I'm posting this now before I have to cut anymore of my favorite parts to fit within the service with communion and a lot of music. Many thanks to kathryn for the Abba Sayah story!
Thanks to my mother, sister, and nieces who live in Orlando, Lady Princess is much more into princesses than I had ever hoped right now. It’s not really the choice of toys or interests that I would choose, but I’m reluctantly willing to agree to the only princess movie we have occasionally for our Sunday night movie tradition. It’s Aladdin. This is one I actually have on VHS still. It came out when I was in high school, and I bought it then.
The obligatory hope-filled love song is duet in this movie called “A Whole New World”. Aladdin, the “street rat” turned faux prince, takes Princess Jasmine on a magic carpet ride showing her all the wonderful places he can take her, places she has never had a chance to see due to her over-protective father who keeps her locked away in safety behind the palace walls. In the reading from Acts I hear that same song being sung to us this day. “A Whole New World” the disciples then and now are offered as Jesus makes his way back to the Father. “A Whole NEW World” even when it isn’t what they are looking for.
The disciples have been on an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. Up and down, up and down they have traveled not only just over the last 47 days or so since Palm Sunday, but over the last 3 years or so since they were first called by Jesus. Follow me, he said, but watch out, I’m asking you to take up your cross. Through my power you can heal, but people will persecute you in my name. Into Jerusalem we will come with a parade, but once there I’ll be mocked, arrested, beaten, and put on a cross to die. Dead in a tomb for three days, but then you will see me resurrected with new life and a transformed figure. Up and down, up and down. Life following Jesus has been anything, but stable and predictable.
So, as the Scripture tells us, when they had come together, they asked him “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” I hear a great deal of frustration and a general sense of exhaustion in that question. After all that they had been through together, this was still the question on many of the apostles’ minds. It’s what they expected would happen when the Messiah came, and it still ahs not happened yet.
It’s not an unfaithful question or expectation really. It’s what they had been taught by their parents who had been taught by their parents who had been taught by their parents and on and on for generations. A successful and true Messiah would usher in a certain set of events, and at the culmination of those events would be a new old kingdom. One established by God, protected and blessed and prosperous in Yahweh’s name. “Lord, is THIS the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
It had been a LONG time since Israel was on top for any length of time. As a nation it has been conquered and reconquered more times than most people would like to remember, and more than many would bother counting. It has been GENERATIONS since the people of Israel could say that they have been free, and their kingdom has been established. But the memories of that time have not faded. Maybe they’ve even been enhanced, as memories of the glory days often are.
When the followers of Jesus truly began to believe that he was the Messiah, they thought for sure he was going to be able to bring this kingdom of Israel back to the top of the pile. That’s the story that had been told to them; that’s the story in which they placed their trust and their hope. When that didn’t take place right away it seems as if they gave Jesus the benefit of the doubt because he was, after all the Messiah, but now that they are moving through uncharted waters with the resurrected Son of God, you can almost hear the frustration and uncertainty in their voices. Jesus’ resurrection was a second chance to make the dream a reality after his embarrassing defeat on the cross, surely NOW he will take care of the business he came to do. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Now will we finally be free again and out from under the rule of others? Now will you bring what was promised to us? A place where we can thrive? A future that is glorious? A life that is peaceful and prosperous? Are we finally going to have a faithful man on the throne again? Is our temple worship going to be pure and undefiled like before? Will our children and youth come back to participate like they used to? Will we have all the volunteers we used to? Will we be known as your blessed people and take our place of honor among the nations? Lord, NOW will you restore us to the good old days? NOW will you help us return to what we once were? It doesn’t seem too much to ask, since it’s what the Messiah was supposed to do anyway.
Jesus’ answer is appropriately and characteristically vague. I can’t tell you, guys. What you ask for I can’t disclose. I don’t even really know if it’s going to happen like you’re expecting, and I think you’ve maybe missed the boat again. This resurrection, this new life, isn’t about going back to the old life. This resurrection, this new life, will be a whole new ball game. You’re going to get the power and support you need from the Holy Spirit to get the job done, and you’re going to get it done not just here in Israel, not just here in this kingdom you’ve been waiting for, but here in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth. This is going to be a whole new world.
The resurrection didn’t promise us restoration to the good old days. Jesus wasn’t given his body back in the same form he had the first time around. Remember, the disciples, his closest followers and friends, had a hard time recognizing him when he first appeared to them. We don’t know what, but there was something different yet something still the same. When he broke bread with them, they knew who he was, but when they simply saw him, there was something very different about him. The resurrection brought new life, and a whole new being to Jesus, and the resurrection brings a whole new reality to us, too.
The new life we face in the church and in our lives is not new life to do the old things. The new life we have been given by the grace of God as a congregation and individually members of it is not, new life to recreate our favorite times of the days gone by. The resurrection didn’t take place just so we could recreate the same program we thought was successful years ago, just so we could expect the same sort of mission we did in times past.
The resurrection didn’t happen just so that we could go back to our old way of living, of praying, of learning, of following God. It didn’t happen so that I could find the old path I walked, and walk the same direction I walked before. In fact, didn’t that old path take me to a place where I needed the grace and forgiveness of the resurrection? Jesus has made it possible for me, for us, to walk a new path; Jesus has brought us NEW LIFE, and it’s new life empowered and encouraged and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to witness to Christ’s love and new life in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.
I don’t think the apostles could have ever imagined what happened next. It’s like the crucifixion and the resurrection themselves. No matter how many times he warned them it would happen, Jesus’ ascension into heaven had to be a jaw-dropping experience. Taken up? On a cloud? Out of sight? Are you kidding me? Abba Sayah, one of the Desert Fathers, a group of early early Christian mystics says it happened this way:
As Jesus began to rise, air, John just couldn’t bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse when Mary saw his plan, she, too, jumped up, grabbing hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father…now what?”
A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.
So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God is calling out, “Ascend!”
But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
“Wait!” he shrilled, “I've lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.
It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a napkin up from the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow. Jesus ascended to heaven. He went back to living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation –everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him.
The resurrection first didn’t simply revive a dead way of doing things. It changed how EVERYTHING is done. The ascension didn’t take Jesus out of the world, as much as it pulled the world up into the presence of the Triune God. We are, essentially, living in a whole new world. In the resurrection of Jesus we have been given new and redeemed life. The old has passed away and the new is in its place. As new creations in Christ we have new and blessed calls to be his witnesses in a new and hungry world.
Be lifted into the presence of God. Be lifted by Christ’s power, by his calling, and by his Spirit. Be resurrected with him, and not simply restored, that together we may be his witnesses in new, imaginative, and inspired ways.