Sunday, May 21, 2023 | Trey Comstock
I took my family to Katz’s for dinner last night. That place always holds a special place in my heart because of how much time that I spent there in my late teens and early twenties. I think of it as a Houston institution, but I don’t actually know if that’s true. What I do know is that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they advertised a ton on television. As a kid living in the suburbs and not venturing often into the city proper, whoever advertised on television constituted the city for me. I still know that “Katz’s never closes.” I can repeat to you exactly where Houston Camera Exchange resides. And, of course, we all know Mattress Mack. I also can sing you the jingle for Lakewood Church about how they believe in me and can picture Dr. Edd Young telling me that Second Baptist was more like a small town. Growing up in Methodist world, we didn’t have celebrity pastors, so I got my first dose of them via local TV ads and billboards. Eventually, I’d start going to Christian music festivals, and my youth group would start buying whatever the hip book/video series/Bible Study of the moment. This exposed me to Rob Bell, Francis Chan, Rick Warren, and, no doubt, a whole bunch of others.
On one level, there’s nothing wrong with a single pastor having a huge reach. Pastors, who become their own kind of celebrity, can enter into the public discourse in a way that plucky no names just cannot. We live in a celebrity obsessed culture, so maybe, the Gospel needs its own celebrities to break into the public consciousness. On top of that, huge gatherings of Christians worshipping together can create a power religious experience, and huge churches, often run by brand named pastors, can create that critical mass. These churches can amass huge amounts of resources that can be directed towards building the Kingdom of God and getting the Gospel message into every corner of the globe.
On another level, not all of these celebrity pastors have remained immune to the more tempting sides of being a singularly important human. The Instagram account PastorsNSneakers chronicles the vast amounts of money that some of these pastors will spend on shoes, clothing, and accessories. The account has documented celebrity pastor after celebrity pastor donning shoes that cost more than a semester in college, hoodies worth more than Honda Civics, and terrible t-shirts priced higher than a month’s rent.
More troubling is the growing genre of documentary about failed celebrity pastors and their churches. The plots of these things have their own predictable patter. Boy founds church. Boy does well. Church grows huge. Boy becomes famous. Boy turns out to be some kind of awful human. Boy hurts people. World finds out Boy has less than Christian life. Boy puts out non-apology. Boy goes on leave. Church falls apart. People lose faith because of Boy’s behavior. Rinse, wash, repeat. Mars Hill (Mark Driscoll), Hillsong Church (Karl Lentz and Brian Houston), Willow Creek (Bill Hybels), and New Life Church (Tedd Haggard), each follow essentially that script. I get that people, even pastors, stumble. However, when you build your religious organization around a single, fallible human, when you rely on the power of celebrity to be the draw, when people’s faith in God gets a little too connected to the person proclaiming the message, you set yourself up for these exact kinds of problem.
This, at long last, brings us to Christ’s ascension. Scripture provides only description. It offers no motivation as to why Christ departs the scene. Ignorant church mouse that I am, I’ll admit to never giving the Ascension much thought. We believe it occurred. Sometimes, it gets a special day. The more interesting celebrations, Easter and Pentecost, sit on either side. But why does Jesus ascend? Why not stay? The Disciples never give off the vibes of being ready to handle things themselves. Why not stick around?
In Christ’s temptation, way back in Luke 3, Satan presents Jesus with the whole world to rule over. He assuredly could have done a lot of a certain kind of good if he’d taken that offer. Knowing the end of the story, we know, what Christ knew, that God didn’t intend him to be that kind of king. The more that I think about the Ascension, the more that I see the idea of remaining constitutes the same kind of temptation. Jesus could remain and be the ever more famous man who rose from the dead. The movement could be focused directly on him, as a person, rather than his Spirit and his teaching. Being Jesus, he would wield this celebrity for good, but the faith would remain tied to one earthly man, experiencing earthly importance.
Instead, before worldly fame really sets in, Christ departs, telling his followers to get to work. The Disciples even ask him, if he’s going to assume earthly power, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6 NRSV) It gets framed in terms of their hope for a political Messiah. Being back from the dead, will Jesus finally throw out the Romans and ascend the literal throne of David, with all the fame and tribute that goes with it? No. Instead, Jesus paints a far different picture of God’s Kingdom. “He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8 NRSV) Christ will not claim power. He will give power. Christ will rule, but in the hearts of his followers who will carry the message. The faith will be about Christ but about an equal sharing in him for all time. There will be no single earthly focal point – just a heavenly one. Many will carry the message.
Jesus seems to deliberately dodge being a celebrity and make the movement be about something far bigger than a single human. If human history gives us any clue, humans possess an inbuilt desire for celebrity worship. Egypt built pyramids for Pharaohs. Rome made their Emperors into gods. French courtiers worshiped Louis XIV’s excrement (This really happened. Look it up.). We turn successful pastor into celebrities. God works differently. Our focus should be heavenward, on the message and on sharing in God’s Spirit. What happens on the earth matters, but we all get an equal share. Christ ascends so that maybe, we have a chance at seeing that.