Witness or Watcher

James Blay

Acts 1.1-11, CEB

Earlier in the week, Michael shared a cartoon about the Ascension and it went something like this: disciples gather and Jesus says, “got to go dudes, don’t forget what I have taught you, see you in the funny papers.” The disciples respond, “bye boss”, and proceed to ask themselves, “wait, what have we learned?” They quickly figured out that it all boils down to love God and love your neighbor and are excited because that seems easy. But then the theologians showed up, and we can all guess what happened next. I had a good laugh after reading the cartoon, but it also gave me pause. I began to wonder what else have we unnecessarily made complex. What else have we spent so much time arguing about that we have little time left to actually do something? 

A few years ago, I learned about something called complexity bias. Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions — thinking “that will never work” — and instead favor complex ones, which many times don’t work.

Complexity bias shows up in all aspects of our lives. We see it in the ways we tell stories, in the ways we choose the music we appreciate. We see it in who we decide to pay attention to when it comes to experts in a particular field. Without any hard evidence, we have equated complex to always right. When you hear lately some of the hesitancy to taking the COVID vaccine, one occurring sentiment is that the vaccine was created too quickly.    

Sadly, this complexity bias has also been a recurring theme in the way live out our faith. We are drawn to the spectacular and because of that so many have been and are being led astray. Clever con artist televangelist and so called men and women of God use our obsession with complexity to wow us with opulence. Once they have us in their grasps, they drain people of what they have and enrich themselves. By the time folks recognize what’s happening, its too late and they have bought into the lie that proof of faithfulness is material wealth.

Complexity bias in our faith has distracted us from the task at hand. We have allowed ourselves to be caught up in meaningless theological arguments and feeble attempts to prove we are right. We are repeating the very things that shifted the focus of Jesus’ disciples from being witnesses to being watchers. So you must be asking yourself right now what does this entire complexity bias thing have to do with the Ascension? Well funny you should ask, because it has everything to do with the Ascension. Lets explore the text a little and you will see what I mean.

The whole story of Acts is an attempt to perpetuate the narrative that what Christ began, his successors and followers must continue. Luke begins the story by informing his benefactor Theophilus that he had already written in his first volume an account of all Jesus began to do and teach. Luke also carefully lays out that the work Jesus began continues through the work of the Holy Spirit in the disciples who Jesus chose. The teamwork of the Holy Spirit and the chosen disciples ensures the ministry Christ began continues to live on and grow. 

As if to emphasize the disciples’ mandate, Luke uses the next few verses in Acts 1 to legitimize the fact that the risen Christ had indeed appeared to the disciples. Luke provides what may be interpreted as the Lord’s final will and testament, his instructions to the disciples; do not leave Jerusalem, wait for the Holy Spirit, be empowered and be my witness. 

Jesus, according to Luke provided simple instructions for the successors of his earthly ministry. But even as Jesus is providing these instructions one of the disciples asks, Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? Talk about asking the wrong question at the wrong time. This disciple who I am assuming has been following Jesus and listening to his teachings is not content with the perceived simplicity of waiting. He wants more. He didn’t even let Jesus finish giving his instructions.

Here is a disciple who knows about the resurrection and even then he is still asking the wrong questions! Jesus responds as only Jesus could and says to the disciples; don’t worry about restoring kingdoms; that is up to God, and God’s time. Here however is the work that you need to focus on; go be my witness after you have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not sending the disciples out without preparation through his teachings and the power of the Holy Spirit. By responding the way he did, Jesus carefully shifts the focus from speculations about future restoration to transformation of the present.

Jesus was leaving, but there was still more work to be done. The disciples could not afford to get caught up in contemplating when the promised restoration of the kingdom to Israel would happen. There was work yet to be done, widows and children needed caring for, outcasts of society and people living on the margins needed advocates and a place to feel welcomed, hungry people needed to be fed, people suffering oppression and injustice needed liberation, people needed to know and experience God’s love. The responsibility of doing this work now falls on the disciples. 

But again the disciples find themselves distracted and drawn to the complexity of the moment. Jesus is leaving; the kingdom is not yet restored to Israel as they hoped would happen. The disciples momentarily find themselves frozen and standing like deer caught in the headlights watching Jesus go away. My guess is that a few of them are standing with mouths wide opened and drooling. A few of them may even be thinking about going back to the status quo before Jesus came into their lives. Some of them may have been thinking O well, I guess we just wasted three years of our lives for nothing.  

But whatever it is they are thinking, they are quickly jolted back to reality when angels, probably not Michael because hey may have slapped one of them, appear and ask them why they were standing there gazing in the air. They told the disciples, he’s gone he’ll be right back #BRB, but in the main time you got work to do. This reminder, that there is work to do is true for us as Jesus followers.

Ascension Sunday (that’s today) pivots us from Eastertide into Pentecost. It moves us from the long narrative of Jesus’ life that culminated with his death and resurrection and now lands us in this moment. We like the disciples, are left wondering, what now? Are we going to allow distractions take us off the tract Christ has set us on?

In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen reminds us that our task, our call, is the “opposite of distraction.” He says, it is “to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives.” Many a time the active presence of God is reflected in how we show up for one another. Are we showing up for one another? Have we fully committed ourselves to being witnesses or are we content as watchers and speculators?

You see, if your primary task is to watch and speculate, you allow the lure of complexity to consume and leave you standing and gazing or wasting time asking the wrong questions. Lives have been lost, families have been broken apart, and wars have been started all because we sometimes lose ourselves to trying the figure out the complex. If you ask me, the time has come to reclaim the simplicity of the task Jesus set us on when he said go be my witnesses. 

Jesus did not ask his disciples to go and explain his divinity, or to make sure that everyone understands that he physically got up from the grave. Jesus did not ask his disciples to ensure that people grasp the concept of predestination. He did not tell his disciples to go build massive cathedrals of the backs of poor and enslaved people. No! Jesus had a simple last message for them and us, remember what I have taught you, and go be my witnesses all over the place. 

We have taken what was a simple command to be witnesses and tried to spruce it up into complex so called truths. We then hold on to these “truths” and begin to cast others out because they do not want to sit idly by and speculate about Jesus’ return, his person, or who gets to go to heaven. As a trained theologian myself, I will say that there is some joy and satisfaction that comes from exploring theological concepts around Jesus’ humanity and divinity, the Bible, soteriology (the study and nature of the means of salvation), Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit), Theodicy (attempts to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with what we know about the nature and justice of God). I could go on and on trying to impress you with my knowledge of complex theological terminology and ideology, but to what end? The lives of those we are called to bear witness to are not impacted or transformed because we know and can expound on a few theological terminologies. There has to be more. 

Now, I want to be clear here that I am not equating complexity with wrong or evil. The fact that something is complex does not make it wrong. In fact there are times when delving into complex ideas is exactly what we need to understand how to live better in and care for the world.  The problem is when we get stuck in mire of complexity and become of little use to a hurting world. 

Go be my witness is the final directive of Jesus to his disciples. Go be my witness is Jesus’ command to us who are his followers. Bearing witness to the life and ministry of Jesus is bearing witness to the possibility of hope and unimaginable love. Being witnesses demands our constant involvement in working for all to experience the presence of God’s kingdom, not at some speculative future date, but now and here. I was rereading Brandon Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel and I came across this quote that describes ragamuffins; ragamuffins are simple, direct and honest. Their speech is unaffected. They are slow to claim, “God told me…” As they make their way through the world, they bear wordless, prophetic witness. The world needs some ragamuffins ready to bear prophetic witness.

Our witness is more effective in our actions in the world, then in any professing of complex theological ideologies. The world is hurting from all of the ways we have failed to bear witness to Jesus’ love. Our actions, the way we treat one another, the way we treat the stranger, the way we treat those living on the margins of society, the way we fight for equality for all God’s people, the way we work for justice for those suffering injustice, the more we fight oppression everywhere it shows its face, or tries to hide in the back ground, the more we welcome people in rather than cast them out, the more we work to hold each other accountable to being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, the more we are committed to being witnesses the more the world experiences who Christ is. 

On this Ascension Sunday, as we remember Christ leaving his disciples, let us not stand frozen speculating when Christ will return. Let us not also stand stiff-necked gazing and trying to figure out how or if Jesus actually levitated into the air. There is too much work of witnessing that needs to be done, and we cannot afford wasting time as speculators about Jesus return or who is going to heaven or hell. The time for being Jesus’ witness in the world is always urgent and always now. While it may seem noble to sit and argue theology, or better for our image to show how smart we are when it comes to understanding who God is, transformation does not happen in these spaces. 

To bear witness is to be an agent of transformation. To bear witness is to commit to working through the power and guiding of the Holy Spirit to make your community better for more than just you, your friends and family. To bear witness is to reject the narrative of there is nothing we can do, or that it is what it is. To bear witness is to live out the command to love others as yourself, to treat others the way you want to be treated, to use your energies for alleviating the sufferings of others through simple acts of kindness, generosity, and grace. 

As followers of Jesus we have this honor to bear witness to Christ’s amazing love and ability to redeem. A hurting world is waiting to experience this love and redemption. Don’t get caught up or stuck in useless argumentative spaces that sucks the life out of your witness. Instead, draw strength from the Holy Spirit and be a witness in word and action to the ability of Jesus’ love to transform, to restore, to redeem, to bring dignity to all God’s people, especially to those living on the margins.