The Mt. of Olives – the traditional site of Jesus’ Ascension as told in Acts – is about 2500 feet above sea level at its highest peak. And that means before he was lifted up into heaven, Jesus led his followers up a mountain, up into the clouds.
Sister Joan Chittister has noted that “Mountains…in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature, were always places where the human could reach and touch the divine.” (1) A mountain is what Celtic Christians would have termed a “thin place”– a place so elevated that the veil that exists between earth and heaven, between human and divine, seems to thin so that it’s easy to see God, to hear God’s voice, to sense God’s Spirit lifting you. As the Celtic saying goes, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance grows even shorter.” So atop that mountain, it was as if those disciples could reach and touch the edge of heaven itself.
In fact, that’s what they seem to be trying to do as Jesus ascends in our passage. This scene is one of the most widely painted in Christian art, and in many depictions, the disciples are rendered with their arms outstretched grasping at Jesus’ feet, their hands open reaching for his robes as he stretched beyond them. They’re trying to take hold of him, perhaps wanting him to stay there with them, or even more, hoping that some of the glory that surrounds him on that mountain will sweep them up with him into the great beyond – beyond all that seems to limit and keep them grounded here on earth.
That’s so often what we seek from God. That’s so often what we search for in our lives of faith and following after Jesus – we want to ascend to those places. We want to be on the mountaintop amidst the dazzling light, the grand view, the glory bouncing off of Jesus onto all of us who surround. We stretch our arms to reach it. We strain our necks to see it. And that’s right when we hear the words from these two figures in white who approach in Acts 1 and say: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Because the ascension is not ultimately a story of Jesus going up so much as it is a story of his disciples going down. Lowering their gaze. Descending down the mountain into the places he has called them to be after he is gone. Jesus has a word for this. He pronounces it upon them before he rises, almost like a mountaintop ordination: “witness.” Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
A witness. This word, “witness” is a pervasive theme throughout early Christianity and we can trace its development throughout early Christian literature. First and foremost to those early Christians the word meant eyewitness. One who had a personal encounter and thus a direct link to the divine in Jesus Christ. One who had seen, and felt, and touched, and experienced for themselves. That describes any of these disciples who had followed him this far up to that mountain. By then they had experienced him as risen Lord – the one who had kept his promise and made it back. That’s why they follow him that far. Because they had witnessed it with their own eyes. It was not that view of the empty tomb that changed their lives and not a testimony from another. It was when they encountered him for themselves.
It was when Mary was in the garden, and she saw the one who looked to her to be simply the gardener, but then that gardener knew her name, “Mary.”
It was when Thomas was with the others locked behind the doors when Jesus came through those barriers and stood there before him and Thomas said, “My Lord and my God.” He witnessed it himself.
It was when the two on the Emmaus Road – Cleopas and his friend – walked some miles down the road with Jesus before they turned their heads and they realized who had been with them all along.
It was when Peter saw him on the shore, and understood that amidst all the missteps that had led him on his clumsy journey to that point, the love of Christ was still reaching out to him, still showing up for him, and still believing in him. Peter witnessed it himself.
Resurrection is not simply something that happened off in the distance somewhere. It is something that happens still. It’s something we witness.
And for some of them – for some of us – that is the substance of faith ultimately. Many of us want to stay in that place of witness, recalling what he has meant to us, all the times he has lifted us. We gather around him for as long as he will stay. We reach out our hands as he goes.
But “witness” means more than that. It is not simply a reference to those who have seen – those who have caught sight, or been eyewitness to Christ’s risen life. “The evidence that Christ has risen is a transformed Easter People,” Peter Gomes has written. So “witness” also means those who have been transformed. A witness is one who can testify to the gospel of Christ’s life, death and resurrection – a life that is not simply something you see, it’s something you bare, something you give evidence of, something you yourself bring into life.
Some of you have heard me reference the 2009 HBO film “Taking Chance.” Based on real-life events, the film recounts the story of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a volunteer military escort officer, who is accompanying the body of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps and seeing him back to his hometown of Dubois, Wyoming. It’s a beautiful story, a fitting watch this Memorial Day weekend, with many poignant scenes, like one in which Col. Strobl, played by Kevin Bacon, stops along the way and has a conversation with a man in the small town who had known Chance his whole 19 years. The man standing in that service station of this small Wyoming town thanks Col. Strobl for his service, he thanks him for bringing Chance back home, he thanks him for being present to honor his memory, and he says… “Sir, you are his witness now. Without a witness, we fade away.”
Jesus’ word about witness is a call to them. It’s a call to us. “Don’t let me fade away. Give witness. Give life to this kingdom we have dreamed about and given ourselves to. Because in the absence of vivid, courageous, bold pictures of my life, people will start seeing me anywhere. They’ll start looking for me in all the wrong places.”
So he says to them in an earlier telling of the ascension story in the gospel of Luke, “Stay here. Where I am going you cannot come. Stay here.” You can think of the physicality and juxtaposition of that scene. The contrast. Stay here. “Sit down here,” the literal translation reads. As Jesus rises, he calls those around to stay…to sit down. He must have known they longed to follow him upward into some cloudy, idyllic existence at the right hand of God away from the confusion and chaos and pain. But as he is rising up he says to them, “Stay here. Sit down.”
And then as they crane their necks they hear those words, “Why do you stand there looking up at the sky?” Why do we look up? Well because that’s the easier view isn’t it? And we stand on that peak looking upward. hearing that promise, looking for that kingdom he told us about. But if we look down again we see the reality of what is and not the possibility of what can be. We see that no matter how many memorial days we have acknowledged, how many lives lost, how many sacrifices given, humanity has not learned the things that make for peace. We look down and see vulnerable people overrun and forgotten and further victimized. We see another incident of hatred and hysteria and violence. “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up?” Because it’s so often easier to believe when you’re staring at the sky.
Then again, maybe you remember another time in the Gospel story when two men appeared – two men in dazzling clothes who stand beside the women who had come to the tomb on Easter morning. Those men also asked a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It seems the followers of Jesus have a way of looking for God in the wrong places.
How often are we left gazing up into the clouds looking for the risen Christ, acting as though he’s elevated and beyond us in a place we have to strive to reach or strain our necks to see? But that kind of crick in the neck spirituality doesn’t hear the call of Jesus that says to lower your gaze, look around, and catch sight of Christ in this world. Make him known there. Be a witness yourself. Plant your feet in the name of justice and righteousness and truth. Ground yourself in this commitment to the kingdom he told us about. Sit down in places of pain and suffering.
For down the slope of that mountain of Ascension, there are still people who can still be caught up in a vision of a new community of the risen Christ. As the disciples head down the mountain and into the city, we read ahead and the book of Acts tells us that there in that city “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” And that doesn’t happen if the people gathered around the risen Christ just keep their eyes on the sky. That doesn’t happen if the followers of Jesus stay hovering 2000 feet in the air.
My friend, Rev. Heidi Neumark, is Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New York, and not long ago shared a story of a time when this Kingdom we so often view as high and lofty was known here on earth as it is in heaven, in her neighborhood. In a Christian Century article a few years back, Heidi shared how she had received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. He wrote from Los Angeles to tell her about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church but he had reached out to Heidi because they were in what Heidi called “the shadowlands of trauma.”
Their youngest son had a rare, terminal illness. And this Brooklyn-based family was spending nearly all of their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their son was receiving care, not far from the neighborhood from where Heidi’s church was located. Heidi was actually in her own hospital bed when she got this Facebook message. She had just come out of hip surgery. It would be a few weeks before she was up and about. So she asked her seminary intern from Union Theological Seminary if she could go and be with this family, offer a touch and extend some care. It ended up that this intern spent quite a bit of time with the family – praying, waiting, weeping, listening, sitting. It ended up that the intern helped Charlie, the five-year-old brother, come to say his goodbyes. She stayed beside Charlie’s parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. Eventually, Pastor Neumark and the ministry intern presided at the funeral for this child, his family absolutely breathless with their shock and loss, and 5-year-old Charlie standing there, hiding behind his parents legs at the service.
Within a few weeks of their unimaginable loss, this family began pulling themselves up, taking one step in front of the other and on Sundays they would make their way to Trinity Church. They had found a church home in this community that had surrounded them in their sorrow. Many Sundays little Charlie hid behind his parents’ legs. He rarely spoke. He didn’t want to go to Sunday School but sat with his dad and drew pictures of cars and rockets like the one illustrating a prayer of his that was in the funeral order of worship. It was the prayer Charlie had spoken four days before his brother’s death. “Dear God, please send us a rocket ship so that Jakey and me can go to the stars. I love Jakey. Amen.”
Eventually Charlie did decide to go to Sunday School. His father went with him and was seated nearby. One Sunday the teacher had prepared a lesson on Tabitha. You know that story of how Peter, later in the book of Acts, raised Tabitha just as he had seen Jesus do to Lazarus. And also of how, after her death, the widows that Tabitha had clothed held her presence close through the fabric of her woven tunics. The teacher, as she was telling the story, suddenly panicked. Wouldn’t little Charlie wonder why Jesus did not bring his brother back like Tabitha? Wouldn’t he wonder why hadn’t God answered his prayers and those of his parents?
But then the most amazing thing happened. This quiet little boy, drawn out somehow by the story, for the first time ever in class began to speak. He told the class of preschoolers to second graders that his brother had died. And
that Jesus had raised his brother, too. That his brother was with Jesus in heaven and that his brother was also still with him. He showed the class a woven bracelet that reminded him of his brother, just as the widows must have shown Peter their woven tunics.
The class sat there transfixed, perfectly still. Every eye and every ear was focused on the testimony of their Sunday School classmate who had walked in the valley of the shadow of death and was now was speaking to them about it. There was one little girl in the class who, Heidi speculates, must have known something of this pain. This little girl was born with drugs in her system, raised by her grandmother while her mother is in and out of treatment. The little girl’s name is Heaven. Heaven spontaneously got up and went over and gave her classmate Charlie a hug. Following her example, every child in the class got up and, one by one, hugged their little brother in Christ, and they hugged his father. (2)
Sometimes the distance between us and the divine is about 3 feet. And sometimes it thins out and it’s even shorter than that. But when that happens, it’s not because we’ve been swept up into the clouds. You see, when that happens it’s because Heaven touches earth. That doesn’t stop when Jesus ascends. It happens in the lives of these who follow him not only to this elevated mount, but those who follow his words back down into the world that God so loves. It happens in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. It happens in Manhattan. It happens in Greensboro. It happens unto the ends of the earth.
Jesus has a word for it. “You… you… you are my witnesses.” Dear God, let it be.
1. “The Role of Religion in Today’s Society,” 30goodminutes.org
2. “Companion to Strangers: Building Bonds in Sorrow and Love” Christian Century (March 5, 2014)