All through the great fifty days of Easter, you’ve been hearing stories from the Acts of the Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 3.04.13 PMApostles. It’s what you do in Eastertide. You tune in to stories of how the Church began, as told by Luke. Today, on the feast of the Ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that time is not theirs to discern, and suggests they pay no attention to when things will happen in God’s good time. And then he’s gone: up, up, and away, leaving the disciples to stare after him in slack-jawed wonder. Which explains why the angels scold them for looking up. Men of Galilee, they ask, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And go on to say, This Jesus, who’s been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.

Angels are the messengers of God. And while these two wear the usual white robes, Luke doesn’t call them angels. Instead he calls them men. They’re like street angels, the sort who meet us where the rubber meets the road. And that’s because Luke wants you to look for the message of God on the ground where you live. He isn’t focused on the second coming or apocalyptic endings.

His gospel was written around the time early believers began to accept that Jesus wasn’t coming again anytime soon, around the time believers miraculously began to discern an earthy vocation for the Church. In the meantime between our Lord’s ascension and his coming again, Luke sees what me might call the opportunity of a lifetime. He wants people to quit looking up and away, and start looking up and around. To his way of seeing, Jesus ascended to a kingdom that mysteriously unfolds in the midst of us every day. It’s there all around us: the goodness of God.

Early Puritans who settled in New England did a lot of looking up and away. They had no special fondness for the earth. To them it was a necessary trial, like an obstacle course in the way of salvation. Historians tell us they were a cold crowd, not fond of hugging anyone, not even their own children. It was their way of preparing their children for the end of time, when they imagined God’s judgment would come without mercy, choosing the one child and leaving the others behind to suffer for all eternity. [1]

If you shared their religious beliefs, you too might hesitate to love your own family. If a random number of people were doomed at the get go, you might not want anyone to grow used to the sweetness of your love. You might withhold your own affection to toughen them up.

I have nothing but compassion for those poor puritans when I imagine the force of unlived love rattling around in their heart of hearts, unable to find a way out into the simple light of their own days on earth. I’m thinking they needed a pair of street angels to wake them up. To say, whenever you look up, don’t forget to look around.

Harmful theologies are always with us. A bare decade ago, the late Tim LaHaye made a fortune selling the last of his Left Behind novels. They were a series of books that caught fire for a while, page-turners loaded with bad theology. All about good people being raptured into heaven and thereby spared a tribulation reserved for bad people still wandering the earth.

I used to know a man who pushed those books on anybody who’d listen. Trouble was he manned the cash register at my local Books-A-Million. If you wanted to buy, say, a romance novel, you had to get past him and the embarrassment of your purchase announced to the whole store.

My, my, he’d say in a loud voice, what have we here? Gardening for Dummies. Are we talking Adam and Eve or just your own backyard? And would you look at this, The Flame and the Flower? You best avoid those flames, little lady.

He left no title unsaid: How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Getting Over Him in Five Easy Steps. Devices and Desires. It was all fair game for the glory. Approaching the cash register, folks sometimes chickened out and left their books behind. He’d watch them go, too, then turn his attention to the next person in line.

Listen up, he’d say, everyone of you needs to read the Left Behind series. It’s all in the Bible. Every word the gospel truth. Only the author makes it a lot more interesting. He’s got it all going on: every sin you can imagine.

I’m told Tim LaHaye was inspired to write his series when he was on airplane waiting for take-off. Story goes “he saw a married pilot flirting with a stewardess. And suddenly he wondered, What would happen to him if the Rapture came today”. He was pretty sure that pilot would be left behind. In his own words, God sends “terrible plagues and judgments” so that the “people of the world [will] repent and turn to him.” [2]

Do we really need tribulation to see the goodness of God? Can we not see the goodness of God all around us?

Headlines are riddled with tribulation. Stories of terrible violence. And yet they’re also riddled with the goodness of God that comes in the wake of all disaster when people move toward the injured, the dead, the mournful, and the frightened. Tribulation doesn’t create goodness, though. Goodness is already there, alive in our hearts, because people are part of the goodness of God.

The street angels tell us Jesus will come again one day in the same way he ascended into heaven. It’s their way of saying don’t worry about the end of time. And don’t look for it either. Live! And live to the glory of God. And when you look up, don’t forget to look around.

Today we remember those who grieve: the people of Manchester and the Coptic Christians of Egypt. We remember American soldiers who lost their lives in battles past, and the men and women who enter battles for us today.

The mournful and the courageous teach us the difference between grief and despair. And there is a difference. Grief belongs to those who love life, to those who count the earth itself among their blessings. Despair belongs to those who fail to value the gift of life, who’d as soon destroy the world as live in it.

This week the news is full of photographs of mourners flooding the streets in St. Ann’s Square, Manchester. They’ve gathered there to remember those who died in the recent bombing of Manchester Arena. The streets are flocked with memorial flowers, fragile offerings in their cellophane wrappers, tagged with occasional bright balloons and hand-written cards full of prayers.

Prayers mean so much on the ground where we live. They assure us and strengthen us. They push back against the force of apocalyptic despair and build up the goodness of God all around us. Three days ago the crowd in that square spontaneously began to sing, Don’t look back in anger. It’s another way of saying, don’t forget to look around. Into the eyes of your neighbors. Into the eyes of the stranger right next to you. Look and see the goodness of the Lord. Look and be the goodness of the Lord.

The kingdom of God is an eternal gift unfolding on earth in our midst today.

____________________________________

[1] David Standard, The Puritan Way of Death (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1979)

[2] Robert Dreyfuss, Reverend Doomsday: According to Tim LaHaye, the Apocalypse is now,  Rolling Stone (January 28, 2004).

One thought on “Street angels | Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14

  1. Lauren – I love this. Used the last part of your homily from last week for worship at EfM – and our small group was very touched. Sharing this just because they liked last week so much! but also have been obsessed with “unconditional love” all week and focusing on that for theological reflection – my day to lead. Just smiling thinking about how happy you seem to be.

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