Editor's Note: This post was originally a sermon in our monthly Sojourners chapel.
Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Around the time I started middle school, my church acquired a series of books called The Left Behind Series. These books chronicle the final days of earth as outlined in the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic biblical texts. I won’t offer any commentary on the theology of these books, or even their literary value, but, as a middle-schooler, they were fairly impressionable.
The entire series begins with a dramatic reinterpretation of the rapture. People are going about their daily lives — driving to work, flying airplanes, making breakfast — when all of a sudden, people who had been there just seconds before are gone. Simply vanished into thin air. Of course, chaos ensues, because who is driving the car? Flying the airplane? Tending the stove? The world they leave behind is shattered, broken, and chaotic! This seminal event — the rapture — shapes the rest of the series as those who have been “left behind” work to win the ultimate prize — a place in heaven where they are no longer left behind.
Left Behind became a wildly popular franchise, with over 16 books in the adult series, a version of the book for teens, and several movies, including one coming out this fall starring the one and only Nicholas Cage. The success of the books could be attributed to their fast-paced, action-oriented plot lines (one reviewer noted that these books are “Tom Clancy for Christians”), or it could be their appeal to Christians with a dispensationalist theological viewpoint that made books fly off the shelves. But I think part of their popularity comes from the very human curiosity with what it means to be “left behind.”
The day we were left behind
The passage we read today from the book of Acts — the Ascension — tells us about the day that we were left behind. We meet Jesus and his disciples when they are in Jerusalem, joyously celebrating the unexpected gift of each other’s company. Think about how the disciples — Peter, James, John, and the others, the Marys, and perhaps a few other confidents — felt: Jesus, their teacher, mentor, and friend who had been brutally executed by the Roman Empire, was alive! They saw him die with their own eyes, but now they were touching him, eating with him, conversing with him. This relationship that they thought they had lost forever was theirs to treasure and enjoy. It was — and is — a miracle.
But we get the sense that the disciples are getting a little antsy. Jesus was back from the dead and they were having a good time with him, but enough fun and games — it was time to get down to business. Jesus was the Messiah, so in their minds, he was going to overthrow the Roman Empire, right? Isn’t that what the Messiah was supposed to do? Emboldened by their joy, the disciples ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus had just come back from the dead — an impossible feat — so overthrowing the most powerful Empire in the world would be simple, right? Right?
But, no, yet again, the disciples are wrong. “No,” Jesus replies, “it’s not your job to know what God will do or when God will do it. But, I do have a job for you that I’ve been telling you about for quite awhile now. You see, I’m giving you a gift — the Holy Spirit — and it’s not here yet, but it’s coming soon, trust me. When you receive this gift, you will be able to go out and tell people about me not only here in Jerusalem, and not just in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth!” And then Jesus rises up into the sky and disappears into a cloud.
Wait, what? Jesus just up and leaves his friends and flies into a cloud? I’ve had conversations before where someone inexplicably gets up and leaves in the middle of it, but I can say for a fact that I’ve never experienced someone rising up into the sky right after they tell me something important. While our understanding of science, the cosmos, and gravity is radically different than that of first century Palestine, thus rendering the description of heaven as “up” debatable, what is important here is that Jesus ascended into heaven to be with God. Jesus’ whole body — imperfect, broken, still bearing the scars from his crucifixion — rose up to abide in the presence of God.
This is a beautiful, yet perplexing image, but let’s stop looking up into the cloud and look down to see what’s happening on the ground. The disciples stand staring into the sky, probably in shock about the unbelievable thing they just witnessed. Well, I guess this was par for the course with Jesus, but still, flying into a cloud is a little strange. Scratching their heads, the disciples’ eyes open even wider upon the appearance of two men, dressed in white. Like the two angels who greeted Mary outside of Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter morning, these angels tell everyone that they’re looking in the wrong place. “No need to look up,” they say, “don’t worry, he’ll be back.” And so, with nothing else to do, the disciples walk back to Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit — whatever that might be — to arrive.
I love this period in the story (life) of the church. It’s filled with so much anticipation — something big is going to happen, but nobody knows exactly what will happen, or even when it will happen. I would imagine it’s like the 40th week of a pregnancy — the baby is fully developed, the nursery is prepared, the hospital bag is packed — everything is ready, but you just have to wait for the birth process to begin. And it does begin for the church — next week, many churches will celebrate Pentecost, when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and begin to embark on their mission of witnessing to Christ in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The death of Christendom
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Pentecost is next week. I want to dwell with the disciples in this liminal period, because I think that’s where the church — the church of today, the church that we identify with Christianity, the church that many people have written to in the “Letters to a Dying Church” series — this is where the church now finds itself. I admit that it’s a little strange that I’m thinking of the dying church when I read a passage that chronicles the eve of the birth of the church, but bear with me. At some point in its history of witnessing to the ends of the earth, I think the church became the institution that defined what is the end of the earth. Christendom — Christianity plus Empire — became what most people today identify as the church. Many church historians, committed Christians, and even some preachers have said that the day in 313 A.D. that Constantine converted to Christianity was a day of disaster for the Christian church. Which is funny, because instead of actively killing Christians, the Roman Empire was now seeking to kill people who were not Christian. Isn’t that a big win for the church? Of course, the Romans allowed people to convert to Christianity to save their lives, but conversion also meant affirming the Roman Empire as the highest temporal power. It’s a little messy, either way. Suddenly, it became easy to be Christian. Everyone in power was a Christian — it became normative, the way things were.
This cultural normativity of Christianity is almost hard to miss today in the United States. It presents itself in many ways. For example, political polls show that people prefer to vote for candidates who openly profess a Christian faith. Many city courthouses — even the Supreme Court building — have murals, statues, or reliefs of the Ten Commandments on their grounds. A popular joke in my hometown in rural Minnesota is that if you have a church, a bar, and a post office, then you have a town. We almost take it for granted that, as Christians, we can find at least some sort of recognizable symbol, mention, or acknowledgment of our faith wherever we go.
But Christianity as we used to know it is fading. Dying, even. Church membership is dwindling, and many churches have had to close their doors. Seminarians fresh out of seminary often have to wait years before receiving a call to serve a church, because there just aren’t enough churches to serve. In the religious research world, everyone is talking about how the “nones” — those who profess no particular religious affiliation — are on the rise. Why is this? Why is everything seemingly falling apart? Everything seemed to be going so well, back in the day when churches were filled with people, pastors were local celebrities, and Christianity exerted significant political and cultural influence. Why not now?
I’ve seen many churches respond to this question in countless ways. They start new, contemporary worship services with rock bands and flashy lights in a desperate bid to remain culturally relevant. Others may go into significant debt because they built a large, nondescript worship space because the sanctuary was too “churchy.” Others preach a gospel of prosperity, proclaiming that God wants us to be rich and happy, and the more we pray, the more God will bless us with material riches. Each attempt to remain culturally relevant ultimately misses the mark.
It is as if the church is stuck with the disciples in wondering when Jesus will restore Christendom to Christianity. It is as if the church has mistaken cultural normativity, full pews, big buildings, political influence, and societal power for the Holy Spirit. It is as if the church has forgotten the great commission to witness to Christ in their local towns, states, and to the ends of the earth. It is if the church is afraid of being left behind.
The old has gone, and the new has come
And the church has been left behind — but friends, this is a good thing! We — the church — were left behind on the hill on that day of ascension, but we were not left to stand staring into the sky, wondering when Jesus will come back to do things for us. No, we were given a job — to go out and tell people about this crazy, passionate, table-turning, world-changing, radical, fully human yet fully divine person named Jesus. We were given the job to tell people what he said about caring for the least among us, to welcome the stranger in his name, and to heal communities that have been broken by poverty, violence, and inequality. And — guess what — we were not left alone. We are not alone. Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us for this challenging, all-consuming, life-changing commission. And, guess what else? That gift is ours. It’s here. It’s in each and every one of us. We have been called and empowered to accept and excel at Jesus’ commission.
I realize I said earlier that the church is dying, but I want to clarify: the old way of doing church may be on its way out, but I think, in fact I am confident that a new way is being born. We’re hearing the groaning of labor pains at the birth of this new creation. In seminary, I attended a Reformed Church in a town just north of Princeton. This church was filled with people of all ages, races, nationalities, abilities, and socio-economic statuses. It was alive with the Holy Spirit and that vitality was evident everywhere. After I attended a few times, I learned the history of this church. Just a few years before, it was on the verge of shutting its doors. The large membership of the 1950s had dwindled to just a few dozen people by the early 2000s. But then a spark was lit. With the leadership of a new pastoral team, parishioners ventured out into their local community to connect with people to hear their needs, to walk with them, and to build relationships with them. And this church began to grow. The church rallied around undocumented immigrants in their community and offered them sanctuary when ICE came to arrest them for deportation. It developed interfaith partnerships with the local synagogue, Hindu temple, and mosque. It welcomed LGBT people who had previously been cast out of churches. It built and managed affordable housing units. This church took Jesus’ example seriously and lived into it in amazing ways, prompted by the Holy Spirit.
I think we’re at a time in the life of the Church where we are wondering, “What’s next?” We’re sitting with the disciples in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive, to set our hearts on fire and our tongues ablaze. But — good news — the Holy Spirit is already with us! Once we, the church, recognize this and claim it, then the real work can begin — not the work of self-preservation, of reclaiming the kingdom of Christendom, of being the cultural norm, of witnessing of self — but of witnessing to Christ to the ends of the earth. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all as you take on this exciting challenge. Amen.
Katie Chatelaine-Samsen is the Director of Individual Giving at Sojourners.
Photo: Tilyo Petrov Rusev/Shutterstock.com