When I was in college, my christian fellowship went on a roadtrip to southern Missouri for a conference. To make te long trip pass more quickly, our car played a game of "If." If is a book, subtitled Questions for the Game of Life.
All of the questions in the book If bgin with he word "if." If this...then what? Implied in the question is the expectation that youwill also explain the reasoning behind your answer. It's a neat game that helps you get to know your friends and yourself a bit better.
Questions run the gamut from the totally expected: If you had only twenty-four hours to live, what would you do with the time? to the more novel: If you could keep only one of your five senses, which would it be? If, what, and the implied why.
During this particular game, one of the first questions stumbled upon in the book, and subsequently asked of the group was, "If you could witness any event in all of history, which event would it be?"
Now, I ended up being the first to answer, and it seems my response set the stage. "Ooooh," I said excited, "I would want to witness the crucifixion!"
"No, no, no," the driver chimed in, "I'd want to wintness the resurrection!"
"I think I'd pick the ascension," said one of the women in the back seat. The next hour or so was spent on theological debates, arguments, and explanations for our choices. All in all, it was pretty cool road trip.
When I read the story of the ascension, it always kind of makes me want to giggle. It actually reminds me of case studies I read about in my high school psychology class that dealt with the need to conform. Humans are so geared toward social conformity that if a particular behavior is modeled by person A at a given time and place, subsequent people arriving will follow suit.
For example, studies have been done in which a person gets into a manned elevator, tells the engineer which floor they need and then does not turn around through the entire elevator trip, spending the whole of the trip facing the back wall of the elevator rather than the doors.
What subsequent riders did not know was that this is a social experiment conducted by the rider and the "engineer" who is a plant. In this experiment some 80% of subsequent elevator riders also end up spending the elevator ride facing the back wall rather than the doors. The need to conform, to create social cohesion, is just that strong.
It's another experiment in social conformity, however, that really reminds me of today's reading. In this experiment, the researcher stopped on a busy street and looked up. Thye said nothing, they did not point. They merely stood there, looking up toward the tops of the surrounding buildings.
In this case, more than 50% of passersby also stopped to look, creating a larger and larger crowd. Everyone just standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring. The average length of time a person stopped for was over 3 minutes. When asked what they were looking at, they answered, "I don't know."
This is what comes to mind when I read today's story: a bunch of people, standing around, staring at...nothing, with no idea what comes next. And then, two men wearing white robes show up. I think these "men" are traditionally identified as angels. And tha identification makes sense. Why? Well, some might point to their shiny white dress.
I think a better indication is the fact that they don't act like human beings. They don't stop and stare as well. They do not simply ask the men why they are staring. They also tell them what comes next: that Jesus will some day return in the same fashion in which he left.
So, these men who have travelled with Jesus since the begin of his ministry three years previous return to Jerusalem to begin the work that Jesus set before them: that by the power of the Holy Spirit they would become Jesus's witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
This is a charge we have also received, and it's not an easy one to fulfill. We are fighting agains the very basics of human nature when we choose as Paul stated in Romans, not to "conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but to be tranformed by the renewing of our minds."
This is the exampel Jesus set, and the one to which we are called to be witnesses. Not merely that Jesus was a miracle worker who was raised from the dead. Historical record indicates that Jesus was not the only person living in the first century about whom such claims were made.
Rather, Jess, as a religious leader with a rag-tag band of followers was a rebel. Jesus sought not to conform to the patterns of this world. He chose not to conform to the pattern and history of spiritual abuses perpetuated by religious authorities in 1st century Jerusalem, nor to meekly accept the physical and economic abuses perpetuated by imperial Roman rule.
Jesus sought instead to transform the religious establishment itself. Jesus sought to put an end to a system that used people's religious devotion as a means of separating out the "haves" and the "have-nots," of those who were considered worthy and those seen as worth less. Jesus sought to end an exploitative system of sacrifice in favor of repentence and forgiveness based upon his own once-for-all sacrifice.
And it can't have been easy. Bullies are everywhere. And we see them clearly thoughout the gospels--the scribes and Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus when he won't conform to their ways of doing things, the Roman rulers who sentence Jesus to death for sedition, the soldiers who actually crucify him--following orders. Again, that drive to conform is so strong in humans--one Roman soldier actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but does nothing to stop the heinous evens to which he is a witness.
Things haven't changed much in the last two thousand years. The pages of history are littered with such tales. In 1517, having witnessed the abuses of the Catholic Church--the selling of indulgences which turned the church into little more than a brothel, the increased wealth of the church leaders who exploited the starving masses, the threats of hell for loved ones if people did not pay specified amounts--a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg.
Luther was looking to transform a corrupt institution, to return it to its roots as a movement for people who were seeking to be close to God. He never desire nor intended to start a new religious movement. But it happened. And the religious establishment he sought to transform responded much the way the religious elite had responded to Jesus--they sought to have him assassinated.
Ironically, Martin Luther's life was spared because the German princes who were tired of paying papal taxes gave him sanctuary. And so protestantism began.
Fast forward 400 years, and another German--a Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is watching the political climate of his country. He sses a young, rising star in the political realm using the propaganda of nationalism to gain power. Bonhoeffer warns of the potential dire consequences of this individual ruling Germany. No one pays heed.
Adolf Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany. Hitler's plans to rebuild Germany after the first World War result in the second World War, and the systematic imprisonment and execution of over 6 million Jews, and the immediately slaughter of over 1 million Roma people.
While the majority of the German population conformed through active military serivice or silent ascent, a small group of committed individuals chose to defy their culture. They sought transformation instead.
Even after his rise to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to speak out against Hitler. Having studied at Union Theological Seminary in New Yok in 1936, his classmates and professors were instrumental in getting Bonhoeffer a teaching position at Union, knowing it would be too dangerous for him to remain in Germany.
After a few months, Bonhoeffer gave up his position at Union, and the safety and comfort it afforded him, and he returned to his homeland, saying of Germany that he could have no part in rebuilding her if he abandoned her during her fall.
Bonhoeffer and his family had been plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler. When the plan was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. He continued to write theological treatises, which the S.S. officers at his camp smuggled out for him. These letters and papers are much beloved and studied by theology students everywhere today.
On the morning he was taken from his cell and walked to the gallows to where he was to be executed for treason, Bonhoeffer was still writing of the love and forgiveness of God, that even in that moment was being extended to the men who would march him to his death.
Twenty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would take a stand against racial segregation and injustice in the United States. He and those who stood alongside him, who marched with him, who sought to carry the light of hope, justice, and equality into the dark places refused to be conformed to the standards of this world, but rather were transformed by the hope of the gospel and sought to transform the world around them as well. They were beaten, jailed, abused, and many, including King, were killed for their stance.
Doing what is right, living the gospel, seeking to be transformed by God and to be a tranformative agen in the world around us is costly. It requires that we give up everything--wealth, position, privilege, loved ones--for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of knowing and following Jesus.
Though our natural inclination as humans is conformity and social cohesion, as Christians we are set apart and called to something more. And while the sacrifices required to do the right thing, to live the gospel wherever we happen to find ourselves might be great, we are never called to do it alone.
God has promised not to leave us as orphans. Jesus has sent to us what God has promised: we have been clothed with power form on high. we have been given the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God as our helper, comforter, sustainer, advocate, and friend.
It is through the Holy Spirit that we choose not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed and transformative instead. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can choose to love our enemies. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can, so far as it depends on us, live at peace with everyone. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able, if our enemy is hungry, to feed him; if he is thirsty, to give him something to drink.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able not to be overcome by evil, but rather to overcome evil with good. In so doing, we fulfill the call of Jesus in the final chapter of Luke's gospel. In doing what is right rather than what is easy, in choosing transformation over conformity, in seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Spirit of God, we truly become witnesses of Jesus to the world, and we bring his tranformative power to those around us.