“And Jesus said to them, ‘Stay here.’”
While I’ve enjoyed studying monastic life, I’m not exactly what you would call a monk. Maybe it’s something about those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – frankly, those seem like someone else’s call and vocation! But there’s a fourth vow that has something important to teach me today. In addition to the well-known vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, there’s a fourth that’s often forgotten: the monastic vow of “stability.” Staying put. For the monastic life, this means remaining in a single monastery, with no thought of going elsewhere. What could stability mean for us?
There’s something intriguing and inspiring about this notion of stability, with so many in what seems to be a perpetual state of restlessness. At rapid rates, people switch jobs, switch careers, sell homes for greener grass elsewhere even if elsewhere is right down the street. You feel it, don’t you? The restlessness and rapid motion and ratcheted up ideals that send us always up and out and away, searching for something more than this place or this moment, all the while forgetting the value and the vocation of staying put or staying at it.
Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and well-known spiritual writer, once reflected on what this vow of stability meant in his life, especially as one who came to his call later in life. In his book, The Sign of Jonas, Merton said this: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’ This implies a deep act of faith: the recognition that it does not much matter where we are or whom we live with. …Stability becomes difficult for a man whose monastic ideal contains some note, some element of the extraordinary. All monastaries are more or less ordinary.… Its ordinariness is one of its greatest blessings.” (1)
It’s a blessing we know if we stay put, stay at it, stay with it – which is the vow Jesus calls all of us disciples to make once again this Ascension Sunday.
In these days after Easter, we have been reflecting on some of Jesus’ self-description – Jesus in his own words– today remembering that after his resurrection, he understood himself to be the ascended one, the one rising beyond his followers on the ground to go to a place where they can not go. From early in Luke’s gospel, he seemed to have a sense that his time on earth would not last forever. He speaks of it in parables, “The days will come,” he tells his followers earlier in Luke 5, “when the bridegroom will be taken away.” And now on this hill outside of Bethany, it is coming to bear: Jesus Christ withdrawing from them, carried up to heaven, Luke says, returning to his place at the right hand of God.
But if Jesus is the Ascended One, what does that make the disciples? The ones remaining. The ones staying put.
Just before he leads them to that hill, Jesus speaks of his message of “Repentance and forgiveness of sins proclaimed to all nations” and tells them, “You are witnesses.” It’s as though Jesus is saying, “For a time, I was the one who proclaimed this. I was the one who came for the world stretching out its arms for something more.” But just before he rises above, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “Now it’s your turn. It’s your time.”
The story is told of the composer Giacomo Puccini, who wrote a number of famous operas, La Bohemeand Madame Butterflyamong them. In 1922 he was working on his last opera, Turandot, when he received a sudden cancer diagnosis. Puccini told his students, “If I don’t finish, I want you to finish it for me.” He didn’t finish. He died in 1924. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and they completed it, based on what they knew of their teacher and his work, and in 1926 Turandotpremiered in Milan, Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. Everything went beautifully until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscanini’s face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” A vast silence filled the opera house. Toscanini picked up the baton again, smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “But his disciples finished his work.” When Turandotended, the audience broke into thunderous applause. Today, many would say that Turandot is Giacomo Puccini’s greatest work. (2)
Before he ascends, Jesus tells the disciples to finish what he has begun. As the love of God enabled Christ to proclaim the good news, now his disciples continue in the power of the Spirit with the same ministry.
But to do so, they have to stay put. Stay at it. He says as much in v. 49, “Stay here in the city.”It’s an interesting phrase – a verb normally translated “sit” or “sit down.” So as Jesus is rising up, he asks his disciples to sit down. Think of the juxtaposition and the physicality there. He must have known they longed to follow him into some cloudy, idyllic existence at the right hand of God away from the confusion and chaos and pain. He must have anticipated how they would stretch their arms and crane their necks to follow that impulse to rise above, the grass always greener, the sky so much clearer, the light ever brighter somewhere else.
And if we’re honest, I think we can admit that so much of our faith and following – so much of Christianity – can amount to this kind of restlessness. It can become an embodied desire to reach beyond the ordinary and mundane, resisting this call to stay and looking for some sort of passage away from the cares and concerns of this lowly, earthly plain. We can start to think that Christian faith is not about life in this world but the next world, or that Christian attention is better focused on life eternal rather than life in the city or nation or world of the here and now. Christianity becomes, as a college professor of mine liked to say, “pie-in-the-sky- and the sweet bye-and-bye.” Christian discipleship becomes an attempt to transcend life in this world, this body, this community, this time and place.
Such thinking has a long history, all the way back to the ancient Greeks at least, who believed that reality is divided into two realms – the earthly matterand the elevated realm of the spirit. So it must have been tempting for those early disciples – influenced by the Greco-Roman world – to turn away from the ordinary and matter of fact, especially given that their world was hostile and dangerous, with Rome itself turning against them. Of course they would want to ascend.
And yet Jesus could not be more clear with them, as with us: “Stay here.” Stay at it. Stay with it. Jesus wants his followers to be in the world. He wants his people in every age not to transcend the world, but to engage the world – to live their lives gracefully in the world, to love the world just as God so loved the world, to serve the world just as Christ so did. So all of us disciples have to stop stretching and straining beyond this earth. We hear as much as the story continues in the book of Acts, in one of my favorite verses, as a question comes from two figures in white: “Why are you looking up?” Lower your eyes. Reorient your gaze and with it your commitment. As a pastor friend of mine is fond of saying, “Don’t dare be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.”
Perhaps you’ve followed recently the story from within wider Baptist life of the Southern Baptist leader and seminary President, Paige Patterson, who over the course of his career has recently been revealed to have counseled women in abusive marriages to fix their minds on heaven, as a way of urging them to remain in relationships no matter how threatening they might have been. It’s a horrible story – one that makes me grateful for occasions like yesterday, at a Little League game, when a friend remarked curiously, “So, not all Baptist churches are the same, right?”
And yet, how often am I guilty of the same sort of crooked necked spirituality? How often do I make that flailing reach beyond the earth toward heaven? Restless about the state of the world, how often do I cash in all my privilege and advantage in a retreat or an avoidance of the things that seem so bleak and unjust?
On a day like Mother’s Day, for instance, I could just Hallmark my way into forgetting those mothers who can say “me too” about the abuse they’ve endured, the counsel that has left them vulnerable, the theology that has proven threatening.
Or I could look past those who are separated from their children because of our immigration crisis.
Or I could forget those who speak to their children from behind glass, amidst mass incarceration that continues to disproportionately affect black and brown people in our country.
Or I could turn heavenward, rather than lower my eyes to see those families divided and destroyed by war and conflict.
All the while it’s as though I’m just looking up, with an upward gaze that can become an acceptance of the way things are on the ground; an orientation that can become acquiescence, as though there’s nothing I can do. But then Jesus says it again: “Stay here. Stay at it. You are my witness.”
Many of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, who in Nazi Germany had every opportunity to lift his gaze and keep his religious commitments totally separate and insulated from what was going on in the world around him, which is just what most other German Christians did. In fact, Bonhoeffer had an exit strategy all worked out in the form of an invitation to remain in the rarified air of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was lecturing. They even begged him to stay, rather than to return to the place where he would be at risk. But somehow cutting through he heard that call of Jesus, “You will be my witnesses,” and he walked back down the hill – or crossed back over the ocean, as it were – to the land where God was calling him, concluding that his faith would not allow him to lift his eyes from what was happening. You know the story: he joined the Resistance and became part of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. When the plot failed he was arrested and executed a few days before the war ended.
His Letters and Papers from Prison remains a powerful witness to this day. The volume of his correspondence home includes some words he wrote to a friend, saying that Christianity doesn’t remove us from this world but “plunges us into all the dimensions of life.” He went on to say, “During the last year or so I have come to appreciate the worldliness of Christianity. . . . I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life. . . . Later I discovered that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe.” (3)
“Stay here.” Jesus says it, because he believes it about us. He believes that we can be his witnesses – those who have known him, and can come to make him known. It’s as though he is saying, “There was a time when I healed the sick, I fed the hungry, I preached the truth, I cast out evil, I demanded justice, I forgave sinners, I reached out to all people, I included the outcasts, I proclaimed the kingdom of God near to every one of them…But now, you are my witnesses.”
And disciples can’t be what he calls us to be if we’re way up in the air. So we read ahead and the book of Acts tells us that as they stayed in the 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 we seek a heavenly retreat. It happens because we stay.
Dr. Bill Leonard, is a friend of our church – an important personal friend of Jenny and me – who this year retired after his tenure as professor and founding dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School.
Some years ago, he was preaching on this theme of ascension and how disciples of any age are tempted to rise above all the problems of this world. He was down I-40 at First Baptist Asheville. He looked up into the domed ceiling, and he began to talk about eschatology – the end of days. As you know, there are any number of ways to understand the apocalyptic texts in our scriptures, but some are more popular than others, and Dr. Leonard began to be stirred into a frenzy as he railed against those who estimate a literal date Jesus will return, and especially those whose understanding of heaven and its coming leads them to care very little for this earth and its needs, as they are “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.”
At the height of his emotion, he said, “If that rapture comes and I’m still on this earth I’ve decided I’m not going. I’m going to hold onto a tree.” Then he continued, “Because, you see, I’ve been reading the New Testament and I’ve decided I better listen to Jesus – the one who told me that I was his witness; the one who told that story about the one lost sheep and the shepherd that wouldn’t give up until it was home.”
On the way out the door, people were giving him fits for trashing premillenialism and the Left Behindunderstanding so popular at that time. But as they did, he noticed at the very end of the line there was a teenager – a lanky 17-year-old kid – who was hovering and waiting. As the line cleared, the young man shook Dr. Leonard’s hand. “Well I liked your sermon. And can I ask you a question? Would it be okay if I stayed here with you and Jesus ‘til the last one got home?”
Dr. Leonard said he drove away from that church, and heading east on I-40 he cried all the way to Statesville.“My God,” he thought to himself, “Here I was with this great little rhetorical flourish, and the kid hears it, and now I gotta stay.”
So now we all have to stay. Eventually the text says of those disciples, “They returned, to Jerusalem, with great joy.” It was joy found in the call to stay; joy discovered in the vocation of witness; joy that comes when after seeing the body of Christ rise above, they lower their eyes and head down the hill to become the very body of Christ in this world.
And may it be so for us here and now.
- The Sign of Jonas, pp. 9-10.
- As told by Jack McCardle in And That’s the Gospel Truth
- Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 226.
- As told by Dr. Bill Leonard in a sermon at Myers Park Baptist Church