Saturday Night Theologian
23 May 2004

Acts 1:1-11

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
On May 13, scientists writing in Science magazine reported on the discovery of an impact crater off the coast of Northwestern Australia that might be related to the greatest devastation of life ever known. The authors propose that the crater might have been caused by an asteroid strike about 250 million years ago that resulted in the extinction of about 90 percent of plant and animal species on the planet. This mass extinction at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods was much greater than the more commonly known extinction event that killed the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Discoveries such as this are fascinating, but they are also disconcerting, raising important questions. How many asteroids, comets, and meteors have struck the earth over the past five billion years with a force sufficient to destroy thousands of species? More importantly, when can we expect Earth to be hit again, and can we do anything to stop it? Disaster movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact, both appearing in 1998, were built around the issue, as was the much earlier When Worlds Collide (1951). The title of the movie Armageddon comes, of course, from the disastrous end of the world described in the book of Revelation. Many Christians today expect a sudden, violent end to the world, and increasing numbers of other people do as well. In today's reading from Acts, the disciples have just witnessed Jesus' ascension into heaven, and they are standing around with their mouths open, wondering what will happen next. They had tried to pump Jesus for an answer to the question of whether or not he would soon restore the kingdom to Israel, but he had brushed them off with this comment: "It is not for you to know the time or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." Instead, they were to wait in Jerusalem until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit, then they were to go out and carry on the mission of Jesus in the world. There is no doubt that life on earth will someday end. It might end with another meteor impact, or it might be a powerful nuclear blast; it might be disease, either naturally occurring or genetically engineered; it might be radiation poisoning caused by destruction of the ozone layer, or it might be the death of the sun. Whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper, humans have no control over it. We do have control over what we do with our own lives right now, and we should be about the work of Jesus.

Psalm 47

When Assyrian kings conquered neighboring lands, they often took statues of their captives' gods from their temples and paraded with them through the streets of their capital (Asshur, Calah, or Nineveh, depending on the date). The first expansions of Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula were viewed by religious proponents as proof that Allah was with them in their ventures. When Pope Urban II urged Christians to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims, he did so in the name of the Christian God. Like the faithful in other religions, the psalmist portrays his God as one who subdues other peoples, putting other nations at the feet of God's chosen people. Conquerors throughout the ages have sung praises to their gods, whom they saw as delivering their enemies into their hands. However, there is a completely different way to view God. I believe in a God who doesn't favor one group of people over another but loves them all equally. I believe in a God who doesn't rejoice when God's "followers" take land away from people who have been living there for generations. I believe in a God who opposes those who kill, maim, and exterminate whole people groups in the name of God. I believe in a God who loves people of all religious persuasions and wants them all to have meaningful, peaceful lives. The psalmist gives voice to this concept of God: "God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted." Only when we who claim to be followers of God recognize that the shields of the whole earth--a defensive term--belong to God and begin to treat all the peoples of the earth with respect and dignity will the name of God be praised among all the nations.

Ephesians 1:15-23

There is a spirit of despair and hopelessness that has gripped many in the United States and around the world as a result of seemingly endless international problems, particularly in the Middle East. The Iraq war, which progressives opposed from the beginning, lurches from disaster to scandal to outrage and back again. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer, and occasionally boil over. Gasoline prices have skyrocketed in recent months, and many predict worse news to come. On this Ascension Sunday, those of us in the Christian tradition need to hear the gospel--good news--but where can we find it? It is tempting to look at today's reading from Ephesians and say, "Forget earthly problems and focus on heavenly realities! Christ is seated at the right hand of God; rejoice!" There is a partial truth here, because it is important to remember that the realities of the world are not the only realities. However, the problem lies in the statement, "Forget earthly realities." The people of God can no more forget earthly realities than we can lay aside our humanity. It is beneficial to spend time in prayer, meditation, excursions in nature, and so forth, in order to free our minds temporarily of the problems of the world so that we can try to hear the voice of God. Most of the time, though, we need to focus on the world that we live in, and today's reading gives us a clue for how to do that. Verse 17 speaks of the spirit of wisdom and revelation that comes with an increasing knowledge of God. Therein lies the key to dealing with the harsh realities of the world without losing hope. Problems that seem intractable to us are soluble for God. Human reasoning relies too much on logic, traditional ways of viewing the world, and limited perception. God's wisdom, on the other hand, is based on divine insight, revolutionary ways of viewing the world, and the big picture. When we learn to step back from our provincialism, nationalism, and narrow theology, we will be ready to imbibe from the cup of divine revelation, a draft that offers hope and a new way forward for Christianity and for the whole world.

Luke 24:44-53

The Jews of Jesus' day were looking for a different kind of Messiah than Jesus was. His disciples' question in today's reading from Acts reflects a typical expectation: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" It is clear that the Jews were looking for political deliverance from the Romans. Even after the resurrection, Jesus' closest followers wanted to know, "OK, God raised you from the dead, so now will you throw off the Roman yoke?" Sometimes our first reading of the scriptures isn't the right reading. In his last appearance to his disciples in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells them, "Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." In what way do the events in Jesus' life fulfill what was written in the Hebrew Bible? It is highly unlikely that anyone living in Jesus' day could have predicted the major events in Jesus' life, including his crucifixion and resurrection, from the Old Testament record. Christians readings only make sense after the fact. The reason for that is our modern misunderstanding of the Greek word that is normally translated "fulfill," as in verse 44. The basic meaning of the word is "fill," and in the context, it makes more sense to translate the verse like this: "Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be filled (with meaning)." That is exactly what Jesus did: he filled the scripture with new meaning. The prophecy concerning the birth of a king in Micah 5 and the retelling of the history of the exodus in Hosea 11 were reinterpreted in the light of the stories surrounding Jesus' birth. The poems about the suffering servant in Isaiah were infused with new meaning after the crucifixion. The story of Jonah's sojourn in the belly of a whale was transformed after the resurrection. Jesus gave new meaning to the scripture, and he gave new meaning to the lives of the disciples. Jesus instructed them to remain in Jerusalem until they received "power from on high," that is, God's gift of the Holy Spirit. After the Ascension, and particularly after Pentecost, the disciples no longer spoke in terms of Jesus restoring the kingdom to Israel, at least as far as it is recorded in the New Testament. Instead, the disciples understood that they had a new mission. "A kingdom for Israel? That's nothing! My kingdom will encompass the whole world!" Sometimes our vision of Jesus is also too restricted. We expect Jesus to make a difference in our personal lives, but we don't really expect much in the community that we live in. We see Jesus using churches to reach a few people with the good news of God's love, but we don't expect him to transform the world. But the power of God can make a difference not only in individuals and in churches, but also in communities, nations, and the world. Christianity has spread throughout the world physically, but the true spirit of Jesus has yet to permeate the world, because it has yet to permeate Christians. The Ascension is all about raising our expectations.