Sunday, May 28, 2017

Waiting -- Ascension Sunday (Acts 1)


Acts 1:1-11

The wedding party was standing with me at the front of the sanctuary. The processional music was playing. Everyone was ready to begin. The only problem was that the bride was still standing there in the entrance to the sanctuary. As I stood there at the front of the sanctuary, in sight of the bride, I began to wonder whether my future father-in-law was trying to talk Cheryl out of going forward with the wedding at the last minute. Perhaps he was telling Cheryl: “Surely you can do better than this poor seminary student!” Now, there is a good reason why Cheryl stood there, not moving toward me that had nothing to do with cold feet or parental obstruction, but the delay was unnerving.


   There’s nothing wrong with waiting, especially in an age of instant gratification. In fact, anticipation can be a good thing, at least if you’re waiting for your Heinz ketchup to flow from the bottle onto your burger. That is, as long as Carly Simon is singing in the background celebrating the joys of anticipation. Of course, the song itself calls attention to the possibility that “anticipation is making me late; is keeping me waiting.” 

After Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning, according to Luke’s account in the Book of Acts, Jesus spent forty days teaching the disciples about the realm of God. He also told them to wait in the city until they received “the promise of the Father.” Something good is going to happen in the near future, but you have to wait patiently for its arrival. 

Many families put up their Christmas trees during Thanksgiving weekend. As gifts are purchased and wrapped, they get placed under the tree. Curious children watch in wonder. Maybe they approach the presents and look to see if their names are on the packages. If the package is especially large, the imagination can go wild. If it’s smaller, the child might pick it up and shake it. Yes, waiting is difficult! But, good things come with patience.  

It’s recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Luke that Jesus led the disciples “out as far as Bethany,” where he blessed them and withdrew from them (Lk 24:50-51). Here in Acts, Luke doesn’t provide a location for Jesus’ point of departure, but context suggests that it took place somewhere in or around Jerusalem. When they arrived at the designated spot, Jesus gathered the disciples together for one last conversation. These disciples aren’t the most patient of people, and so they began asking Jesus a question that had been on their minds since the first day they each met him: “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

The disciples are overjoyed that Jesus has risen from the dead, but what good is the resurrection, if Jesus doesn’t make Israel great again. They still can’t get that nationalist vision out of their minds. But, Jesus responds to their question, by simply telling them: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, this not your concern. This isn’t your mission and purpose. Just wait for the Spirit to come and baptize you. It won’t be long, and then you’ll understand! 

Occasionally, I listen to sports radio. The announcers and the people who call in to the shows all seem to have answers for what troubles the Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Red Wings, along with the Wolverines and the Spartans. If only they were the General Manager of the Lions, they would put together a Super Bowl contending team. Or, maybe it’s the coach’s fault, so if Bob Quinn would replace Jim Caldwell with one of them, well things would be different.

The disciples had a vision. They had a plan for Jesus to implement. Unfortunately for them, Jesus had a different plan. They were nationalists who wanted Jesus to restore Israel’s greatness. But, as theologian Willie Jennings writes: this “nationalist desire has tempted Israel from the beginning and in fact tempts all peoples. The nationalism suggested here is not a historical nationalism bound to the anatomy of Israel, but the deeply human desire of every people to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image” [Jennings, Acts, p. 17]. That vision is understandable, but it’s not Jesus’ vision. He didn’t offer them a nationalistic kingdom vision. Instead, he offered them an inclusive vision of God’s realm that would extend to the ends of the earth. But the time had not yet come for this new work of God to begin. It won’t be long, but they have to wait for the Spirit to come and empower them. Then they can participate in God’s mission in the world. As for us, we live in the age of Pentecost. The Spirit has come. The work has begun.

So, what is the vision that Jesus sets before the disciples? What is Jesus’ mission for the church? Luke answers that question in verse 8 of Acts 1. In this verse, which sets the course for the rest of the Book of Acts, Jesus commissions the disciples, and therefore everyone who comes after them. This is Luke’s version of the Great Commission:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Everything that takes place in the Book of Acts flows out from this commission. Not only does this commission define the message of the Book of Acts, it continues to define the mission of the church. Go, be my witnesses, starting with where you live and then move out from there. Share this vision of God’s realm with the world, so that the world might know God’s love, mercy, compassion, grace, and peace.

Since this is Ascension Sunday, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that as soon as Jesus gave this commission to the disciples, he “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As they say: “that’s all folks.” The commission had been given. Now, all they had to do was wait for the Spirit. Then, they could get busy. 

Jesus told them how and where to start. Begin locally, in Jerusalem, or for us, Troy, and then move outward toward the ends of the earth. This is Jesus’ definition of what it means to be missional. It’s a vision that extends from this very room to the ends of the earth. As we go out from here, we are called to be witnesses for Jesus in both word and deed. 

But there’s a caveat here. You have to wait, wait for the Spirit. This isn’t a job you do on your own. Pentecostals have a word for this. That word is “tarry.” That’s a good word for what Jesus invites us to do. Let us tarry for the movement of the Spirit, so we can go out and share the good news of God’s realm in the power of the Spirit. The disciples tarried in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost, and then the Spirit blew through the community, empowering them to bear witness to the good news of Jesus. The Spirit continues to blow through the community even today, empowering us to bear witness to the good news of Jesus.

So what is our witness? How should we go about bearing witness to Jesus, beginning in Troy and extending to the ends of the earth? Is it through our deeds? Of course! But, what about words? Does the world really know that we are Christians by our love, or do they need some interpretation?

Mainline Protestants, and that includes Disciples, have a tendency to keep our lamp hidden under a bushel. Sharon Watkins often says that the Disciples are Christianity’s best kept secret. Part of the problem is that we have embraced wholeheartedly a phrase mistakenly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” The problem is that unlike St. Francis, we’ve lost the ability to share the good news in words, as well as deeds. There’s no evidence that Francis said these words, and besides he was well-known for his preaching. I recently read a statement made by Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote in her daily column in 1945: “It does little good to believe something unless you tell your friends and associates your belief” [Smith, Eleanor, p. 8]. Now Eleanor Roosevelt believed in the power of deeds, but she also understood that you also have to share what makes you tick! In an age of confusing religious and political messages, a bit of interpreting may be necessary. That takes words! 

Jesus told the disciples to wait, and then he ascended into the heavens. According to Ephesians, God has raised Jesus and seated him at God’s right hand “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:20-21). The word offered here is that Jesus has commissioned us to be ambassadors of the realm of God, starting in this place, where we live and worship. But before we get to work, we need to wait, we need to tarry, until the Spirit comes with power.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Ascension Sunday 
May 28, 2017

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