Sunday Devotions: To See Jesus
Acts 1, 1 Peter 4-5
I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.
According to his son Michael, that was Tim Keller’s dying wish as he entered hospice care last Thursday — a wish granted when the pastor and author died on Friday.
To see Jesus may be the oldest yearning of Christianity, present not just in the dying of saints but in the birth of the church itself, when Jesus vanished from the sight of his first, startled followers. This week’s reading from Acts tells the story this way:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (1:6-9)
I’ve never seen Jesus, only sensed him in word and sacrament, in sculpture and song, in his followers’ stories of sudden conversion and lifelong obedience, and in the precious lives of the hungry and sick, the imprisoned and the alien. If Jesus has never been absent from my life, he’s never been present in the way my heart most longs for.
How much more must those first disciples have longed to see again the Christ who lived in their memory! To hear the voice that called them and taught them, to touch again the nail-scarred hands that had washed their feet, to see the face of the Son who made the Father visible. They had shared in the most profound religious experience possible — that of experiencing Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection firsthand…
…only to share the experience of his ascension. As that “cloud took him out of their sight,” what more could they have wanted than to see Jesus (again)?
But they didn’t think they had long to wait. Even as they were “gazing up toward heaven,” two white-robed men joined them to say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10, 11).
While they were “not to know” the details, the earliest Christians expected that Jesus would soon “descend from heaven” — “will come in the same way you saw him go” — at which point “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:16, 17 — written less than twenty years after the Ascension).
And so they lived in preparation for that day. In this week’s epistle reading, another apostle encouraged Christians living through a “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet 4:12) to “discipline yourselves, keep alert,” trusting that, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet 5:8, 10).
They didn’t wait passively for that to happen. With all urgency and without fear, they heeded Jesus’ last words to them and served as his witnesses near and far (Acts 1:8). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they became the Body of Christ, helping people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth to see Jesus until he came again.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s entirely understandable that someone nearing the end of a three-year ordeal with cancer — someone who has suffered for no little while — would look forward to going “home” and seeing Jesus on the other side of mortality.
But too many of us who have many years left to live think in the same terms — as if the Christian life consists of marking time until death takes us to heaven and we see Jesus there.
Maybe that’s because too many of us — me included — don’t live in the active expectation that Jesus will come during their lives to Earth. That we will see him here.
It is hard to stay alert in that expectation, two millennia after Jesus’ ascension. But how much differently would we live if we yearned to see Jesus not in a paradise lifted beyond this world and its concerns, but as the light of the city formed when the new heaven descends to join the new earth, where God will make his home among mortals and death will be no more (Rev 21:1-4, 23)?
Next week’s lectionary readings: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; John 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-21.
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I said in yesterday’s links wrap that I may write more about Keller’s legacy… but on further reflection, I don’t think I have anything to say that hasn’t been said better by Michael Luo, Katelyn Beaty, or Jemar Tisby (whose reflection on Keller was also a reflection on how, when, and why to share such a eulogy).