Why Do You Look To The Sky?
Acts 1:1-11
Dr Gwee Li Sui
Free Community Church
15 November 2015

Brothers and sisters –

Once again, I’m back among you. To be among you, to be able to pray,
sing, and share with you, is a simple joy. Whenever I’m with your
congregation, it almost feels like I haven’t been away. But, when I’m
indeed away, I carry a knowledge of your faithful fellowship here, and
I pray with you.

I am still very thankful that, 2 years ago, your pastor Rev. Miak Siew
and Rev. Yap Kim Hao had invited me to come bond with you not from the
shadows but in the light. To love one another in the light is what
marks us as Christians; this is what we Christians must learn to do.

I didn’t forget to bring another of my old Bibles today. So here is
the Bible I bought with perhaps my first paycheck from 1994 or 1995,
received for my graphic novel Myth of the Stone. It’s called an
“UltraThin Reference Bible” as it’s pretty slim with cross-references
in its centre margin. The edges are in gold although you cannot see
that clearly now. The text is in KJV. I have chosen to return to this
version because of my renewed fondness for the Shakespearean language
then.

But what I really like to share from it with you is this note I found
as I flipped through its pages recently. I can’t be sure whose words
it contains; they look like mine, but they read more thoughtful than I
remember being. The note is titled “What is the Christian to do in
this world?”, and it lists 5 ways in which one can exist as a
Christian in this life. The ways are sometimes complementary while, at
other times, they’re at odds with another. They are:

1. The humanistic/worldly way. So you’re involved in making society a
better place for all to live in politically, socially, economically,
culturally, etc.

2. The altruistic way, where you’re helping more precisely to
alleviate social ills such as poverty and violence.

3. The ecclesiastical way, where you’re committed to keeping the
message of Christ and the Church of Christ consolidated and pure.

4. The militant/fanatical way, which really means insisting on the
Christian worldview – with its basis in the freedom to believe and to
be who God means for each person to be and in compassion and
forgiveness – even at a cost to friendship with the world.

5. The ascetic/otherworldly way. So you’re focused on Heaven and
therefore lives a life unrelated to all worldly, self-centred
concerns.

Today’s passage from Acts 1:1-11 is actually related to that question
I had asked 20 years ago: what is the Christian to do in this world?
Or, to rephrase, what is this “doing” we Christians are meant to
enable on earth? It’s a puzzle every believer faces or will face as we
go on our journeys of faith. Burdened by life, we ask: why must we
still be here? Why can’t we all be spirited away into eternal joy, out
of this tiresome living, the instant we choose life in Jesus Christ?

The question goes back to this moment in the Book of Acts when it
first became possible to ask it. After all, why didn’t Jesus, as he
was ascending into Heaven, take His disciples along and save them from
subsequent suffering?

Acts begins with an end. It opens like some sequel, referencing an
earlier book also written to its addressee Theophilus, this name
meaning “friend of God”. Then it gives a recap. After Jesus suffered
and rose from the dead, He spent much effort convincing His followers
that He was still alive. He stayed with them for 40 days, telling them
of God’s plan for them. He promised to send the Holy Spirit – thus
fulfilling a baptism of fire – and warned against calculating the time
of His return. He said how no one would know, but this hasn’t stopped
people since from claiming to know though.

Rather than having His disciples distracted, Jesus commissioned them
to be His witnesses. After that, He flew into the sky just like
Superman does at the end of so many Superman stories, and a cloud hid
Him from their sight.

The effect is clear. Here is the definite end to the story of Jesus’s
life on earth. Everything points to it being so; you can even hear the
musical theme, perhaps one just like Indiana Jones’s. But what
happened next as the disciples stood watching is curious. 2 men in
white appeared from nowhere beside them and asked, “Men of Galilee,
why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

This is such a Back to the Future moment! Pardon my citing yet another
film example, but, if you remember that old trilogy, you’ll know how
it always has a twist as one adventure apparently ends. The Doc will
stand looking at the DeLorean with Marty McFly race into the future
and feeling a great sense of satisfaction. Then Marty suddenly comes
running up from behind in panic. The Doc turns around shocked and
screams, “But I just sent you into the future!” “You did!” Marty
cries, “I’m back from the future!”

Just like this, a new adventure begins.

There are 2 things to note in our instance from Acts. The 2 men could
be angels; if they were, it’s good to see how Biblical angels aren’t
always distinguishable from humans by having wings and all that.
Firstly, these men came alongside the disciples – from an unexpected
direction of their gaze. The disciples were looking up; the men
appeared among them. Secondly, the latter reoriented the former to an
earthly, human perspective.

So here is a metatextual moment since we’re encountering what is both
part of the narrative gaze and not. We’re getting the end of a story
and then this: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” When the
2 men continued by describing that this same Jesus who had ascended
into Heaven would come back in the same way He left, they were
affirming how Jesus’s story was already over. Jesus had already won;
there was no more surprises to expect here. This moment then belongs
as though with a movie audience and not with the audience of the time.
The men spoke like folks – those irritating ones we’re familiar with –
who’ve watched ahead and know what comes next while you, like the
disciples, are new!

So what’s going on here? We find ourselves surprised. You mean that
it’s over and yet there’s a sequel? But, without Jesus, who is it
going to be about?

We’re still following the lesson order in Brian D. McLaren’s We Make
the Road by Walking and are now at the chapter titled “The Stories
that Shape Us”. Rev. Miak has remarked to me that today’s topic is
very apt for me. What he means to point out is that I am a writer or,
more precisely, a poet. Poets are a particular tribe of writers, but
let’s not bother with the distinction for now.

To be sure, writers aren’t the special people some may like to
believe. We’re just more trained than most, given what we do, to pay
attention to human qualities and patterns and observe individual
choices and complexities. What writers do isn’t to simplify people or
to stereotype – but it’s also not to make people so complex that the
meaning of someone becomes impossible.

Writers technically don’t describe people. What we do is to tell
stories, and characters naturally take shape within the space of
stories. In this sense, stories are what effectively does the
describing.

Some people also claim that the Bible is just a bunch of stories – as
though that’s a bad thing! What we must be wary of is a false
dichotomy that sets facts as represented by statements in opposition
to falsehood as represented by stories. Statements aren’t to stories
as facts are to lies. It’s because, while language exists to
communicate, stories really exist when language fails to communicate
or to communicate clearly. Language and stories are 2 distinct modes
of meaning-making. A story does what language cannot. Thus, the
novelist John Berger says: “A word is missing, and so the story has to
be told.”

Returning to Acts, we now ask: why is it that, at the start of this
Biblical book, we readers are made conscious of the nature of stories?
Why is it that, as part of its story, 2 characters actually step out
of it and highlight how the structures of stories were at play? Why
are we jolted out and made to see a moment between stories, like when
someone is changing the sides of a cassette tape?

I don’t think that this oddity is trivial, and an answer to me lies in
how stories themselves are relevant – no, central – to Christian
living. Today, let me share with you 6 thoughts I have about what
stories do in this respect.

My first thought is: following from Berger’s words, stories are really
the smallest containers of life. Being distinct from statements,
stories resist the certainty of knowledge, of thinking that we’ve
already known what is to know, that we can know it all. But, even when
we can know aright, we also unknow in some way because, as stories
remind us, we’re such bad vessels of truths.

We always contain more and then also less. Something is broken in us
from the start, and we leak. Life moves and changes, and we become
defined by what carries us, and then, as individuals, as we harden
into certainty, we get broken again either through our choices or
through something purely random that happens. We question ourselves,
we take other paths, and we change again.

Stories are consequently better containers of life than we – this
thing called “we” – are. It is why, when God made us, He didn’t just
breathe life into us; He also breathed each of us into a story.

The Bible is not for no reason full of human stories – since story
follows life. We should remember that it wasn’t just any Creator who
made Adam and Eve but He who calls Himself the Word. The Word has
breathed into us life and, with it, the possibilities of story. We are
inherently Pinocchio, Frankenstein’s monster, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane
Eyre, Pip, Tintin, Luke or Anakin Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Furiosa,
etc.

So here’s my next thought: human stories are about becoming. If there
is a story, then there is a point to living – but what is the point of
this point even as I make it? We must be aware that the point of
living a story is quite independent of following a story’s plot and
the logic of its progression. After all, a character who needs a plot
to give him or her definition tends to be 2-dimensional, flat, weak.

Progress for a character thus isn’t linked necessarily to cause and
effect. Character is clarified in relation to belief, and belief is
clarified in relation to conflict, sometimes with specific people,
sometimes with environment or society, other times with existence or
even self – that is, a character’s belief versus his or her own
non-belief. What is threatened in all these isn’t just existence; it
is, rather, meaning. A story can exist without a lot of things but not
meaning. Meaning, in turn, can’t be reduced to function or an
adventure’s end.

Our stories contain the hope of our becoming, and, in this sense,
stories are about choices; our stories involve the choices we make.
This is my third thought. We make choices all the time, whether they
be real or illusory. We do it even in the face of a lack or absence of
choice – so there’s always a choice! What happens next for me? Do I
give in? Do I compromise? Or do I find a way through or around or
forge a different way that goes elsewhere?

Do I despair? Do I climb out of despair? When shall I seek help? How
do I struggle? How do I grieve?

Indeed, becoming a Christian itself involves a choice, and the first
choice we make as Christians is to be a type of story, the life of
Jesus. This is what being Jesus’s followers means! In this Jesus
story, there will always be a strand of tragedy because of how we
choose to clarify our character, according to how Jesus clarified His.
And Jesus had already said, “A servant is not greater than his master.
If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.” (John 15:20)

The Christian’s story, or simply the Christian story, is thus never
smooth-sailing! It’s never about smooth-sailing. It’s very important
that we remind ourselves of this condition because it is a choice.
What keeps us going, rather, is our hope in an end that will vindicate
the story we live, a story that is pained, full of defeats, but
ultimately – only ultimately – victorious. So Jesus assured His
disciples with these words: “In this world, you will have trouble, but
take heart: I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

This point leads me to my fourth thought: every story has an ending.
Live with a vision of your Christian story even if the end you’re
heading towards doesn’t seem to be the one you’d like. Believe in the
story!

But it’s crucial to know that the story of Jesus involves a twist only
at its seemingly inevitable tragic end. Jesus’s life looked every part
to be sunk into a dark, sad tale that every cynic or realist can tell,
a story that makes the point against idealism, resistance, and
non-conformity, that teaches us, confirms for us, everything we’ve
feared about selfless giving, the weakness of good, and human
fickleness.

But Jesus’s ending twists into victory – unexpectedly – and, in this
moment, changes the kind of story being experienced. The story
becomes, by playing on our practical expectations, one about how
stories can be changed because they may all along be part of something
much bigger. As it turns out, everything is stacked up only in
anticipation of this end when the story flips around, becomes one of
triumph!

In this sense, Jesus’s story has always been a meta-story. Its
difference lies in the twist when the natural terms an audience is
“tricked” into thinking as being in control are suddenly shown to
belong to a smaller reality. Christianity needs the supernatural. It’s
the condition of a larger story that at length reveals itself and
alters the smaller story. We realise that good does triumph and that
bad, however absolute-seeming, is never final. Looking back from the
end, to go on in a story, to make oneself go on against all odds, all
difficulties, becomes the very proof of good!

And this is how Christianity hopes to change the world, with one good
lived story at a time, one Christian living a good story at a time.
This hopeful living is possible only because the Christian story is
always an anticlimactic one – and this is my fifth thought. After all,
the greatest story ever told, being also the most well-known, is
already anticlimactic. Everyone knows how the old, old story of Jesus
ends, how every story that claims to be it retold will have to end.

Knowing how victory will greet the Christian at length, believing in
how that victory completes our lives, we who are Christians thus have
every confidence to live the Christ-like life. This confidence stands
in the face of how our plot may turn, how dark or lonely the road may
go. No matter how tough life gets – and, believe me, I do understand
this as I have my own valleys of death – we hold on to this hope that
our story is already assured with final victory. This is unchangeable.
Our choice is simply to keep to the story.

So what is the meaning of our lives? It is Christ – and so the Apostle
Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and
the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of
God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20) If
victory is assured in Christ, what do we who live Him need to fear? As
Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader in his seemingly tragic last fight,
at the end of a small story: “If you strike me down, I will be more
powerful than you can ever imagine!”

My final thought is therefore this: brothers and sisters, be a good
story. I won’t ask you like others may to aim to be a good person –
because what can that mean? What does that affirm, and is a good
person, as an idea, even realistic? Rather, aim to be a good story;
live such a story that comes with small wins alongside numerous
defeats. But it will be a simple, clear story. If even the story of
God Himself can be contained in just 4 gospels, or 1 story with 3
remakes, how more possible can yours be within a neat narrative!

“Why do you stand looking into the sky?” the 2 men in white asked
Jesus’s disciples. The message of Acts is clear that the sequel
following the life of Christ must be one about the lives of
Christians, about our lives. Your Christian story is what you should
be attending to; God’s living story is about you now. Tell it well.

Let us pray:

God who breathes life into us and then drops each of us into a story,
whose words swim in us and call us to shape them into divine
narratives that themselves breathe –

Give us the pleasure of the Spirit with a clarity of mind.
Help us to reanimate the story of Jesus Christ in our living,
letting His strength in combating wrongs be ours,
His weakness before the suffering and pain of others be ours,
His faith in the compassionate to heal be ours,
His rejection of hate as the path to any good, the instrument of any
good, be ours,
His defeats, His longsuffering, and His invisible final victory all be ours.

Help us to tend to the garden of our own souls with tears and prayers
that will cry into the long, darkest hour,
yet knowing how You, in Your Son, have been there Yourself,
alone and rejected by even all who You are,
God without God, self cut off from self –
before salvation arrives.

May the absurd story we try to live,
the story that You’ve already known of countless defeats but ultimate victory,
be one true to and beloved in Your Book of Life.
May it be our worthiest worship to You
when, one day, You read us back to ourselves
after we reach our eventual rest.

In the name of Jesus we pray,
Amen.

  1. June 26, 2017

    additionally, on being a “good story …. and look to the sky”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA6JcY-ikec
    OR https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xn_l2yS6H2o

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