Tag Archives: Church

The Christian Life: Consolation – May 22, 2016

Sunday’s Reading:
2 Corinthians 1:1-11

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

What is the Christian life supposed to look like? How are we called to live together as the people of God who bear the name of Christ? What are some of the characteristics of life in Christ? If the confusion and noise in the church and the world today has you asking questions like that, then these next six weeks are for you. Today we begin working our way through Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth, a letter that has a lot to say about those fundamental questions. Before we dig in, though, a word about why Second Corinthians is a good place to turn to find clues about being members of this community.

I mentioned the confusion that is swirling around us at present. It turns out that the church at Corinth was having a crisis of its own at the time of this letter. The church had been established sometime between the years 50 and 52 AD by the preaching of the apostle Paul, and, in his absence, had found itself divided on the question of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-13), confused about the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15), and infiltrated by a rival group of preachers who questioned the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry among them. Many in the congregation had been persuaded to doubt the message Paul had preached among them, and to see him as a false teacher who was leading them astray. The letter before us, though it is commonly called Second Corinthians, may have been fourth or later in a series of letters sent by Paul to restore that congregation to relationship with him and to the truth about Jesus Christ. Over the course of this letter, Paul has challenging words to say about what defines Christian identity and community, words that, I would venture to say, the church of today needs to hear just as much as the church at Corinth did in the mid-first century.

So let’s get to it, starting with the opening of this letter. It might seem odd for us to begin with “consolation” as a key characteristic of the Christian life, but that’s precisely where Paul jumps in with both feet. He acknowledges that both he and the community at Corinth have experienced significant pain, both in their relationship with one another, and in their lives as citizens of the Roman Empire who dared to be followers of Jesus. In a very real sense, their presence in society and their identification with Christ marked them out for suffering – if not physical suffering, then certainly the kind of social isolation that made life as a citizen more difficult. There was all kinds of pressure to make accommodations, to deny their life in Christ to make their lives in society easier, and yet Paul urged them to stand firm in their faith, and to trust in the promise that their suffering would be eased by the consolation that comes from God.

That message of comfort and consolation has continued to be important for Christians throughout the centuries. Whatever we might face, we share Paul’s conviction that God in Christ will be present to us by the Holy Spirit, soothing us with his boundless mercy and love. Part of what it means to be Christian is to trust in the Spirit’s power to grant us what we need to hang on and step forward in faith – whether our need is for consolation, comfort, or encouragement. Paul doesn’t stop there, however. Notice the reason that he blesses God in the opening verses of his appeal to the Corinthians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NRSV) This consolation, comfort, encouragement, is not just something that we receive from God, but something that we are called to extend to one another as members of God’s beloved community.

On the one hand, being a caring presence for others is a matter of basic human decency; in a way, it’s what we expect people to do if they care about us at all. What makes this such a critical part of our life together as Christians is that it is a reflection of the character of our God. With Paul, we bless God – “the Father of mercies – for the consolation we receive in our time of need. With the church, we give thanks to God for the obedience of Jesus Christ, who became human and suffered both alongside us and in our place so that we might know the grace and love of God that surpasses our understanding. With all the baptized, we experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who continues to make God known to us and present to us in ways that defy our comprehension and our ability to speak about them, but which are nevertheless powerful markers of the life we share with God in Christ. All three persons of the Triune God are in the business of consolation, and as people who have been invited into relationship with one another and with God, we are now part of a community that carries that work forward.

That’s why I’ve been so adamant about the fact that the Christian life is about so much more than God and me. As important as that relationship is, we are created to be in relationship with others, both within the community of faith and outside that community. Our faith moves us to care about the suffering of others, to offer prayer for the sake of the whole world and not just ourselves, to be mindful of people in need around us. It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s who we are, and who we are called to be in the world, and, believe it or not, it something that people notice. Through the work of Lutheran Disaster Response, we have a reputation for being among the first groups of people on the scene when disaster strikes, and among the last to leave. Because of the ELCA Youth Gathering, the cities of New Orleans and Detroit have experienced what it means to have a committed group of Christians take the time to listen to the stories of people in need, to live among them, and to commit to working as partners to help bring healing and hope in situations of hardship and struggle. This congregation has also shown the importance of caring for those in need in ways large and small, from serving luncheons to grieving families to offering expressions of support and encouragement to one another in times of trouble, and many others. Consolation is part of our DNA, and to the extent that we commit to extending this great gift – a gift first given to us in Christ – to those around us, we bear witness to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to bring healing and wholeness out of suffering and loss. As Paul writes, 5For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:5, NRSV)

Next week, brothers and sisters, our survey of the Christian life leads us to reflect on forgiveness. Until then, let us pray that God might lead us to grant consolation to one another and to our neighbors as we have opportunity, and let us bless God for the consolation that makes it possible for us to face each day in confidence and hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Gifts of the Spirit (Day of Pentecost) – May 15, 2016 (NL Week 36)

 

Sunday’s Readings:
Acts 2:1-4
1 Corinthians 12:1-13

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. +

Over the last eight months, if I’ve had one goal during our second year of this narrative lectionary journey, it has been this: to make it plain that the story of Scripture is our story, a story which continues to speak into our modern-day lives and which makes a difference in those lives. God only knows whether or not I’ve been successful at doing that, but as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost this weekend and mark the end of this year’s trip through the broad sweep of Scripture, it’s important that we all take this conviction seriously, because it’s not just mine, it’s at the heart of what we believe about why Scripture still matters.

The story that we hear in part today is perhaps one of those that’s most difficult for us to translate into our own context. Pentecost’s vivid imagery and amazing claims about the Spirit’s power in our midst are almost incredible, and when we take those images as our litmus test for when the Spirit is on the move, it’s easy for us to imagine that the Spirit stopped working powerful deeds a long time ago. Even stepping out of Acts and reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12 – our second appointed reading for today – doesn’t make things much better on that front.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.  3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:1-13, NRSV)

I suspect that very few of us gathered here today have seen people speaking in tongues in worship, or witnessed anything like the kind of prophetic speech that Paul describes in his letter to the church at Corinth. It’s all too common, I think, for us to discount the work that the Spirit is still up to all around us, because we imagine that this work is limited to the chosen few who have “higher gifts” that are clear to see. We even have a word in English to describe people that just seem to have “it”, that quality that makes them into leaders that others want to follow or places them on a different level than the rest of us: charisma.

It’s unfortunate that this word has come to be used so exclusively, because the apostle Paul certainly didn’t use it that way. This whole chapter from 1 Corinthians is about charisma, and Paul goes out of his way over and over again to make the point that charisma isn’t a special quality that is given only to a few, but a quality of people who are living in the world on this side of the resurrection. In its most limited sense, all Christians – all of us – are people who have been gifted with different kinds of charisma, graces that help us to carry out the work that God has given us to do in the world. In its most expansive sense, there is at least some charisma at work in everyone, because – as Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions attest – faith itself is a gift of the Spirit that we receive through no work or merit of our own. When in our prayer at the table during the communion liturgy we thank God for the Spirit poured out on all nations, this is what we’re talking about – we believe and confess that the Spirit is on the loose throughout creation, creating and sustaining faith, strengthening and encouraging us to be Christ’s people in the world, endowing us with the gifts that make our work and witness to God possible.

What kind of gifts are we talking about? What charisma are present in this assembly? How much time do you all have today? There are gifts too many to number just in this room, because each and every one of you is a charismatic Christian, with unique skills and abilities and talents that you use in unique ways each and every day. From the youngest disciples whose infectious laughter and joy brighten our spirits and give us hope for a future that is better than our present, to those of you who are most experienced at following Jesus who bring your gifts of wisdom and knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of prayerful and faithful service, all of us are gifted by the Spirit with charisma that build up the body of Christ and infuse our community and our world with God’s grace and love. Think about the things you love to do, the things you are the best at doing, the things that bring you the most joy or fulfillment. Think about how each of those things can be avenues for extending the grace and love of God to others, whether they are regular church attenders or never darken the doors of any house of worship. Think about the skills honed over decades of work or the talents that seem to come to you as naturally as breathing, and think about how you can use those skills and talents to show others what God is up to in your life or in the world. Better yet, ask your friends or your family to help you discern what your gifts might be. It can be a strange conversation to start, I know, but it’s often the case that other people will see gifts in you that you can’t identify in yourself.

Let me give you an example: I know that I wouldn’t be standing in this pulpit today if Barbara Klimkowski and Joan Herbon, two members of my home congregation in Southfield, Michigan, hadn’t spent years telling me they thought I had the gifts for ordained ministry. I wouldn’t have been available for this call five years ago if a group of lay and ordained people from my home synod hadn’t spent the previous five years watching and praying and questioning and pushing and guiding me to explore what God was calling me to do. I wouldn’t be here in southeast Nebraska if countless friends and colleagues hadn’t encouraged me over months and years, or if congregations in York, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland, hadn’t given me the chance to try on the role of pastor among them for a year each. The point is this: don’t be afraid to talk to others about your charisma, because there is something scary and exhilarating and beautiful about figuring this stuff out together, and the Spirit can work through those other people to reveal things that might be hidden.

If you only hear one thing from today’s service, let it be this: Pentecost is not a one-time event, but an on-going movement in the world. The Spirit’s breath is still blowing, still calling and inviting and directing and drawing us ever closer to God and to one another as we use all the different charisma that we’ve been given in service to God and our neighbors. You have charisma that no one else can claim, and when you get out there and let the Spirit work through you, God is capable of doing things that you might never imagine are possible. So let’s get going, my charismatic Lutheran friends, because we’ve got work to do, and the Spirit is on the loose and ready to make it happen. Thanks be to God for these gracious gifts, and for the opportunity to use them for God’s glory! Amen!

Church at Corinth (Easter V) – April 24, 2016 (NL Week 33)

Sunday’s Readings:
Acts 18:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen +

 

Paul was a tentmaker. This is a detail that often gets overlooked when we think about this pillar of the New Testament church. We remember him as a faithful apostle, a fanatical evangelist, a frequent visitor of prisons, and a fervent letter-writer, and all of these things are, of course, important aspects of his life and ministry. But Paul was also a tentmaker. He worked with animal hides, stretching and stitching and sewing and setting up tents that could be used for all sorts of uses. In reflecting on this week’s texts, I’ve come to the conclusion that this detail is much more than simply a throwaway, something the author of Acts includes to add incidental information about Paul. On the contrary, it’s my conviction that this seemingly insignificant fact bears greatly on Paul’s mission and on the ministry we share with him.

You see, I’ve made my fair share of tents. No, I’ve never trafficked in animal hides myself, and I’ve never been much for stitching or sewing, but I know my way around a tent – or at least I did in my younger years when I went on frequent camping trips as a member of the Boy Scouts of America. During my time in scouting, I was a part of dozens of trips to various sites in Michigan and Ohio and West Virginia, and though the details of all of those campouts differed greatly, there was one constant – the tents. Whether we’re talking about the small tents that we used to sleep and hold our gear or the large open air tent that served as our central meeting space, there was nothing more important when we showed up at our campsites than setting up the tents that would be our shelter during our stay. When they were constructed well – and when the weather cooperated – things were good. When we cut corners or didn’t take our time – or when the weather conspired against us – well, let’s just say things were much less enjoyable. By and large, the tents made or broke every trip I ever took.

It’s not just my past experience that makes me think Paul’s tent-making is a significant detail in today’s readings, however. There’s also the matter of another tentmaker whose story is told in Scripture: God. Let me explain with just a few examples. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter after chapter is devoted to God’s instruction to Moses and the people about the construction of the wilderness tabernacle – also known as the “Tent of Meeting – within which the people of Israel could bring proper worship and encounter God during their years of wandering without a home. Later, at the opening of John’s Gospel, the evangelist tells us that the Word of God (who was with God in the beginning and was himself God) became flesh and dwelt among us – or, in a more literal rendering of the original Greek, “set up a tent and camped among us” (John 1:14, my translation). One last example: the New Testament book of Revelation closes with a description of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. What does it look like when God establishes a home in that city? Scripture says, “Watch this! God’s tent is in the midst of humanity! He will set up camp with them, and they will become his people, and he will become their God!” (Revelation 21:3, my translation)

Still think Paul’s tent-making is a meaningless detail? At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, this morning’s passage from First Corinthians has everything to do with how we set up camp as God’s people. Let’s turn to that reading now:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:10-18, NRSV)

Paul, the tent-maker, urges the church at Corinth – a church he established himself – to be careful about dividing themselves into different factions and, as a result, causing the community of Christ to be torn apart at the seams. The problem of division that faced the Corinthians is, of course, a problem that faces the church of today just as acutely. Instead of being content to live under the big tent established by God in Christ, we and our fellow Christians have set up our own smaller tents – Lutheran and Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Reformed, and on and on and on. Even worse, we’ve allowed other labels to divide us further – liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, liturgical and charismatic. We’ve certainly come a long way from the prayer of Jesus that we would all be one for the sake of our witness to the world.

So – in the words of Paul – what are we to say about these things? Is there anything we can do to stop the trend toward division and disunity? If there is, it starts with acknowledging our complicity in the fragmentation of the church, and continues by looking to the one in whom we find our identity: Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and who has been raised. He, after all, is the one who set up camp in our midst, and who drew us to himself when he was lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world. In a very real sense, the tent established by Christ is held up by the cross that was once planted on a rocky hillside outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, and that same cross has now been planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As Christians, people who have set up camp in our own communities so that we can welcome others into relationship with us and with God, we would do well to make sure that our tents are held up by that same cross rather than by our own ideas or innovations.

Today, brothers and sisters, we celebrate the power of the cross, which brings us all into God’s camp, and we bear witness to that power made real in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. As Ike is baptized into Christ, we will have the joy of welcoming him into this community, a community that bears Christ’s name, and his life will be forever marked by the cross that brings the promise of healing and wholeness to our world. Let us pray that we might remember today and always that we, too, are marked with that cross, the sign of God’s love and the seal of our unity in Christ, and that we might devote ourselves to the task of welcoming all people to dwell with us in Gods camp, in the light of God’s presence, and in the power of Christ. May it be so among us. Amen.

Gospel as Salvation (Fifth Sunday of Easter) – May 3, 2015

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 9:10-13
Preaching Text: Romans 1:1-17

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last week, we encountered the Apostle Paul in the midst of one of his missionary trips, preaching the gospel to the people of Lystra. That account was typical of Paul’s ministry throughout the Mediterranean world. He thrived on the opportunity to travel to new cities, to meet new people, and to share with them the good news of God in Christ. Paul did this to much success, establishing communities of faith all over Asia Minor and Greece. Once those communities were on solid footing, Paul moved on, but he tried to follow up regularly by means of his extensive letter writing. The New Testament contains thirteen letters that bear Paul’s name, but this one – the Letter to the Romans – is unique among Paul’s writings because it is the only one addressed to a community that wasn’t founded by the apostle or one of his associates. Acts tells us that Paul did eventually make it to Rome, but he arrived in the custody of Roman soldiers who were charged with guarding him as he awaited trial on charges of disturbing the peace. Tradition states that the apostle was martyred in Rome around the year 67, apparently without ever being able to visit the community that he so fervently wished to meet.

In the letter to the Romans, then, we have Paul’s attempt to introduce himself to the Christians of that city and to share with them his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its significance for the life of faith. The section before us today is that letter’s opening, in which Paul presents his credentials as an apostle and begins the process of teaching the Romans at a distance. Now, if Paul didn’t have anything to do with the establishment of this community, why did he think it necessary to write to them, and why did he want to meet them so badly? That’s somewhat difficult to say. One of the problems we have with decoding Paul’s letters is that they represent one half of a conversation or relationship, and unfortunately we are missing the other half. If you’ve ever waited nervously next to someone who was on the phone and wanted desperately to know what they were talking about, you can understand the issue we have in trying to identify what’s going on in Rome without having any information from the Romans. Here’s a good guess at what was happening when Paul sent this letter from Corinth to Rome: Paul was looking for a new base of support as he pushed to the west. It appears that his ultimate goal was to proclaim the Gospel in Spain, but his earlier base of support had been compromised by rival preachers, and he needed to find people who were willing to help him expand his mission westward. Beyond his own interests, signs point to the presence of conflict within the Roman community between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In the year 49, the Jews had been expelled from Rome by order of the emperor Claudius, and at least some of the Gentile Christians in that community had apparently viewed that expulsion as evidence of Gentile superiority, leading to friction within the church when the ban was lifted some five years later.  Part of Paul’s project, then, is to remind both groups of the surpassing greatness of God in Christ and to remove any cause for boasting or bitterness within the church.

With that in mind, I’d like to focus today on what many have called the thesis or main idea of this letter, found in verses 16 and 17: For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17, NRSV) These verses are filled to overflowing with significance, and we could spend a lot of time unpacking them in their entirety, but for today it’s enough to focus on a few of the most important convictions expressed by the apostle, ideas that set the stage for the rest of this letter.

First, it is significant that Paul states clearly that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Among both Jews and Gentiles, the story of Jesus was often met with ridicule. Who could conceive of anyone revering, much less worshipping, a man who had been convicted by the Roman authorities and sentenced to death by crucifixion? The shame associated with the cross was so great that it was a wonder that the gospel of Jesus was ever able to spread as far as it did. In our own day, Christianity is often associated with anti-intellectual attitudes, with an opposition to science, with judgmentalism and hypocrisy, and some people continue to dismiss the gospel as a fairy tale – and not a very good one at that. At its base, this message about Jesus is a message that often defies human logic, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept what others say about the church and the story that forms our identity. As Christians we are called, like Paul, to be bold before those who would seek to shame us for our trust in the God whose love was revealed in the cross of Christ.

One of the reasons we can stand strong in the face of opposition is Paul’s second conviction: that the Gospel is no mere story, but the very power of God that brings salvation to those who hear it. The good news of Jesus does more than remind us of who he was and what he did for us. The good news is the means by which God in Christ continues to be present to us, reminds us of the depth of God’s love for us, and draws us into the life that God shares with Jesus in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Proclaiming what God has done in Christ accomplishes something – it is a means of extending the grace of God anew, healing us and renewing us each new day.

In the end, what makes this introduction so powerful is its insistence on the role of faith in our relationship with God, though not the way we so often think about it as American Christians. Paul’s use of “faith” is grounded in God’s character and God’s relationship with the world. When Paul says “For in it [the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith,” he most likely means something like this: “For in the gospel, God’s saving covenant faithfulness is revealed through the faithfulness of Christ to generate faithfulness among those who hear it.” [Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2004), 350.] We are so quick to make faith about us, and wonder about the strength or sufficiency of our faith, but Paul isn’t talking about that – at least not here. Paul is making the case that our trust is God is generated by the faithful love that God has displayed toward Israel – and then, in Christ, toward humanity. The whole story of Scripture is the story of God pursuing people so that we might be in relationship with God, and in Jesus we have all been given the opportunity to experience God’s faithful love so that we can respond with our own faithful obedience in thought, word, and deed. How we live is undoubtedly important, but the ability to live rightly before God is first and foremost about God bringing about reconciliation in Jesus and freeing us to live in obedience to God’s will for our lives. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like good news!

Brothers and sisters, in the weeks to come we’ll hear more of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome and gain insight into Paul’s understanding of how God is continuing to move in our lives in the person of Jesus. For this week, let us all reflect on those powerful words and what they teach us about the good news of God in Christ: I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Thanks be to God for God’s faithfulness to, and for the opportunity to be God’s faithful people today and every day. Amen.

Paul’s Mission (Fourth Sunday of Easter) – April 26, 2015 (NL Week 34)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 10:40-42
Preaching Text: Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

At the risk of sounding like a broken record – and not for the first time this year, I suspect – the story of the early church is a truly amazing story of transformation. Just think about the Scripture passages that we’ve read during the month of April: We started three weeks ago on Easter Sunday with the world-changing events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, continued with the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on that mountaintop in Galilee and their commission to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of God to every nation, and then heard the story of Peter’s Spirit-inspired vision that demonstrated how God was moving even among the Gentiles, people who had previously been considered outside the scope of God’s care and concern. Each of these narratives is the story of radical change – Jesus’ triumphant Passover from death into new life, the disciples’ transformation from terrified deserters to bold witnesses to the power of God in Christ, Peter’s new-found understanding that God shows no partiality and receives anyone who holds God in reverent awe – and each of them helped to expand the Gospel’s reach into new and different places.

Today we enter the final weeks of this year’s journey through the broad sweep of the Scriptures by taking time to consider the ministry of perhaps the most influential figure in the history of the early church – excepting Jesus, of course. That person, the man whose name is associated with half of the books of the New Testament, is the Apostle Paul, and the story of how he came to be in Lystra in today’s text is another one of these amazing stories of transformation.

Let’s back up a little bit to Acts Chapter 7, in which another early church leader named Stephen is brought before a crowd of angry religious leaders in Jerusalem to face trial. Stephen boldly proclaims the good news of Jesus, so inflaming the crowd that had gathered to pass judgment on him that they immediately dragged him outside the city walls and pummeled him with stones until he was killed. On the margins of that crowd was Paul, a young Pharisee who also bore the Hebrew name “Saul” and who wholeheartedly agreed with the stoning of Stephen. Before we can even blink, Paul is on his way north, to the city of Damascus in Syria, with a commission from the high priest to round up all of the Christians he can find and bring them back to Jerusalem to face trial. By this time, his reputation as one of the foremost persecutors of Jesus’ followers had spread far and wide, as he approached Damascus Acts tells us that he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Suddenly, Paul was blinded by an encounter with the risen Christ, and his life was turned upside down. Healed by a Christian in Damascus, Paul receives the good news about Jesus, is baptized into Christ, and becomes one of the most fervent preachers of the gospel message.

Following Peter’s vision and the baptism of the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius, the church in Jerusalem and this new apostle of Jesus come into conflict over the proclamation of the gospel to non-Jewish people. The Jerusalem church believed strongly that those who heard the gospel needed to accept the marks of Jewish identity, including circumcision and the kosher diet that forbid the eating of certain foods. Paul, whose conversion carried with it a commission to bring the good news to the Gentiles, was convinced that the message should be presented to all people freely, without the expectation that those who received it would need to become Jewish in order to be joined to Christ. After much debate, it was finally decided that Paul would take responsibility for the mission to the Gentiles, while Peter and the representatives of the church in Jerusalem would be responsible for proclaiming the good news to the people of Israel.

Fast forward again to Acts 13 and 14, where Paul (and his companion Barnabas) are preaching to the people of Lystra, a Greek city that was home to a large temple honoring the chief Greek God, Zeus. In the midst of his sermon to the curious crowds that had gathered to hear this stranger, Paul noticed a man who was unable to walk listening intently to his message, and he demonstrated the power of God in Christ by commanding the man to rise up and walk. To his horror, the people of the city misinterpreted what he had done, believing that Paul and Barnabas were incarnations of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and rushing to offer sacrifices to them. The apostles had to use everything at their disposal to convince the people that they were not gods, but mere mortals bringing a message of good news and salvation.

It’s sort of a funny story when you think about it, but it also demonstrates some really important things about the mission of Paul and the ministry that we share with him as people who gather in the name of Christ and belong to a community that bears the name of this apostle to the Gentiles.

First, this story provides a cautionary tale as we carry out the mission that God has given to each one of us in our baptism: We are merely messengers. Paul ran into trouble when people failed to see that he was pointing beyond himself to God, whose grace and favor was available to all people. It’s natural for us to fall into the trap of thinking that the good news is about us, and we feel good when we receive recognition from others for what we do in service to God. As followers of Christ, we are first and foremost recipients of God’s amazing grace, and the great gift of this life of faith is being able to share the source of that grace with others, so that they can experience the abundant life that God offers to us in Jesus.

Second, this story provides one of those great examples of Paul trying to meet people where they are in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. Paul invites the citizens of Lystra to look around, to recognize the signs of God’s goodness revealed in the constancy of the seasons, in the gifts of grain and fruit at harvest, in the wonder of nature that sustains them. Paul is willing to acknowledge the truth wherever he can find it in order to bring people to faith. In the same way, we are called to meet our friends and neighbors and families where they are, bearing witness to God’s presence with them in the midst of their concerns, their struggles, their joys and sorrows, showing them where God has already been active in their lives.

Finally, we need to remember the first part of today’s reading, the seemingly unremarkable verses that set up the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. In this short passage, we are reminded that Paul and Barnabas are not free agents acting on their own whims and by their own authority. The community of Christians at Antioch laid hands on them and blessed them for the ministry of the gospel, surrounded them with prayer, and sent them out to do the work that they believed God had called them to do. They went in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit given to them in baptism and affirmed by the community that sent them out in mission. In the same way, we who are joined to Christ in the waters of baptism are sent out each week with the blessing of God and the prayers of our congregation, filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit to carry out the ministries that God has given to each of us – ministries of friendship and companionship, fatherhood and motherhood and mentorship, teaching and learning, sharing and caring, supporting and praying, serving and loving, discovering and questioning, all of which help to make God known. Brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be encouraged by the knowledge that you are one of God’s witnesses this week, sent out to meet people where they are, and gifted with your own unique ministry by the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Peter’s Vision (Third Sunday of Easter) – April 19, 2015 (NL Week 33)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Reading: Matthew 9:36-37
Preaching Text: Acts 10:1-17

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Tony just read the first part of an extended narrative that represents the turning point in the book of Acts. The dual visions experienced by the Roman soldier, Cornelius, and the Jewish Christian apostle, Simon Peter, led to a fundamental change in the make-up of the church. Though it’s a little unusual, I’d like to continue reading at length from the Acts of the Apostles; sit back and relax, and I’ll pick up right at the point at which Tony left off.

10:17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him.

24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”

 30Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

11:1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 10:17-11:18, NRSV)

Last week, we heard Jesus’ final command to his disciples: Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a, NRSV) In Peter’s encounter with the Holy Spirit and the God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius, this command took on flesh. God revealed that the gospel truly was for everyone, and that the community of Christ was big enough to encompass all people everywhere. Today, we still struggle with the wideness of God’s mercy, and sometimes we imagine that the church is only for people like us. The truth, brothers and sisters, is that the good news of Jesus is for everyone, and that even – especially! – those who are often regarded as outsiders are being invited to experience the love of God that is ours in Jesus. Like Peter, we have to be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst, and we must be open to the change that is always possible when the Spirit is loose in the world. Once, we were on the outside looking in. This Easter season, we will be hearing more stories about how the Gospel broke out and shattered the apostles’ expectations of what the church could and should be. As we hear more of these stories in the weeks to come, let us pray that God would reveal God’s will for mercy and grace for all people, so that we might continue the work of building bridges, rather than putting up barriers to Christ. Amen.

The Holy Trinity – Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Genesis 1:1—2:4a
Psalm 8 (1)
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Almost exactly three years ago today, on June 19, 2011, I was sitting in the pews of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Southfield, Michigan, the congregation where I grew up and was raised in the Christian faith. That Sunday morning, I had the joy of worshipping with the people who had supported me during the first eighteen years of my journey, and that afternoon I was privileged to be ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament as those same people surrounded me with their prayers. One of the most interesting things about that day was that, like this weekend, the church was celebrating both Father’s Day and Holy Trinity Sunday, which for me was either an incredible coincidence or evidence that God might just be behind this whole pastor thing after all. You see, though I rarely missed a Sunday at Emmanuel and had great pastors throughout all those years of growing in the faith, it was my dad who first got me thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity as something that really mattered. My memory is a little fuzzy on the details of how that happened – I seem to recall my dad had been approached by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though I can’t be sure about that – but I am absolutely clear on what my dad said about how he had ended the conversation. He said very matter-of-factly that because the person he was talking to didn’t believe in the Trinity, there was very little else for them to talk about. I don’t think my dad was being rude. I think that there was something so essential about this point of the Christian faith – that, as one of the ancient creeds of the church states, “we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being” – that he simply had no interest in compromising that belief, even if there might have been agreement about other important matters of the faith.

Back then, of course, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Sure, I’d been professing my own belief in God as Trinity my whole life. I don’t suppose I was as aware of it as I am now, but looking back it’s easy to see that references to the three persons of God permeated our worship services each Sunday, even as they do for us today:

  • The beginning of the order of confession and forgiveness invokes the Holy Trinity.
  • The Apostolic Greeting, which is taken from today’s second reading from Second Corinthians, evokes the Trinity in referring to “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
  • The Prayer of the Day often ends with references to all three persons of the Trinity.
  • The Creeds each lead us to proclaim our faith in the God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Despite all that, I just can’t say that I ever considered this belief to be important until my dad talked so bluntly about his insistence on the truth of that teaching.

As we gather this weekend to reflect on the Holy Trinity, this mystery that has confounded all attempts to explain it from the very beginning, perhaps you’re like me, and you wonder if this whole Trinity thing is really all that important. After all, the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible. There is no single place in Scripture in which this doctrine is present in any concrete way. One of the criticisms of this belief is the idea that it developed relatively late in the life of the church, a claim that is partially true; in fact, it wasn’t until the year 381 that the vast majority of the Christian Church agreed that this belief would be part of their profession of faith. So let’s go back to the question from the younger me: What’s the big deal?

To answer that, let’s take a brief look at our Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus and his disciples are gathered on a mountain in Galilee, where he commanded them to go after the resurrection. On that mountain, Jesus gives what has come to be referred to by the church as “the Great Commission”, the last set of marching orders received from Jesus before he ascended to the right hand of God: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You can probably guess where we’re going. Jesus commands his disciples (and all those who would come to believe because of their testimony) to go out into the world and, through baptism, join people to the community of faith that has formed under the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In his reflection on this passage, Pastor Steven Eason invites us to consider the significance of this baptism into the Triune God by asking the following: What if we baptized people only in the name of the Father? Or only in the name of the Son? Or only in the name of the Holy Spirit? Eason argues that Scripture testifies to the experience of God in each of these persons. We experience God as Father when we reflect on the fact of our createdness, when we wonder at the mystery of creation and the vastness of God’s majesty and glory. We experience God as Son when we reflect on the story of Christ, when we marvel at the fact that God became human in the person of Jesus, taking on our humanity, showing us the love of God by his obedient suffering and death for our sake, and revealing God’s power and victory in his resurrection and ascension. We experience God as Holy Spirit when we reflect on the ways that God continues to be present to us now, inspiring us to new ways of thinking and doing as the people of God, surrounding us with comfort and peace in times of anxiety and trouble, and dwelling within us to assure us of God’s concern for us every moment. Each person of the Trinity is fully involved in all of this work, but this language gives us handles for wrapping our minds around all the different ways that we experience the power and presence of God in our lives.

In the end, the big deal about the Trinity is that it is our best guess at explaining how God has acted in history to create, redeem, and save us and the world. So we continue to name God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to invite people into relationship with that God, because the truth of our life lived in that relationship is powerful, even if our way of describing it is impossible to fully understand. This weekend, we rejoice as we continue to fulfill the commission that Jesus gave us: the calling to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. We celebrate with Helen as she receives the gift of baptism, declaring her desire to be joined to this community of faith that, in the words of Pastor David Lose, has been “called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.”* Most of all, we give thanks for the many ways that we continue to be invited into the life of the Triune God, surrounded with divine love and grace, and sent out to make that love and grace known each new day. All praise to you, blessed and Holy Trinity, today and always. Amen!

*David Lose, “Trinitarian Congregations”, Dear Working Preacher, June 9, 2014.

Day of Pentecost – Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

“‘It will be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I pour out my Spirit upon all people! Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams! 18Even upon my slaves, both male and female, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy!

I have a bad habit of staying up later than I should. With two kids under three in the house, you would think that I would take every opportunity I can to get sleep, but unfortunately I rarely find myself going to bed at a reasonable hour. One of the problems I have with staying up late is that I usually fill the time watching TV, and there is very little on TV that is worth watching after midnight. So when I get tired of watching sports highlights on a loop, I’ll sometimes flip over to that set of channels on our cable package that features Christian programming, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t often find what’s on that time of night on those channels compelling, either. I’ve frequently run into programs that talk about the fact that we are, as the prophet Joel above says, “in the ‘last days’”. What makes those programs so frustrating to watch is that this message about the last days is usually presented in the most frightening way possible. Current events are shoehorned into an end-times calendar that sounds like a horror show, with war and famine and pestilence and human sinfulness being presented as conclusive proof that the world as we know it is going to hell in a hand basket. Often, those determinations are made by comparing the events of today to the rosy picture painted of years gone by.

Lest you think this is an attitude that is prevalent only on late-night fundamentalist TV, I can assure you that this type of thinking is surprisingly mainstream. All of us have a tendency to look at the world around us and focus on all the ways it isn’t the way it used to be, usually with the implicit understanding that this is a terrible thing. I don’t say this to pick on anybody; I do the same thing when I’m talking to high school classmates or college friends, bemoaning the fact that those respective schools have gone downhill in just the last decade. I can only imagine how people can look at the massive changes over twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty years and long for the way things used to be.

As Christians, we pretty much universally believe that we are living in the last days, and many of our brothers and sisters marry that belief with resignation, convinced that we have nowhere to go but down. That resignation belies what the Bible says about the last days; namely that we are in them not because the world is more evil than it was during some imagined time of peace and harmony, but because the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were the beginning of the end for the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The “last days” language is intended to be a source of strength for Christians, a reminder that the forces of evil are doing their worst because they know their days are numbered. So on this Day of Pentecost, as we reflect on these words from the prophet Joel and on the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to invite us to think about these “last days” not with a spirit of fear and trembling, but with a different kind of Spirit. When Peter raised his voice on that first Pentecost and addressed the crowds, he invoked the prophetic image of the last days, not as a way of signaling decline or anxiety about the unknown, but as a way of describing the possibilities that lay before the Church as the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles and empowered them to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The “last days” were seen as a time of promise, in which visions and dreams would unfold as God’s Spirit caused the message about Jesus (and the presence of Jesus) to be spread abroad, capturing the imaginations and hearts of people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. So often, we hear these stories and consign them to the past, imagining that only the apostles were heirs of such life-changing power. That just isn’t true! The gospel is exploding throughout the world. In South and Southeast Asia, throughout Africa, and in South and Central America, the Spirit’s power is being unleashed, and more and more people are being changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our own country, we have certainly seen dramatic decline in church participation, but it’s important to put the current trends in perspective. The “golden age of the church” to which so many of us look with longing was unprecedented in the history of the world or the church. We experienced levels of church attendance, participation, and commitment that have never been seen before anywhere! In fact, at present the percentage of people who attend church regularly in the United States is roughly the same as it was at the time of the American Revolution! What do we do with that kind of information? Do we see it as evidence of moral and spiritual decline in our society, or as an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate our proclamation of the gospel? Should we fall into the trap of hopelessly trying to recapture what once was, or should we look for evidence that the Spirit is leading us to dream big, to work together to cast a vision for the work of the church in our time and place?

As Lutheran Christians, claimed by Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism and filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended upon those first apostles, we have a great gift to give this world. In a culture that demands results and punishes failure with swift and unrelenting judgment, we have good news to share: that our worth is not dependent on our strength or skill or income or perceived value to society, but on the surpassing love of God who calls us holy, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed! In a society that thrives on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, we have good news to share: that our lives have been transformed by God’s amazing grace, and that this same grace is freely offered to all people, everywhere. In a world mired in despair and longing, we have good news to share: that the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation is still moving in our world, transforming despair into hope, fear into friendship, and death into life. In a world where people hunger for lives of meaning and significance, we have good news to share: that God is calling us to pour ourselves out for the sake of our neighbors, friends, and families, bearing in our own bodies the love, peace, and joy of life with Christ.

This isn’t just hypothetical, either. There are so many stories that reveal how the Gospel is inspiring Christians and people of good will to partner with God in transforming the world around us that I can only begin to scratch the surface. Reminded of our communion with God’s people throughout the world, the ELCA and its partners are making real and tangible progress toward the goal of eradicating malaria in Africa. Renewed in our commitment to healing and wholeness, Lutherans continue to be at the forefront of efforts to provide medical care in places of desperate need, like the Augusta Victoria Hospital in the Palestinian Territories.  Compelled by our calling to serve our neighbors, our own Nebraska Synod has built a network of agencies and ministries that serves more people throughout our state than any other group! In these ways and so many more, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is speaking powerfully into the lives of people all over the world and transforming that world each and every day.

All of this isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t have any more work to do. Like the first apostles, we have been given the Spirit of the Living God, and we have a choice: will we become depressed and cynical because we’re trying to recapture those days gone by and settle for decrying the state of the world around us, or will we endeavor to see visions and dream dreams of Christ’s body using the many and varied gifts that we have been given to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that needs to hear of God’s love and grace? I don’t know about you, but I have the sense that the Spirit is on the move here at St. Paul’s, and that we are on the verge of something new and exciting as a congregation. I’m not sure what it is yet, but on this Day of Pentecost, as we join together in affirming the gift of baptism that has been poured out upon us as individuals and as a community, let us pray that God will grant us the grace and strength to imagine what’s possible for us as God’s people in the Falls City area. Let us continue asking how the Spirit is calling us to be Christ for the world in these last days. Let us trust in the power of the Spirit to guide us into a future filled with promise and hope. Let us give thanks for the joyful and holy task of being the church. The Spirit is here! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Ascension of Our Lord – Sunday, June 1, 2014

 Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the people we love. When someone comes to be such an important part of your life that you can’t imagine what things would be like without them, and then you are forced to reckon with their absence, there is always a void, even in those situations when you know their absence is temporary. Anyone who has ever had to endure the pain of absence knows this truth all too well. Today we gather for what I would call one of the most counter-intuitive festivals of the Christian year: the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Knowing what we know about the heartache of saying goodbye, it seems odd that we would set aside time to reflect on – and, in truth, to celebrate – the absence of Jesus.

Our readings walk the line between the two reactions that have characterized this observance: reverence, sadness, and fear at the departure of Jesus, as well as overwhelming joy and an outpouring of praise.  The first reaction seems obvious. The apostles and their company, the people who had walked alongside Jesus throughout his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching, who had seen their lives shattered at the sight of their Lord hanging on the cross, and who had been witnesses of the resurrected Christ, must have found it difficult to watch him leave them again. That seems to be the theme in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a reason those two angels needed to show up and bring the apostles back to reality: they were stuck, already yearning for Jesus even as he ascended from them, fearful that the commission that he had just given them would be too difficult for them to take on without his presence among them. They needed to hear the words of those heavenly messengers to move on: “Men of Galilee, what do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven!”

So that’s Acts, with its record of the apostles’ understandable reaction to the ascension of Jesus. But then we turn to Luke, and see something entirely different. The stage is set up exactly the same way: Jesus leads the apostles out of Jerusalem, instructs them to return to the Holy City and remain there until the Father’s promise is fulfilled, and then is carried up into heaven as he blesses his followers. Here, however, there is no mention of the disciples lingering in that spot, gazing into the heavens with heavy hearts. No, here the apostles head back to Jerusalem straightaway, with great joy, and they commit themselves to spending their days in the temple praising God for everything they had seen and heard! How do we explain the fact that Scripture contains two accounts of the ascension, written by the same author, recording two completely different reactions to the reality of Jesus’ absence?

Maybe we don’t need to. Each of these accounts represent an authentic response to the ascension of Jesus. The Church’s ancient prayer – Come, Lord Jesus – contains the longing we share for the bodily presence of Jesus to be restored to us, so that God’s will for the world might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a long history in the Church of celebrating this festival with great enthusiasm and fervor. Why? What is there to celebrate about the Ascension of Jesus? What good could possibly come from the absence of God incarnate? Mark Oldenburg, professor of worship at Gettysburg Seminary, proposes the following theme for the observance of the Ascension: In his glory, we and Christ are together. That reality, it turns out, is good enough to totally justify every bit of that celebration and joy.

Despite the fact that Jesus is God, and though we claim that God is capable of anything, there is no story anywhere in Scripture of Jesus appearing in multiple places at once. When God walked among us in the person of Jesus, the presence of Jesus was limited to wherever Jesus happened to be at the time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God – as Paul asserts in the second reading from Ephesians and we affirm in the creeds of the Church – that presence was unleashed. No longer was it necessary to gather around the person of Jesus; instead, his power and presence are now available in every time and place.

Perhaps the more stunning thing about the ascension is that it makes the inverse true. That is, if we and Christ are together in his glory, then our humanity has now been bound up with God. Put another way, if the ascension means that there is nowhere that we can go where God isn’t present, it also means that the needs, yearnings, and longings of humanity are always known to God. In Jesus, God took on our nature, and by ascending that nature was also brought into the presence of God eternally. As Dr. Oldenburg so eloquently puts it:

The creature’s nature becomes part of the Creator’s.  No longer are human (or even creaturely) matters foreign to God.  They have become known, experienced, and important.  Again we see that there are no God-forsaken places or unGodly times, because God has experienced and taken into the very being of the Holy One all that makes humans hu­man –  from the shock of light at the end of the birth canal to the extin­guishing power of death.  Even despair and dereliction become a part of God. What we rejoice in at the Ascension is a culmination of God’s work of reconciliation, of at-one-ment.  With Jesus, the fully human one, where he belongs, we are no longer estranged from God.  God will no longer ask like the clueless angels at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?”  God comprehends.  And we may no longer play the victim’s trump card: “You don’t understand what it’s like.”  God comprehends.  Humani­ty has been given a place in the conversation of the Trinity.*

What a gift! What a comfort to know that the apparent absence of Jesus is in reality what makes possible our intimate connection with the triune God!

That gift makes itself known not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a church community.  The ascension unleashes the church to do its work in the world. While Jesus walked the earth, people were drawn to hear him, and any other voice that attempted to speak for him or on his behalf would always be judged lacking, seen as secondary to whatever Jesus himself might have said. Because of the ascension, the Church is free to carry out the commission given by Jesus himself: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth! That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church can say whatever it wants without criticism or complaint. That commission is always grounded in faithfulness and fidelity to the message that Jesus came to proclaim: That the kingdom of God has drawn near, and that God’s love for all the world has been demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of the whole creation. But the ascension of Jesus makes it possible for the Church to exist and to love out its calling to be – as Ephesians puts it – “the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate an odd and wonderful festival. Even as we long for his return, we rejoice that, because of the ascension, Christ’s presence has now been unleashed for us and for the whole world. We marvel at the knowledge that Jesus bears our very nature to the presence of God so that we might be fully known and understood. We are humbled by the calling to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us bless our God for the victory of our Lord Jesus, who died, rose, and ascended so that we might know his power and presence and be partners in extending it to a world in need. Thanks be to God! Amen!

*Mark W. Oldenburg, Here and Now: The Year in the Presence of the Resurrected Christ, (unpublished), p. 81.