Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you have heard from me: John baptized you with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
This is the Word of the Lord,
Thanks be to God
Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? What do you see, Galileans? Are you staring into heaven with the hopes that you’ll be the first to see the future when it arrives? What do you see when you stare into heaven as your Lord is lifted up? What do you see?
Perhaps you see the story of what Jesus did and taught from the beginning. The story of a birth heralded first by the armies of heaven and then by the poor shepherds tending their flocks by night. The story of the boy who sat in the temple amazing his elders with wisdom beyond his years, while his mother worried about him a day’s journey away. What do you see?
Perhaps you see parables, sermons, and wisdom. Perhaps you see deeds of power, the lame leap, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the unclean made whole.
Perhaps you see a journey to Jerusalem, where if the disciples were silent, the stones would shout. Perhaps you see the people around you are proclaiming all the wonders you have seen, and that truly God is here in this place.
Perhaps you see your Master being taken away from you once again, just as he was by the crowds in Jerusalem. True, this time he is not being taken away from you to be killed, this time he is being raised up, as we say in our creed, to sit at the right hand of God, the father almighty, but that doesn’t make him any less gone when you’re used to being able to see him and touch him. Feeling a spiritual presence is very different than having a physical one with which you can interact. He’s been taken up, and it’s not the same anymore.
This Galilean sees the past three years of his life when he travelled throughout the country with Jesus, watching him preach and teach and heal people. Three years, and each of them as transformative as the last! At the end of it, they took him away and executed him. By then, though, he was no longer just a teacher, he was also a dear friend, and they took him away and killed him and this Galilean could not bear to watch, and now he is being lifted up again, and in a new way. So he stands there, staring into heaven, because he has to watch.
What do you see?
Another Galilean sees that after they executed this innocent man, who they knew, they knew had done nothing wrong, they buried him in a tomb, and rolled a stone in front of it to seal it. She sees that when she came to the tomb, it was empty, and two men stood in front of it telling here that her Lord was not among the dead, but was among the living! She sees that he is risen, and that for the past forty days he has been with them again. She sees that he has not survived the cross, but vanquished and reclaimed it, taking the symbol of governmental retribution and transforming it into divine hope. She sees that he has returned from the grave, and now he is being taken away again. We are lost without you, Jesus, why are you going away again? So she stands there staring into heaven, wondering what she will do now that he is gone again.
What do you see?
A third Galilean sees the imminent return of our Lord.
One can almost hear it, it’s as though the great stage has been reset, waiting for another showing of the grand play of our redemption. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
We’re about to see the kingdom be ushered in, right? Isn’t that what these two white-robed men are saying? He went up in a cloud, we just watched it happen, so we’re going to see him come back down in a cloud too. We can plan on that, it’s going to happen. The kingdom of God is at hand! We’re supposed to wait in Jerusalem for this Holy Spirit thing to come to us and then we’ll be able to tell Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth that Jesus is the Lord, and he’s coming back to restore the kingdom!
What do you see while you’re standing there, staring at a cloud that took your Lord, your Teacher, your Friend away from you? Do you see that he is still with you? Do you see that he is absent? What do you see?
Galileans, do you see Jerusalem? How about Judea and Samaria? Do you see the whole of the earth? Because the Holy Spirit is coming, and then we shall be witnesses to God, having been given all that we need. We don’t have to pretend that we understood everything that Jesus said and did, although more understanding may come with time. We don’t have to know how everything worked in this story in which we are living, we just have to witness to Jerusalem, and to Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth, telling all that we have seen our Lord do for us, and for all that exists. So what do you see, Galilean, when you stand there staring up into heaven?
The eyes of the Galileans could only see a cloud that had taken their Lord away, but they didn’t need their eyes to see what they had known. Neither do we need to have seen with our eyes, because there’s just a cloud now Jesus is no longer in sight, but we know that those who have gone before us, and those who are here now, and those who have not yet even begun to look, we know that they too will witness God’s action in the world. What do you see? What is your witness?
When you see it, how will you proclaim it? What manner of witness have you been called to be?
I see a woman who knows a preacher by his voice alone, who lays her hands upon him and blesses him, giving him a moment of clarity of purpose that is not easily equalled. She’s not the kind of witness that is called to be the dramatic prophetic voice, speaking strong words that shift rulers on their thrones. But she has experienced God in a real way, and refuses to let it pass without sharing it.
I see a child playing in a flower bed, getting new Easter clothes covered in dirt, but the call of the world that is created by God and called good is so strong that she has to be in the midst of it, loving the flowers, and the singing birds, and the feel of soil between her fingers. Never mind the stains, God’s creation is beautiful and needs to be enjoyed, even if it means the clothes we have bought for ourselves are no longer pristine, they become holy through playing in the dirt.
There’s an idea about what a witness is, that somehow it’s the powerful preacher who saves souls wherever she goes, or the kind and gentle soul who brings comfort to those around him in times of strife, and these are certainly some of the witnesses to whom Jesus was talking, but they are not the only molds out of which a witness can emerge. Far too often we hear the call to witness, and we try to fit those forms around the voice God has given us, around the unique thing that we see, and the unique way in which see it.
Because we are called to witness not because we have seen it all and can explain it, but because God wants each particular individual disciple to tell the story the way they experienced it. Why are you standing here staring into heaven, Galilean? What do you see?
When I was in high school, my English teacher, Tim Fossett, passed around a poem by Walt Whitman, it read:
O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself, forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest of me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here - that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
What do you see when you look at the fallenness of the world around us? What do you see when the whole of creation groans with the birth pangs of the age of the Spirit? What do you see when you find your self crying out “What good amid these, O me, O life?”
I see that it would have been easier for Jesus to have just restored the kingdom right then and there. I see it would have been easier for the plodding and sordid crowds around me to be lifted up and made whole again, I see eyes that vainly crave the light, I see myself reproaching myself out of my own sinfulness. I cannot help but question this world that is already redeemed, but not yet fully healed.
And though I am not its source, I see an answer:
Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? You are here - because of Jesus’s victory, life exists and identity. This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven. The powerful play goes on, and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses, and you may contribute a verse, because you have received power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you to do so. You, not what you imagine you should be, but your honest voice, witnessing to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and even to the end of the earth.
What do you see when your opportunity to contribute that verse comes to you? What will your verse say? Though we will witness from as many perspectives as there are Christians and more, though our voices will not always sing the same tune, our hands will not always paint the same picture, our bodies do not always dance the same steps, our words will not always weave the same poetry, we all still belong to the same Lord, this Jesus, who was taken up from us into heaven, and we will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and with it we will be witnesses.
So what do you see?