92% Foolishness and 8% Wisdom
Okay, folks, we’ve got some tough scriptures this week, so we’re going to have to go deep into a symbolic interpretation to find some application for our spiritual lives.
At least, that’s the way I feel. You may count Acts 1 and John 17 among your favorite scriptures in the Bible, in which case, please share with me what you take away from them.
Because for me, Jesus in John 17 is borderline incomprehensible, and I, much to my shame, feel myself glaze over about halfway through this passage.
And verses 6-14 of Acts 1 just strike me as this blend of the awkward and the supernatural, and I’m just really not sure what I’m supposed to take away from it.
But never let it be said that we shy from mining our scriptures to their depths, so let’s dig in.
Honestly, maybe it’s a blessing that we’re confused by this scene in Acts of Jesus ascending to heaven, because I think that actually really puts us right in the shoes of the disciples.
Think about how they must be feeling at this moment.
Jesus, in an earth shatteringly unexpected turn of events, arose from the dead forty days ago.
Six weeks is in no way long enough to adjust to reality breaking apart like that, and they’re probably still stumbling around in a daze.
Maybe they’ve just really started to accept that Jesus is back, that their beloved friend who died a torturous death is alive and with them again.
The guilt and pain and panic that consumed them on Good Friday have finally started to ebb away.
They’re tentatively starting to rely on having him with them again, alive and breathing, his heart beating and his eyes shining with gentle love.
Now, seemingly out of the blue, they see him lifted on a cloud to heaven.
Why is he leaving them? He just returned! How could he do this to them?
How could he do this to us?
We, with the benefit of two thousand years of reflection on this topic, have the attempted theological answers of many wise thinkers.
We theorize that Jesus had to leave to essentially push the disciples out of the nest.
Jesus’ work on earth was to teach and equip them to teach and equip others.
They now were ready to go out and continue his work, the work of teaching and healing and preaching and helping people understand that they are the Beloved of God.
If Jesus stayed with them, they would never have scattered and built the church, they would have clung to him and relied on him to solve all their problems as a one-man miracle show.
And there seems to be some implication that the Holy Spirit could not come until Jesus had ascended, but there are differing opinions on that that get us into the theological weeds very fast.
So let’s just stay with what we can imagine and perceive about what’s happening to the disciples right now, because that’s most likely our best shot at figuring out what our next steps should be.
Jesus has left them, and I imagine that they were instantly washed with confusion and grief.
That’s how the angel finds them, standing with their mouths open and brows furrowed, staring up at the sky where Jesus has disappeared.
How do we understand what that means for us, aside from being a simple description of what literally happened on that day?
Well, think about the times in your life when you have been swamped with grief and confusion.
Think about the times in your life when what you loved dearly was taken away from you.
Think about when a situation that seemed too good to be true did in fact turn out to be too good to be true.
How did you feel?
Betrayed, abandoned, hopeless and alone.
It may very well have felt like Jesus had left you.
That conscious presence of care and guidance that you had relied on for so long, that solid footing of knowing that things were going to be okay, has been ripped away.
It’s a grim place to be. When we really take ourselves to that place emotionally where they disciples were that day, we know we too would be standing there staring, perhaps with tears in our eyes.
Jesus told us that he would not leave us orphaned, but that rings a little hollow at this precise moment. It feels like that’s exactly what he’s done.
But those circumstances that took you to that place of loss and confusion, the feeling that God had abandoned you—consider whether they might not be fulfilling in your life they same purpose that Jesus’ Ascension did for the disciples.
And what was that purpose? It was twofold.
First, to nudge and prod and even shove them out into ministry.
And second, to make room for the Holy Spirit to enter them and anoint them for that ministry.
Have you ever stood at the deathbed of a parent and thought, “I guess this is the birth of a new ministry for me.”?
Or been asked to submit your resignation letter for a job and thought, “I bet the Holy Spirit will be showing up soon in a big way.”
That’s not how the disciples felt in that moment either.
But that was the truth whether they understood it at the time, and it’s the truth for us as well.
Jesus leaving them was the catalyst to the full expression of his love in their lives, no matter how hurt and clueless they were at that moment.
Actually, not all of them may have been hurt and clueless.
Here’s where I want to really take you with me into a highly symbolic interpretation of this text.
Right after Jesus ascends and the angel speaks to them about his second coming, they do what any of us do when things fall apart.
They go back to their home base, the last place they were when they understood what was going on and felt the least bit stable.
They go back to the Upper Room.
“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying.”
The Upper Room was the scene of the very worst and the very best moments of their lives, essentially where they glimpsed hell and where they glimpsed heaven.
On Good Friday, they all deserted him.
They all ran at different times.
Some of them lit out right from the Garden of Gethsemane. They saw soldiers with clubs and torches, and they beat feet.
Others saw Jesus taken away in chains and shuttled from pillar to post throughout the city, being dragged before Herod and Pilate. Some of them probably couldn’t bear to see him flogged and ran then.
Others heard the death sentence pronounced and then took off.
A few lasted all the way down the Via Dolorosa, the long walk through Jerusalem as Jesus carried his cross, falling again and again only to climb back to his feet and stagger on. Perhaps at the turn of a corner, they melted away, unable take one more minute of witnessing their friend being tortured.
But whenever they deserted, they all eventually ended up back in the Upper Room.
They stayed there, shocky with grief and fear through the long Friday night, wondering how long it took Jesus to die.
They waited through the endless Saturday, hoping someone had been with his mother and praying that Jesus’ dead body had been respectfully laid somewhere and not tossed in a common grave, or worse, thrown in a ditch for the dogs to eat.
And every single minute, the war of fear and grief raging in their hearts. “How could I have left him?” fighting with, “What if I’m next?”
“I loved him so much,” battling and maybe losing to, “I don’t want to die.”
And then, Sunday.
Then, Jesus appears in the Upper Room and says, “Peace be with you.”
A week later, Thomas questions him and Jesus invites them to touch him, to feel the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the wound in his side.
He’s hungry, and right there in the Upper Room, he eats a piece of fish, and they truly understand that he is alive, just like they are.
So the Upper Room has been the site of the greatest and the worst moments of their entire lives. It’s only natural they return here to regroup after this newest incomprehensible moment, Jesus ascending to heaven on a cloud.
But let’s pay attention to who is actually there: “Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.”
Mary is there. In fact, Mary was there at the foot of the Cross also, long after most of the rest of them had run away.
And she is here now.
Remember, the twelve are down to eleven.
Judas has taken his own life in a crisis of grief and guilt at betraying Jesus.
Mary is definitely in a leadership role here. She may essentially be functioning as the twelfth apostle.
It won’t last long. In fact the very next thing the disciples do is cast lots to replace Judas with a man, Matthias. Well, it was a patriarchal society, we can’t be too surprised.
But in this brief and critically important window of time, Mary rounds out the inner core, number twelve of twelve.
Twelve is the number of completion, of fullness, of the fulfillment of the twelve tribes of Israel.
And the youngest, the smallest, Benjamin, was the most beloved and special.
Mary is not the youngest, in fact she was probably some years older than many of the disciples, but as a woman, she has the lowest status in the group—she is essentially the “smallest.”
But Mary is no stranger to poverty and humility—in fact they are her greatest gifts and the very basis of her wisdom.
In this symbolic interpretation I’m trying to build here, we have eleven out of twelve people who are confused and slow on the uptake, who have a history of jockeying for power and then running when the going gets tough.
And the lone one among the twelve—she is the perfect vessel of God.
She does not question her worthiness—in fact she understands that God’s not interested in worthiness or unworthiness at all.
God simply wants someone who will welcome God’s presence, who will welcome her life being upended with miraculous, disruptive events, who will accept her own soul being cleaved into two with grief and loss and then healed by the return of Love in resurrection.
God wants someone who will say yes.
So what can we take away from this?
When our lives seem to be falling apart, when we feel like Jesus has abandoned us, first, we return to the Upper Room.
For us, that is not a literal place. It is the innermost chamber of our hearts where our deepest and most honest prayers to God live. It is where we “pray to the Father in secret,” as Jesus instructed us.
And there, we welcome both parts of ourselves.
We welcome the biggest part of our frail humanity, the eleven-twelfths of ourselves that is selfish, clueless, and cowardly.
And we welcome the faithful remnant. We welcome the one-twelfth of us that has the gifts of Mary, the sparks of light of humility and openness and faith.
Because—and here’s the takeaway—God will send God’s Holy Spirit to work through the entirety.
The Holy Spirit speaks and acts through Mary and her gifts—that doesn’t surprise us.
But the Holy Spirit will speak and act through Peter and James and John and all the rest also, powerfully, in ways that change the world.
God needs them all, and God loves them all.
And God needs all of you, and God loves all of you, all of your best qualities and all of your worst ones too.
This is the confrontation that could not take place as long as Jesus was with us.
As long as we could touch his hand and hear his voice and watch him heal and teach, we would never confront our own inner poverty.
But now, since he has ascended to the Father, we’ve been driven back to the Upper Room and driven deep within ourselves to face the truth.
It’s eleven-twelfths poverty and one twelfth glory.
It’s 92% foolishness and 8% wisdom.
But it’s 100% the home Jesus chooses for the Holy Spirit, and that’s worth 100% of our gratitude and joy.
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