“It is not for you to know…” – the first words that come out of Jesus’ mouth in this passage from the books of Acts. These aren’t words that I typically like to hear. If there’s something I don’t know and want to know I’m used to being able to ask someone who might have a better idea than me about the matter. What’s the right way to stain and finish wood? What’s the tax code say about the child tax credit for a pastor’s salary and housing allowance? Will it work to plant hostas next to daffodils and how much should they be watered? All recent questions that different people have helped me have more knowledge about. If there’s nobody who seems to know, there’s always the internet. The collective brain of our species is a wonderful thing when it comes to such things. A few minutes spent with our friends Google, Wikipedia, and Mapquest usually helps answer just about anything we’d like to know. Sitting in front of a computer that’s online I’m moments away from knowing how many miles it is from Cincinnati to Washington DC, how to renew a US passport, and what the forecast is for the morning of the Flying Pig marathon. (Congratulations to William Brenneman, Abbie Miller, and Ryan Krebiehl for each taking part in a marathon relay on Sunday!)
Statistics, data, advice, and facts are plentiful and accessible in our information age. Yet, in some of his final words to his followers, Jesus inaugurates these friends of his into a lasting reality of un-knowing. A condition of being without knowledge about particular matters that they wanted to know more about. As much as they would like to be as informed as possible about the important matters of final redemption and salvation, Jesus offers them these words to keep with them: “It is not for you to know.”
The book of Acts is a companion volume to the gospel of Luke, written by the same author as a follow up account of what happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Good News Part II. It’s a narrative of how the Kingdom of God movement started by Jesus in Galilee and Judea, a remote corner of the Roman empire, spread out from Jerusalem in all four directions, reaching even into the heart of the empire itself, the city of Rome. The opening paragraphs of the first chapter tell of the final handoff from Jesus to his followers who will continue his mission. The only words that the disciples manage to get in are through a question that doesn’t get answered. Jesus tells them that they don’t need to know the answer, don’t need to have a complete grasp on everything, but that they will be witnesses to what they have come to know. That, through a spiritual power that they will receive, they will begin to embody the same kind of healing, nonviolent, truth-telling, life of servanthood and love of neighbor that Jesus taught and lived.
Jesus then makes his exit in what has come to be called the Ascension. As Luke describes it: “When (Jesus) had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going they were gazing up toward heaven…”
A primary image that stands out in this passage, that for me represents the full weight of what is going on here, is a freeze frame of the disciples gazing up toward heaven after Jesus had ascended up and out of sight. Consider this image. Jesus, the master and guide is gone. The disciples are left with an unanswered question and a vague impression about what may be happening next. It’s beginning to dawn on them that they are indeed now on their own and that they have some part in this continuing project that Jesus invited them into. But for the time being they’re stuck staring into the heavens. Maybe baffled, maybe amazed, probably having very little idea what all this might mean for them and caught somewhere in between knowing and not knowing what it is they’re even looking at or looking for in their gaze.
Keeping this scene in mind, it’s helpful to take a step back and recall that the worldview of the biblical writers was that of a three tiered universe. With the earth and the dome of the sky being the abode of humans and living creatures; below the earth, Sheol, being the shadowy place of the dead; and above the dome being the heavens, the place of the divine beings. We still have remnants of this worldview psychologically, but it no longer makes sense to speak in these terms geographically, considering that if you go down far enough below us you actually start going up on the other side of the earth. But this is the view that Luke and the other New Testament writers are speaking out of. So when Luke tells of Jesus being lifted up and taken away on a cloud, he’s not so much concerned about trying to convince us of a levitating Messiah as he is making a statement about what all parts of reality are affected by the way of Christ. Jesus has not only lived the way to earth, the middle tier, but his way is also the way of the heavens. In biblical language, the Lord of heaven and earth. His way is also God’s way. Perhaps we could say within our worldview that the creative energy behind our evolving universe is that of the agape love of Christ which holds and bonds all things together, whether seen or unseen.
So when these disciples are there staring into the heavens, there’s a sense that they’re not only gazing up at clouds and sky, but also that they’re engaged in a theological type of gazing. Beginning to know something about the importance of this Christ, but frozen in a stare that is only able to take in a fraction of the light that is shining down on them.
There’s a poem written by my brother, who also happens to be named Luke, that goes well with this. He didn’t write it with this passage in mind, but it does speak about a similar kind of scenario. He titled the short poem The Pillars of the Earth:
The ants speckling the roots of the straight cedar look up,
and wonder – why the sky is green.
Looking down over the forest, a bird flies
in the blaze of the unshadowed sun;
it tumbles through the trees on splinters of light.
I love the way this casts the disciples and us in our gazing for knowledge. Gathering like ants in the forest looking up and wondering why the sky is green. Small, limited in our vision. Getting these splinters of light coming through from somewhere beyond the little canopy that we can’t see beyond, but being without the kind of view of the bird that flies overhead.
But those splinters of light are enough. We know what we are to do. We know that we have been witnesses and that we will be witnesses to the healing, nonviolent, truth-telling, life of servanthood and love of neighbor that Jesus taught and lived — the unshadowed sun that makes itself known through the shards and splinters that make their way through to us. The disciples don’t stay gazing forever. They’ve seen enough to know that they must go back to Jerusalem. Back to the place where they’ve been staying together and start to work out living in the Jesus way, through the power of the Spirit that comes at Pentecost.
Next week is Pentecost and we’ll all be invited to sign our annual covenant together. Within the covenant are six different bullet points of what we are committing to as a faith community. I take it that these points are the way that Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship sees itself as continuing in the Jesus way. Being witnesses to good news. Being good news. There is plenty that we don’t know, but we do know enough to know that this is who we are called to be as a congregation. Let me go ahead and read those as a way of bringing this to a close. “As a Christian community, rooted in Anabaptist principles, we worship God as we: Experience the power, grace, and love of God; Discern and share our gifts and resources; Prepare and equip each other to live Christ-like lives; Nurture all who are present in our community; Participate actively in the life of the congregation and the denomination; and Reach out to others in service and invitation to faith.
The question of how we live the good news together as a community, especially in our spiritual life, is something that a small group of us called the Spiritual Leadership Team has been looking at over the last number of months. I am going to hand off to Matt Bye who is a member of that group and he’s going to speak more about what the group has been up to and ask for some feedback from everyone about where the group may focus in the months to come.