The Next Generation begins, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Those are words that you would expect to hear out of Cynthia, not me. She can recite them by heart. I’m not a Trekkie or Trekker or Trekkette or Trek-anything. I had to google to find the right words, but they do relate to this week’s text. I’ll get to that.
Not only am I not a Star Trek fan, I’m not a sci-fi fan at all, but I still imagine this a sci-fi scene. You’ve probably seen it depicted so often that it doesn’t shock you anymore. You’ve seen it on Christian greeting cards and on the cover of Christian section of Barnes and Nobel and on the internet and in art galleries and on cathedral ceilings. It’s a scene that has been depicted in art as much as the bloodied body of Christ skewered to a cross.
Jesus occupies the center of the canvas in flowing white robes with arms outstretched in benediction pose. He elevates in the scene or rather levitates, gliding smoothly up into the clouds stopping with his feet a few yards above the disciple’s heads. Rembrandt included baby cherub angels giving the cloud he’s standing on a push upward into the heavenly firmament.
The scene depends on a literal reading and a first century cosmology whereby the sky as we see it is a dome stretched from horizon to horizon like a big mixing bowl turned upside down on a flat table, and we live on the table beneath. Heavens existed above that bowl, just beyond the clouds, just a bit further than the human eye could see.
But of course, we know the earth is not a flat table, there are no four corners to her or an ‘ends of the earth’ from which to fall. We’ve seen beyond the bowl’s underside. We’ve peered into the darkest of space and into the hearts of galaxies light years and beyond. The Hubble telescope has not captured a single shot of Jesus of Nazareth floating on a cloud out there. Maybe just once on that large center screen in the Bridge of the Starship Enterprise, they could show Jesus floating past. Christians could then say, “I told you so.”
If this scene is not a sci-fi scene, then what is it? It’s the cliff hanger ending to Luke’s gospel pointing us to his sequel the book of Acts. Here’s the context for this story:
Earlier Luke tells of Jesus torment and crucifixion and burial. Then he tells of the empty tomb the women find on Easter morning. Then he tells the story of the disciples leaving Jerusalem, returning to Emmaus encountering a stranger on the road. The stranger appeared to know nothing of Jesus – which was all the news of Jerusalem. So the disciples told the stranger about Jesus, and the stranger told the disciples about their own scriptures. He taught them things they never realized about their own faith traditions. He opened their eyes and their minds. He broke bread and just as they realized that he was their Beloved Teacher, he vanishes from their sight. These two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to find the others and tell them. While they are excitedly telling their story, Jesus appears amongst them. “Peace be with you” he says.
This peek-a-boo Jesus “startles them and terrifies them.” Then he explains the scriptures to them again: Moses, prophets, psalms – one more time. Come on guys- how many times does he go over this? Then he leads them out of Jerusalem- out as far as Bethany (His friends live there, Mary and Martha, Lazareth). There he lifts his hands; he blesses them and withdrew from them one last time. Artists have been trying to paint a mystery onto canvas ever since the gospel telling. In Luke’s gospel, Easter morning empty tomb and the appearance in Emmaus and disappearance of Jesus all happen the same day.
To put the final scene in perspective of the whole scope of Luke’s story, it makes sense. Luke began telling about Mary. When the Holy Spirit came upon her, her womb sprang to life. Then her aunt Elizabeth was visited by the Holy Spirit, and the child of her womb leaped for joy when Mary came near. The boy child of Mary was presented at the temple and the old prophet Simeon learned from the Holy Spirit the glory of Jesus.
Then Luke tells of Jesus as a grown man being baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Then Luke tells, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” Then Jesus “returned, filled by the Holy Spirit….” Then he went to Nazareth, where he said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”
Luke is clear that Jesus was and is who Jesus was and is because he embodied the Holy, Divine Spirit. Jesus was filled with God’s spirit, which led him to live differently in union with the Holy. God’s Spirit anointed him to bring good news to the poor, and to bring release to all those held captive, and to offer a new way to see the world and one another. God’s Spirit led him to healing and feeding and resting on Sabbath, and teaching and blessing and hanging out with his friends. Jesus taught of a new life and a new civilization grounded in loving enemies; not judgement of each other. He boldly showed a new way of forgiveness like no one had known before. He cared for and included the poor and the marginalized, the women and the Romans, the Jews and the Gentiles. He warned people against hypocrisy and told them not to waste their lives on worry. He taught people to live in God, loving and giving generously like no one had done before.
The story of Jesus is a bizarre story quite counter culture to power and materialism and wealth and success by common standards. The story of Jesus has an even more bizarre ending. Not only was Jesus able to live differently and show an amazing life of compassion because of this Holy spirit living within him, the end scene is clear that the same Holy, Divine Spirit will be transferred into the disciples. These first century followers of the Way of Jesus became the next generation to show the world what God’s Love is. They carried on this outlandish teaching of love; they formed communities to stay centered and take care of one another. They went forward to live in great joy in awe and wonder and reverence for the Holy.
See, Jesus is not floating out in space or up beyond that blue canvas stretched overhead. Quit looking up there. Instead, look into the eyes of those around you. Look into the mirror, look at your hands, look at your feet, look to your words. For this bizarre and amazing story continues. We are the Next Generation: still living the frontier of God’s love. We are on the voyage as people of The Way. Our continued mission: to create strange new ways of justice and mercy, to seek out a new life of peaceful civilization, to boldly live as the one who went before. You are the next generation. May it be so.