“The Church without Jesus (Part 2)”
June 5, 2011
As you might know, I have a problem with sermon titles. That is, I have a problem coming up with them. Some weeks I think it takes more time to decide on a title than it does to write the sermon. Often I’ll give Sheila the information for the worship service and say, “I’ll have a sermon title later on.” Or I’ll call in on Friday with a title.
So I was relieved when it came to me over a week ago that I could simply reuse the title of last Sunday’s sermon for today. Last Sunday we heard how the Gospel of John addresses the “church without Jesus.” And this morning, in part two, we listen as Luke also explores what it means to be the “church without Jesus,” now that Christ is no longer present in the midst of the church.
I don’t know. Maybe I take this title thing too seriously. A colleague told me that she stopped giving her sermons titles because the title served as a label. Our clever titles often lead people to listen to the sermon in a certain way as they try to figure out what the title means. In the process, you might miss something else, something of much greater significance.
I heard that when the late William F. Buckley was scheduled to speak someplace a year in advance and was asked for the title of his speech, he always replied with something like: “Thoughts on the Present Crisis.” He was no prophet, but he could be pretty certain that even year into the future there would be some crisis somewhere that he could address.
I’m thinking that might be a good approach for me. Each week I could choose a title like: “Our Concern Today,” because we’ve always got some concern about something. Or I could just keep using “The Church without Jesus”—up to say, part 300—since we’re always trying to figure out what it means to be that kind of church. And we could just leave that title up on the bulletin board outside week after week.
This Sunday is called “Ascension Sunday” by those people in churches who care about such things. Following the chronology of the Book of Acts, Ascension Day is observed forty days after Easter, so it always falls on a Thursday. And, honestly, you’re not going to get a bunch of Congregationalists to come out on a Thursday to mark something like this.
Still, it’s important for us to hear those accounts of Jesus leaving his followers. They speak to our daily concern of trying to follow a Jesus who is nowhere to be seen. They speak to our daily concern of trying to be the church without Jesus. And yet the label “Ascension Day” skews how and where we look. We start looking up just when we should be looking around.
The ascension of Christ is usually misunderstood or ignored. In our time a bland literalism meets with a dull skepticism. We are asked to choose between a Jesus involved in some sort of vertical lift-off—going “up” into heaven—and the impossibility of the same event.
The Anglican bishop and theologian, NT Wright, is right when he says that the ascension is “a difficult and unpopular doctrine.” It asks us to think in new ways about the cosmos—about heaven and earth.
In his wonderful book, Surprised by Hope, he gives us a glimpse of this new view.
What we are encouraged to grasp precisely through the ascension itself is that God’s space and ours—heaven and earth, in other words—are, though very different, not far away from one another. Nor is talk about heaven simply a metaphorical way of talking about our own spiritual lives. God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they retain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles.
The point of the ascension is not that Jesus is going a long way away but that he is being elevated to be the true Lord of the world. Ascension doesn’t mean absence; it means sovereignty, exercised through the Spirit.
So if we can set aside the concerns of “up” and “down” we find that those stories of the “ascension” of Jesus do address our concern about God’s presence and God’s care.
This, I would suggest, is our concern today. And it is our concern whether we are young or old, rich or poor, still in school or graduates of years long past. The “present crisis” of our lives—whatever its specifics might be for you—is the crisis of “Where is God?”
As Jesus is taken out of the sight of the disciples, two men robed in white ask them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Why? Because we are looking for God—and we’ll look in the strangest places—including the sky.
We want to know if God still cares for this world that God created and called good.
We want to know if God really does care about our incredibly difficult and surprisingly joyful lives.
We want to know if God really does care about these incredibly hard and stress-filled lives that we live. Lives in which we have been carrying some heavy burden for too long a time and then we look up and see flowers blooming—and at least for a moment, the burden seems light. Lives in which we can feel so tired from care and age and then we see a group of teenagers filled with the excitement of the approaching summer, the approaching future, and we hear the laughter of youth—and our weary hearts suddenly find new strength. Lives in which the future is both so bright with promise and so clouded by uncertainty.
Does God notice these lives of pain and joy all tumbled together in ways we could never have imagined?
The ascension tells us what we already know. God is no longer present with us in Jesus, and yet we live in the power of the Spirit that Christ sends.
This Jesus who is gone is the one who said, “I am with you always.”
The One who cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” speaks to us of God’s unwavering care.
It may be that in our concern over God’s presence we are closer to the divine ground of our being than we would imagine. It may be that in our concern about God’s presence we can open ourselves to the new things that God is doing within us and among us and around us.
Listen again to the disciples. It is difficult for them to shake off their old concerns. Christ is risen. But they drag out their old hopes like some moth-eaten coat. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Memories of faded glory still dance in their minds. Maybe now. Maybe now they will experience the restoration of the old kingdom. Maybe now what their nation lost centuries ago will be given back to them.
You know how this is.
There are people in our nation who long for the restoration of some past that never was—urging us to live the way they like to think the “Founding Fathers” did, or as we did in the 1950’s or almost anytime before now.
If you don't do it yourself, you know of people who just keep looking back. With no vision for the future, their only hope is recovering the past. Maybe now things will be like they used to be.
This is the hope of too many congregations these days. Maybe now things will be like they were in the sixties or seventies. Maybe now we can go back to the past. Maybe now.
We can’t predict the future, but one thing we do know with certainty. Next year will not be 1957 or 1980. Times have changed. Our world has changed. Let’s face it, this town and this congregation have changed.
How does Jesus respond to hopes for the past?
"It's not for you to know. . ."
These are words for a church that is settling in for the long haul. All expectations that the world will soon come to an end are renounced. All hopes for the past are put aside. The new task is to find a vision for the future.
We will do well to listen. Listen to Jesus as he tells us to move ahead.
Resurrection changes everything. Jesus is alive—and that changes how we look at death. The final enemy is defeated, the destroyer has been destroyed. And because resurrection changes how we look at death, it changes how we look at life.
There are times when, for the sake of living in the power of the resurrection, we set aside old hopes and old expectations so that something different can rise up. There are times when we stop fighting old battles, nursing old wounds, dreaming old dreams.
Resurrection quietly tells us that what's dead is dead. But it also shouts loud enough that we might hear that something wonderful that we never imagined is coming to life.
The response of Jesus might not be what we want to hear, but it is a response that is typical of Jesus: “It is not for you to know the times.”
And how much would we want to know anyway?
We don’t know when.
Still, the promise comes: “But you will receive power.”
You will receive the ability to act.
Which is, in some sense connected to our concern today. We discover in the midst of all our trials—
We are given the power to take charge of our lives, to change what needs changing.
We are given the power to be agents of God’s love in the world—to take risks for the good.
Jesus no longer with us is—somehow—Christ powerfully present for us at all times.
God still cares for this world that God created and called good.
God does care about our incredibly difficult and surprisingly joyful lives.
God does care about these incredibly hard and stress-filled lives that we live.
God notices these lives of pain and joy all tumbled together in ways we could never have imagined.
This same God is doing new things within us and among us and around us and through us.
God says “Yes” to the world once more.
And the Easter message echoes throughout our lives:
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.