Thoughts on the weirdest Jesus story.
As anyone who has moved cross-country knows, the United States is a big country with lots of different cultures. Whether you move from the East Coast to the West Coast or the Midwest to the South or the South to the North, you find that people engage each other slightly differently wherever you go in America.
As any of you who have traveled to or lived in the South know, folks from there are often slow to leave one another after a social gathering. New Englanders don’t do that. You finish, you exchange pleasantries, you leave. (I’ve learned to actually really appreciate this about you.)
My friend who grew up in Connecticut says that that’s because you can’t linger here or your face would freeze during at least half the year. As she puts it, “Okay, well, I’d love to stay and talk, but my face is freezing, so do you have everything you need? Great. Later!”
Southern goodbyes are much slower, and typically go something like this:
Step 1: State how you do not want to say goodbye, but might have to leave now. This usually comes in the form of “Well, we hate to run,” which is often met with something like, “Y’all don’t have to leave!”
Step 2: Move towards door. Slowly.
Step 3: Bring up an entirely new topic. Examples include: “Now when is your sister havin’ surgery again? …Well, tell her we’re prayin’ for her.”
Step 4: Numbers can vary, but Step 4 usually involves food. “Take some of that casserole with ya!” Commence dealing with the food and continue to walk towards the door. (1)
I won’t bore you with the rest, since the steps, at least as far as I can tell, can easily go through 25, possibly more if there are children involved, but inevitably the last step is instructing someone to be careful traveling home. It’s usually stated something like, “Well, y’all be careful,” along with a warning about some hazard that they may encounter along the way, such as wet roads, fog, deer, or overturned peanut trailers.
It’s not that Southerners can’t say quick goodbyes; it’s that we reserve those for people we don’t like very much. This is why Northerners and Southerners can get our wires crossed. This happens in Southern families when somebody marries a Northerner: “Oh no, Aunt Bea, Uncle Jim loves you very much. He’s just from New York.”
Here in South Hadley, I’ve learned to see people’s eyes get a little shifty as I’m on to Step 6 of a Southern goodbye, and I’ll say, “Oh, am I being Southern again? Sorry. See you later!”
Part of Southern culture is to linger. Even if it can be irritating to people from other places, Southern lingering is a way of showing love. It’s a way of saying, “I enjoy your company so much that it’s hard to say goodbye.” It is a way of showing affection.
Ever wonder why Jesus didn’t just ascend into heaven right after the Resurrection?
I dare say he was being a little Southern. He lingers.
He rises from the dead, and appears to Mary. Then he appears to his disciples, twice in the same room. He has breakfast on the beach with them. He has dinner with them. He appears to them several times, in locked rooms and on roads. He tells them everything they need to know, at times more than once. God became one of us, died like one of us, and was raised again because even death couldn’t take God from us. And here at the end of the story, God loves the people so much that just doesn’t seem to want to leave.
The Easter season puts forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. During that time in the church year, we live with the resurrected Christ, we listen to him, we hear stories about him. Besides the long season after Pentecost, the Easter season where we live with the resurrected Christ is the longest season we have in the whole church year.
And then he ascends — he gets taken up into heaven.
When my best friend Samuel and I visited Amsterdam one spring, we needed to mail a package back home. We asked the attendant at the front desk of our hotel where the nearest post office was and she told us where it was but said, “It’s closed today.”
“On a Thursday?” Samuel replied.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a church holiday. The one where Jesus…. dahtahtah [makes upward floating motion with hand].”
She was looking for the English word for a fittingly ridiculous word for “ascension” in Dutch: “hemelvaart.” It’s even funnier in German: “himmelfahrt.”
I mean, really.
The story has always been a little funny to me, in part because I imagine the disciples trying to explain “Where’s Jesus” to their friends who weren’t there. If everyone didn’t already think the disciples were loony after the whole “rose from the dead after a public execution” thing, they certainly would after this.
“He, um, floated away.”
“Well, we climbed a hill with him and he just sorta rose up and went into the clouds. He floated away.”
We’ve heard this story so much that it loses its character, but really. It’s gotta be hard to explain how your Lord and Teacher rose from the dead, stuck around awhile, and then just drifted off into the sky like an escaped birthday balloon.
It’s even hard to depict without looking a little silly: check out the cover of the bulletin. Jesus is cloud surfing while the disciples cheer him on. Among the rejects was another one where we only saw Jesus from the waist down as he was set in perspective back from the disciples. He looked like he was being prepped for surgery.
Then there’s one church named the “church of the ascension” in Europe that has nail-scarred feet dangling from the ceiling as if Jesus got stuck and is thinking, “Note to self: next time ascend outside.”
Then there’s the ending of the story: the disciples stand gaping at the sky in Acts, wondering what in the all-get-out had just happened, and they don’t notice that two angels have stood next to them.
I think God was just messing with them at this point.
They’re staring at the sky and then they jump three feet clean into the air because they hadn’t noticed that now there are TWO ANGELS standing next to them who suddenly say, essentially, “Whatcha lookin’ at?”
“He’ll come back in the same way you saw him leave,” they say.
And so they go back down the Mount of Olives.
The last things Luke recorded him saying before he ascended was this: “Stay here [in Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high…. [then] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8b).
Jesus had lingered with them, and now they were to linger together with one another.
So they do.
In the next verses of Acts, they’ll gather the whole community: all of Jesus’ disciples, male and female, linger together and eat and pray and wait to see what God will do.
There is a message in this for us.
On this day, we don’t have Jesus in the flesh to tell us exactly what to do. But he still lingers out of love, like a good Southerner. Most of you know by now that one of my favorite quotes about Christian worship is that “Jesus loved meals so much he became one.” (2) So in that way, Jesus continues to linger here, among his people, unwilling to leave because he loves being among us.
Together we linger with one another, we eat and pray, and we wait to see what God will do among us. Yes, it’s true: we’re a little crazy. We believe some crazy stuff, like subscribing to this story where God became a human, was born, died, and rose from the dead and essentially cloud surfed back to heaven. We believe other impossible things, too, like that it’s possible to love people who are nothing like us and that we can make a positive impact on the world if we just stick together.
So let’s stop staring up at the sky; Jesus is everywhere now. Let’s linger here together, eat and pray, and wait to see what God will do among us. If the ascension tells you anything, it should be this: God is a little ridiculous, is full of surprises, loves us fiercely, and lingers with us here. Amen.
1. I was assisted in numbering off the steps by comedian Darren Knight, seen here portraying a Southern Mama’s goodbye. Non-Southerners needing translation help with the video should consult their nearest Southerner.
2. Original quote: Dr. Don Saliers, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.