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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Do Something | Ascension Of The Lord 2020

It was wearisome to me. My (then) wife and I had been members of the small mission congregation in the northeastern United States for a few years, and the fact that all we ever did was 'study the Bible' had been frustrating me for most of that time. There was Bible study in Sunday School, the sermon was a Bible study, and there was a Bible study during the week. Whenever a member had a social occasion at their house, somehow a Bible study or at least a prayer session was shoehorned in. Now, I was a theologically moderate evangelical (meaning I was pretty conservative by a non-evangelical Christian's standards), and had a high regard for the Bible and for prayer. That wasn't the issue. What bothered me was that we really didn't do anything else. We talked about living a godly life, and we were admonished to bring people to faith in Christ, but other than that, life rolled on unchanged. The only vices we ever seriously contemplated in all our studies were 'illicit' sex, drugs, and drunkenness. The thought of systemic oppression was far from our minds, and human rights were not a chief concern. We participated in no outward-facing benevolence or activism. Don't get me wrong though, the people were some of the best you'll find. They supported one another, checked in on each other, laughed, cried, and prayed together. We were just stuck in our little world, busy with work and raising our families. It was driving me to distraction.

It went from 'not great' to awful when, after being asked by several members, I undertook to start a youth group. The kids were in their early teens for the most part, so it seemed to be the right time. I began planning the first gathering in my home, discussed it with some of the parents, and sent out invitations. Then I messed up. I went against a laundry-list of complaints that one of the 'main' couples brought to the church, seeing most of what they said as spurious or irrelevant. They got nothing of what they wanted. I shouldn't have been surprised when the wife in that couple called, giving me a very aggressive dressing-down for even considering organizing a youth group without discussing it with the board. Her verbal abuse went on for easily 15 to 20 minutes, and that was a time in my life when I felt obligated to 'be a good Christian' by hearing her out and attempting to address her concerns. It was also before I came to understand my own worth, and I took everything she said so deeply to heart that I was left with a stutter for weeks after. In hindsight I've come to learn that a backlash to any attempt at progress should always be expected. We've seen in on a national level with the rise of Trump and his corrupt cronies. Older white folks are scared because their hegemony is being challenged, and they react instinctively in fear and hate to attempt to regain the control they feel they've lost.  

Anyway, this attitude of maintaining a status quo is something that the source-texts for Christianity tends to confront.
"Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.' When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God." Luke 24:45-53 NIV
In this passage, the author of the Gospel Luke is recounting the miraculous ascension of Jesus into heaven. I've always thought of it like a helium balloon going up, and you strain your eyes to see it before it's lost behind a cloud or goes so high it's simply not visible any longer. And you keep looking, because who knows? Maybe it will somehow reappear. Just prior to Jesus drifting (or shooting?) up into the sky he tells his disciples the heart of what 'orthodox' Pauline Christianity later came to understand as the 'good news.' He also tells them their mission will be to preach his name to all the nations, and that he'll send them the power to do it, by which he is understood to mean the Holy Spirit. They are expected to also be conduits for miracles, and the later legendary accounts in the Book of Acts but also in extant non-canonical texts, tell us that the early church believed this was so. 

In the reading for this year's Feast of the Ascension the Lucan author wanted us to understand that the reaction of the disciples to all this was to worship in the temple 'continually.' While historically, based on Acts and also what we can put together outside of that regarding early church history, it's unlikely that Jesus' original, remaining 11 disciples did much outside of Jerusalem. Accounts to the contrary have little or no basis, and seem to contradict Acts and Pauline writings that place the apostles in Jerusalem, their base. I agree with scholarship that argues for Paul as the great universalizer of the Christian faith. Without him, it would have likely remained a little-known and soon-forgotten Jewish sect. Instead, what the canonical New Testament tends to focus on is the idea that the teachings of Jesus were always for everyone. Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male, female, and non-binary (remember the eunuch...a topic for another day), and beyond. Where this passage concludes with the disciples in the temple worshiping god, the narrative continues after with the explosive birth and growth of the church. We're to understand that while there is a time of waiting and expectation, this is only the prelude to a great deal of action. 

That little congregation that so frustrated me, and eventually broke my heart, seemed to me like a car that was running but left to idle. You could get it and pump the gas, making things slightly more interesting inside, but without taking it out of park you're not going anywhere. This is true of many churches, and I'm firmly convinced it's one reason that so many are closing. Sure, there are demographic changes in many places that are to blame, and the emptying of rural areas in particular, but there are also many urban churches that seem stuck idling. This goes for conservative and liberal congregations alike, when they don't assume a prophetic role, step out into new territory, and find the courage to take on new challenges. They worry about keeping the lights on but don't give proper consideration to actually doing something for the detained immigrant, for the victim of gun violence, or the shivering homeless person shut out of the public spaces that are the only places they can keep warm when shelters are full, unsafe, or non-existent. It's easier to plan potlucks, safer to hold a Bible study in a comfortable home, and more gratifying to feel holy by taken notes of the sermon.

Luke would have us recognize that no one else will do what we need to do, and that we already have the power within ourselves to make a difference. Our temples are fine, but not if we never go beyond them to a world that needs hope and progress toward a better tomorrow.