Escape Hatch Hope
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In the days following Easter, the disciples have a lot of hope. It makes sense. After the tragedy and pain of the crucifixion, followed up by the good news of the resurrection, the disciples are reunited with Christ, and all of those promises Christ made in his life, all of these teachings he shared, they’re starting to feel more tangible.
So the disciples are feeling pretty hopeful about the future.
The wonder: What’s next? What should we do and where should we go?
But then, Jesus says: sit tight for a little bit. Don’t leave Jerusalem.
Okay, maybe not the full steam ahead approach the disciples were expecting, but that’s fine.
They ask: When will there be a new kingdom, a restored Israel, a reality where are not ruled by other people, but can live in our kingdom? Soon, they hope.
But Jesus doesn’t give them an answer. You don’t need to know that information, he tells them.
I imagine that this is not quite what the disciples were expecting, but it can’t dampen their spirits. Jesus is with them! They don’t need to know the whole plan, so long as Jesus will guide them into whatever comes next!
Nothing can diminish their hope! Not even Jesus leaving again, this time, in glory rather than in death. But don’t worry: Have hope. Jesus will return, because that’s what he said, so we just have to stay here and watch for him. Someday, he’ll be back.
The disciples just have to have some hope.
We all have a lot of hopes for the future, and so does Kate Bowler.
Kate is a Duke Divinity School professor in her thirties; she is a scholar and researcher in the religious studies world, the mother of young son. And like all of us, Kate had a lot of hopes and dreams about what her life would look like in the years to come. About how her career would go, about what books she would write, about how she would raise her family, about where they would go on vacation. Kate thought a lot about her future and was ambitious and optimistic about how things would unfold.
But at 35, Kate was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, and suddenly all her normal hopes and dreams and worries about the future evaporated. All that mattered was the present moment— taking her medications, holding her son, calling her friend to chat about anything other than her diagnosis. The future, and all the hope it may or may not bring, didn’t matter as much any more.
And a strange thing happened, despite the unbearable circumstances, Kate’s life without hope began to sparkle. The daily ordinary things she once never gave second thought to shined a little brighter without future expectations casting their shadows.
Because hope, for all its value, is, as Kate puts it “a kind of arsenic that needs to be carefully administered.” Hope, she says,“can poison the sacred work of living now.”
Jesus understands this. He understands that hope is essential, but too much of it shackles us to promises of someday, instead of helping us live right now.
What if, in our scripture for today, the disciples never met the mysterious strangers who both assured them that yes, Jesus will return, but no, you don’t need to keep looking up at the sky?
What if, instead, the disciples set up camp, took shifts for staring up at the sky? What if they never left, never looked at the world around them?
What if they never gave up hope and eventually it poisoned their lives?
They would have missed everything.
The Holy Spirit that will speak to them at Pentecost next week. They would have missed the great moments of transformation in their lives and others. They would have missed countless sunsets and meals with strangers and moments of overwhelmingly hospitality and miracles and love and life.
They would have missed it all if kept their eyes on heaven waiting for Jesus.
They would have also missed the persecution and violence that came with following Christ. They would have missed sickness and death. They would have missed resentment and betrayal and imprisonment. They would have missed out on feeling helpless in the face of tragedy. They would have missed out on the hard truth that sometimes things don’t work out for good.
If the disciples kept looking up, they would have had hope, but they would have missed out on everything else.
Because the sacred work of living is not just about noticing the good in the present, to say a prayer of thanks for all our blessings. The sacred work of living refuses to turn away from the ugly.
Because hope in Christ is not an escape hatch out of this world’s suffering.
During the times when suffering seems especially present in our world, and especially cruel, it tempting to focus on our hope in heaven, hope in Christ’s return, hope in a future that looks different than today because it feels comforting— or at the very least, numbing.
And of course, this week, it is tempting to think of the community in Uvalde, Texas and try to come up with some sort of hopeful— or comforting — or numbing — perspective. Anything to make the pain and anger a little easier to bear. For the families, for the communities, for all of us.
But 21 people dead at an elementary school, and 10 dead in a grocery store in New York, and 5 dead in a church in California, all within the last two weeks, should never be easy to bear.
And we do a disservice to Christ if we use our hope in him is as an escape hatch out of this world rather than a guide through the darkest moments. If our hope in Christ cannot mingle with our grief, and cannot inspire us to care for God’s children, then what good is it?
Notice in our scripture that the mysterious strangers do not tell the disciples that their hope is unfounded. The disciples are actually spot on in their predictions about Jesus’ return. But it’s that they cling too tightly to the specifics of it— the when and the where— until they are frozen in place.
Instead the strangers assure them that all that Christ has promised them will happen, so it is okay to leave their watch. It might be hard, but it is okay to face the pain and suffering of the world.
And perhaps, instead of helping the disciples escape, the hope they have in Christ will surround them, and it will surround us, leading us all deeper into the pain, but also the beauty of living.
Thanks be to God. Amen.