There are stories you won’t find in a Children’s Bible, that they don’t teach in Sunday School. The rape of Tamar, the murder of Uriah, pretty much everything that takes place after David is crowned king. When it comes to writing Sunday School lessons, the Abrahamic covenant by circumcision always gets the chop, because no one really wants to engage 8 year olds in a conversation about foreskin. Then there is the story of the Nephilim.

Doesn’t show up in the Lectionary, doesn’t get mentioned from the pulpit in most churches. But there they are, tucked in between the first fratricide and the flood, the story of divine beings, angels or lesser gods, mating with human females to produce the Nephilim, a race of giants, demigods like those in Greek myth. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Genesis 6. In that same neglected portion of the Torah, just before the story of the Nephilim, in a genealogy of long lives that stretches from Adam to Noah, is Enoch. The scripture tells us:

When Enoch was 65 years old, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God. After Methuselah’s birth, Enoch lived 300 years; and he had other sons and daughters. In all, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God and disappeared because God took him.

The Hebrew wording is peculiar, even by the standards of Genesis, that book itself a Frankenstein mash-up of contradictory ancient sources. “Walked with God” is a construction only used for two men in the Hebrew scriptures, Enoch and Noah. Scholars believe that it means these two men knew divine secrets. Even Abraham only walks “before God.” Noah turned into a drunk, so much for walking with God, but I suppose witnessing a genocide can do that to a person. And Enoch? “God took him,” is what it says, which suggests something along the order of ascension, a sort of “Get Out of Life Free” card for Enoch. Do not pass death. Here’s your $200.

Sometime in the third or fourth century before the Common Era, in that hotbed of Hebrew religious imagination, a school of apocalyptic thought would develop using the name Enoch. They produced a pseudographic text named after the patriarch that is not accepted in the Jewish or Christian canons. It greatly expands on the story of the Nephilim, and ends with the day of judgment and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, a vision that parallels the feverish apocalyptics found in Daniel and in the Revelation to John of Patmos.

The ancient myths don’t give us another instance of a human bodily transported beyond the veil until Elijah, prophet of God, a man guilty of crimes against humanity, of ordering a mass murder, the arch-nemesis of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He would ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire.

In 1950, a papal bull would declare the assumption of Mary, though it is not clear whether or not she first had to die.

So two, maybe three folks go to heaven without dying.

No such luck for the rest of us. The simple fact is, we humans, fickle and finite, die. Every single one of us. Even Jesus died, publicly and painfully.

Sometimes we are prepared, at peace, but all too often death is unexpected and/or unpleasant: illness, age, violence… pierced by nails on a cross or as you leave a concert… We will grieve for those we lose. Someone will grieve for us.

But today, you are alive.

“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”

This is the question the “men in white robes,” which is to say angels, ask the disciples.

Is our faith about dying or about living?

Imagine the emotional rollercoaster. They’ve given their lives to this charismatic man who offered hope to the powerless, the unclean, the sick, who proclaimed a new kingdom, because the kingdom they were in was pretty awful. Theirs was a world controlled by the violent and the corrupt, by bullies and charlatans. They’d seen Jesus change lives, and through his power, with the confidence they had in him, they were able to change lives too. But it had all depended on him. He provided all of the answers, made all of the decisions. Then he was gone, murdered by the violent and corrupt as an example to anyone who would dare challenge their power. Then the disciples started experiencing him as again present, physically present, in their lives. Then gone again, ascended, in the ancient meme just two feet hanging from a cloud.

It would have been so easy for them just to go home to Galilee, to try to rebuild their old lives, their pre-Jesus lives.

But they don’t. They had seen what the world could be. Once you have seen a vision of a world based on kindness, justice and love, how can you ever accept a world where people are thrown away, where lust, greed and fear rule? Once you have had a taste of freedom, how can you ever be happy in chains?

Imagine how inadequate they must have felt, to carry on without their leader, without the visionary who had shown them what was possible. Sure, he had promised that the Spirit would come, but a flesh and blood person is so much better. There isn’t an experienced leader in the bunch. The gospels suggest that Jesus was preparing them to take over, if we buy the whole narrative of the crucifixion as a planned event, but I’m betting they didn’t feel prepared.

But he was gone. It was the moment of truth.

“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”

They did not decide to innovate. They had no choice. They were not giants or demigods. They were just ordinary folk.

And a funny thing happened. They discovered that they could do it, this carrying on the Way of Jesus. They added to their leadership team. They created the office of deacon to assist in the daily business of organizing community. They prayed. They took risks. They lost some people, but gained many more. They formed a hub community in Jerusalem, supporting those out in the field, and in return, when things in Jerusalem got rough, when famine struck yet again, those in the diaspora, in the field, sent support back to the mother church, congregations in Antioch and Corinth, Thessaloniki and Rome sending what they could. They learned from a convert, called Saul in Aramaic and Paul in Greek. They added Gentiles but retained the core of their Hebrew faith, so that what they created as not either/or but both/and, both distinctively Hebrew, and yet so much more.

“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”

So much of Christianity has become about heaven. So many have resigned themselves to a dualistic understanding of creation as marred, contaminated, of humans as intrinsically evil. Our own reform heritage got swept up in the Calvinist claim of total depravity, as if a loving God would predestine humanity to such brokenness, as if a God of love would create beings predestined for torment. So many preach this in the name of Jesus. They preach a word of purity and judgment, modern day Pharisees obsessed with getting into heaven, whether it is post-mortem, or in some fictional “feet in the sky” rapture event.

Is our faith about dying or about living?

The kingdom is here. It is like a treasure buried in a field. Do justice. Welcome the immigrant. Pay the laborer fair wages. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick.

These sound pretty practical, not like some arrow aimed at death, but as a mandate aimed at life.

The disciples had seen humanity at its worst. And it wasn’t over. Stephen would be murdered by a mob. Caligula would become emperor in Rome, and his reputation is well deserved, a sociopath with power. Jerusalem itself would be destroyed. They did not curl up in despair. They didn’t quit when it got hard.

Is the world inherently flawed, corrupt by divine design? Is it God’s will that we live in a broken time?

Or are we supposed to do something.

Behold, the kingdom is like…

Behold, the kingdom is here…

“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”

You have stuff to do now. Our faith is not about dying and destroying. It is about creating and living.

Do you believe we humans have reached our full potential? I don’t.

I believe we can be better, smarter, more creative, more transcendent, more just, and even beyond just, that we can reflect that difficult Greek word agape, love beyond reason or reciprocity, beyond tribe or family, a reflection of the love we name as God.

Believing these things, it is my job to become my best self. It is my job to challenge you to become your best self. It is my job to call for a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Believing in Jesus means believing that this sort of kingdom, this sort of world, is possible, that I’m not just checking boxes to earn my heaven points while the world is ruled by evil giants awaiting a destructive apocalypse.

It means believing in the power of love, creativity, and sacrifice, even when I see evidence to the contrary. It means choosing hope over despair.

“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?”

Sure, it looks pretty bleak. It looked pretty awful in Jerusalem that summer. Jesus was gone, the Hebrew elite were in league with their better enemies, the Romans… Bullies bullied and liars lied…

But they believed. They prayed. They read scripture. They adapted and organized. The Acts of the Apostles, like the gospels, shows them as utterly human, capable of mistakes and tantrums. But they learned how to lead, how to love, how to reconcile.

There are powerful stories in the Acts of the Apostles… ascension, pentecost, healing and baptism in a ditch, the stoning of Stephen and a jailbreak… Then there is the daily grind of being on the way together. They chose a new apostle. They selected deacons. The met, they prayed, they reconciled. They had long meetings to decide what to do next.

Is your faith about living, or about dying?

I’m not Enoch, you’re not Elijah, and there is no chariot of fire on the way. So why are you standing there, looking toward heaven?

There is work to be done, and in the words of that classic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead.” The kingdom is at hand. I can be more. You can be more. We can be more. This world can be better. It is not broken and flawed… it is unrealized.

Hope. Adapt. Stop looking at where Jesus used to be and find him where he still is.

I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call.

Amen.