The End Was Near

Sometime last week, I flipped through the pages of the New Yorker, and yet again one of the cartoons delivered the perfect commentary before I had started reading even a single paragraph. It was a drawing of a familiar character, the end-time prophet on the street corner: long hair, long beard, wild-eyed expression in his face, holding a cardboard sign. The artist changed just one little word: THE END WAS NEAR. I understand that the end of the world has been rescheduled for October 21 when events on May 21 didn’t unfold as predicted by Harold Camping.[1]

I love it when serious theological critique is also very funny. To me, the scene at the beginning of the book of Acts is one of the funniest in all of scripture, and it’s serious theological critique as well. The risen Jesus and the disciples are together, and the disciples are curious about the timing of God’s reign. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus says quite clearly and unambiguously, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Harold Camping must have missed that line in his obsessive search of the scriptures for hints about the end of the world. But that’s not the funny part. As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven and gazing up toward heaven and gazing up toward heaven … suddenly two men in white robes stood by them and said, “Why are you staring up toward heaven?” This makes a great scene for a Monty Python movie, but it’s holy scripture addressing a crucial theological question: Now what? Now that Jesus is risen from the dead, what are the men and women who follow him to do? Wait for him to come back? Count the days, the years, the generations, eyes fixed to the heavens?

In Peter Marty’s church in Kansas City, worship on Ascension Day called for special props.

Five or six people show up a couple of hours before the evening’s ascension service and begin filling up balloons. They pump hundreds of white balloons full of helium gas and stuff them into an enormous cloud of white bedsheets that have been sewn together. As the balloons begin to push out the fluffy white pocket, a (…) cloud takes shape. The volunteer “cloud squad” pins the cloud shut and releases it to float about the [sanctuary]. It dips and rises over worshipers, moving wherever it wants to go. (…) Some years the cloud takes on unruly behavior, accepting a few too many ceiling fan currents, and divebombing the candelabra. Sometimes we’ve had to tether the gigantic white blob with ten-pound fish[ing]line. (…) The net effect of this soaring-cloud routine is “the crooked-neck syndrome.” Most of the worshipers tilt their heads skyward for much of the service. Pinched nerves and stiff necks are fast becoming a regular feature of our church’s ascension festivities.[2]

Jesus’ disciples looked up, determined to keep their eyes on the spot where they had last seen their Lord, determined to hold on to his presence with them and to their memories of him. Who knows how long they would have stood there, straining their necks, had the two men in white robes not shown up.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus’ parting words to them had been. They didn’t know what being witnesses might mean, but they remembered his promise that they would receive power to do what they needed to do.

In this brief scene at the beginning of Acts, Luke describes a necessary shift of focus for followers of Jesus Christ: from the end of the world to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus comes to a conclusion, and yet it will continue in the witness of his followers. Jesus’ presence and power would no longer be contingent upon his bodily presence, but be let lose on earth in the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ departure does not result in his absence, and therefore we have more to sustain us than memories of a great teacher who once walked among us: through the Holy Spirit the mission of Christ continues, and we are the ones whose lives bear witness to his presence and power.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples asked, and instead of answers, they were given a promise and a mission: “You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I find these words immensely liberating. They free me from anxiously scanning the horizon for signs of the end. They free me to expect the presence of Jesus the Lord not in some cataclysmic finale at the end of time, but in the dailiness of our life and work. They free me to lower my gaze and discover the footprints of Jesus on the ground, and to follow him to the ends of the earth.

This moment of liberation doesn’t reach deep enough, though, if it only makes busy people even busier. In one of his sermons, the Apostle Peter proclaimed,

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did.[3]

We hear those words, and some of us can’t wait to go about doing good. We don’t want to stand there and gaze at the heavens, we want to get busy doing something, in the name of Jesus.

I was curious about how many people go about doing good in their free time, and I turned to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to find out how many people in this country volunteer in some organized fashion. I learned that between September 2009 and September 2010, close to 63 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once. That means that just over 26 percent of the adult population participated in fundraising for schools and non-profits, serving food at the local soup kitchen, driving a van for Room in the Inn, building houses with Habitat, or tutoring youth and adults.[4] 62.8 million people, and that’s not counting the guy down the street who regularly cuts his neighbor’s grass or the lady who bakes a cake every week for the family across the backyard. 62.8 million people of all faiths or no faith at all volunteered through or for an organization at least once last year.

Sounds like a big number, although I had hoped that it would be higher – and, it turns out, so did the Corporation for National and Community Service: back in 2007, the group was aiming to raise the number of adult volunteers to 75 million by 2010.

In 2007, the group’s CEO, David Eisner, said, “Our work is cut out for us because, nationally, the volunteer bucket is a bit leaky. We get a lot each year, but we lose a lot each year. We have to figure out how to plug those holes.”

Rob Wallace, a spokesman for Keep America Beautiful, identified one of the holes in the bucket, “Everyone is extremely busy today, so if they begin to feel their volunteer time is sucking the life out of them without giving them satisfaction, they get jaded and want to quit.”

Beth Erickson, a business consultant in suburban Minneapolis who volunteers at least twice a week at her church in St. Paul, pointed to another hole. “Our nightly news is riddled with very few good news stories. Wars, corporate and political scandals and ethical breaches have made us not only weary but also wary of others. So a ‘bunker mentality’ has developed, where people keep to themselves and don’t worry about anything but insulating themselves from the world and the latest bad news. We simply have to turn that around,” Beth said. Beth, Rob, and David made these comments in interviews for an article about “the tide of do-gooder fatigue.” [5]

Most churches are no exception from those trends. We want to do good to the ends of the earth, in the name of Jesus, and we are learning the hard way that our mission is not carried out in our own strength. Robert Wall wrote in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, “We live in an activist’s age in which participation in good deeds is keenly encouraged, even demanded of the ‘committed person.’”[6] Don’t just stand there, do something. Go to work. Change the world. True, but the first great act recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, after the very funny opening scene, is the disciples’ return to Jerusalem where they waited. Luke names the eleven, and he mentions the women who were part of the group, as well as Jesus’ mother and brothers, and he notes that all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. They prayed and waited to be clothed with power from on high.[7]

Before they went to work, they waited. Before they began to move to the ends of the earth, they learned how to be attentive to God’s initiative. They didn’t rush into action, but practiced resting in the movement of God’s Spirit.

It is easy for us to grasp how feeding the hungry is a witness to the reign of God’s mercy – and it is good. We teach our young ones that filling a bucket with cleaning supplies is a witness to the love of God who knits us together in community – and filling buckets together is great fun. We know that speaking the truth without fear is a witness to the liberating power of the gospel – and it is necessary.

What is much harder for us to grasp is that to engage in the mission of the risen Christ in the world doesn’t begin with doing, but with resting in the movement of God’s Spirit. Before we go and do, we wait and pray, and that too is an act of witness. We come together and practice attentiveness to the Spirit’s movement. We trust the promise that we will be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth so deeply that it doesn’t just add to our busyness, but gets to the root of our thinking, and speaking, and doing, and transforms us.

No more do-gooder fatigue. Only the movement of God’s Spirit through all of creation toward the glory of God – and we get to be a part of it.

 


[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/harold-camping-reaffirms-october-date-for-the-end-of-the-world-says-may-21-date-was-invisible-judgment-day/2011/05/24/AFVsMhAH_story.html

[2] Peter Marty, “Up, up and away,” The Christian Century, May 15, 1996, p. 543

[3] Acts 10:38-39

[4] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

[5] http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0717/p01s03-ussc.html

[6] Robert Wall, Acts (NIB), p. 44

[7] See Luke 24:49