This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (8 May 2005). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.
There is one address, 3603 Union Road in St. Louis, MO, and one telephone number, TW2-7187, that are not in my address book. I doubt that this telephone number, even in its modern configuration of 892-7187, is even used today. The house at this address is still there though it has changed over the years. I never lived at this address though I stayed there on countless occasions. You see this was where my paternal grandmother lived from the late 1940’s to her death in 1985. It was a place that I knew would be there wherever I might be.
For the son of an Air Force officer, an Air Force brat if you will, home does not have the same meaning that it might have for someone who grew up in the same area where they were born. It is true that I am considered from Memphis, TN, but I only call it home since that is where my mother lives and from where I graduated from high school. Throughout my college years and the beginning years of my professional career, my life and times centered more round St. Louis and the house on Union Road than it did on Memphis.
My grandfather served in the army from 1916 through 1943, often separated from his wife and two sons. The burden of raising my father and uncle thus fell to my grandmother. In all the memories of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, members of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settle St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life. And when my father died in 1993, I found out something about my grandmother and the church that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life.
As the pastor who knew my father from the Boy Scouts was recounting that night just before my father died, he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. The way the pastor said it, you knew that he did not understand my father’s actions. But I knew that my father had been raised as a Lutheran and all I could think was how proud my grandmother, his mother, would be to know that my father was coming home.
It was also through my grandmother that I came to know that my desire to be a minister is as much genetic as it is a calling from God. Thirteen of my cousins were all Lutheran ministers, so my presence in the pulpit is a continuation of a family tradition that dates back to the days and times of Martin Luther.
My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It surprises many people when they find out that my mother is not only a grandmother but a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she doesn’t look her age nor does she let her age dictate what she is going to do. That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother.
For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. She saw to it that my two brothers, my sister, and myself were in Sunday school every week. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning.
Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant though they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I also have lots of wonderful memories and appreciation for what they did as my mother and my grandmother that allowed me to find Christ in my own life.
It was their faith that allowed my faith to develop. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he had heard of their faith and was enthused by that knowledge. His encouragement to the Ephesians was to keep doing what they were doing because it showed people what the power of Christ was. And he, Paul, would continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would reinforce the work that they, the Ephesians, were already doing. Their work would show others that Christ was alive and that the Spirit of the Lord was present. It was this same spirit that Christ was telling his followers to expect in the coming days as He encouraged His followers to stay together.
When one reads this passage from the Gospel for today, one might think about the formation of a new community. In fact, we know from the historical records that is exactly what new Christians did. They formed new communities for the express purpose of worshipping Christ. That is why we have churches, because they are a way to gather together to worship God. But while we come together in community to worship God and renew our covenant with God, we must also go out into the world.
We should seek to maintain an open secular world in which we claim no established rights over other views, but in which we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. There are those today who define evangelism in terms of bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels offered another definition.
For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. Jordan called people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.
For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.
As Tony Campolo wrote, Clarence Jordan had a hard time being accepted by the Southern Baptists of his time. Were he to be living today (he died in 1969), he would have an even harder time today with Southern Baptists who embrace the war policies of the Bush administration, bar women from ordination into the ministry, and champion capital punishment. It would be very difficult for anyone who followed Jesus as described in the Gospel to fare any better than Jesus did at the hands of the religious establishment of His day.
Too many people today are like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day; they believe that that the world outside the church should be excluded. Or, as the report out of North Carolina where members of a church were expelled for not voting according to the dictates of their pastor, the views of a particular congregation should be imposed on the world outside the church.
For those gathered on the hillside in Bethany, the ascension was a political act. In Ephesians, we are presented with a stark reminder of the early church’s understanding of the power of the risen Christ. To the early believers, a theory arose about just who Jesus Christ is and was; that somehow in Christ, the church, the people of God got right-headed. This meant that they, the Ephesians, had achieved some sort of political power over non-believers.
But Christ did not come into this world as an authority imposed from above but as a humble servant who was to be part of the world. He came not as the revealer of an ideological system superimposed on society, but as the one who in the way he gave himself affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He refused to exercise his power or to show His power through some supernatural power. He came as the one who was prepared to risk His truth (and His life) within the openness of the secular world. (Adapted from Faith In a Secular Age)
But, if we see the process of ascension as moving Christ to the head of the body of which we are all parts, we have a different image of the Ascension. For patriots today, this is not the good news they want to hear. If we turn to Paul, we see that he speaks of the “spirit of wisdom” by which to discern these things. If we use that spirit, we’ll be led to proclaim Christ’s absolute rule — not as king, but as one who feeds and sustains.
Giving all other powers their due and their respect, if we call ourselves Christians, then we cannot as a matter of total confidence or supreme trust embrace the flag, support the government, or pledge allegiance to the country for which they stand. Rather we end up having to say with Paul that Christ Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” (Adapted from “Power Point” by Mark Harris in “Living by the Word” in Christian Century, May 3, 2005)
Those who would have Christ as the political ruler of this society miss the point. We are, to be sure, to follow Christ but in following Him we are to be His disciples, not His enforcers. We cannot follow Christ and then turn around and impose the Christian faith as a metaphysical formula or as a religious or institutional means for providing society with stability and unity.
It is not necessarily a question of asking what Jesus would say if He walked among us today or asking if His message would be heard in the consumer oriented society of today. Rather, the question must be how, we as members of the modern world would react to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. (Adapted from Tony Campolo’s forward to the Cotton Patch Gospels (Luke)) What can we as a church, both as a denomination and as a local church offer to individuals seeking Christ today.
As an Air Force brat, a home is something one never had. Yes, there were places that we lived but more often than not, they were on the Air Force base where we lived and were called quarters. Even when we, as a family, outgrew the base housing, there was no sense of permanency in where we lived. It seemed like the moment we got settled in, Dad would be transferred and off we would go.
But I have come to find that such permanency is not really that critical to one’s life. On the other hand, having a church home was critical. To have a place where I could know that I could find Christ, especially in times of strife and stress, was what I needed.
We live in a time and a society where people no longer automatically live in the same town where they grew up. They have gone away to college and then somewhere else to work and live. They may visit their home town but it is only for brief moments of time. Their lives are somewhere else and the church that may have been a part of their early life is not a part of their present life.
But, having left home and church, many people are finding something missing. These are the seekers, searching for something but not knowing what it is. They seek a peace and serenity that perhaps they knew when they were younger but cannot find in the strife, stress, and turmoil of everyday life. The reason for the success and growth of many churches today is that they offer a sanctuary in which to hide from the outside world. They have created the home church of days past.
But this is not a place where they can find Christ, because Christ is not a part of the past. Christ is very much a part of today and churches need to remember that. Churches need to be that place where people can find the Holy Spirit. They should find that place here. This should be a place where they can find Christ. Our celebration of communion today is an acknowledgement that we are part of a living community that began with Christ’s ascension. We celebrate communion because we are celebrating Christ’s presence in our lives and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
We have heard the worlds of the early disciples today; we have heard the words of Jesus telling us not to be afraid or to worry. And as we celebrate Mother’s Day today, we also remember what we have taught. And like Clarence Jordan, we find that the faith that we are taught only means something when we can put it into action. Our challenge today is to bring into action that faith that we are taught.