Sermon: “Changing Perspective”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season: June 1, 2014.
Our readings this morning both cover the same event, Christ’s Ascension; both are also written by the same author, Luke; and both are addressed to the same person, Theophilus. Yet, there are some significant differences between the two narratives, to the point where reconciling them (if both are viewed as absolute fact) is difficult to do.
Why is this, what are those differences, and why do they matter?
Let us pray…
Lord God, let the power of your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning. Open your scriptures to us, and enable me to clearly communicate what you intend for us to receive here today. Make your Gospel shine brightly within each and every one of us. Change our perspectives, driving fear and confusion from our hearts. We rejoice in this chance to encounter your love in new ways, and for achieving a deeper understanding of your plan and call upon our lives. Help us to embody your Gospel, to live it, and to preach it in all that we do, think, speak, and are; individually, as members of this congregation, and as a portion of the Body of Christ which spans all communities and all time. In Jesus Name, Amen.
The most painful day of my life – at least so far – was Friday, May 4th, 1991. In the weeks leading up to that dark day, everything in my life had collapsed: job, finances, marriage. It was a perfect storm, closed doors and dead ends filled my world, I saw everything as broken and destroyed. All that had seemed certain only a few weeks ago was lost, and every possible path I could see for my future, and that of my family, was clouded with doubt, fear and confusion.
On that dismal afternoon, twenty-three years ago, I bundled myself and my two year old daughter into the car, seeking to escape the mess of my life, pursuing peace and certainty by journeying back home to Chicago. Things did not go as planned…
As we drove along, the darkness and turmoil within me was reflected in the magnificent thunderhead that rose up ahead of us as we descended from Minnesota’s bluffs down into the Mississippi River valley. It was huge: threatening, dark and turbulent; yet following it as it moved East ahead of us was the most beautiful, intense, and vibrant double rainbow I have ever seen: brilliant against the terrible and angry blackness ahead as the sun sank behind us.
We caught up with that storm just after sunset, and it was worse than I could have ever imagined. Rain was coming down so hard that my windshield wipers were bending under the force of the water.
We crept along the highway, headlights struggling to pierce the stormy darkness, hoping to find refuge, somewhere. But we were alone: no one else was on that road that night with us to challenge the blackness.
The only bright spot was Elizabeth, sitting peacefully in her booster seat. She contentedly nibbled on a giant chocolate chip cookie and quietly watched and listened as we crept along – wipers thudding back and forth, wind-driven rain striking the car, lightning flashing, and thunder booming all around us.
Suddenly, a lightening bolt hit right at the edge of the road in front of us, not more than 20 feet away. I was looking right where that jagged streak came down. I saw burning grass kick up where it hit. There was an incredible flash and deafening boom.
Eyes wide, heart palpitations, gripping the steering wheel as if my life depended on it, I sat there: frozen in terror.
And then, my little girl put down her cookie, turned to me, and said, “Do it again, Daddy!”
We all go through valleys of intense doubt and darkness in our lives, times when the way forward is not just unclear, but nonexistent. Times when we are overwhelmed by the destruction of all that we once thought so certain. And yet, often just a few simple words can change our whole perspective on the challenges we face. Even though the facts don’t change, we see them in a new light, which is what my daughter’s words did for me.
Luke was in the midst of his own dark times when he wrote his Gospel and later the Acts of the Apostles. But, the two books were not written at the same time. Things changed even in the few years between the writing of these two narratives, and this is seen in their differences. Both are reflections, though, of an existential crisis that Christians were struggling with at the time.
There are, of course, many similarities between the two. Both tell us that Jesus taught his disciples how and where the scriptures referred to him and his resurrection. Both relate how he rose up into heaven once his work with them was done, and both have the disciples returning to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.
But, let’s look at the differences…
First, Luke 24 implies that the Ascension took place within a day or so of the Resurrection. But, Acts 1 says that Jesus met with the disciples over a period of 40 days before being taken up into the sky.
The number 40 is a significant number in the Bible – usually used as a metaphor for a period of introspection, of maturing, of preparation for some new mission. It is a number derived from the length of a human pregnancy, also a time of growth, testing and preparation, and which is about 40 weeks long. We see this metaphoric use of the number 40 in the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert, in the 40 days the Ninevites were given to repent by Jonah, and in the 40 years of King David’s and King Solomon’s reigns.
And, in Acts 1 we encounter Luke’s second use of a period of 40 days in this way. The first was in Luke 4, where Jesus goes out into the desert for 40 days, alone, and is repeatedly tempted by the Devil. Only once he passes that test does he begin his ministry.
A second difference is that in Luke, the only time the resurrected Jesus eats is when he is handed a piece of leftover fish, proving he was resurrected in the flesh. But in Acts, he feasts with the disciples throughout those 40 days; unlike Luke 4, where Jesus fasts alone in the desert for 40 days.
This is a critical difference, because in the Gospel of Luke, we are remembering the life of Jesus, which ends in his death – and fasting is an appropriate preparation for such a dark journey. In Acts, we are celebrating the rise of the Church and anticipating the eventual return of Christ – a time of celebration, and also the time when the Body of Christ of which we are a part, is established and prepared for its mission. The sharing of meals bonds this community together: growing it and making it strong. And, we still celebrate and strengthen our community of faith through the sharing of meals – as in the communion we will be celebrating here this morning; and in potluck suppers – like the wonderful one we had last night!
But finally, there’s a more subtle difference between the two narratives, a difference I’ve already hinted at – which is a difference of perspective.
The Gospel of Luke – like all of the Gospels – is intended to show us who Christ is, what his teachings are, and why they are important. All the Gospels celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and anticipate his return. The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were all written at a time when some still lived who had witnessed Jesus’ ministry here on earth. These Gospels were written because those last eyewitnesses were dying off, and it was important to preserve their memories.
Acts is a sequel to Luke, probably written a few years later: after, or maybe just before, the last eyewitnesses had passed on. This is a huge crisis, because all three synoptic gospels agree that Jesus prophesied (and I quote from Luke) that “Some who have taken their stand right here are going to see it happen, see with their own eyes the kingdom of God.” Many believed this meant that some of the eyewitnesses to Christ’s ministry would still be alive when God’s Kingdom was revealed here on earth.
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, which was written much later, does not quote this prophecy. Instead, John refers to it as an unfounded rumor, which in fact reflects the difference in perspective we see evolving in Luke and then Acts.
This interpretation of the prophecy was still widely accepted as a central tenet of the faith at the time Luke’s Gospel written. But when he wrote Acts, with the last eyewitnesses gone (or nearly so), how could this prophecy be fulfilled? It had not come to pass in the way people expected. A cornerstone of their faith had proved to not be what they thought it was. This caused great concern and anxiety, because all they had thought to be certain now seemed a false hope, their hope for salvation had been lost, and the path forward was seen as not merely uncertain, but nonexistent.
So, people were wondering – panicking really – about what that prophecy really meant. The due date for Christ’s return had passed, and the entire framework for their faith had crumbled. It needed rebuilding if it were to survive. And Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, is his response to this crisis.
Acts is a statement that Jesus is no longer the focus of the story of our faith’s future. The focus is on the church, on we who are the Body of Christ and Jesus’ apostles – and on what we are doing in response to Jesus’ mandate to be witnesses to the Gospel in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.
Luke begins his new narrative, as I said earlier, by providing a new perspective through reworking a metaphor from his first book: Jesus’ time of preparation in Luke chapter 4.
Acts presents the same story, but with significant differences. The resurrected Jesus is not alone, but gathers with his disciples in many settings and many places, over those 40 days. They eat together, he guides them through the scriptures, and, just as in Luke 4, these 40 days are a time of preparation, but not for Jesus’ ministry, which has ended; but for the ministry of the Church, which looks forward to the triumph of the return of the resurrected Christ, a Kingdom established through the work of the Body of Christ here on earth – in other words us, those of us who embrace the Gospel and seek to do the will of Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit within us.
Luke changed everyone’s perspective on the crisis by turning that failed prophecy inside out: the Kingdom doesn’t manifest in the future, it is already here, within us. Luke and Acts both agree we are not called to spend all our time in the Temple waiting for Jesus to return. Instead, we are called to go forth and preach the good news to all the world. Jesus does not command the whole world to come to the Church. Our mission is to become the church that people will seek out, once they have embraced the good news for themselves. The church isn’t a place, the church is us.
The Holy Spirit within us is eternal, and it is that Spirit, enabling us to preach the word of our living God, that gives us joy in the midst of the darkness and uncertainty of our lives; and it is that Holy Spirit that assures us that we have a future, no matter how dark and stormy things may be at this moment. Acts teaches us to be happy, for our salvation is certain, and we shall, someday, see and rejoice in the return of our Lord and Savor. But we can be sure that the nature of Christ’s return will remain hidden from us until the time is at hand. For, the Book of Acts tells us we don’t get to know the time, for it is the Father’s business; and we are also told that Jesus will return as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)