Trusting the Mission to the Group
In the mid to late 1800s in England there lived a man named Francis Galton. Actually it was Sir Francis Galton, and he had quite a resume: statistician, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, and psychometrician (total slacker, this guy… loads of fun at a party).
Galton coined the term nature versus nurture. He was the first to explain regression to the mean, and use standard deviation. He pioneered the use of questionnaires and surveys for research, and invented a way of classifying fingerprints. He invented the collection of weather data using the telegraph, and discovered low and high pressure systems. He was also the father of intelligence testing (… so many jokes to be made here, so I’ll let you write them).
Galton was the first person to use statistical analysis to study the way people behave, and societies work. At some point, he got really into the study of inherited intelligence, and became a notorious elitist. In fact, he’s considered the father of eugenics. Galton believed that only the elite should be able to vote, rule, or have children (which, for someone so intelligent, is a really messed up way to think).
In 1906 Galton was visiting a county fair along with the great hoards of unwashed, uneducated, and unrefined people. He encountered a diverse group of farmers, families, merchants, adults, kids, city-folk, and country-bumpkins of all shapes and sizes. There was a booth, where for 6-pence one could enter a contest to guess-the-weight of an ox they had tied up. Organizers would butcher the ox, weigh it, and award prizes to the closest guessers. Somewhere around 800 people entered guesses, which were tallied, and the winners awarded their prizes.
Galton watched this happen, and since he was the world’s leading statistics-nerd he asked the organizers if he could have the slips of paper in order to run statistical analysis on the guesses. Galton was just sure that these unexceptional people wouldn’t have a clue, and in a way he was right. Nobody guessed the exact weight of the ox. What he found, however, was more interesting than one good guess:
The mean (average guess) was: 1,197 pounds.
The actual weight of the ox was: 1,198 pounds.
No one person came very close, but the average of the entire group was off by less than a pound. The obvious conclusion was that the group taken as a whole was smarter than any one individual. Although this controverted Galton’s assumptions about humanity, he published his results anyway. Over the years this phenomenon has been tested time and again, and it always comes true. Ask a group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar and no one person will get it right, but the group will come very close. With a big enough group, they’ll be spot on.
This phenomenon is how Google became Google. The early knock on the internet was that it would be so massive that you’d never be able to find reliable information. But Google proved that wrong by trusting the wisdom of the crowd with its first search engine. It’s also how Wikipedia became Wikipedia, written, edited, and maintained not by experts, but by the masses. Wikipedia’s accuracy has been studied and scrutinized, and found to be equal in reliability to Britannica, only twelve times larger.
As important as individuals are to the world, there is an unsurpassable wisdom that resides in human communities, especially diverse communities. Of course, there are obvious exceptions. Group-think and mob-mentality have caused many a crisis. Yet, in almost all of those types of situations, the wisdom of the entire group is not brought to bear on the issue, because important voices have been marginalized. When a diverse group of people are deployed to solve complicated problems, the wisdom of the group nearly always outperforms the wisdom of any one person. If a group falls under the spell of any one person (even if they are mature, brilliant, charismatic, or powerful), or if important perspectives are marginalized, things typically turn out much worse than if the group had worked together.
The ascension was the final act in a long process that began clear back when Christ called his first disciples. His final assertion was that the best way to continue his mission of redemption was to leave it to his followers. He seemed to think that these ragamuffins, working together to embody a new way of being a human being, would be more effective witnesses than if he hung around continuing his ministry. In fact, he said so explicitly: “Y’all will do even greater works than this,” (John 14).
Part of the deep importance of the ascension is Christ’s belief that an otherwise unremarkable human community—now living cruciform lives and filled with the Spirit—has been endowed with all the wisdom, ingenuity, and ability they could ever need in order to embody the kind of shalom and flourishing that lives at the heart of the gospel.
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” These are three foundational aspects of the Hebrew faith. The law: basic instructions on how to be the people of God. The prophets: the counter-testimony, from the margins, on how the project was going. The psalms: the prayers of the people. Christ’s ministry would draw all of these together through his teaching, healing, death, resurrection, and now his ascension.
“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures …” At the heart of reality is something hidden, something counterintuitive, a deep wisdom which has been covered over by generations of scarcity and fear. His followers, then and now, will have to open their minds in order to see it.
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Barrels of ink have been spilled arguing over the meaning of this sentence. What most can agree on is that Jesus had to suffer, die, and rise in order to save humanity from the brokenness that was destroying us. Christ’s death has set humanity free in a decisive way.
My two cents is that Jesus’s death and resurrection vindicated his life and ministry, which had been centered on two realities. One, if you try to find your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life on behalf of others, you’ll find more life than you ever thought possible. Two, nothing can separate us from the love of God; not our brokenness, our guilt, not even death.
The messiah had to suffer and die so that humanity could get beyond their fixation with guilt. With their guilt out of the picture, perhaps they could focus on discerning God’s action in the world. If they discerned God at work in Christ’s ministry, maybe they would realize there is nothing that can keep God from coming for his children. God has come for us, and this message is for all nations, starting with Jerusalem and moving out to the whole world.
“You are witnesses of these things.” Witness, we know, is connected to the concept of the martyr. So, we can assume bearing witness is contingent upon our willingness to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. The ascension signals Christ’s resolve: he will not do this for us. Everyone will have to do their own dying and rising.
If we want to bear witness, we can only do so by sharing Christ’s life of self-emptying love. Only then can we experience the eternal kind of life against which death is powerless. Once we’ve found this life that comes thru death, we have to learn die again and again and again, all for the life of the world. That is the mission of God and the church. It cannot be accomplished for us by a leader, even a Messiah. Each of us has to follow with our own two feet, joining ourselves to the body of Christ.
“I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” Jesus promises to equip them with power from on high, God’s very presence. Bethany is where the mission began, just one step beyond Jerusalem. Christ helped them take the first step, and then he ascended, leaving the mission in the hands of the group.
Why not stick around and and be their rabbi, their Messiah in the flesh? Because, as important as individual persons are to the world, they are limited to one location, one time, and place. Christ was the detonator, exploding the kingdom into all creation. Because, as intelligent and wise as human beings can be, there is an unsurpassable wisdom that resides in the group, especially diverse human communities that give special care to those on the margins. Any human community holds more potential than any one person. So, how much more potential must reside in a community filled with the Holy Spirit, and formed by cross and resurrection?
Christ’s actions tell us what he believed about us. He ascended, and trusted the mission of God to the church. Therefore we can live with the confidence that as we embody the cruciform life, and abide in the Spirit of God, we truly can organize our common life together in such a way that we bear witness (as persons and as a community) to the Lordship of Christ, and the kingdom of God that is still exploding into the world.