Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback. Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on). The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend. This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point. Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.” In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.” In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion. Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act. Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication. In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities. As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling. One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different. Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed. They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.
This morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it. Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread. All of this is pretty bizarre stuff. The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories. It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus. In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud. It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all. Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God. The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened? That was weird.” And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church. Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed. That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings. So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.
This leads us to wonder why. What is significant about the Ascension? What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship? One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence. Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment. Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations. Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel. The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way. Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight. For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building. For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level. The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes. After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky. Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh! We just saw someone carried away into the sky!” Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus. The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.
When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent. Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary. Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous. In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky. Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain. Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”
But what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant? What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent? Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger. Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love. Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.
If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church. This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles. In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger. As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master? By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds. Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church. In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.
Would Jesus recognize the Church today? On one level, this is a silly question. The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years. Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter. But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love? Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger? Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example? Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures. We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy. But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma. The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure. The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right. The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.