Sermon preached May 20, 2012
Texts: Acts 11:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23
When I was growing up, WDIO TV used to show an early movie in the afternoons. Sometimes after school I would watch that movie and among the movies shown were some starring the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. One of my favorites was “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.” This morning’s invitation to worship comes from that film. Police psychiatrist to Lou Costello: “Have you ever seen anyone disappear before?” “Yes, sir. My brother. My brother and I were walking down the street. All of the sudden he disappeared.” “Into thin air?” “No, into a manhole.”
Some of you may remember the series of Southwest Airline commercials with the tag line, “Want to Get Away.” There was the ad with the two guys playing a video game and one says to the other, “O.K. throw it like you would outside.” The other guy is a bit of a literalist and he literally throws the game controller into the tv, smashing the screen. Want to get away? The commercials work because we have, at times, wanted to get away.
Well the central story from the Bible for this morning is a story about disappearing, about getting away. Jesus disappears, Jesus gets away with style, panache. He does not disappear down a manhole, and not really into thin air either. “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Now that’s a dramatic exit.
Jesus is gone. That is not simply a story from the past, but it is the permanent state of the church. Jesus is not here. He has gone away. With that there is another word. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This theme of going and returning has found its way into the liturgies of the church. Our communion prayers include the affirmation: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The Apostle’s Creed affirms that Jesus “ascended into heaven” and that he will “come again.” While at times we may be mystified by some of this – what might it mean to say that Jesus is coming again? - this is a part of the Christian story. I don’t think we have to have it all figured out and there are too many in the Christian community who spend inordinate amounts of time speculating on the whole idea of Jesus coming again. At its heart this idea of Jesus coming again is a word of hope that God is not yet done with God’s work in the world. At its heart is the idea that we live with a horizon of hope.
Jesus is gone. Jesus will come. As Christians, however, we also affirm, and trust, that Jesus is present with us. Whatever the story of Jesus rising into the clouds may mean, it does not mean that we don’t experience the presence of Jesus in our lives and world now. Jesus will not come walking down the aisle of the church, take up a seat in the pew next to you, and will not be graciously fighting you for a donut after church. Jesus is gone.
But Jesus does sit next to you in the pew in the person who is there, that person in whom the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is at work. We trust, as Marcus Borg puts it, in “the living Jesus who comes to us even now” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 137). Jesus is gone. Jesus will come – and Jesus comes to us even now, again and again. As we pray, as we read Scripture, as we seek to be a follower of Jesus, a Jesus person, we know, we experience the presence of Jesus in our lives. We know, we experience the presence of God, in the face of Jesus, in our lives. Jesus is gone, but Jesus is here in some real way.
Yet there’s something more. As followers of Jesus, we help make Jesus real for the world. Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church puts it this way: The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. (Book of Discipline, 2008, para. 129). Jesus is gone. Jesus is present in our lives. Jesus wants to be more real to the world through our lives. Now you don’t, now you see him! We make Jesus real for the world. The work of Jesus in the world has become our work and it is we who must convince the world on the reality of Jesus, and of God’s love as we know it in Jesus, or leave it unconvinced.
There is a prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Avila that communicates this now you don’t now you see him message. God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. (Feasting on the Word).
What an audacious claim, that Jesus is making himself real through us. What a daunting task. Jesus is gone. We make Jesus real to the world. Yet remember the other part to this – Jesus is present in our lives. The gospel story is not that Jesus leaves and says “good luck with that.” We believe in a living Jesus who comes to us even now. In Ephesians, Paul writes about the power of God which works in our lives. It is a power made evident in love. It is a power that gives us “a spirit of wisdom.” It is a power that seeks to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” We are those being formed by God in love, formed in and by the Spirit of Jesus. Wisdom is being formed in us. Love is being formed in us. Jesus is gone, but Jesus is here, at work in our lives.
Then Jesus moves us into the world, where we seek to make Jesus real for others. We take our open eyes and hearts into the world. As Jesus’ people we are invited to see the world more richly and deeply and profoundly. That some Christians have often seen the world in pinched and narrow ways says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different her and I think we are.
We take wisdom into the world. As Jesus’ people we seek knowledge and wisdom. Christians for almost as long as there have been Christians have been wonderful at starting schools, institutions for learning. Charles Wesley, who with his brother John helped found the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition, had inscribed at a school started by Methodists the motto that we seek to bring together two things long estranged – “knowledge and vital piety.” That some Christians have too often turned away from education in fear says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different here and I think we are.
Most important of all, we take love into the world. As Jesus’ people we are to be known by our love. Ruby’s Pantry happened this past Thursday. We had fewer people come than we were anticipating, and so had food left to donate. CHUM, Safe Haven, Union Gospel Mission, and the Damiano Center were beneficiaries of Ruby’s Pantry food. And we set aside some boxes, as we have in the past, for Lake Superior Elementary families. Well, Julie put that food into her car, but was having trouble reaching the principal of the school. There is another family at her current school that she knows has often been in need of food, so she called this person and made arrangements to bring food to her apartment. Then the idea struck. I bet there are others in that same building who are also in need. She called the woman back to tell her that she would be coming with food for others, too. When she arrived there were six families, delighted to have fresh chicken, and egg patties, and hash brown patties – astonished by gifts of love given through Ruby’s Pantry in the name of Jesus.
We have long been known in this community as the Coppertop Church. Our building stands out, and that is wonderful. But I want us to be known for our building and our love. This is the place where once a month you can get some food shared with care and kindness. This is the place where people reach out to mentor. This is the place where if you are having a bad day, there is someone to listen and help. This is the place that will welcome you. We want to make Jesus more real through the quality of our loving. That some Christians have been seen as narrow and judgmental in their loving says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different here and I think we are.
Jesus is gone, except somehow he is real and present in our lives, and through our lives wants to be more real in and to the world. Now you don’t, now you see him.
Wendell Berry has a wonderful poem that is also a prayer (Leavings, 33)
I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.
I have no love
except it come from Thee.
Help me please to carry
this candle against the wind.
Jesus is gone. Jesus is present in our lives as a burning love that forms us in wisdom and love. Jesus wants to be made more real to the world through our lives. Now you don’t, now you see him. May we carry that candle against the wind. Amen.