The Least, First

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Funnier than it seems (sermon for May 4, 2008)

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Seventh Sunday of Easter; May 4, 2008

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10,32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 1 Peter 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Holy Is the Lord
There is a Louder Shout to Come
He Who Began a Good Work in You
Knowing You
Emmanuel
In His Time

Acts 1:6-14
6When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

7-8He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

9-11These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared-in white robes! They said, “You Galileans!-why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly-and mysteriously-as he left.”

Returning to Jerusalem

12-13So they left the mountain called Olives and returned to Jerusalem. It was a little over half a mile. They went to the upper room they had been using as a meeting place:

Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas, son of James. 14They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included. Also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

This is funnier than it seems.

Jesus has been with them for 3 1/2 years. He’s taught them every day. He’s lived the perfect example of what God is like, and right in front of them. What lessons they’ve had! What amazing moments they’ve seen!

What comes to mind? [they listed several of the great moments of Jesus’ life]

But they are like us in this regard – they’re products of their culture. They keep reverting to expecting Jesus to do what their culture was sure the Messiah would do: they have always thought that they were in a Zionist renewal movement, and that Jesus’ real thing was war with the Romans and re-establishment of their nation.

For instance, pretty early in Luke’s version, Jesus finds them in a fuss over who’s going to be the greatest in the new Kingdom. Maybe, who gets to be secretary of state. Defense. He takes a little child and stands beside him, and says whoever welcomes him, welcomes me. Oh. They drop the subject.

But a few dozen miracles later, the mother of two of them comes to Jesus and asks if one of her boys could sit on his right and one on his left when he sets up the Kingdom. And she’s not talking about heaven. He straightens that out. He tells them what the kingdom is like again and again – a mustard seed, a farmer planting, a hidden treasure, a pearl collector who finds the best pearl he’s ever seen, like a wedding banquet – over and over, he teaches them what the kingdom is like.

And then they come to the Last Supper. He serves them the wine, the bread—this is my body, broken for you —and in that holy moment they again fuss up over which one of them is going to be the greatest.

A few hours later, he says, “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest …”

And he’s arrested, killed – and they completely fall apart. He failed. He didn’t set up the kingdom and defeat the Romans and make us a great nation again.

Instead, he defeats death. He appears at the tomb, on the road to Emmaus, in the locked room, on the beach in Galilee, many other times. He tells them they’re going to the whole world to tell them about him.

And now, after weeks of this, they’re standing here in front of the Jesus who died and defeated death. He’s about to return to heaven.

The crowning moment is at hand. His face to face work is done. He’s bidding them farewell.

And guess what? Incredibly, after all that, they pull out the old onion:

Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?

They can’t get away from their preconception about what Jesus should do.

Laurel Dykstra at Sojourners gives a great paraphrase:

“Great, you’re not dead. Now are we going to kick some Roman butt and take our rightful place as kings?”

Still? After all that?

In response, Jesus promises an entirely different kind of power and then promptly disappears into a cloud, as though in exasperation. I imagine later there was a fair amount of forehead-slapping among his followers, with them saying, “I can’t believe that was the last thing we said to him.”

So the stooges are standing gawking up at the place where Jesus has disappeared […]

When two men appear, announcing, “You Galileans!”

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I expect the unrecorded response from the disciples was, “Agh! Where did you come from?”

I wonder what our question would have been? What expectations of Christ overpower us?

“Is this the time, Jesus? Is this when you’re going to save a bunch of people and make our church big?”

We do want people to be come to know him. But he made no promises about churches – those are evangelical expectations. As with everything in the west, we think success means big.

“Israel, God? Is this the time your kingdom’s being established in Israel?” Not your business. Sometimes, Christians are distracted by the very same question that befuddled the first disciples.

“Is this the time you’re going to bring revival to America and make us a Christian nation?” It’s the particularly American evangelical version of the Israel question. But no, he taught about the Kingdom of God for 3 1/2 years, and the Kingdom he talked about was not a nation.

What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.

Our task is to be his witnesses.

What’s a witness? Not in evangelical-speak, now, but on the street. At a traffic accident. A witness is a person who’s seen something. We have this concept called “witnessing” — but a witness on a witness stand isn’t “witnessing.” That’s what was done at the scene. Too late for that. He’s just there to answer questions.

Our job is to spread around the world and be people who’ve seen something.

In our relationships: we’ve witnessed how Jesus does relationships; our job is to go do them likewise.

In our priorities: we’ve witnessed what Jesus cared about. Our job is to care about the same things.

In our nation and our world: we’ve witnessed that Jesus’ primary passion was for the poor. Our task is to be like that, and to be part of building a world that reflects that kind of Kingdom justice.

See, we have expectations, as evangelicals, of what God’s role is. And our temptation is to stand gazing into heaven, wondering when he’s going to do them.

But Jesus says:

What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

Go be people who’ve seen. Carry that experience of having seen Jesus into everything that opens up before you, and let it alter the way you move and think and love. Let it change what you fight for and who you listen to. Let it become you, until people witness you – Christ in you – and are changed, too.

What Jesus cared about was people; those he devoted himself most to were poor people. We who have witnessed him have people – and especially poor people – as our priority.

May 1 is Holocaust Remembrance Day – in which much of the world commemorates the six million Jews who were slain by the Nazis. A piece I read this week asked how genocides are prevented, and an author named Amartya Sen offers this, that strikes me as so like the Jesus I have witnessed:

First, he appeals to our common humanity; everyone laughs at weddings, cries at funerals, and worries about their children. More important than any of our external differences, even though these are powerful and important, is our shared humanity. Everyone has a name, a name known and loved by God. Every one of us, Paul affirmed, is “God’s off-spring” (Acts 17:29).

Everyone has a name. Every baby in the ghetto. Every young mom who protects her little ones when bombs fall from high above. Every Israeli, every Palestinian, every Iranian. They are not “them”—so easily reduced to an insensate throng. Each one, a person with a name, a story, a hope.

Every Washingtonian, too. Every one who works beside you all week. And every one of you.

Everyone laughs at weddings, cries at funerals, and worries about their children. More important than any of our external differences, even though these are powerful and important, is our shared humanity. Everyone has a name, a name known and loved by God. Every one of us, Paul affirmed, is “God’s off-spring” (Acts 17:29).

I have witnessed Jesus. That’s how he is. As the Acts Scripture concluded:

Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas, son of James. 14They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included. Also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.

Not an anonymous crowd. Names. People.

May I be that way, may you be that way, may New Oaks be that way.


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