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The Mt. of Olives--the traditional site of Jesus' Ascension--is some 2500 ft. above sea level at its highest peak. So before he was lifted up into the clouds, Jesus led his followers up a mountain.
I wasn't exactly a Boy Scout as a child, so among other things, that meant that my first extended hiking trip didn't occur until the summer after my senior year of college. Some friends and I had planned a trip right after graduation--a week on the Appalachian Trail with our favorite philosophy professor, Dr. T. Perry Hildreth, or "T" as we called him. It was to be a rite of passage. For me, it was just six weeks before my marriage to college sweetheart, Jenny, and just a few months before a move to North Carolina, the beginning of divinity school, the start of a new job, and my entry into that "real world" that I had heard so much about somewhere out in the distance beyond the safety of Palm Beach Atlantic College.
Now "T" was a steady and experienced hiker, so as Trail Boss he advised us as we prepared. He helped us know what kind of supplies to buy, what kind of menus to plan, and he taught us key insights like pass on the protein bars and bring Snickers instead. He also insisted that we spend some time before the trip getting accustomed to carrying 50 lbs. uphill. So ridiculous as it felt, we obliged him a couple times in stairwells and parking garages on campus. And sure enough, as we started the hike, we were prepared. All was smooth. We made steady progress up the trail. We left "T" and his fancy hiking poles behind on the ascents. At times we raced uphill, wagering our Snickers bars on who would win. And by Day 2 we made it to one of the highest peaks on the southern Appalachian: Roan Mountain. We felt satisfied; we enjoyed the amazing views and relished accomplishment around our campfire.
But there's something about hiking that I didn't know. I guess I couldn't have known it until I experienced it. That is, you have to prepare for the downhill, too. The ache that you feel the day after a hike isn't from the ascent. It's from the walk down, stretching your muscles as you head down the slope, tensing as gravity pulls you, arching your back to avoid a fall or a face-plant. On an uphill climb we lean forward naturally. But walking down, we have to bend backward. It's unnatural posture, using different muscles. That's where you can have a misstep, like I did, that twisted my ankle, leaving me reaching for a hiking stick and lagging far behind. Because it's actually harder to walk downhill than up.
High on the mount in our passage today, those who have followed this far are taking in a grand view. It had been a relatively quick ascent for them. From casting nets or working in the family business, to finding themselves following in the ways of Jesus, inspired by his healing, transformed by his teaching, learning to take on some of his elegant grace, catching his vision for a kingdom on earth, and becoming all the while more than they ever knew they could be. By now, they had lived through his death, they had wrestled with their own fears, and finally encountered him as the risen Lord who kept his promise to make it back to them. Well, with all of that adrenaline, they must have raced up the trail in their ongoing contest to determine just who was the greatest after all. And once atop the mountain, they could look back and imagine just how far they had come, overcome with the breathless longing that such peaks can give us.
Up on the mountain they find themselves in what Celtic Christians would have termed a "thin place." It's a place so elevated that the veil between earth and heaven, human and divine, seems to thin to where it is so easy to see God, to hear God's voice, to sense God's Spirit lifting you.
And that's so often what we seek. That's so often what we prepare for--to ascend to those places. The mountaintop. The dazzling light. The grand view. The feeling of satisfaction.
Stephen Covey, the leadership theorist and executive coach, spends much of his time with people who are ascending--leaders and executives reaching peaks in their careers and personal lives. And once he was with a gathering of such leaders on retreat, and he posed the question: what metaphor will we use to determine the way that we live our lives?
And Covey has found that high-level executives use "mountain climbing" more than any other metaphor to interpret their lives. They set goals for their lives because goals help us know if we have lived successfully. They make plans and necessary preparations. They measure progress based on the day's mileage. And they rarely stop lest someone else should leave them behind. But Covey observes that the problem he sees is you sweat, climb and reach what you thought was the goal of your life; but when you reach the top and it levels out, chances are you feel a little empty, as though in all of your striving there were things that you missed. Because most of us don't ever prepare to walk down from there.
And it's not just the over-achievers. It's so many of us in so many parts of our lives--career, home, community service, family life, education, maybe with our expectations of our children, maybe in our lives of faith--so many of us only prepare to walk uphill.
I think of a friend, Amanda, who had a life-changing opportunity some years ago to spend a summer in Calcutta, India, where she worked in the homes of Mother Teresa. Amanda had prepared for months, with so much leading up to this moment when she would work alongside Mother Teresa, one of her idols, maybe holding the hands of those who were nearing the end, or running programs for children that would help them to know that they were the beloved of God.
Only when she arrived, Mother Teresa wasn't there. Amanda learned that her idol would be spending those months on an international benevolence tour. And then when she reported for work her first day, she was placed in the kitchen, washing pots. And then the next day in the laundry, washing sheets. This went on for weeks, frustrating my friend. So she asked one of her supervisors, "Hey, I've been spending all of my time washing pots and cleaning sheets and folding bandages. I came here to work with Mother Teresa. What does Mother Teresa do when she's here?" And the supervisor said, "Well, when she's here, Mother Teresa cleans sheets, she folds bandages, and she washes pots."
And somewhere the whisper could be heard for Amanda and all of us racing up the slope: "The greatest among you will be your servant."
And that way down is so unnatural. The disciples resist it. As Jesus rises, they're left gazing up into the clouds, along with so many of us who seek the risen Christ. We act as though he's elevated and beyond us in a place we have to strive to reach or strain our necks to see.
But even as he rises, Jesus, who taught them so much of power in weakness and greatness in service, is teaching them the way down. "Stay here, in the city," Jesus says in Luke's first telling of the episode in Luke 24. 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. Such a 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. But as he rises up, he tells them to stay down. Just to reinforce his words after he's gone from view, two men appear and ask, "Why do you stand here looking up?"
How many times have we assumed the way of a Christ--the way of faith--is a journey up? But it's actually the story of coming down--Christ coming all the way down into our brokenness, woundedness, fear--and then Christ's people following in that same way. Yes, the message of Jesus from the manger to the cross, from the tomb to this Mount of Ascension is that this world is changed not from the top, but from the bottom. For all of us wanting a mighty Messiah, he arrives as infant refugee. Instead of a powerful ruler, he operates as a homeless teacher. It is not his demonstrative strength that saves the world, but his enduring love. He humbled himself to death, even death on the cross; and as risen Lord he carries not only the wounds in his wrists and side, but the wounds of all those beaten down, cast out, and despised. He has borne all of our sorrows. And so as he rises, we hear him tell us to keep our eyes fixed on this earth and head back down the mountain to the places where he made his life.
And it's so unnatural. Our muscles ache. We can barely balance. But isn't that so often the case with the paths that lead toward the heart of God?
If we wonder with the disciples why Jesus would send us down from the heights, we find our answer as we read ahead. Because it's down in the city that the Spirit comes, rushing through the streets, crossing background and language, and organizing all those followers into a new existence where, as Acts describes, "All who believed were together and had things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people" (Acts 2:42-47).
Maybe we'd prefer to stay where the air is thin and the view of God's glory is so clear, but the mountains and the valleys of our world are right next to one another. And while we strain our necks, the messengers of God call all of us people of Galilee to lower our gaze and to look around. For down the slope, there are people who can still be caught up in a vision of a new community of the risen Christ. Luke says that "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 stay 2,500 feet in the air.
That's hard for me to realize, and it may be for you, too. I can remember those years ago, sitting atop Roan Mountain, looking out at all that was before me. I walked away from the group one evening and prayed. And in the vista out there before, I saw dreams of my life to come--the urgency and excitement of an upcoming wedding, a move, a new church job all stretching out before. What I could not have known, though, is just how much of this life is a call to walk a path down and how unprepared I generally am for such direction, as a husband, a father, a pastor, a follower of Jesus. How often I want to stay where the air is thin, the light is bright, the achievement is obvious, the power is close to me, straining my neck all the while. "Why do you stand looking up at the clouds?"
The disciples eventually adjust their gaze, and descend just as Jesus had taught them, from the mount of ascension to the center of the city. And thank God, for the community that flowed from their experience of Jesus and his Spirit eventually came to include you and me. Today they make their journey to Jerusalem once more, and we are called to follow in that same way. But if you do, just be prepared that it's a walk downhill.
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