1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” That’s the question two men robed in white pose to the apostles after Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:11).
The same (or similar) men appeared and asked the women who come to Jesus’ tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).
Although Luke does not specifically say who these men are, Luke uses the same adjectives he uses to describe their garments (white and dazzling) to describe Jesus’ garments when he is transfigured (Luke 9:29). Whoever these two men are, it is clear from both their knowledge and their wisdom that they have been sent by God.
So then, at these crucial moments in the life of Jesus—his ascension, resurrection, and transfiguration—what is it that God wants Jesus’ followers to know? I actually think it is less about what God wants the apostles to know and more about what God wants them (and us!) to do.
In each instance, Jesus’ followers seem to have frozen in the past. Staring up into the sky, staring down into the tomb, or offering to build dwellings on the mountaintop so that nobody ever has to leave (Luke 9:33).
Mark tells us that the women at the tomb eventually left as the messenger from God told them to, but said “nothing to anybody because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). Although Luke doesn’t cue us into the emotions of the apostles on the ascension mount, I have to imagine that fear was part of their hesitation. Perhaps sorrow and amazement also played a part. But whatever they are feeling, this group of followers, like the women before them, and Peter, James and John before them, seem to be glued to their spots.
There was reason to be afraid, of course. Unlike the secretive tone of the encounter at the transfiguration, the messengers at the empty tomb sent the women to tell all the other disciples about this miracle (Mark 16:7). Now, on Mount Olivet, Jesus has commissioned his apostles to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In both cases, the message that they’re asked to carry—the person they’re commissioned to witness to—is the very person the Roman government just put to death as a political criminal. It is not only difficult to believe (that Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven!) but it is a dangerous message (that Jesus will come again, perhaps this time to overthrow the Roman government).
Given the circumstances, I can understand why Jesus’ followers seem often to be found staring into space at key moments in their call to ministry.
In the present world, Christianity has become a more politically acceptable religion in most countries. The danger of proclaiming that Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven has gone away. In some places in our world it may even be safer to proclaim these once dangerous words than their opposite. However, this doesn’t mean that practicing Christianity has become safe.
After the passing of black liberation theologian, James Cone, earlier this week, Elizabeth Palmer wrote in the Christian Century that “Cone’s Theology is easy to like and hard to live.” She calls for the church and its workers, many of whom have expressed their sadness after Cone’s death, “to put down God of the Oppressed [perhaps Cone’s most famous volume] and begin the much harder work of striving for justice.”
I would like to suggest that this was the same message that God has been delivering to Christians since Peter stood speechless at the transfiguration, the women stopped in their tracks at the empty tomb, and the apostles stopped open-mouthed after Jesus’ ascension. God’s message to God’s people is not about what we ought to think or know about Jesus (what books we ought to read), but rather, about what we ought to do in response to the radical life and love that was Jesus.
Perhaps God’s messengers are too polite to say it so directly, but their message is: “Stop staring!” “Stop just looking at a problem—just offering your thoughts and prayers—and do something!” “Go and tell the others!” “Be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth!” “Come down from the mountain!” Live and share the love and life that is the Kingdom of God we know through Jesus.