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The People of What(ever) Happens Next

(a sermon for May 24, 2020, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)

To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead:  “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”

Actually, truth be told, it all kind of has the look and feel of these makeshift graduation ceremonies we’ve been seeing online during this time of quarantine:  bringing some sense of closure to the situation with some last-minute words of advice but very little pomp and circumstance!  What’s interesting here, however, is that’s there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to a mysterious future that is just about to unfold!  But then again, I suppose that’s also part and parcel of a typical graduation ceremony: I remember at my seminary graduation, our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!”  What?  You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough?  To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”

But that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet there’s often an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!

And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

Can you even imagine what those disciples were thinking at this point?  Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen?  Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time.  Timing is the Father’s business.” 

Oy Vey, indeed!  This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place.  But now they’re finding out that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!    

But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.”  “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.”  Power:  in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr!  So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on being my witnesses even when the way ahead proves to be very difficult; and moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy!  You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next?  In many ways, says Jesus, you are the people of what happens next!

And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven. 

“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Just like that.  It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”   The message was clear:  the time for standing around was over. There would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of their journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.

I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; in her book Gospel Medicine she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.   But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.” 

They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more were gathered, but then maybe as it could be shared throughout Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, maybe even “to the ends of the earth.”  It was a mission that started small, but grew; and it is a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…

… and it is the very same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today… most especially today.

That’s right… lest we forget in these strange and uncertain days we’re currently living through; this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven? This tale of an ongoing mission, and of a time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised will someday be?  Friends, it’s our story just as much as it was theirs; as Jesus’ disciples and the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next… whatever happens next.”

In every generation, you see, the question has always been the same:  when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ?  Now, how that question is answered – and the way that faith gets expressed and acted upon – that has most certainly grown and adapted over the course of all those generations and in keeping with ever-changing times and new challenges, including the one we’re facing right now in this age of pandemic.  There’s hardly been a day that has gone by as of late – especially this past week (!) – when we haven’t wondered aloud how we’re supposed to actually be the church when we can’t even come together for worship together in our sanctuary?  Under all these limitations we’re under, how can we ever be considered in any way, shape or form “essential?” Well, here’s the thing: ultimately, whatever our current situation or ongoing challenge, the answer to that question never changes:we are ever and always the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!

In other words, beloved, sanctuaries or no, we are essential.

We are essential when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for hope, for love, and for a peace that the world cannot provide.  We are essential when we make the commitment to not be passive about an uncertain future or by allowing ourselves become somehow diminished by not being able to do so many of the things we’re used to doing as a church.  We are essential when we let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit become our very dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “whatever happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here from Concord, New Hampshire and beyond “to the ends of the earth,” even if it happens by way of Facebook Live.   At the end of the day, you see, the measure of being an effective “witness” can never be measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.

But it all starts, you see, right here… right now… in the very places where we are quarantined.

Beloved, each and every one of us are called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and serve as living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. Maybe it comes forth in many and creative ways we’re caring for one another as family and friends; maybe it’s found in an encouraging word shared in a phone call, a card or a letter, a facetime chat or ZOOM session; could be it’s shown in the small but powerful ways we seek to reach out to others with “goodie bags” and other not so random acts of kindness; or maybe it’s simply in living as an example of how patience, quiet strength, good humor and “grace under pandemic” shows forth a deep and abiding faith in God’s providence.  But whatever it is and however its manifest, ultimately it serves to proclaim both our allegiance to Christ and what it is, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.

And so, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, let us be bold in our witness, most especially in these continued days of challenge; and let the good news of the Kingdom be heard and seen… in us.   

May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God. 

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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A Powerful Witness

ascension

(a sermon for June 1, 2014, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1: 6-14)

The older I get the more I realize that a great many of life’s most important lessons have been taught to me in the simplest of ways; oftentimes even a passing comment ends up resonating for years in a variety of ways.  For instance, I remember once when I was young, sitting with my father and the other men on weekend outings at his little hunting camp up in the woods of northern Maine and listening to them talk all about wilderness lore; something we kids came to understand as “woods savvy,” which simply put, was the instinct necessary for one to become a master outdoorsman!

To possess “woods savvy,” you see, was to have something akin to a “sixth sense” out in the wild: it was the ability to read signs in the wind, water, sky and land to get a clear sense of everything going on in the woods around you, even if you weren’t able to see it.  I still remember one of the men always saying that “if you could pick up all the trees, just long enough to catch a glimpse of everything hiding in those woods, you’d be shocked at all the wildlife that was always there but you never saw for all the puckerbrush.”  That’s why, he said, when you’re out in the woods you always have to be paying attention; constantly watching and peeking through the trees and across the horizon for that which is just out of our sight!

I’ve always remembered that; and in fact, over the years I’ve come to see “woods savvy” as something of a metaphor for life, especially during those times of utter uncertainty and anxiety in my own life when I would have done almost anything to get some insight as to the unknown!

You know what I mean: what parent hasn’t at one time or another held her child close and wondered how that child was going to turn out as an adult?  Or the soon-to-be-graduating seniors out there who are quietly terrified over not knowing how their lives are about to change!  For that matter, who among us in the process of navigating life’s many detours and potholes haven’t wished, however fleetingly, to remove the veil between the now and the not yet for a moment or two, if only to know that it’s all going to work out and that everything will (eventually, at least) be alright.

It’s a great dream, but of course it’s not for us to know how our story turns out.  Rather it is left to us to live out that story to its logical (or illogical) conclusion.  Ours is a life of walking in the woods with the “savvy” we’ve picked up along the way; ever and always watching carefully for signs that are right before us yet are ever beyond our sight!

This is a sentiment that underlies our text for this morning: the story of our Lord’s ascension into heaven; and specifically, the disciples’ reaction to that happening. Because what we find here is that even after the resurrection, even given that their hope had been fulfilled and the future was wide open before them, these disciples still didn’t quite “get it.”  To wit, in these last moments together on the earthly plain, they ask Jesus – again (!)“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

What they were asking, you see, was if the old point of view still held; that the kingdom of God could somehow be garnered and measured politically.  Even with all that they had experienced in the company of Jesus, the disciples still could not begin to grasp how great and all-encompassing the kingdom of God would be; they were still seeing things through worldly lenses, not unlike how the political pundits of our own time keep trying to assess the results of elections that are still months away!  Just give us some kind of sign, Lord, they kept saying to Jesus.  Let us know how this is going to turn out so that we’ll know and be ready.

But Jesus answers them this way.  “It is not for you,” he says to them, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own hand.  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.”  And in truth of fact, this was nothing new, as Jesus had said this all along – you know not the day nor the hour, the Son of Man will come as a thief in the night – in other words, it’s not for you to know God’s schedule for the kingdom; it’s your job to make ready for that kingdom’s coming; your task to tell the good news to all at home and to strangers abroad; to be about the work of ministry in my name until my return!  It is for you to be witnesses, says Jesus, and I will give you power to do it.

This actually amounts to a “heads up,” if you will, from Jesus to his disciples!  For as much as they had been through already, this was only the beginning: what they didn’t know, of course, is that very shortly it would be Day of Pentecost and they’d be receiving God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.  Before long, they’d all be out in the crowd that filled the streets of Jerusalem, each of them telling good news in every language possible and preaching sermons that literally shook the world.

There would be miracles and amazing acts that followed them wherever they went, and over time, there would be others who’d joining them in proclaiming the gospel; a small circle of believers growing ever larger by the day as this news spread across what we know as the Holy land, and even further to the Greek Isles, Rome and beyond.  Tradition holds that Peter’s brother Andrew traveled as far as Scotland, and that Thomas eventually made it to India; each of them carrying this good news of Jesus Christ – his ministry, his death and his resurrection – so that every nation and every generation might share in his salvation.

Theirs, you see, was a powerful witness; one fueled by their having received both the promise and the prize; one offered with a confidence borne in faith, and with the assurance that the way ahead, however dangerous, would be made secure by God’s own presence in the Spirit.  It was a legacy of faith and salvation through Christ that has continued to this day and it lives on in this generation …even in you and in me, who are the glad recipients of God’s grace communicated by those original disciples so many years ago.

Now I know that in many ways, for us this all seems like so much ancient history; but in truth, friends, we 21st century Christians have more in common with those first disciples than you might think: for instance, like them, we also find ourselves living in the place and time between Christ’s ascension and his return, caught somewhere between the now and the not yet, and engaged in a lifetime journey of faith that goes from dead center to the outer reaches.  Our journey may not be one directed to far-flung nations, but it’s no less a challenge for us to carry the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

Our mission field exists on the absolute fringes of life as we know it today, amidst a world and culture that struggles with mixed messages and muddled priorities.  It’s a place that exists as near to us as our own community, or for that matter, even around our own kitchen tables.  We are called to bring good news precisely into places where truth is lacking; and as is so with any endeavor of life that’s worth pursuing, on the journey of faith we might never know exactly where we’re going to end up, or even what particular route we might be taking; we just know that it’s important for us to go, and to do so with the integrity of what we know to be true.

And that, friends, is discipleship.

Actually, I’ve always been fond of what the philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard has said about discipleship; he says that the kind of faith journey we’ve been talking about here is, in fact, “an apprenticeship to Jesus,” one’s own decision to walk with Jesus, learn from Jesus, and be with Jesus in order to be capable of doing what Jesus does.  “I am learning from Jesus,” he writes, “how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life… as he would lead it if he were [me].”  In other words, it’s the cultivation of self and family and workplace and community and especially the church so that it serves to witness to Jesus Christ and his gospel.

For example, as “apprentices of Jesus,” the mysterious and often bewildering task of raising children in this day and age ought to say something about who Jesus is in our lives; so that how we love our children and our grandchildren is a reflection of how Jesus loves us!  The decisions we make, the priorities we set for ourselves, the standards by which we live should be in keeping with the same Christian ethic that been modeled for us in Jesus himself; so that what we live is truly what we proclaim, so that others properly see and learn from us what they need to know about Christ.

Even the moments of crisis and conflict – those times when life itself throws us a curve – these provide the very moments when the true depth of our faith becomes apparent and, moreover, influential to those around us. And don’t misunderstand, we’re not talking here about being perfect, “know it all” Christians; in fact, it’s just the opposite.  To quote Dallas Willard again, discipleship is not “becoming the Christian nag-in-residence, the righteous upholder of all propriety, and the dead-eye critic of everyone else’s behavior.”  But it is being “watchful and prepared to meet… spiritual need… with words [and acts] that are truly loving, thoughtful and helpful.”  It’s living the gospel and imitating Christ in everything we do amidst all the “stuff” of life.  When that happens, you see, it’s a powerful witness!

At the end of the day, you see, so much of what is good in us; all of those qualities within us that are kind and compassionate and healing and unifying are truly those things that we learn from Jesus.  The love we’ve been given in such abundance is the love we are called to share; we must never be afraid to step out and step up for the sake of sharing Christ’s love, for this is how the good news of the gospel is proclaimed.

So the question is, friends; what are we waiting for?

You know, my favorite part of this morning’s scripture comes just after Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Granted, it’s a wondrous, “awesome” sight for the disciples; but even after Jesus is long gone, here are these disciples still staring up into heaven all “slack jawed and buggy eyed,” without a clue as to what to do next.  It takes a couple of angels to jar them out of this reverie:  “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Don’t you know that Jesus will return the same way he just went into heaven?  Don’t you understand just how much there is to do to prepare for his return?  Don’t just stand there, disciples; you apprentices of Christ: do something!

Well, the same can be said to us, beloved: it’s good for us to be here to worship, to turn our gaze heavenward and be refreshed at his table as we are reminded of who and whose we are: but soon, it’ll be time for us to get up and get going, because there’s work to do!  For Christ will return, guided by his Holy Spirit, and as his disciples, we are his powerful witnesses ever and always about the work of the kingdom!

Thanks be to God who sends us forth on the mission.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 

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