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May 28, 2006 (The Ascension of Our Lord [transferred])

Interim Pastor Steve Jensen

Acts 1:1–11; Luke 24:44–53

OldLutheran.com is an Internet site enjoyed by many who share our faith, and it includes in excess of 12 pages of lines that complete the phrase “You might be a Lutheran if....” In fact, I have a T-shirt that provides just a few of those lines. (Webmaster’s Note: Here Pastor Steve read several examples from a T-shirt. You can find more on OldLutheran.com.) Not on the shirt is: “Sharing the peace during the service takes more time than the sermon.”

We are an unusual group that leaves many at a loss to describe us. In fact, one member of an evangelical group that knows just enough about Germans to be dangerous once asked me if Lutherans serve beer and pretzels as the elements for communion.

It seems another characteristic of ours is one that you’ve noted during the Natural Church Development process you’ve undertaken under the Ministry Planning Task Force—the unease with evangelizing and the concern that others might view us as religious fanatics if we share too much of our faith.

The result of that reluctance throughout the Lutheran church in general is that we’ve decreased in membership. At the latest synod assembly, former Bishop Bob Miller brought home the point in his keynote address by reminding us that we had voted some years ago to exercise our best efforts in increasing the number of non-Caucasian members by 10% over a several year period. However, the number of other races in the synod has actually declined in that period. How is it, he asked, when we have so much to offer those seeking a loving, forgiving God, we fail to reach out and share the Good News?

Certainly we’re not the only ones afraid of the “E-word” (evangelism), and it’s not a new phenomenon. Based on Jesus’ promise to return after the Ascension, many in the early church simply spent their days in prayer awaiting his imminent return—to the point where they not only neglected reaching out to neighbors; they neglected their own families daily needs as well.

But what we read in Luke’s reporting of the final days of Jesus among his disciples clearly delineates what he expects of his followers.

The first disciples were selected from among those of various vocations and circumstances that were common to the day and with whom many others could easily relate. But the years in Jesus’ company—observing his close relationship with the Father, experiencing his love, hearing his words of hope and forgiveness, seeing the healing power of his grace—should have prepared them to continue and expand his ministry after he rejoined the Father.

But it seems they were too interested in feeling the feelings, contemplating the meaning of things, and being concerned with themselves to get the real message behind all that transpired.

At the time of the first resurrection appearance, most were still gathered in hiding in the upper room, lost in their own thoughts. They likely were still afraid of being recognized as a follower of Jesus, fearful that they, too, might share his fate. They probably felt guilty about abandoning him when he was arrested yet disappointed at best—and likely angry—that he didn’t turn out to be the Messiah and not only restore Israel to her former position of power and glory but also provide them positions within the new kingdom as well. If they dared make eye contact with one another, much less carry on conversations, were there times when they shared remembrances of Jesus miracles or sermons with one another?

To this guilt-ridden and morbid group, the risen Lord first appears and greets them with, “Peace be with you!” Not just a customary greeting, but an assurance that he forgives them and still loves them, and yes, counts them among his closest friends.

Yet despite this miraculous resurrection and life-restoring assurance of pardon, where do we find them when he returns to the group, now including Thomas? Still in the upper room. Wouldn’t you expect them to be out telling others about his resurrection? But no, the timid disciples remain in their safe, secure sanctuary. Even this second encounter with the risen Christ and Thomas’ affirmation “my Lord and my God” doesn’t appear to be enough to send them on their way rejoicing and telling the Good News.

According to Luke, Jesus reappears to them numerous times over 40 days, and yet at the time of the Ascension he still hears the question, “Lord, will you at THIS time restore Israel to her former glory and power?” What’s it going to take for them to get the message, to understand the meaning behind his coming among us, his passion, his death and resurrection?

As he prepares to rejoin the Father, Jesus finally opens their eyes to the age-old promise of God fulfilled in him as foretold in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms. When they finally comprehended what he had told them, they no longer had to fear not only the Jewish leaders and Romans but what they had once believed to be an angry and vengeful God. This same God they now understood to be SO loving, he sent his only Son to live among them as a man and be sacrificed to pay the price for their sin and ours. That sin and guilt that so debilitated them just days before was now forgiven, and God had made a way for them to again be in relationship with him both then and for eternity. When Jesus conquered death, he gave assurance that it was no longer the end of life, but simply the beginning of life eternal with God. What joy! It was not only like being reborn, but also being set free to live the life God had meant for them to have in the beginning and now having the power, courage, and surety that God was very much in control of his universe. What do you do with that sudden awareness?

Jesus made it clear the first thing was to take time to thank and praise God—go back to Jerusalem, the Holy City, the site of the temple, and celebrate this new life. They didn’t just silently utter a word of thanks or mumble a familiar prayer, but with jubilation and shouts of joy for all to hear, they offered their soul-felt gratitude. Having made that new connection with God, they would then be ready to receive the Holy Spirit.

Once having been anointed by the Spirit, life would never again be the same. Along with this gift would come the Great Commission, the charge by Jesus to share the story, the Good News of salvation with ALL people—starting with the very people who had called for Jesus’ crucifixion, the people for whom Jesus had wept. Then going out from Jerusalem, once again countering the dictates of the leaders of the faith, they were bring the news of the Messiah to people of different colors and ethnicities and genders and faiths—ALL God’s people.

“Tell the story of what life was like for you before you met me; what you saw and heard and felt when I was among you; how the prophecies were fulfilled in me; how I was God’s sacrificial lamb and restoring Son; and what you now have become because of all that. Love them in my name; forgive them as you have been forgiven; set them free to be what their creator made them to be.”

These new creatures in Christ were faithful to their call, and the Good News continues to rescue the lost and give peace, comfort, and hope to God’s children some 2000 years later.

For several years I served in a retreat ministry, and there I had the privilege of experiencing what I considered miracles in the restoration of broken relationships with God. People came to the retreat ministry for all sorts of reasons, but so many were soul-sick. (Look that up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [DSM-IV].) Some were estranged because they felt God had abandoned them in particular times of need. Others so despised themselves they couldn’t believe ANYONE, including God, could possibly love them. Many were so guilt-ridden they couldn’t forgive themselves and didn’t understand how God could either. For others faith had been inherited and never made their own, so it wasn’t available to them in time of crisis or great joy.

But here in this setting they were offered love without condition and accepted just as they were. People from similar backgrounds or with similar experiences shared their stories, and folks discovered they weren’t alone after all. Toward the end of the retreat, there was always a worship service with the opportunity for confession and forgiveness just before Communion. In attempting to explain the import of this gift of God, I often told my own modern parable of a familiar Bible story:

A man suddenly finds himself in heaven and before God Almighty. Obviously he has died, but he expected when the time came to be standing before St. Peter for examination at the Pearly Gates. Far from a perfect man, he remembers his past sin and wonders aloud to God if he really ought to be here.

God calls him by name and welcomes him to his heavenly home.

Still afraid there may be some bookkeeping error, the man asks God if he remembers how he lived his life.

God responded, “I remember. I remember when your best friend died and it broke your heart. But despite your grief, you continued to pick the scab on your own wound by regularly being available to his widow long after everyone else tired of her grief.

“I remember when you were so desperately poor you had just enough money to buy a few groceries for yourself, but seeing a homeless person with nothing at all, you thanked me for what you had and gave it all to her.

“I remember when you hurried through a park in your only suit to be on time for a job interview but stopped and returned a baby bird to its nest that had fallen by the path.”

Such little things. Yes, that had been he, but surely all the bad things he had done couldn’t be outweighed by these.

“But God,” he said, “don’t you remember my sin as well?”

God responded, “Did you repent and ask me to forgive you?”

“Oh, yes, Lord,” he said.

“Then I don’t remember,” replied God.

“I don’t remember....” That is how completely God forgives our sin, and it is possible because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That awareness for the retreat participants allowed them to not only receive God’s forgiveness, but to forgive themselves. They became new, whole people and amazed their families and friends with the transformation. Those who saw and sensed the difference wanted to know what caused the change in happiness, zest for life, and care for others.

Like the disciples, the change went to their very souls—and they were unabashed in sharing Who had brought about that change.

When is the last time you were that excited about your relationship with God and the gift of new life Christ gave?

The emperor Hadrian asked Aristides, a non-Christian, what these Christians sprouting up all over were about. He wrote:

“They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the one who has nothing. If they see a stranger, they take them home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

How, I wonder, would a non-Christian describe Christianity from what he/she experiences with us individually and corporately? Can we, like the disciples, depart from our places of comfort and familiarity after worshiping God and take the Good News as it has impacted on our lives out into our neighborhoods and work spaces and vacation sites?

Receive the Holy Spirit. Open your lives to his leading. LIVE the Good News.

Amen.


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