Our Second Reading for today comes from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 1, verses 1-11. The Book of Acts is actually a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, so that is the reference to “the first book” in our verses for today. Acts picks up the story after Jesus’ resurrection as the new church seeks to live into the new reality Jesus’ resurrection unleashed in the world. The book is addressed to Theophilus, which translates literally as “one who loves God.” May we learn to love God more and more as we hear God’s call to you and to me in these words from Acts, chapter 1 this morning. Let us hear this Word of God.
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? 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 is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
When we join this story, Jesus has been with the disciples for forty days since his resurrection. What a fascinating time of living and learning from the resurrected Jesus. I mean no one had ever done anything like that before.
But it seems as if, despite the resurrection, the disciples just fell back into established patterns. They are living as pre-resurrection disciples.
Let me tell you what I mean by that. Throughout the Gospels, what do the disciples do? By and large they follow Jesus around, they listen to Jesus teach and preach, and they watch Jesus perform miracles. Of course there are a few exceptions to that, but for the most part, the disciples in the Gospels are pretty passive. Most often they are clueless as to who Jesus really is. And it seems like they are still functioning in that familiar role in our text for today.
They gather with Jesus on the Mount of Olives and ask: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Do you see what they are doing? They are still waiting around for Jesus to do something miraculous. Granted they are looking for him to restore the kingdom to Israel – that is a pretty big thing. But it is clear who they think has work to do in this text. “Lord, when are you …” going to do something miraculous.
But Jesus has other plans for his disciples. First he assures them that it is not for them to know the time when God will do something miraculous. But sitting around and waiting is no longer in the job description. Instead of sitting around waiting for God, Jesus tells his disciples that “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.” Jesus gives them a vision. This is Jesus’ vision for his disciples, for the church universal, for Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, for you and for me. Yes, after we have been saved, we are called to be a witness.
Here we see what it means to be a post-resurrection disciple. No longer are we allowed just to follow along with Jesus, waiting and watching him do all the amazing work. No, we have been called to something new, to a ministry of our own. The disciples had just spent forty days with the resurrected Jesus, they had spent three years with Jesus before his death. They had seen amazing things and now Jesus tells them that once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit, it is time to be a witness.
Yes, a witness is someone who shares with others what he or she has seen and knows. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel understood the task of a witness in this way:
“In my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened. It must become an offering. It must be deepened and given and shared.”
Yes, what we have received, the good news of the gospel, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the peace and joy of God, faith, hope and love, we are invited to share. We cannot keep it to ourselves. We may open these gifts and as those who have been claimed by God, we become an offering ourselves. We are deepened and given and shared. We are called to be a witness, to be Christ’s witnesses. That is Christ’s vision for His church.
Now, I know that living into such a vision for us as Presbyterians can be a challenge. We do ok living into that vision when things at church are good. When everyone is getting along, when there are no budgetary shortfalls, when everyone likes the preacher, when new members join and visitors flock to our worship services. When prayers are answered, treatment and surgery lead to healing and recovery, babies are born, baptisms like Wyatt’s this morning bring joy, and we celebrate our Oldest Saints and the wisdom and faith they share with us. When our members return from powerful experiences in mission in Haiti, when families in our community have a meal at Christmas they could never have afforded on their own, when partnerships are formed with neighbors to change our neighborhood. Yes, it is not too difficult to be Christ’s witness when things are good. We are glad to share that good news with Augusta and the world.
But there are other moments. Moments of difficulty and challenge. Moments when God calls us to places we would rather not go. Using the language of our text for today – God calls us to be a witness in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth and sometimes we would just as soon stay home. Yet, as pastor Kevin Palau writes, “I believe Jesus wants us to be his light in any and all contexts, not just the ones in which we’re most comfortable.”
Pastor Palau makes this claim from personal experience. He is the son of an evangelist who saw a decline in traditional “crusade” style evangelism. So while seeking another way to engage those who desperately needed to hear the good news of Jesus’ resurrection he and his ministry team started sponsoring music festivals called “CityFest” instead of crusades. And the music morphed into a complementary movement called “CityServe.”
They began in Portland, not necessarily the hotbed of Christian evangelical culture. His team started asking to meet with local politicians and officials with no other agenda than to ask how hundreds or thousands of Christians could serve in the city. What needs did they as politicians see that they needed help meeting from people who wanted nothing more than to love their city and seek its welfare.
The result was CityServe as they built relationships, worked side by side even with those with whom they had traditionally disagreed. They slowly trust emerged even in the midst of challenges. They laughed, they cried, and slowly the city began to see the love of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the highlight story of CityServe Portland is Roosevelt High School. Early in the planning process community leaders identified the public schools as a place with significant unmet needs. Pastor Palau and his team gathered more than fifty churches to partner, in a focused and organized way, with the more than 50 schools in the district.
Roosevelt High School was identified as the most challenged urban high school in the city. Once an educational model, changes in the neighborhood and the arrival of gangs crippled the community and decimated the school. Any parent who could get their child out had done so. The ones left felt stuck. The graduation rate was 36%.
Enter Southlake Church, a wealthy suburban congregation. After an initial visit to the school the pastor said, “We’ve a couple thousand people. We could do something big. We would love to throw ourselves into this as part of CityServe.” The principal and superintendent of schools welcomed them with open arms, but secretly did not expect much.
It started as a “drive-by, one day” mission opportunity in which the church arrived with numbers and money to do multiple projects around the school before heading back to the suburbs. But then something unexpected began. In spite of a twenty-mile commute into this dangerous neighborhood the members of Southlake Church kept showing up at Roosevelt High School. They got to know the students, the church was invited to open a mission office in the building; a clothes closet, food pantry, and mentorship program began. The football field and grandstands were repaired, a former NFL Quarterback volunteered to help coach the team, and graduation rates began to rise. Not everything went smoothly, there were bumps along the way, and there is still a long way to go. But the graduation rate at Roosevelt is now 53% - a 21% gain, and a sense of hope and vision now permeates the teachers, volunteers, and students. It is like … a resurrection.
My friends Christ promises us power so that we can be a witness in our families, in our community, and throughout this region. Not as street preachers beating bibles and threatening eternal flames; but as witnesses so that our words, our actions, and our love testify to the life transforming power of Jesus’ resurrection.
Next Saturday, April 29th, you will have a chance to participate in CityServe Augusta. There is an announcement in your bulletin today with a website to visit so you can sign up or you can speak with Missions Chair Drew Goins. I encourage you to do so.
But beyond a single day of service, we together can begin to ask how is it that our worship, our discipleship, our faith formation, our proclamation, and our compassionate care for one another witness to Christ? How can everything we do, everything we say, and everything we are as a congregation can be a witness to faith, hope, and love?
As we begin to ponder these things, I leave you with the words of the two men in white robes who appeared to the disciples: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Let us not stand idle waiting on Jesus to do something miraculous. He has given us his vision and it is time for us to start living into it.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: