A sermon on Acts 1:1-11, preached Sunday, June 5, 2011 at Lebanon United Methodist Church.
It’s that time of year. We are in the season of graduations. Many colleges have already had their graduations and not too long from now, high school seniors will graduate. This week Morgan and Ashley met me to get gag gifts for our seniors for this afternoon’s picnic. Our ritual at Lebanon has been to get the youth together at the end of the school year to mark this milestone. While we fellowship and eat good food, we gather to share stories about what impact those who are graduating may have left on us.
Graduation is that time when we say good-bye to the world that we came to know so well before we embark on a journey into a new world. It’s that time where we receive words of wisdom from our classmates, Principals, Presidents, Professors, and Teachers. At graduation our relationships with these individuals change. Those who had guided us through are no longer going to be with us. But, the words they gave us, the lessons they taught us, and the things we learned about ourselves because of them, we can take that with us.
When I read our text for this morning from Acts, I thought about graduations. These verses tell the Ascension story, where Jesus ascends, or goes up, into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. According to Luke, Jesus has spent 40 days with the disciples speaking about and teaching about the kingdom of God. This was the disciples’ last semester with Jesus. And now, as he is about to ascend, Jesus gives his final address to them. “John baptized you with water, but you will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is foreshadowing what will happen during the Feast of Pentecost.
The disciples interrupt Jesus’ graduation speech with a question: “Is this the time when you will restore the king-dom to Israel?” This is a question that they asked multiple times in the Gospels. Their understanding of the Messiah was one who would come riding in on a great white horse and stomp out the evil Romans and restore the land back to the way it was. But that’s not quite what they got. I find it interesting that the disciples ask this question after they spend 40 days talking to Jesus, Luke says, about the kingdom of God. Despite all that, they are still clinging just a little bit to the tradition that taught them who the Messiah would be and what he would do for Israel.
Jesus’ reply to their question, the rest of this graduation speech, wasn’t in the form of a cryptic metaphor that would leave the disciples going, “What you talking about, Jesus?” Instead, Jesus shifts their emphasis to refocus them. We need that ourselves every once and awhile. We can get caught up in thinking about something or doing something a certain way that we end up with blinders on and we miss what’s going on around us in the present. Jesus realizes that is what the disciples are doing here. Jesus sees them put an emphasis on speculation about the future – “Is this the time?” – and an emphasis on the restoration of the past – “Will you restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus shifts their emphasis from speculation about the future to demonstration in the present. He calls the disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Do you hear echoes of the Great Commission in Matthew 28? “Be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. Tell people the story. Let the world see a demonstration of what the power of God can do when it works through the community of faith – through those who trust in God. And, begin now.
Jesus also shifts their emphasis from the restoration of the past to the transformation of the present. Most scholars believe that when the disciples were asking about the restoring of the kingdom they were remembering back to David’s day. During David’s reign as Israel’s king, Israel was united – all twelve tribes – in a way they had never been before, or since. They were longing for the “good ole days.” A time when things were simpler. A time when things were less chaotic. A time when there was less to be fearful of. History has taught us that history is nothing but a steady stream of events that move forward. Yes, we would like to turn the clock back some days, but we can’t. We have to move forward. We cannot restore what was, but we can transform what is. And how does Jesus propose we transform the present? By being witnesses.
At some point in the life of the Church, “witness” became the replacement for “evangelism.” Most likely because when we hear the word “evangelism” it conjures up all kinds of crazy images that are challenging and, frankly, scary. So, we replaced “Evangelism” with “Witness.” It’s more comfortable that way. But the idea is the still the same. As one pastor put it, “We are called through baptism, a great common denominator to all Christians, to witness to Christ’s presence and love.” A witness is someone who has first-hand knowledge of an event and gives testimony to what they have seen and/or heard. And as we learned through Esther’s story, God seems to disappear; to not be around. But, as we know from Esther’s story, God is always around and always at work. Being witnesses to His Majesty means training our eyes to see what others do not see. And it means living, like Esther did, boldly and courageously Christ-like lives. This is the work of all people – all of us – and it is to be carried out in our daily day-to-day lives. It’s living into our graduated disciple selves.
A month ago I went to Blackstone for an event and one of the workshops I attended was on evangelism. The bulk of the workshop was spent talking about hospitality. Professor Christine Pohl writes this, “Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith.” Spiritual practices are disciplines like daily Bible reading, prayer, worshiping with a community of faith. Hospitality as a spiritual practice may seem like a new idea, but it really isn’t. It’s a very old idea. We see Abraham practicing it in Genesis. Being welcoming to others – people you know and people don’t know – is a spiritual practice. In other words, when we are being welcoming, we are witnessing to the presence and love of Christ.
And that means we do not stand around gazing on the heavens. The two men in white robes, after Jesus has ascended – he’s left the building – asks the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” We could easily reword that question to say, “Why do you stay in your comfortable pews?” We are a people who like comfort. Comfort brings us security. Think Linus and his blanket. Yet, we serve a God who calls us out of our comfort zones. We serve a God who spoke peace to the storm. We serve a God who parted the waters. We serve a God rolled the stone away. And this God calls us to go . . .to go . . .to witness to his presence, power, and love throughout the world right here, right now. Yes, the gospel will be carried to the ends of the earth, but the command starts with Jerusalem, where they are right now. The same is true for us. We start witnessing right here to each other, to visitors on Sunday mornings being welcoming to all.
Will Willimon, a United Methodist Bishop, points out that “The time between Easter and the restoration of the kingdom is the gracious interim for witness.” And so, he says, “There is work to be done.” And done by whom? The church, Willimon says. The church secure in the promises of Jesus must be about the work of witnessing to the presence, power, and love of Jesus Christ.
It’s almost as if the two men in white robes are telling the disciples, you don’t need to stand here starring up at the heavens – you don’t need to stay here in your comfortable pews – you don’t need to try and calculate when Jesus will return – you don’t need restore things to way they were – you have graduated. Live as one who has graduated. Be secure, not in things of this world, but in the One whom you claim as Lord and Savior. Be secure that the promises made by Jesus will be kept. Be secure that in all you do, every day, Jesus Christ is with you through the power of the Holy Spirit. And go be welcoming, tell the story, share the love. Be witnesses.