Here are my thoughts for this Ascension Sunday, 20 May 2007
(This has been edited since it was first posted)
Consider the following situation – what if there was a culture where there was no concept of sin, badness, or evil? Now, the answer to this question is and has been the subject of many a debate in philosophical and theological circles. It is not a question that we will seek to answer today. But it does lead to another question that we can answer.
How do we know that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior? How is it that we know there is a reason for our existence in this world today and tomorrow? Is it because someone once told us and we sought to find out who Jesus Christ was?
Notice the opening words of Acts, the Epistle reading for today. (Acts 1: 1 – 11) Luke writes, “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning.” We are not going to know who Jesus was or what He did unless someone else tells us. No one else is going to know who Jesus was or what He did unless we tell them. It is by what we say and do that people will ever know what we know.
Now, someone will say that the purpose of evangelism is to tell people about Jesus Christ and invite them to follow the path that we have chosen. The modern day evangelist will tell us that our sole role in today’s society is to save souls. But those who limit Jesus to the saving of souls or see Him as merely introducing new ethical principles are wrong.
The problem today is too many evangelists spend their time condemning people for what they do and they very seldom give them the alternatives that Christ gave. Too often, modern day evangelism offers Christ only in the negative, “either accept Christ as your personal Savior or be condemned to an eternal life in death.” The only problem with this message is 1) it is a negative message whereas the true Gospel message is positive and 2) we are condemned to a life of sin and death without Christ; so why should I listen to someone tell me the obvious?
The purpose of God in Christ was neither to simply redeem individuals from sin nor teach them new thoughts. God’s purpose in Christ was to create a new community that pointed to the plan of God in this world.
As we look at the world around us, our greatest need today is neither the preaching of the Gospel nor service on behalf of justice. Nor is it necessarily experiencing the Spirit’s gifts or even the challenging of the status quo. The greatest need is the call to be the church, to love one another and offer our lives for the sake of the world. If we work towards the building of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local level, then we are building the foundation that will answer all the above needs. (Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis)
This, I think, is why Paul can write to the church of Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus.” (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23) Paul could not have heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus unless what they were doing was different from what had been happening. When we build a community of faith, when we show others what it means to express the love of Christ, others will see and they will wonder and they will ask and they will come to know.
We cannot simply expect others to know who Christ is or what He means unless we tell others and unless we show others. It does no good to say to others that they must change their ways unless we are able to offer through our words, our deeds, our actions, and our thoughts a reason to make them change.
John the Baptist spoke of repentance, of changing the path of one’s life because there was a better path coming in the manner of Christ. Christ announced that we must repent, we must change our ways but He also told why He had come to this world and what He was offering.
For three years Jesus taught and modeled the behavior that is expected of us. He showed us through His words, His actions, and His deeds what we are expected to do. He did not condemn; He did not challenge. But He did give an alternative. In calling for repentance, Christ calls us to change our lives and to lead a new life.
But, for the most part, these are not the words that are heard today; these are not the thoughts expressed today. Yes, the gospel message many preachers tell the world is a message of hope but it is a self-centered message. It is a message that focuses on keeping the status quo intact and ignoring the world around us.
It is quite interesting to contrast the life of the early church with the life of the church today. It is clear that what transpired in the days that Luke and Paul wrote about no longer take place. It is clear that the message of the Gospel that was first expressed at the synagogue in Nazareth is lost in the medium and message of today’s society. On this day, when Jesus Christ passed on the understanding of the Gospel message, should we not stop, pause, and heed the call to bring the Gospel message into the world?
We are called through repentance to begin a new life. We are called through repentance to reframe the discussion in terms of what we can do for Christ, not what Christ can do for us. Look around you today and ask if the community of faith and nurtures us in a way of peace or does it distract us from that peace?
Look around and ask if the community of faith frees us from bondage to material goods and security. Does our community of faith heal us of our hate, our fear, our selfishness, and our desire for power? Does our experience in the local church root out those things that are fundamental to the system of injustice and violence that so dominate today’s society?
These are difficult questions to ask in today’s society and the answers are very difficult to obtain, let alone understand. They cannot be answered from the framework or view of today’s society because the answers society would provide do not offer solutions but only serve to exacerbate the condition. To find the answers, we must first repent and begin anew. We must open our hearts to Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives. As it stated in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 24: 44 – 53), understanding came from the moment that Christ opened the minds of the disciples so that they could understand.
Today, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. Forty days ago, Christ was crucified so that we could live. In ten days, we celebrate Pentecost and the birth of the new church. Today, we are given, if our minds are open, the understanding that comes from knowing Jesus Christ. We may know that Jesus came into this world and we may know that He is our Savior but we will never understand nor will others see Christ in us unless we repent and begin anew. We have that chance today. Let us take what we know and let us begin anew.