In the old Mel Brooks movie “The History of the World” there is a scene where Moses comes down from the mountain carrying three clay tablets. He starts speaking to the people of Israel saying “These 15 commandments….” And, as he is going on, one of the tablets falls and shatters. Not missing a beat he starts over with “These 10 commandments…” Even today, decades later, that scene makes me laugh.
Today is Ascension Day, a day largely ignored in evangelical circles but one with profound importance historically and in mainline churches today. It is also a day on which I remember the Mel Brooks movie because it has an historical reality that is somewhat akin to Brooks’ movie.
Fans of Biblical numerology will tell you that the number 12 is significant in the Bible and that it represents completeness. There were the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles. Other examples of “12” are throughout the Bible, particularly in the Book of Revelations. But if the 12 Apostles represented the fullness or completeness of Jesus’ plan something had gone seriously wrong by Ascension Day. Judas had bombed out and we were left with only 11 Apostles, which the numerologists tell us is the number of disorder, imperfection and incompleteness.
And Jesus left anyway.
Instead of fixing the problem he left his church in the hands of an incomplete band of bumbling followers. And they immediately started to screw up. Disputes arose on every conceivable theological point and they still go on today. As humbling as it is to admit it, the early followers can’t come close to the list of dumb, stupid, foolish, and hateful things you and I are capable of and are doing all the time.
Frankly, if Jesus had stuck around, things would have been easier. History is littered with huge historic blunders the church has committed in the name of Jesus. Had he been available he could have stopped them. With the moral questions of today on abortion, contraception, same sex marriage, end-of-life issues and a host of others we could go to him as sort of a pope on steroids and get all the answers. Instead we page through the Bible and come up with a bewildering variety of answers on what the Bible “clearly teaches.”
Theology disputes? No problem. We’d just go to him and ask if (for instance) speaking in tongues is for today and he’d say…well, probably yes or no but part of me wonders if he might say “I don’t care.” But either way we’d be able to toss out all those theology textbooks.
Yet for some reason he left all this church stuff in our hands. As a result rarely a day goes by that I don’t hear of a Christian saying or doing something wrong-headed, stupid or outright shocking. The only consolation is that I too am probably doing or saying something that some of you think is wrong-headed, stupid or outright shocking. It leads people like Bono to say things like “Christians are so hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it.”
Ascension Day is a good day to remind myself that building the church is in the hands of incompetent bunglers and that I am one of them. Admitting our imperfections is easy to do in the abstract but much harder in the specific. We don’t like to admit that we might be wrong, let alone that we are wrong.
I’ll close with a quote from Rachel Held Evans from her book Searching for Sunday. I use it because I recognize it as wisdom from a woman I sometimes disagree with and Ascension Day strikes me as a good day for one imperfect follower of Jesus to learn from another.
“We Christian don’t get to send our lives through the rinse cycle before showing up to church. We come as we are–no hiding, no acting, no fear.
We come with our materialism, our pride, our petty grievances against our neighbors, our hypocritical disdain for those judgmental people in the church next door.
We come with our fear of death, our desperation to be loved, our troubled marriages, our persistent doubts, our preoccupation with status and image.
We come with our addictions–to substances, to work, to affirmation, to control, to food.
We come with our differences, be they political, theological, racial, or socioeconomic. We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed the masks and exhale.
We come to air our dirty laundry before God and everybody because when we do it together we don’t have to be afraid.”