the end will be horrific followed by hopes that it will be peaceful. These fears tend to take several cycles. They often find truth in my image that they are on a roller coaster, blindfolded. They don’t know when the climb will end leading to the inevitable plunge; curves, dips, drops become almost expected, except they aren’t because you’re blindfolded.
I’ve written about this before but it’s easy to ridicule Jesus’ disciples as being dense and not capable of fully understanding what he talked about. But I think, in a sense, they experienced this blindfolded roller coaster. They followed this man who seemed to speak to their hearts and who grabbed onto his promise that he was the Messiah.
But then the Romans killed him. But then he rose from the dead and appeared to them several times. But then a cloud stole him from them. I think we all agree that they must have grown weary of what faced them and what they should do.
I also suspect that (in a milder sense) today we ride the same roller coaster. Jews in the time of Jesus awaited the Messiah in the belief that once the Messiah appeared, their journey would end. And as Christians we believe that Jesus was the Messiah they awaited. But when Jesus appeared, the journey didn’t end. Many of us justify this as saying the Jews were wrong. The coming of the Messiah didn’t end things, but the return of the Messiah will.
And at first blush we have passages from Scripture that appear to back this up. The second half of the 25th chapter of Matthew speaks of a point in the future when the Son of Man will divide the people into those who will be saved and those who will not. The end of the book of Revelation predicts a new Heaven and a new Earth that will be free of disease or pain.
I suspect all of us have read these readings with the belief that there will be a time when this life will no longer exist. There will be a Heaven (and presumably a Hell) but there will be no earth.
I’d like to challenge that.
As Christians we’ve spoken of the “end times” almost from our very beginning, and we even have a word for the theology of the end times: eschatology. As a seminarian I took an entire course in eschatology (ironically, my professor died three months after the course ended). But while we think of the “end times” as the “end of the world” perhaps it’s not.
In the last 150 years or so many Christians have come to a belief in the rapture: at a time of God’s choosing all the good people will be taken to heaven, those “left behind” will endure tribulations, and at the end of the tribulations the world that we know will end. But what if this eschatology is personal and not worldwide? What if this world will never end? Can that be a good thing?
I know I’m running in the face of much of what we’ve assumed. Where I live it’s common to see the decal “NOTW” (not of this world) pasted on cars. It speaks to a belief that this world is either a bad place that we must endure or a test that we must pass. We must choose to follow Jesus or follow the world and our salvation hangs in the balance. Only by enduring and not being seduced by this world do we find salvation.
On the other hand I admire people who view this world with less darkness and more hope. They look on situations in their lives with this question: “What can I learn from this?” And while the life we are promised in heaven lacks disease or pain or spam emails, perhaps we can say that those in heaven are better for having a life that did.
The life we are living now is far from perfect, but it does give us opportunities to find gratitude, to seek joy, to discover love. Nobody argues that this life also gives us the opportunity to prey on the less powerful or use others to advance our own addictions, but I don’t think anyone reading this lives in that world.
When I think of this dichotomy (forgive me) I think about Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer and sexual predator. Under the guise of mentoring young talent he instead assaulted and demeaned them, causing untold damage in their lives. But living in this world also gives us the opportunity to truly mentor others in a different way. I’ve done a fair amount of mentoring in my life and I can tell you this: coaching someone who doubts his abilities, seeing that person grow in confidence, and celebrating that person’s success: that’s an experience greater than anything else and far greater than anything Weinstein experienced.
I could be completely off base, but I like to think that everyone in heaven knows and loves the experience of being friend, mentor, and cheerleader. The population of heaven doesn’t consist of strangers who individually accepted belief in Jesus Christ, but instead consists of a community bonded by a love achieved through individual decisions to build each other up.
When I get to heaven I hope to be greeted by those who love and remember me, and I promise to greet all those who I love and remember.
PS: Happy Mother’s Day to my mother.