This is a sermon that I gave at Walker Valley United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (4 June 2000). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.
This sermon comes with a warning for all those seeking to ask their parents for use of the family car or to get a car of their own. This will not help; in fact, it is quite likely that parents will use this sermon as a reason for not giving a son or daughter the keys to the car.
To a fifteen-year-old, the most momentous day of his or her life is the day they turn sixteen. I can remember the joy and exultation I felt when I was a junior at Bartlett High School and found out that I had to take driver’s education in order to graduate from high school. This meant that I would get my driver’s license much earlier than I thought. My father had been telling me that I could not get my driver’s license until I was out of high school.
Of course, after I got out of college and had my own car, I found out very abruptly when I paid my first car insurance bill just why my father didn’t want me to drive. After all, I was the oldest of the four children and would cause, when I got my license and the right to drive, our insurance rates to go dramatically up. Having a driver’s license not only brings with it a freedom to do a lot of things, it also brings with it a great deal of responsibility as well.
Sometimes that responsibility can be a heavy load. When I was a sophomore in high school, the kid next door desperately wanted a car of his own and the right to drive it. His desire to do so was so great that he promised his parents that he would actually study and bring his grades up. This rather dramatic appeal so impressed his parents that they agreed to get him a car if he were to raise his grades to a more presentable level of “C+” or better and keep them there. This, admittedly, makes sense only if you understand that this kid’s grades at that time were like a submarine, below “C” level.
Now, after he had the car a few months, his grades returned to their normal level and his parents were faced with the dilemma of what to do next. They felt that they could not take the car back because they had given their word that he could have a car. But he had failed in his responsibility to keep his grades at the proper level, so something had to be done. So, the parents let him keep the car but took the tires away. So he could sit out in his car but he couldn’t go anywhere.
Getting the keys to the car represent a decision on your part to accept responsibility. Accepting responsibility is this Sunday is about. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the responsibility of taking the Gospel into the world is transferred to the disciples. It is interesting that this Sunday comes as we have concluded the quadrennial General Conference and the yearly Annual Conference. These meetings were designed to address the issues of the church’s role in the world.
Some may see a crisis in the church; others may see a crisis in what the world and wonder why the church is not doing more. If we are called to evangelism — calling people to knowledge that Christ is Savior and Lord — we must understand what God is doing in our history and how He is calling us to join Christ in his action in the world. Evangelism, in other words, must point to the presence of Christ as Lord in the affairs of the world and to the call of Christ as Savior of each of us. In this way, we see Christ calling us to abandon our worldly ways — our petty tribalism, our limiting sectionalism, and our own personal selfishness — and accept his grace in such a way that we, as forgiven sinners, can work as servants of His kingdom within the kingdoms of this world.
There is the temptation to forget that the need to see Christ working within the variety of struggles in our time also carries with it the need to see Christ as the one calling us to repent, to die to our selfish ways, and be converted, rising again to a new life with Him, as we learn to be free to serve our neighbor. If we are not careful, we soon forget that the evangelistic task of the church is the framework by which we see our service to the world.
At the time of the first reading and the closing of the Gospel, the disciples were more concerned with the date of Christ’s return.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1: 6)
But Jesus replied,
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1: 7)
Rather, as Jesus pointed out in verse 8, it was their job to carry His message throughout the whole world.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8)
Being a witness was Christ’s command to His disciples to tell others about Him regardless of the consequences. God empowered His disciples to be faithful witnesses even when they faced the most vehement opposition. Eleven of the twelve disciples, the exception being John who died in exile on the island of Patmos, became martyrs. That same power for witnessing is available for us today. Our task is not to convince people, but to testify of the truth of the Gospel.
Paul, in his letter to Ephesians, emphasizes the rewards to be gained from being Christ’s witnesses in this world.
“so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1: 18 – 19)
But being a witness to Christ in this world can and is a very difficult thing. Some, when faced with the call to follow Christ and accept the responsibility of being His disciple, simply let things slide. They feel that following Christ is not worth the effort or the price. To them, the cares and concerns of the real world outweigh the rewards of a life lived in Christ.
Others decide to go it alone, to take it upon themselves to do everything that must be done, ignoring others. Yes, we come to Christ individually and the decision to follow Him is ours and ours alone. No one can tell us what to do in that regard; we cannot tell someone else what to do, either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who opposed the Nazis during World War II wrote,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (Luther).
But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther). (From Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
You cannot come to Christ through the community; you must come to him alone. But, having come to Christ, you are no longer alone. You are a part of a community.
Whatever the case, the church must be there. It is to be the beacon by which others may see the truth and it is to be the source of comfort for those who weary from the battles of daily life. The church must be more than just a building in which people may feel comfortable.
Churches for the most part have always been structures that one could easily identify. They have always represented a place where a person knew that they could find solace and comfort.
This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.
Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.
In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes from vital devotion. To “turn out” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action. (From Liberation of Life by Harvey and Lois Seifert)
There was a day in your life when you looked forward to getting the keys to the car. It meant freedom and gave you the ability to go beyond the limits of the world you lived in. But in taking the keys to the car, you also accepted responsibility, to take care of the car and be respectful of other people, to buy gas and pay for the insurance.
This day is about is accepting responsibility, of accepting the charge that Christ gave to us that day some 2000 years ago — to be his disciples throughout the world. Christ’s death on the cross gave us a freedom from sin and death; it opened up the heavens to us. But it also brings with it the responsibility of taking the Gospel out into the world, through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. It is not an easy responsibility to accept and sometimes we feel that the price to pay, the burden to carry is too great.
Put it is a burden that we need not carry alone; it is a price that we not pay by ourselves. The church today can and must be the symbol of Christ in the world and it must be that place where we can be drawn together. As a united body in Christ, we can pay the price and we can carry the burden.