Sermon preached June 1, 2014
Texts: Acts 1:6-14
“Jesus is Just Alright” The Byrds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpKAQacDkFo
With this sermon title there was really no mystery about a song I might play this morning, that is, for those of us who know about this song. The only mystery may have been – The Byrds or The Doobie Brothers. This was The Byrds.
Jesus is just alright. Yes. But Jesus is really more, so much more for Christians. He is absolutely central to and for our faith and life. At the heart of the Christian Bible we have four stories about the life of Jesus, four stories – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The story is told with different emphases and nuances four times because of the importance of Jesus.
Here is a small sampling of quotes from theologians and biblical scholars about Jesus and Christian faith. People are Christians because Jesus is basic to their belief (Douglas John Hall, Why Christian?, 18). For those who identify themselves as Christians… Jesus is the author of our humanity (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, 15). For Christians, Jesus is utterly central. In a concise sentence, Jesus is for Christians the decisive revelation of God. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 6. Also Convictions, 15)
Jesus is utterly central. He is at the heart of Christian faith. He tells us about God. He tells us about the possibilities for our lives, what being human can mean. Christians are people who are passionate about Jesus. So what might today’s rather strange story being trying to say to us about this Jesus? Let’s admit it; this is a rather strange story.
The disciples are together with the risen Jesus. They are wondering what happens next. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The question is one that seems to indicate that they still have not really grasped the mission of Jesus, which is not the restoration of a nation, but the transformation of the world. Jesus shifts the conversation to that transformative work. “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.”
What happens next is the strange part. When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Suddenly, woosh, and Jesus is just gone. The strangeness continues. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Seems like kind of a silly question. Wouldn’t you be looking up as Jesus is wooshed away?
But what is this story trying to tell us about Jesus, who is central to our faith, the decisive revelation of God? How about this – maybe we can get Jesus wrong. Maybe it is important to let certain of our ideas and/or images of Jesus go so we can go and be better witnesses to Jesus with our words and our lives. Just as the old Zen master said “if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him” perhaps there are times when we have to grow beyond some of our ideas of Jesus so the power of Jesus can reach us again.
When you read this text from Acts, we still see the disciples struggling to understand just what Jesus was up to, even after the resurrection. “When are you going to restore the fortunes of Israel?” they wonder. But Jesus is not a nationalistic hero whose task was to restore the fortunes of a particular people. Jesus is about transformation, about the power to be more human, about relationship to God.
At the end of his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg describes his understanding of what Jesus means. Discussing the Greek and Latin roots of the English word “believe,” and noting that they have to do with “giving one’s heart” rather than intellectual assent, Borg writes: Believing in Jesus… means to give one’s heart, one’s self at the deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus, who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Spirit (137). This giving is not simply a one-time thing in Borg’s understanding, a single statement of commitment. Rather it is an on-going journey, “a journeying with Jesus” (135). This journey means continuing to learn and grow. It means to be in a community with others on the way. It means becoming more compassionate. (Borg, 135-137). By the end of our text for today, there are the beginnings of the disciples getting it. They are together. They are praying. They are widening the circle to include women. This community of prayer will become a community of prayer and power in the next chapter, fearless, courageous, Spirit-filled as they carry on the work of Jesus in the world.
I think we get Jesus wrong, get our relationship with Jesus wrong, when we see it as too passive and/or as too static. Giving one’s self at our deepest level to Jesus is not simply staring into space saying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There are moments for that, to be sure, but it is not all of the Christian life. Giving one’s self at our deepest level to Jesus is not a one-time commitment, it is not saying “yes” and standing still. It is not simply saying that I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior and stopping there. It is a journey of growth and adventure. In the process some of our ideas about Jesus and the Christian life may be wooshed away.
Rather than being passive or static, our relationship to Jesus, to God through Jesus, is a relationship of maturation. In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes about wanting everyone to be “mature in Christ” and goes on to say, “for this I toil and struggle with all the energy that God powerfully inspires within me” (Colossians 1:28-29). In Ephesians, he writes about growing to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:14). The writer of James encourages his readers to become “mature and complete, lacking nothing” (1:4). Another way to think about this idea of maturing in faith is to remember that Jesus, in John 15, shifts the language about his relationship to the disciples. “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends” (15:15)
If we really want to grab hold of the meaning of the ascension story, perhaps we need to look inward. Someone has written that “the ascension confirms the belief that what is highest above human beings is what is most inward” (Walter Wink, The Human Being, 156, refers to Ricouer, Symbolism of Evil, 270). Jesus is wooshed away, but Jesus remains present within. There is the power of the Spirit in our lives, a power for growth, for maturing, and a power that moves us out into the world to offer words of grace and forgiveness and engage in compassionate healing action. We are to grow and mature, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, or in Eugene Peterson’s rendering, grow into “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.” To be fully alive like Jesus is inward development and outward compassion.
For Christians Jesus is central, but we can get Jesus wrong. We can become too passive or too static rather than be on the journey of maturing, of working with the power of the Spirit to become fully mature adults, mature within and without, fully alive in Christ. To live the Jesus’ life is to become friends with Jesus, to share his journey, to be about his transformative work in the world.
Christians are people passionate about Jesus, because he is the author of our humanity, the one in whom we become fully mature and fully alive, the one in whom we see God. It is not always easy to be passionate about Jesus when Jesus gets used to justify being anti-gay, or anti-science, or when people are threatened with Jesus – “turn or burn.” Yet we are a people passionate about Jesus, even as we seek to get Jesus right. This week, I want you to take some time to think about your relationship with Jesus. How has being on the journey with Jesus made a difference for you? How has giving your deepest self to the power of Jesus’ Spirit made a difference for you? Where has Jesus helped you to be more fully mature, more fully alive? What would you tell someone if they asked you about your faith?
Christians are people who are compassionate. We seek to make the world more whole, to offer grace, healing, food for the hungry, justice for the oppressed, peace in the midst of conflict. An old hymn says, “Jesus, thou are all compassion.” I think that gets Jesus right. How has giving your deepest self to the power of Jesus’ Spirit moved you to compassionate action in the world? Where might the Jesus Spirit of compassion be leading you next? Ask yourself that this week, too.
Christians are on a thoughtful journey. Maturing is being able to ask questions and to engage in self-reflection. Are there place where your understanding of Christian faith has itself become a problem to your growth and development? Are there places where you need to let certain ideas or images about Jesus or faith be wooshed away, so you can be filled anew with the life-changing power of God’s Spirit? Take some time this week for that reflection.
Passionate, compassionate, thoughtful – fully mature adults, fully developed within and without – for this we struggle with all the energy God powerfully inspires within us. We are not those who just stand there looking to the sky. We give our deepest selves to Jesus and join him on the journey of transformation. Amen.