Joseph is in love with Maria. I know this sounds strangely close to a Bible story, but it isn't one. These two young people live in a story told by Mary Gordon in her book Temporary Shelter. Joseph has loved Maria ever since the two of them were children, since the day his mother went to work for Maria's father. Joseph, a Catholic boy, is drawn to Maria's Jewish roots, even though Maria and her father had left their tradition long ago. And Maria is drawn ever more deeply into the world of the Roman Catholic convent near her home. Oh, she loves the pure singing of the nuns, the voices of angels. Joseph could see that he was losing her. He saw it clearly one day when they sneaked into the balcony of the convent chapel:
That day in the convent she was far away from him. She looked down at him as though from the lit mountain on whose top she stood and kept him from the women's voices rising by themselves into the airï¿½ rising without effort above everything that made up life. You never saw the faces of the women who made those soundsï¿½only the light that came through stained glass windowsï¿½Joseph saw Maria rise up on the breaths of the faceless nuns, rise up and leave him, leave the body that ran and lay on the grass. The body she loved that always did what she told it, that could dance and climb, or run behind him and put cool hands over his eyes and say, "Guess who?" as if it could be anybody else. But in the chapel she rose up and wanted to leave the body life that she had loved, leave him and all their life together.
(Mary Gordon, Temporary Shelter)
Maria wanted to rise up, up, and upï¿½to leave the body life she had loved. Oh, she was not the first one or the last. The Greek philosophers longed to get beyond the weight of matter and live in the ideal realm of pure spirit. Many religions claim that life with God can only be attained by being freed from the bonds of earth, from the pull of gravity, from the body. To be with God is to be in another place.
Jesus did what that young girl longed to do. He rose up, up, up-away from the pull of gravity. He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of the disciples' sight. Even after Jesus had disappeared, they kept gazing up toward heaven, until suddenly two men in white robes appeared and asked them, "You, Galileans, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Now, that seems a silly question. Wouldn't you stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising 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, too, had asked a question. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" It must have seemed an absurd question to the sorrowful women for they had NOT come to the tomb looking for the living.
Jesus doesn't seem to be where he's supposed to be. He was not in the tomb, but risen and gone to Galilee. Then, later, Jesus was no longer on earth, but risen beyond the clouds, beyond human sight. So it does seem that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we are now. Even if we don't believe heaven is up there, we still find ourselves looking up beyond the pull of gravity. We who dance and climb and run, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news, we are waiting to be surprised by Jesus' hands over our eyes and a voice saying, "Guess who?" But don't we have to rise above the grass, above the living room chair, above this tired and tempting body? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be with Jesus where he is?
Suddenly, two men in white robes turn to us with their question. "Why do you stand looking up? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." We start to argue. "If Jesus is coming again from heaven, why shouldn't we keep looking up? Why should we look to earth where things have turned bad and we are forever tempted to do wrong?"
The men in white robes do not respond to our protests or our questions. But Jesus did! After the resurrection, Jesus spent time with his disciples in Jerusalem. For forty days he spoke with them about the kingdom of God. Then they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus answered, "It is not for you to know the times or the periods that God has set by divine authority, but"-oh, this is one of the biggest little words in the Bible-"but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth," which surely includes where you are right now. That is, the promise of the Spirit is a promise for this earth, this place, this time. Jesus will be forever messed up with this earthly life in the power of the Spirit.
Not long ago I saw a wonderful picture of Jesus' ascension. It was a black and white woodcut print finely etched. In the picture Jesus is rising up as the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. 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 mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth." Jesus' muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospels.
* Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness? Each time he was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of Torah. One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
* Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people?
* Can you see Jesus walking up to a sycamore tree, then looking up at Zachaeus, the tax collector, perched in the branches? "Come down, Zachaeus," Jesus said, "let's walk over to your house for dinner."
* Can you see Jesus walking, then riding, into Jerusalem?
* Can you see him stumbling toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end?
The Holy Spirit moved Jesus in certain directions, not others. He had said it would be so in his first sermon when he read from the scroll of Isaiah. "The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's jubilee." When Jesus finished that reading, he said, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is my road map. This is how I will walk on the earth. Come, follow me.
The Spirit that anointed Jesus now anoints you and me. That's what Jesus tried to tell his disciples before he left them. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon youï¿½and you will be my witnessesï¿½." On this earth where I left my footprints.
Centuries later Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept the message going. "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth," he said. That is, the Body of Christ makes footprints. Bonhoeffer goes on, "A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entitiesï¿½that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him."
"Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" Sometimes it's still easier to look for a pure world up there or out there, especially if we think of the church as the body of Christ. We see so many blemishes, so many things wrong. Perhaps you've said, "Show me a church where ministers aren't self-serving, where people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I'll become a member." Well, we'll wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth. Or perhaps such a church lives only in our memories, a time when disciples believed, when faith could move mountains, when motives were pure.
Annie Dillard writes about such longings in her book Holy the Firm:
A blur of romance clings to our notion of these people in the Bibleï¿½as though of course God should come to these simple folks, these Sunday School watercolor figures, who are so purely themselvesï¿½while we now are complex and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? There is no one but us. There is no one to send nor a pure heart on the face of the earthï¿½but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There are generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day."
There is no one but us, not in this time and space. We can stand looking up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnessesï¿½." You will make footprints in and through ordinary, imperfect communities of faith that seldom get it right. Ascension Day is not a call to look up. It is to trust that Christ's promise is down and in and around us. We are not alone-you and I who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news. We are not alone. The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, surprises us at every turn, saying, "Guess who?"
Let us pray.
Come, Holy Spirit, come to us in this time and place. Come to us when we sit in silence and when we are moving too fast. Surprise us, revive us, and shape us into the Body of Christ. Amen.