April 7 | In Defense of Wonder





In Defense of Wonder

Text: Acts 1:1-14

Speaker: Mark Rupp

This is quite a week to have the assigned lectionary reading include admonition from on high to not stand around staring at the sky. Maybe your street was like mine on Tuesday evening when the sun finally fell below the line of clouds that had been threatening central Ohio all day to create one of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen. From where we were it was solidly a double rainbow, and if I squinted there were moments I swear I could see a third arc.

And I wasn’t alone. Nearly every porch on my street had people emerging to take in the moment. Some of them were neighbors I knew, many were people I’d only seen in passing. But in those few minutes we were all part of something together. Some of the crowd were trying to find the best angle to snap the perfect photo on their phones, others just quietly taking it in. I was also relieved to see that most other people were also already in their jim-jams at 7:15 in the evening. A true moment of solidarity.

After a full day of anticipating tornadoes and hail, staring at the sky with anxiety and fear, this moment of surprise beauty had us all staring at the sky with awe and wonder.

Rainbows are somewhat rare, but not nearly as much as the total solar eclipse that will happen tomorrow afternoon. And our experience of wonder last week was, perhaps, just a warm-up for this greater celestial event, a chance to loosen our neck muscles for more staring up at the sky. And just like our little street seemed to be somewhat transformed by this shared experience in both individual and communal ways, the eclipse seems to have the potential to be just as transformative. 

A couple weeks ago, Dan Halterman sent a few people a document he had compiled with quotes from people who had experienced total solar eclipses and been transformed in the process. His hope was to encourage all of us to prepare for our own experiences of the eclipse that would be practically on our back door step. 

On my first read through of these accounts, I have to admit that my initial thought was that these people were being soooooo dramatic. But as I sat with them a little longer I realized that this is probably what any life-transforming experience sounds like to those who have not shared the experience: A fumbling for words. A dramatic use of metaphor and hyperbole. An almost desperate plea for others to have the same experience mixed with a resigned sense that, until they do, they could never truly understand. 

Here are a few snippets from those accounts, including a portion from Dan’s own journal, which he has given permission to be shared:

  • You do not simply see a total eclipse. You experience it. You are immersed in it. You are completely overwhelmed by it. Many people say that the experience of totality changes their lives.
  • The Sunlight slowly dims, bathing the surroundings in an eerie twilight that produces colours with shades rarely seen in the natural world. Then it is time. Moments before totality a wall of darkness comes creeping towards you at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour – this is the full shadow of the Moon. You feel alive. You feel in awe. You feel a primitive fear. Then – totality. In this moment there is just you and the Universe.
  • From the lower edge of the blank, black disk of the dead sun burst a perfect point of brilliance. It leapt and burned, unthinkably fierce and bright, something absurdly like a word. I’m not a person of faith, but even so, the sun’s reappearance as the moon drew away seemed like the first line of Genesis retold. Is it all set to rights, now? I thought. Is all remade?
  • Once you’ve seen totality, you will have a bittersweet emotion – you will be giddy at what you just experienced. And you will have a tinge of sadness that it’s over.
  • I’m still processing the experience and have written much, and it keeps expanding. Not fully re-balanced from it and not sure I want to be!

The heavenly messengers show up and ask, “Why are you standing around staring at the sky?”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand up here today to try to convince you that your eclipse glasses are the mark of the beast or that this generation is going to Hell because our hearts are being overshadowed by the cares of this world. Sometimes I wonder if I have a hellfire and brimstone sermon inside of me somewhere, but this ain’t the week. 

No, this week–to no one’s surprise–I hope to give a defense of wonder, an apologetic for awe, a vindication of veneration, and a rebuttal for reverie. The angels show up and ask the people why they are standing around staring at the sky NOT because they don’t want the people to experience this moment of awe but as a reminder that they can’t stay there forever. The commission has been given and now there is work to be done. But that’s not to say this moment of wonder doesn’t have its own place in this narrative or in our own narrative journeys of faith.

We read our scripture today from the book of Acts, and we should understand that this book is a continuation of Luke’s gospel. The first few verses of Acts are a bit of a “Previously on Luke’s Gospel…” where we get a short recap of the final verses of Luke. In the last chapter of Luke we get the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus and then to the disciples in the upper room where Jesus seems less concerned that he’s freaking them out and more concerned about whether they have anything to eat.  These are the “many convincing proofs” that the author of Acts references. 

We also get a bit of a shorter version of the ascension at the very end of Luke. That gospel closes as the final two verses tell us, “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:52-53)

As we pick back up in Acts, we find out that these “many convincing proofs” lasted for 40 days. Nearly 6 weeks of Jesus popping up in gardens, along roads, behind locked doors, and sitting at beachside fires waiting for breakfast. My favorite passage of scripture comes from one of these post-resurrection appearances; John 21:12 reads “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast,’” which is really the only convincing proof I need for my belief in the sacred nature of breakfast. 

Jesus spent those final earthly days teaching, comforting, assuring, and commissioning the followers. All in all, I think these forty days were Jesus preparing his followers for his physical absence once more, trying to help them understand that this was all part of the plan.

The design for salvation that he was offering to them was never about God swooping in through some mighty figure to fix everything for once and for all. The kin-dom of God that Christ reveals through his life, death, resurrection, and now, also, ascension is that this eternal life looks a lot more collaborative and communal than some may think. 

In the passage for today, the author tells us that Jesus spent some of those 40 days speaking to the disciples about the kin-dom of God. It’s very on brand for Jesus. And what’s also on brand for the disciples is that they seem to misunderstand once again because almost immediately afterward they ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?” It is not that the kin-dom of God has no bearing for the Kingdom of Israel, which was at the time an occupied and oppressed people. But the kin-dom of God will always be more expansive than the political (or other) boundaries we draw around ourselves. 

Instead of giving them an answer, Jesus deflects this question, telling them those are the sort of things that no one can know. But he doesn’t just deflect; he once again pushes their imaginations outward, promising them that they will receive power: a power that comes not with flaming sword and fiery vengeance but with tongues of fire that witness and proclaim good news. Sparks that will ignite a movement that will spread so far beyond the borders of their little community that it reaches the ends of the earth.

It is as he is giving this final teaching that he begins to ascend, being lifted up beyond their sight. We tend to think of the ascension only in terms of going up, toward a literal heaven that exists somewhere beyond the clouds. And the cosmology of this first century author seems to reflect that. But I think there is also an element of transcendence here. In this moment Jesus is not just physically lifted up into the sky but his transcendence is revealed in a new way as he disappears…into the clouds?…into heaven?…into a state of being beyond what we can comprehend?

Just like before, I believe these answers and the specifics of the ascension are not for us to know. Instead they are for us to marvel over, to dwell on, to be inspired by, and to wonder about. As was modeled for us earlier, our children’s Sunday School classes have moved more toward this model of “wondering questions.” This is one way to honor that spiritual development comes best not through a top-down dissemination of knowledge but through communal wondering and the practice and work of faith as play.  We are still in the early months of transitioning more to this model, but we have already begun to see the fruit of this way of learning together. 

Sometimes I think progressive Christians can get uncomfortable when we talk about miraculous things like the ascension because we are afraid we might end up with our heads stuck in the clouds. We focus on the heavenly messengers who show up to the group of followers on that hillside to say, “Why are you standing around staring at the sky?” and think the point is to keep our nose to the grind, our feet on the ground, to get busy building the kin-dom by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Don’t get distracted by things that won’t ever make sense when there are people to feed, wars to protest, and community organizing to do.

Those are all important ways that we live out our faith, and sometimes we need to have our heads pulled out of the clouds. But this morning, I want to remind us that those glimpses of transcendence are what help to keep us rooted in the vision of the kin-dom of God. Moments of divine revelation give us glimpses of the bigger picture. They remind us that salvation is never as simple as a 12-point plan we can follow step-by-step, but–as Paul writes in his letter to the Phillipians–salvation is something we have to work out for ourselves with fear and trembling, wondering together where the untameable Spirit of God is calling us next. 

In the Luke/Acts accounts, the ascension is a kind of revelatory turning point for the disciples. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus still leave them huddling behind closed doors, trying to figure out what’s next, fearful, and perhaps assuming the risen Jesus will take the next big move for them. But after the ascension we find their hearts renewed, worshiping with great joy and devoting themselves to prayer as they await the power that was promised. 

One commentary I read this week made this point well. The author writes: “Just as the incarnation reveals to us the outreach of the love of God, so the ascension reveals to us the transfiguration and the gathering up that is to come at the end. What happens to Jesus Christ–death, resurrection, and being raised in exaltation to glory–will happen to us all…It is a reminder that our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine.”

This “working out of our salvation” day-by-day can be hard work, and we need reminders that this hard work is good work, that we are caught up in and connected with something greater than we can think or imagine. We need glimpses of transcendence to break open our imaginations and leave us wondering, beyond simple answers, beyond understanding, beyond 12-point plans and tidy social boundaries.

Sometimes these transformative experiences come from grand moments of beauty and awe in the form of rainbows or eclipses. Sometimes they come from much smaller moments of connection like an experience of serving and being served. Wherever and however they come, I hope we never feel like we have to explain them away or hide them, even if we end up sounding “soooooo dramatic” as we try to put words to them.  I want to return to something Dan wrote because I love the way he sums up a transformative experience: “I’m still processing the experience and have written much, and it keeps expanding. Not fully re-balanced from it and not sure I want to be!”

My wish for us, my friends, is:

  • That we would allow ourselves to become unbalanced by experiences of transcendence, and beauty and wonder even if that means our steps falter onto uncharted paths.
  • That we would always keep both our head in the clouds and our feet on the earth, trusting that the same humanity and divinity that was in Jesus is alive and available in us as well.
  • And finally, that we would never stop trying to put words to the ineffable revelations of good news that come our way, knowing that where our tongue may fail or hands and feet can pick up the slack.