Bryan Cones Sermon - Easter VII

Bryan Cones

Easter 7A

Acts 1:6-14


I have been imagining this week being one of the Eleven

in today’s first reading,

            standing there watching Jesus ride away on a cloud,

and then “suddenly” to have “two men in white robes” appear

and ask an incredibly stupid question:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

I think I would want to say something like:

“Duh, my rabbi, who was crucified just a few weeks ago,

            then came back to life

and has been appearing to us,

            just floated away on a cloud.

Where else would I be looking?”

Standing and staring is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.


The story reminded me of a similar one in the gospel of Luke,

written we think by the same author.

It’s Easter morning

and the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body,

            most likely weeping and miserable.

And again, “suddenly” the passage says, two men,

            this time in “dazzling” clothes,

            ask an equally stupid question,

one that might even seem cruel to a grieving person:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”


Two questions, both rhetorical,

            and both kind of harsh,

            as if the women and the Eleven are being dull,

even though what they are doing is totally reasonable.


It is also curious to me that these two questions frame

            this Easter season we have been celebrating.

The first is asked at the empty tomb on Easter morning,

            when Jesus’ body had seemingly vanished.

The second one comes at the time of the Ascension,

            when Jesus’ body vanishes for good,

or at least until some unknown time in the future

when he will suddenly come back riding on his cloud.


What are we to make of these questions,

asked at such a crucial time in the history of the church,

asked now at the end of this Easter season?

What message was the evangelist trying to convey?


As I have been sitting with these questions,

they have begun to sound like warnings to me.


The first one comes at an empty hole in the ground:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

You won’t find life in a graveyard.

Emperors and presidents may build monuments,

            but Jesus’ witnesses can’t live in the past,

            whether reliving former glory or nursing old injuries.

There is no life among the tombs.


The second question comes as the disciples

are worried about their future

and the ancient church is looking skyward,

wondering when, or if, Jesus is coming back:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

There’s nothing but clouds up there.

Don’t waste your time looking up,

            wondering when all this will be over with,

            as if Christian life is just putting in time

until we are fully vested in the eternal retirement plan.


It’s as if the gospel writer had a crystal ball

and knew well the kinds of temptations

his community might fall into.

Or perhaps he was just well-acquainted with human nature.


On the one hand,

there is the danger of too much focus on the past:

            the way things used to be in the good old days,

            the “we’ve always done it this ways,”

            the inflexibility and unwillingness to change

that has indeed made some churches literal “empty tombs.”


On the other hand,

there’s the danger of too much focus on the future,

            either because we become so paralyzed by fear

that we can’t take a risk,

            or because we think so much about the hereafter,

            that we forget that the resurrection is not something

                        that happens to us after we die,

            but the pattern for how we are to live now.


And so the gospel writer gives us our two men

with their dazzling clothes and their uncomfortable questions,

blocking the way to nostalgia on the one hand,

            and escapism on the other.


And between them, there is an open space, and an invitation:

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,

in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”


Perhaps instead of looking down

into the past of the empty tomb,

or looking up toward some imagined future,

Jesus instead is inviting us to look out at the waiting world

            so in need of the good news we have to offer,

            so in need of the life we have to share.