It’s probably the most poignant scene in the original Star Wars movie. Obi-Wan has engaged Darth Vader in a fierce lightsaber duel to provide cover for Luke Skywalker and his friends to escape the Death Star. Luke looks over to his mentor; they lock eyes; Obi-Wan raises his saber to let Vader kill him; and Luke is left to figure out how to become a Jedi without his mentor. This weekend at our LifeSign contemporary service, we are talking about the day when Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven (click here for a promotional video to share!). It’s worth asking the question the disciples must have had: Why did He abandon us?
I can’t get to the punchline in this blog post because then I wouldn’t have anything left for the sermon. But it’s worth sitting on that question for a moment. If Jesus was resurrected from the dead, then why did He go off to heaven somewhere and leave His people lost and confused back here on Earth? Before we dismiss this question too quickly with some pious, theologically correct answer, can we at least acknowledge that things would be a whole lot clearer and easier if Jesus were still walking around as an ageless 2000 year old man completely in the flesh the same way that we are?
There wouldn’t be a pope; there wouldn’t be any denominations; there never would have been any heresies or the need to establish the boundaries of orthodoxy. We wouldn’t even need a New Testament, because Jesus Himself would be the living New Testament, though He would probably continue to quote the Hebrew Bible. Following Jesus would be a very straightforward physical activity.
Of course, when you think about that part, it would actually be a lot harder. What if Jesus just walked into a very important board meeting that we had spent weeks preparing for and said “Follow me”? Uh, this is awkward, guys, I know I was in charge of the presentation on sales growth for the second quarter, but I’ve got to go down the elevator with this man now, and by the way, you probably won’t see me again.
Anyhow, that’s not how He did things. He got carried up to heaven. Two angels appeared and asked the disciples, “Why are you standing around looking at the sky? He will come back the same way He went up” (Acts 1:11). And then 2000 years went by. It went really well at first. Tongues of fire filled the disciples with power. They healed people, preached boldly, and Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire.
But then somehow Christianity became the Roman Empire. It became a Western European civilization rather than a movement to seek the kingdom of God. And there were prophets who raged against that. Some were persecuted. Others were given religious orders to channel (domesticate?) their prophetic zeal. There were people inside the system who really loved Jesus and came up with amazing insights. And there was also corruption. Then we entered into the era when being correct became more important than being in communion (I’m overgeneralizing) and the church splintered into thousands of different pieces.
So what does it say about Jesus that He allowed us to make such a giant mess of things when He could have simply stuck around Galilee in His imperishable body so that there wouldn’t be any lack of clarity about His will for us? Why did Jesus leave space for us to screw up so that we would end up exhibiting all the same attitude problems of Israel’s 1st century religious leadership that invoked the need for Jesus to come in the first place? If Jesus wanted us all to agree on everything, the best way for Him to accomplish that would have been to stick around so there would be no questions.
I have a reasonably educated guess about what Jesus would say if we were to ask Him why He took off to heaven: the same answer He gave His disciples when they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). What did Jesus tell them? “It is not for you to know!” There’s more to the story. But I’ll leave that for Saturday night, so if you want to hear it, come on out to LifeSign if you’re local to Burke or stay tuned for the podcast.