At a wedding last weekend, Jenny and I sat in the sanctuary of our former church, Metro Baptist. Many of you know, the church is housed in an old Polish Catholic church building, and when the scrappy Baptist congregation bought it in the mid-80s, they left many of the marks of the Polish-Catholic origin, including stained glass windows and ceiling murals in the sanctuary. In the midst of a beautiful service of commitment last Saturday, it was fitting that as our friends shared vows and promises down on the ground, I looked up and I noticed I was sitting beneath my favorite of the old ceiling murals: a depiction of Jesus’ Ascension, with the risen Christ lifting into the clouds, surrounded by 11 followers all gazing up as he rises beyond them.
It’s one of the most widely painted scenes in the gospels, this story of Jesus ascending into heaven. Medieval artists – when depicting the scene – sometimes painted Jesus with only his feet showing, just barely visible as he departs through the canopy of clouds. Barbara Lundblad – professor at Union Theological Seminary – describes one such rendering from the medieval period – a black and white woodcut print, etched in great detail. In the picture Jesus is rising up, and the disciples are all looking up. But if you look closely at the picture, not in the clouds but on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus’ footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their arms grasping and their mouths gaping open (1).
Similar lore is shared at the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension in Jerusalem. A holy place for nearly 2,000 years, a Muslim Mosque marks the site today, and some say that in a particular spot you can still see the shape of Jesus’ foot in the rock.
We want to see his footprints. I recall a college New Testament course, where the professor’s day-one icebreaker asked all students to share with the class their favorite story of Jesus in the gospels. “The Samaritan woman at the well,” one said. Another called out, “Jesus standing up in the boat and calming the storm.” On the sharing went, when it came to a student in the front of the class who shared with complete conviction, “Umm…I don’t really know where the story is found, but it’s the one about Jesus walking on the beach with a man, and the man looks back and only sees one set of footprints in the sand, and when he asks Jesus about it, Jesus tells him he was carrying him.”
Calm and composed and seeking to save the student of here well-earned embarrassment, the professor replied, “Right. I think you’re thinking of the poem, ‘Footprints in the Sand.’ That’s not actually in the Bible.”
We want to see his footprints. We look for them anywhere – rock, or sand or soil. It’s true of these disciples on the hill of Ascension. Walking up that hill, they must have been recounting all the steps he had taken before – all the places they had walked with him. And Jesus acknowledges it by saying: “You are witnesses to these things…”
A witness. As in eyewitness. That’s what the word meant first and foremost to early Christians: one who has had a personal encounter. One who has seen, and felt, and touched, and experienced for themselves.
That describes any of them who had followed this far. By now they had experienced him as risen Lord – the one who kept his promise and made it back. And that’s why they follow that far. They had witnessed it.
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.
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.
Thomas was with the others locked behind the doors when Jesus came through those barriers and stood before him.
The two on the Emmaus Road – Cleopas and his friend – they walked some miles down the road with Jesus before they turned their heads and realized who had been with them all along.
Peter sees him on the shore, and he understands 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.
There’s no single uniform reaction – for them or for us. But what all of these who followed share, is they had been witness. They had seen the places he’d walked, the tracks he’d left, the people who had been saved when his path intersected with theirs.
And for some of them – some of us – that is the substance of faith. Many of us want to stay in that place of encounter, encircling all that he has meant to us, all the times he has carried us and lifted us, all the times his steps found their way to our desperate need. And we gather around him for as long as he will stay. 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 his risen life. “Witness” also means those 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.
So as we look up, trying to catch one last sight, Jesus says again “You are witnesses,” meaning that Jesus wants to see our footprints, too. He wants to see us travel to places we are called, where the love of Christ needs to be seen and known. He wants to see our feet planted in the name of justice and righteousness and truth. He wants to know we have walked miles, made tracks in our commitment to the kingdom he told us about, which is not found in someplace lofty and removed, but a kingdom on earth – this earth – as it is in heaven.
Attorney Bryan Stevenson describes one such witness in his book Just Mercy. Stevenson is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative – a practice dedicated to defending those in our legal system most desperate and in need. His book is part memoir, part commentary on race, ethics, and criminal justice in America, and it relates accounts of Stevenson’s decades of work, including one story of an older woman he had seen in the courtroom again and again throughout the course of a trial. He saw her so much that he assumed that she was related to one of his clients, until one day she caught him looking at her and she waved him over. “I’m tired and I’m not going to get up,” she said in a sweet crackling voice, “so you’re going to have to lean over for me to give you a hug.”
“Well, yes, ma’am. I love hugs, thank you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Sit, sit. I want to talk to you,” the woman said.
When Stevenson asked if she was a relative of one of the defendants, she said, “No, no, no, I’m not related to nobody here…. I just come here to help people. This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.”
She described how 15 yrs prior, her 16 yr old grandson’s life was taken by other teenagers. At the end of the trial convicting those boys and sending them to prison for life, she thought she’d feel better, but she had sat for hours in the courtroom and wept. And in the midst of her tears she had been comforted by a stranger who sat down next to her. And so, she in turn comes now and sits down to try to comfort others – mindful only of their need for comfort, not caring if they are the ones harmed, or the ones who have done harm. She had planted her feet there almost daily for 15 years. She looped her arm in Stevenson’s and she said, “All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to sit right here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
Then gripping Stevenson’s arm she said, “I’ve been watching you, Bryan… you’re a stone catcher, too.”
It was like an ordination. A commissioning.
Maybe that’s what Jesus is talking about when he calls us witnesses. Because the surest evidence that Jesus is who he says, is the fact that it changes the lives of those who followed. It changes our lives and makes us new. It makes us people whose feet are planted for what is true and just and whose tracks lead to places where the love of Christ is made known. It makes us people who sit in places of pain and suffering. Just look at Luke’s first telling of this episode, in Luke 24, as Jesus tells those gathered there, “Stay here, in the city.” The phrase comes from 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. 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. But as he rises up,he tells them to stay down.
He wants to see our footprints leading back down the hill, and into Jerusalem. And just to reinforce his words after he’s gone from view, two men appear and ask, “Why do you stand here looking up?” Maybe you remember another time when two men appeared, two men in dazzling clothes who stood 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 crooked neck spirituality doesn’t hear the call of Jesus that day to lower your gaze, look around, and catch sight of Christ in this world and make him known there. For down the slope from this mount of Ascension, there are people who can still be caught up in a vision of a new community of the risen Christ. As they 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.
Some of you know that a couple weeks back I spoke at an anniversary banquet for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, celebrating 25 years. It was a wonderful time in my home state. I bumped into many people I had known over the years, including one woman, Wanda Ashworth, who runs one of CBF-Florida’s ministries in South Florida. As a youth minister I took groups from First Baptist in Lexington and Immanuel Baptist in Nashville on summer trips to work in the ministries of CBF-FL alongside Wanda and others. “You tell those kids that we still talk about them,” she said. “They made a real impact.”
As we talked and reminisced, I recalled one particular trip to Miami back in 2004, where we worked with children in the Overtown neighborhood and spent our evenings learning about the neighborhood, the poverty that existed around these children we had come to know, and the system that seemed slanted against them. Why did the highway get built right in the middle of their neighborhood? Why didn’t they have many grocery stores around? Why did the public transportation stop at the dividing line into their community?
It was challenging to learn to see the world that way and ask the questions that don’t have reassuring answers. Seeing all this was particularly hard for one teenager. At 14-yrs-old he had a pretty clear sense of himself and fairly set ambitions for his life. He had always assumed he would graduate from his high school and follow a fairly conventional track. He’d make people proud. He had it all charted out. But this experience had disrupted his plan. He had always wanted to be a lawyer, but now he was aware of the world around him in a much wider way, and he was wrestling with what it meant for his future. I found him sitting outside the house where we were staying and sat beside him on a muggy Florida night. He told me, “You know I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but now I’m wondering if I should be a minister.”
And I said, “Be a lawyer!” No I didn’t say that exactly, but I said something like, “The world needs lawyers, too. And what if your practice of law was a ministry? And what if you always sought to keep a wide view of the world, and thought about how your passion for justice could be the vocation to which God is calling you? What if you practiced law with these kids and this neighborhood on you heart and in your mind?”
And you know, two weeks from today that teenager will graduate from law school at Georgetown University. He’s worked on campaigns, he’s become an advocate, and as he graduates he’ll pursue a career serving this world that God so loves with his formidable legal skills, but also with the even greater gift of God’s people always in his view.
You might say he’ll be a stonecatcher. Jesus had another word for it: “You are my witness.”
The disciples eventually adjust their gaze, and descend into the world just as Jesus had taught them, from the mount of ascension down to the center of the city. And thank God, for the community that flowed from their witness to Jesus Christ and his Spirit – the number of all those people whose lives were renewed and saved – eventually came to include you and me. And all because they let go of Jesus and instead grasped hold of the true miracle of ascension and the work of God’s spirit: that when we lower our gaze, head down the hill, plant our feet in the city to which we’re called, we become the very body of Christ in the world. Years from now, some might even still be able to see the evidence in the places we walked and the footprints we left.
- “Footprints on the Earth,” Day1 (May 8, 2005)