Why Do You Look into the Sky?

November 15, 2015

This is the transcript of my sermon given at Free Community Church on 15 November 2015. The Scripture passage is Acts 1:1-11. The transcript is also available on Facebook.

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.
  1. The altruistic way, where you’re helping more precisely to alleviate social ills such as poverty and violence.
  1. The ecclesiastical way, where you’re committed to keeping the message of Christ and the Church of Christ consolidated and pure.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 went on to say how this same Jesus who had ascended into Heaven would come back in the 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 are naturally 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’m 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 stepped out of it and highlighted 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 the oddity here 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 this: following 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’s 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 our 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 the 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. We hear something similar in The Matrix Revolutions too. 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 has 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 fear 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 from a story 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 despite 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 an anticlimactic one – and this is my fifth thought. After all, the greatest story ever told, being also very 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 plots 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 the shadow of death – we hold on to this hope that our story is already fixed 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 focused on Jesus. If 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!

The 2 men in white asked Jesus’s disciples, “Why do you stand looking into the sky?” The message of Acts is thus clear that the sequel to the life of Christ is the lives of Christians, our lives. Your Christian life is what you should attend to in no other way than to live it as your story. God’s living story is you now. Keep going, take heart, and 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.

Gwee Li Sui

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