My teenage daughter loves Manga, those Japanese graphic novels popular in this country, too. They read from back to front, and in her collection are numerous multi-volume teenage romances. But she also has a Manga Bible, illustrated by an artist, Siku, whose other work includes “Judge Dredd.” I particularly love his approach to the Acts of the Apostles, which is in many ways the adventure story of the early church.
For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?
I once sat with half-a-dozen normally talkative people in a Bible study, reading the Ascension texts. They had things to say about the epistle and the gospel, but when we read the Acts passage, they fell silent. I asked a leading question. Nothing. That physical ascending hangs us up. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between?
I decided to re-read verses 9 and 10:
“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (Acts 1:9-10, NRSV).
Everyone was listening earnestly, and then I said, “Suddenly two men in white coats stood by them.”
Someone looked surprised. Someone else laughed, nervously. Seriously, if you had just seen your friend and teacher, previously dead, whisked away into the sky, wouldn’t you wonder if those guys in white were there to take you away?
Practical people don’t like this story. It strains credulity. We like our Jesus in the flesh, telling stories, walking dusty roads, eating dinner with people. We don’t like him somewhere indefinable. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that he is more than our brains can rationalize.
Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. And that’s really the point of the story. It’s not about the ultimate disposition of the Resurrected body of our Lord and Savior. It’s the prelude, the overture, to the great adventure of being Christ’s Church. Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and share the Good News, in your words and your actions and on your blogs…and even in your graphic novels.
I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.