This is the text of a sermon I gave at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City on Sunday June 28, two days before the Mennonite Church USA convention. I continue to look for ways that the Spirit is at work across the church, sowing life and new hope even amidst what can sometimes feel like chaos.
Luke 24 is the theme text for the convention, which means that—for those of you attending convention—we’ll spend all week unpacking this rich text. So given this reality, it may seem strange that here we are, before convention has even begun, starting at the end of the story. In my experience, Mennonites aren’t much for the ascension. Although this chapter of Luke 24 is a familiar one, full of a resurrection narrative and the story of two disciples meeting Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, it ends with a short story, told in the span of three verses:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Truth be told, it all sounds a little too campy for such hearty, stoic people as the Anabaptists. I can picture a scene like this—Jesus hovering above the stage with his hands outstretched—making its way into some Broadway rendition like Jesus Christ Superstar Part 2 or some such thing. Indeed, throughout our history, Mennonites have been a people of the middle. When we lived in California, my husband Justin and I attended a Mennonite house church and one of the members of our congregation adapted the Nicene creed to include what he called the “Anabaptist comma,” which added stories and examples from Jesus’ life and witness in between the focus on Jesus’ birth and death. We focus on the flesh and blood Jesus, whose life was an affront to real leaders and real institutions and real systems of oppression. The Jesus who stands at the center of our faith tradition is often fully human but divine in his modeling of the ways we can and should live. Our focus has not been as much on the beginning or the end of Jesus’ journey.
But it’s worth noting that Jesus’ departing is from the disciples in the flesh-and-blood sense is in fact the impetus for the formation of the church, the community whose job it is to carry on the work that Jesus began and be the very real, flesh-and-blood hands and feet who continue God’s work on earth.
When I was young, my parents spent many days trying to teach me to ride a bike. Even from a very young age, I was very interested in having control over my surroundings and not attempting things that I wasn’t sure I could succeed at. I’ll chalk this up to being a third generation oldest daughter who loved being in charge and also inherited a deep-seated fear of failure. But whatever the reason, I was deathly afraid of my being on a bike without training wheels and without a parent holding on securely to my bike seat. During this time, my dad patiently walked beside me, offering repeated reassurances that I was fine, helping me to build up a steady pedaling rhythm, telling me stories about how he learned to ride a bike and just generally accompanying me on the way. And, because I was not one of those children who wouldn’t notice if you just sneakily let go, I remember the time when my dad squatted down in front of my bike, looked me in the eyes and told me, in his own short and to the point fashion, that it was time for him to let me go. That if I really wanted to be a biker, I needed to continue on without him. And it worked. I took off and was free to ride at whatever speed or direction that I preferred.
Just as I needed my dad to let go of the bike so that I could really grow into my own as a biker, so the disciples needed Jesus to depart so that they could live into the next phase of their life together as the church. In a blog post reflecting on the Ascension, Carrie Smith, a Lutheran pastor currently living and working Jerusalem, writes, “But it turns out that what we celebrate on Ascension Day is not the absence of Jesus from the earth, but the presence of Jesus in us… because everything has changed, because Jesus is not here, the Church can be here. Because the body of Jesus has been carried up on a cloud, we can be the Body of Christ in every place… After all, if we are always looking up into the sky, we aren’t seeing the rest of God’s creation. If we’re always trying to see Jesus where he was last, we aren’t seeing him in our neighbor.” Or, as the 90’s pop rock group Semisonic says, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
After Jesus blesses them and departs, the Bible tells us that the disciples return home and begin to worship with great fervor and joy. Rather than mourn the loss of what was, they begin to celebrate what can be. In a recent chapel I attended with other staff of the Mennonite Church USA offices, someone remarked that perhaps this simple action of beginning this new form of life together with worship was the best thing that the disciples could have done. Their worship was a witness that invited others into a life of celebration and discipleship.
It’s also worth noting that the disciples believed that Jesus’ departure was only for a short time. They shared an apocalyptic belief that Christ would come again to once-and-for-all conquer the powers of this world, and they believed that this second return was imminent. They believed that this leaving was not for good and not for long. They didn’t have the perspective that we now have, a perspective shaped by thousands of years of human history giving witness to the physically-absent-yet-ever-present Christ.
In the longer account of Jesus’ ascension that appears in Acts 1, this connection to a physical second-coming of Christ is made explicit.
[Jesus] replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They 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.”
In addition, in this account, Jesus commends the disciples to be witnesses to his presence throughout the world in preparation for his return. So while the disciples understood the call to be a new kind of community, giving witness to Christ’s presence and ministry, they also didn’t understand this as a long-term calling. And also, given the realities of persecution and the death that Jesus faced at the hands of the Roman government, we could assume that these were people who were making short-term plans.
Sixteenth century Anabaptists, who also experienced persecution from the state because of their beliefs, also shared this same short-term apocalyptic philosophy. Although there were and still are a variety of Anabaptist movements, many of them believed in a two-kingdom theology or a theology that made a distinction between the not-yet-coming-soon Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. The Schleitheim Confession, one of the first systematic faith statements written by Anabaptists in 1527, states, “From all this we should learn that everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun. By this are meant all popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind, which the world regards highly, and yet which are carnal or flatly counter to the command of God, after the pattern of all the iniquity which is in the world. From all this we shall be separated and have no part with such…”
The unintended consequences of this short-term thinking might not be obvious, but often have included a disregard for the “trappings of this world,” like the environment, our relationships with each other and more. And although we find ourselves now at a different point in time, it seems hard not to notice that Christians, even if they’ve abandoned hope in Jesus literally descending from the heavens someday, seem to still be clinging to short term philosophies. We make choices all the time that lead to rapid climate change and environmental destruction. We move through life at a rapid pace, valuing convenience and efficiency above all. We tweet and Instagram our thoughts and opinions almost as soon as they arise, sometimes without stopping to parse out potential consequences for those who are receiving these messages.
Sometimes I wonder if the Protestant—and frankly, Anabaptist—proclivity for splitting is born out of this short term mindset. We can prize faithfulness and justice as ends above all without needing to sink down deep roots and do the challenging work of long-term relationship building. Fourteen years ago, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church merged to form what is now Mennonite Church USA. One could go back over the history with a fine-tooth comb (and in fact, your church member Alyssa Bennett-Smith has; go see her if you have questions). We could read back over that history and see that the two different groups came with different expectations. We could talk about the fact that maybe these two very different churches never agreed on one unified culture. And we could note that the intrachurch conflict we’re experiencing today about where authority lies in our denomination has its roots in this merger.
Maybe some of us today are feeling like the disciples as they walk the road to Emmaus. Disheartened. Confused. Saying “but we had hoped.” We had hoped we’d be further along. We had hoped we’d be saved. We thought this was the Messiah who would fix things for us NOW.
We Western humans especially have so many expectations about the way things ought to be. We prefer presence to absence. We prefer immediate satisfaction over a long wait. We press clean, clear cut systems over chaotic, messy entanglements. And why not? With the ascension and in all of these situations, we feel a sense of loss. The loss of Jesus’ physical presence with us. The loss of the dream of a kingdom of God that will come with horns blowing and will do away with evil in one fell swoop. The loss of the dream of what we thought would be.
But the truth is, when Jesus ascended, the blessing or promise that he offered was not for simplicity or clear cut processes. What he did promise was the Holy Spirit. God’s spirit who would come to dwell within us and among us. And let’s be honest, the Holy Spirit is a bringer of chaos. Soon after Jesus ascends, we read the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples with the rush of a “violent wind,” something those of us who live in the flatlands of Kansas and Missouri should be familiar with. And as the disciples are filled with the Spirit, they begin speaking in a multiplicity of languages. As I imagine this, I envision a cacophony of voices and sounds, all spilling over each other in a chaotic, adrenaline-driven rush. All those who were there praying and keeping watch are amazed and confused. “What is going on? Are these people drunk? How could they be? It’s too early?” And slowly but surely they each begin to realize that they are able to hear and understand, no matter what their native language is. Somehow each person is able to hear what they need to hear, even in the midst of great chaos.
In her book, The Face of the Deep, process theologian Catherine Keller spends a great deal of time trying to redeem the concept of chaos, which she suggests has been used to negatively describe the essence and nature of people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, the earth and other forces that humans have feared and systematically sought to tame or suppress. Keller traces the erasure of chaos all the way back to theology about the creation, especially the idea of creation ex nihilo, which is the idea that God created the world order out of nothing.
Instead, Keller proposes that we revisit Genesis 1, which says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word to describe these waters is tehom, a word that implies depth and diversity. Keller suggests that even before the world came into being, God’s presence was deep and wide and full of infinite, complex chaos at its best. Keller suggests that indeed, to “love is to bear with the chaos” and that chaos is in fact a divine symptom of our diversity and multiplicity, which is all of God.
So while we crave order, flesh-and-blood presence and immediate results, in the post-ascension world, God is calling us into a complex way of being that embraces what is uncertain. For indeed, as Brazilian liberation theologian Ivone Gebara suggests, to be human is to be a mix of “…heaven and earth, happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, joy and sadness, almost all at the same time.” And we can know for certain that the Spirit is with us, even and especially in the very essence of this chaos, luring us into a new future and a new way of being and becoming.
It’s very possible that this week at convention will feel chaotic. I can assure you that there will be a multiplicity of music styles, languages, beliefs, ages, movements, etc. present under the convention center roof and within even our small denomination. Our denomination will need to take on the hard but oh-so-necessary work of making space for each other. But we know also that Jesus promised us the assistance of the Holy Spirit, to join us in our worship, to guide our difficult conversations, and to remind us of the divine sparkle of Christ that is at home within each person we encounter. I trust that the Spirit will remind us again that they are doing something new that is bigger than anything we could ask for or imagine.