Sometimes the Work Is Waiting
Call it the elephant in the room. Each of the New Testament writers had to feel a glaring absence—an absence that must have provided considerable ammunition to those who opposed the claims of the young Christian movement. Namely, where was Jesus?
The church had been around for about twenty years before the first New Testament document—Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians—was written, so they must have encountered the objections before. After all, the central claim of the church was that Jesus of Nazareth, condemned by the leaders of his people and executed by the Roman authorities, did not stay dead. God had vindicated Jesus and his message by raising him from the grave. This was no mere resuscitation of a corpse, either—someone who had flatlined on the operating table but was revived by the medical team. This was resurrection—an utterly new state of being that was a foretaste of the great general resurrection of all God’s faithful ones at the end of time. The church proclaimed Jesus to be alive in a new and indestructible way. As Paul put it in his letter to the church at Rome, “We know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him” (Rom 6:9, TNIV). Jesus is alive forever.
So … where was he? The elephant in the room was that this one who had died but was now alive forever, never to die again, didn’t seem to be around anymore. You can see how this might have been a problem. Opponents of the church surely found it easy to write off and discredit the church’s proclamation of an absent Savior. They still do today.
It seems odd, then, that so few of the New Testament writers address this topic. Paul, the earliest of them, seems to take it for granted that God has “exalted [Jesus] to the highest place” (Phil 2:9, TNIV), from which he expects Jesus to return very soon to inaugurate the Great Judgment and establish the reign of God. At the end of 1 Corinthians he says simply, “Come, Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22, TNIV), an already established prayer whose Aramaic form, Marana tha, goes all the way back to the earliest Christians. Paul declares to the Thessalonians that Jesus will “come down from heaven” to claim his faithful ones (1 Thess 4:16, TNIV), but he feels no need to explain how Jesus got into heaven in the first place.
Later writers who are so strongly influenced by Paul’s thought that they write in his name expand on his ideas. In Colossians and Ephesians we find Christ at the right hand of God. In today’s epistle lesson, the writer of Ephesians declares Christ to be “seated…at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph 1:20–21). There is less expectation by the time of this writing of Jesus's imminent return; Christ is depicted in more of a cosmic role, with the church somehow already present with him in the heavenly places.
In Hebrews we read, “After [Jesus] had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 1:3, TNIV), and Revelation’s author clearly depicts Jesus in heaven as “a Lamb, looking as if it [has] been slain, standing in the center before the throne [of God]” (Rev 5:6, TNIV). But still none of these writers feel compelled to explain how Jesus got from the cross and the grave to the heavenly throne.
Luke is only writer in the New Testament to undertake an actual narrative of Jesus's translation from the earthly plane to heaven. And he does it twice. At the end of the gospel of Luke and again at the beginning of volume two of that work, Acts, Luke tells the story of the ascension of Jesus. Over the centuries these twin stories have become the basis of the Feast of the Ascension, which is celebrated on a Thursday forty days after Easter Sunday or, as we are doing today, on the seventh and final Sunday of Easter.
For all their subsequent importance to the church, there are some problems with these stories. For one thing, they don’t agree. In Luke, Jesus is raised on Easter Sunday morning, makes a variety of appearances to his disciples in and around Jerusalem, then ascends to heaven from the town of Bethany the evening of that same day. In the Acts account, Jesus appears to his disciples and teaches them for several weeks, then ascends from the Mount of Olives at the end of forty days. So which is it, ascension on Easter Sunday from Bethany or forty days later from the Mount of Olives?
Let us hold that question for a moment while we consider another problem with these stories—namely, their vagueness. Neither of these stories is particularly clear about the manner of Jesus's ascension. They don’t help us answer a question that Marcus Borg likes to propose about the resurrection: what would we have seen if someone had recorded these events on film? In Luke 24:51 we read, “While [Jesus] was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Acts 1:9 says, “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” What does it mean that he “withdrew from them?” And what was the nature of that cloud? If someone had recorded this on video, would we be able to see Jesus levitating off the ground? How high would he have floated before he could no longer be seen? And how does all this square with our modern scientific understanding of outer space, the earth’s atmosphere, and our place in the solar system?
The answer to Borg’s question also helps address the question about the discrepancies in the stories. As if we needed any more cautions about the danger of a literal interpretation of the Bible, we find plenty of them here. Luke is vague about the nature of the ascension, just as all the gospel writers are vague about the details of the resurrection, because he is telling something that goes beyond the literal. To get bogged down in arguing about Jesus's means of propulsion is to miss the profound truth of these stories. In the same way, to nitpick about the inconsistencies in the accounts is to miss the point. Did Jesus ascend on the evening of Easter Sunday, or forty days later? The answer is … yes.
The point of the ascension stories in Luke and Acts is that Jesus has departed the scene—how and when are not important—so that he can become present to his disciples in a far more powerful way than he could when he was with them as Jesus of Nazareth. Luke may have felt compelled by arguments from non-Christian skeptics to offer a narrative description of Jesus's translation from earth to the right hand of God, just as he also emphasized the physicality of Jesus after the resurrection, offering “many convincing proofs” that he was alive, but he was ultimately not that interested in the literal factuality of the ascension. He was much more interested in the truth of it than in the fact of it.
For Luke, as for Paul and John and the writers of Ephesians and Hebrews, the truth of the ascension is that Jesus has gone into the heavens to be with God and to reign from God’s right hand. The truth of the matter is that God has put him, in the words of Ephesians, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named. . . . And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:21-23).
Notice the piling on of words and phrases that convey the idea of power. They come at us insistently, like a drumbeat: Rule. Authority. Power. Dominion. Name. Head. Fullness. All things under Christ’s feet. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representative one. The writer wants us to get, in no uncertain terms, that God’s glorification of Jesus through resurrection and ascension has established him as the preeminent power over all creation. Power is at the forefront of this passage. Power is the point of the ascension.
This is true for Luke as well, in both the gospel account and Acts. In Luke 24:49 Jesus tells his disciples, “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” In Acts 1:8 he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
Power is clearly at issue here. But what kind of power? As I have observed before, Jesus's power is of a different variety from the coercive power of worldly potentates, who exercise power over others. Jesus's power is instead “power-with,” the kind of that enables others to locate their own power and exercise it in cooperation with God’s purposes. We see this clearly when we consider the purpose for which Jesus says the disciples will be clothed with power from on high. He finishes his sentence in Acts 1:8, “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.” The power will not be for coercion, for the disciples forcibly to convert anyone and everyone in their path. It will not be for them to exact revenge on their oppressors and on those who crucified Jesus, despite what the book of Revelation may say in its more bloodthirsty moments, and what many triumphalist Christians have been advocating ever since.
Instead, the power is to enable them to bear witness to Jesus. The one seated at the right hand of God and endowed with all power and authority will send his Spirit to empower them to … tell his story. Wow. Not exactly “shock and awe,” is it? But Jesus knows that what the world desperately needs, what will finally bring the reign of God in its fullness, is the church’s faithful witness to the cruciform pattern of Jesus's life and the salvific nature of his suffering, death, and resurrection. For us who name Jesus as Lord to live our lives—our whole lives—as witnesses to Jesus is what will accomplish the ultimate purposes of God. Nothing else—gimmicks or grandiosity, bombs or bombast—will do. What Jesus desires are witnesses.
But there’s something else here that we ignore at our peril. Jesus tells the disciples that there is work to do—the work of bearing witness; that’s what the power is for. But notice what else he says: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power” (Luke 24:49). Until. Stay. In other words, wait. The power of the Spirit does not come at our beck and call. There is work to be done, true, but if we try to do the work in our own strength without waiting for the power from on high, our efforts will be doomed to failure. In fact, sometimes the waiting is itself the task God has assigned for us to do. Sometimes the work is waiting.
This can be very hard for someone like me to accept. I am neither naturally contemplative nor naturally patient. I find it difficult to be still and to wait. I tend to want to do something—take some action or, at the very least, fill the time with thoughts or distractions to help me take my mind off the waiting. I will read, or listen to music, or watch Netflix, or surf the Internet. Even when I seem to be silent, my head is often filled with songs, remembered or imagined conversations, lists of things to do, or meaningless trivia. I suspect my experience is not unique to me, either.
A pastor I know once said that our souls are constantly carrying on a conversation with God. The conversation goes on in the depths of our being, even though we are often not consciously aware of what our souls are saying to or hearing from God. If that is true, then the task of prayer is not to try to impress God with our eloquence or laboriously bring before God every request and intercession that enters our minds, but rather to begin eavesdropping on the heart-to-heart conversation our souls are already having with God. And the only way to do this is to become still and to wait. To stay in Jerusalem, metaphorically speaking, until we are clothed with power from on high.
The disciples had no idea how long they would have to wait. Jesus did not tell them, “Don’t worry, it’ll only be a week and a half.” He just said to wait, and Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem and did just that. He concludes his gospel by saying they returned with great joy and “were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). In the version of the story that begins the book of Acts, Luke has them return to the upper room where they had shared Jesus's last supper and where he had appeared to them after his resurrection. After listing the eleven remaining disciples, Luke says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14, TNIV).
They were “continually in the temple blessing God.” They “joined together constantly in prayer.” This is how Luke depicts their waiting. They didn’t know how long it would take for the power to come, but they spent the waiting interval in worship and prayer. Is it too farfetched to imagine that their praying consisted largely of cultivating stillness and trying to catch the drift of the conversation their souls were having with God?
When we are called on to talk about ourselves, we often focus on the CV or résumé material—the things we have accomplished, the work we have done. But could it be that the real test of the quality of our lives is in how we have responded to the command and necessity to wait? What seems like lost or wasted time—long bouts of depression or spiritual dryness, a period of unemployment, a lingering illness that saps our strength and leaves us powerless to do the activist work we believe to be our calling—may in reality be a vital part of that calling, and how we respond to these times may in fact show our true colors better than all the work and accomplishments we pride ourselves in.
The promise is real. The power is coming. The Spirit is waiting in the wings, ready to fall afresh upon us in tongues of flame that will empower us for the work of bearing witness. All that is true. But it is not the whole truth, because we have to remember the command that precedes the promise: “Stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power.” The work will still be there when the power does come. The work will wait.
Sometimes the work is waiting.