Sunday, June 29, 2014

Practical Christianity (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, June 29, 2014)

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago.  I was visiting a church where I used to serve, and ran into a parishioner that I had not seen for quite a while.  She greeted me with the phrase “Easter changes everything”, which was the theme of my Easter Sunday sermon from three years ago.  I am here to tell you my friends, that there is no greater compliment you can pay to a preacher than to remember one of their sermons.  I am certainly no different, and I will admit that I was quite pleased to know that the words had stuck with her.

But as I reflected over the next few days, something began to gnaw at me.  While I was pleased to know that she remembered the words, I began to wonder what she had done with them.  Had she merely listened to them and remembered them, or had they actually made a difference in her life? 

The purpose of preaching is to help us understand what the scriptures are saying to each one of us.  The goal is to take the words that were written thousands of years ago and help us to interpret the message for today.  As 20th century theologian Karl Barth wrote, we are to read scripture with a bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. 

Despite being flattered that this woman had remembered my words, I wondered if those words had helped her to understand how God was speaking to her in that time and in that place.  And whether she had taken them to heart and used them to examine her life, make changes, and take concrete actions in light of what the scripture was saying to her.

It occurs to me that we preachers stand here and deliver dozens of sermons each year.  If you are a long-attending Christian, you have doubtless heard hundreds, perhaps even a thousand sermons over the course of your life.  Some are good, others are not.  Some are memorable, while others are forgotten before the exchange of the peace.  We can’t always hit a home run. 

But how many times has a sermon helped you to make changes in your life?  How often have they helped you to examine scripture through a new lens and lead you to a greater understanding of your purpose on earth?  Very lofty goals indeed.

One knock that people make on preachers is that we sometimes tend to be esoteric and deal in the realms of philosophy and theology.  While these are good things, and I reserve the right to do that in the future, today I want to offer you some practical things to consider as you try to live out your faith.  I can’t guarantee that this will work, but I am willing to give it a shot if you are.

One of the themes I preach about frequently is the gifts of the spirit.  Paul tells us that we are all given gifts; some are apostles, some prophets, some speak in tongues, others are teachers.  But the list is far longer than that.  Some are musicians, some are good cooks, some are reliable friends, some are peacemakers, some have the gift of hospitality; others have a smile that lights up a room.  I am a big believer in the gifts of the spirit. 

But whenever I preach on this, I can be certain that someone will come up to me after mass and say “I enjoyed the sermon Father Rick, but I know you weren’t talking about me because I have no gifts.”  My brothers and sisters that is bunk!  Each one of us, let me say that again, EACH ONE OF US, has gifts given to us by God.  Our task then is to discern what they are and to figure out how to use them to serve God. 

Beginning in September we will be offering a 6 week class between the two services that will focus on helping you identify your unique gifts and talents.  I have taught and participated in this process many times and I assure you that people learn things about themselves that they never knew.   This will be a practical step in helping you to discover your unique gifts from God and how you can put them to use in building up God’s kingdom.  That is practical step 1.

If you have been listening to me preach for a while, you know that another of my passions is evangelism.  We have begun to do some tangible things here at Christ Church to be more welcoming to new folks and help us share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.  Today I am pleased to introduce to you our theme for the coming year, a Season of Evangelism.  Starting this fall and continuing into next spring and summer, we will be embarking on a number of programs and actions to embrace evangelism as part of our mission.  Father Barry is putting together a weekend-long seminar with Father Bill Tully who brought about a huge change in his parish in NYC.  Father Tully took over a broken parish that averaged 80 people on Sunday when he arrived, and grew to over 800 by the time he was done.  He will have a great deal to tell us and it should be an excellent way to advance our cause.  But we don’t need to wait for Father Bill to get started.  In today’s bulletin you will find an insert that talks about who and what we are here at Christ Church.  I would ask you to give this to a friend, and invite them to come to church with you.  The best way to grow our church is to share your story with friends.  Knowing Jesus has meant something to you in your life, so this will help you to share that with others.  These are steps 2 and 3.

We all have a story to tell.  A story of how Jesus resurrection and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit have changed our lives.  Let me ask you a question.  As Episcopalians, are we good at talking to people about our faith?  That’s what I thought.  This is not something that we do often, and we tend to feel uncomfortable talking about something so personal.  But my friends, the gift of the gospel is not for us alone.  We are called to preach the gospel to all nations and share this precious gift.  We do that by telling people how it has changed us.  We share our story so that others may receive the gift of Christ and have that same experience.  Our stories are too important to keep to ourselves and so we must get more comfortable in sharing them.  Beginning this month I have asked some of you to share your stories with all of us.  We will do this instead of announcements one Sunday each month.  Once we get comfortable telling our stories to each other, we may even be able to share them with the world at large.  That is step 4.

We are blessed in the lives that we have.  No matter your personal situation, God has brought about great things for you and has brought you to be part of this congregation.  Our duty as Christians is to give back in some ways.  Do you know that this parish distributed half a million pounds of food to the hungry last year?  You may never have seen it, but right behind that wall is our food bank where we give food and clothing to those in need.  We house the homeless through Family Promise and feed those who can’t feed themselves through Amazing Grace ministries.  As Jesus says in the Gospel “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Step 5 is to get involved!  These amazing ministries take involvement and we have a great opportunity to help.  Talk with John Maloney or Deacon Bonnie about how you can participate.  The rewards are beyond measure.

We tend to talk about stewardship in terms of time, talent and treasure.  I have already addressed talent and time, and now I am going to unabashedly talk about treasure.  Step 6 is to give of your money.  This is an uncomfortable conversation for some, because money tends to be a personal issue.  But my friends, I want you to consider this.  Jesus talks more about money in the gospels than any other topic.  Why would he do that?  Because even when Jesus walked the planet, we were obsessed with money and the accumulation of wealth.  It is no coincidence that Paul talks about the wages of sin.  Money holds a powerful place in in our lives, but Jesus tells us that we are more blessed to give than receive.  So today I am asking you to give up some of that money to support our mission as a church.  The ministries we practice here at Christ Church take time and talent, but they also take money.  Giving of your financial resources is a tangible way to support these missions so I ask you to increase your giving.

This morning we have discussed 6 practical ways to live out your faith.  There are many, many more, but it is my hope that these will at least get you started thinking of ways you can practice your Christianity. 

My brother and sisters it is my hope that three years from now you will remember this sermon.  Not because of what was said, but because this is the day that you did something new to more fully live out your faith.   That you found a new way to hear God’s call to you, and began a new chapter in the book of your life.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Sacrament of Wholeness (J. Barry Vaughn, June 22, 2014)

Several years ago I was visiting Nazareth. Nazareth was not only the boyhood home of Jesus; it is also a town mostly made up of Israeli Arabs or Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship.

In Nazareth there is an enormous Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Annunciation, that is the story of the angel Gabriel's message to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. But just down the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation is a much smaller Syrian Orthodox church also dedicated to the Annunciation that is called St. Gabriel's.

While I was wandering around in St. Gabriel's, I noticed that a Syrian priest was beginning a service. Two young Palestinian men who seemed to be no older than about 15 or 16, were standing in front of him. The priest had them face the west door of the church and then he had them turn and face the eastern end of the church where the altar is located.

I also noticed two other odd facts: Near the priest was a child's yellow plastic wading pool and an orange plastic bucket.

I finally realized that the priest was about to baptize the young men.

He had them remove their shoes and socks and take off their t shirts. By the way, one of the young men was wearing a t shirt that said "Space and Rocket Center - Huntsville, Alabama".

While they stood in the plastic wading pool, he poured water over their heads three times using the orange bucket.

This morning we will baptize King and Leonidas. I have neither a plastic wading pool nor an orange bucket. But sometimes I wish that I did have those implements!

I wish that our baptisms were more like the baptisms that took place in the early church.

I was baptized in a deep pool of water behind the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Hayden, Alabama. My father was also baptized there. My mother was baptized many years earlier in a nearby river.

Baptists get some things right!

But they also get some things wrong.

It has always seemed very odd to me that a church called by the name of the first and most important sacrament has so little to say about the meaning of that sacrament.

I can't remember a single sermon about the meaning of baptism. Nor can I think of a Baptist theologian who has written about the meaning of baptism.

I'm sorry to say this, but I think Episcopalians are almost as bad. When was the last time you heard a sermon about the meaning of baptism?

As I said last Sunday, we are trying to become a Great Commission Church, a church that carries out Jesus' directive to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..."

But what does baptism mean?

The first thing to know about baptism is that it is a sacrament. But that raises an additional question: What is a sacrament?

Traditionally, we say that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

In baptism the outward and visible signs are water and the words of the priest - "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".

It is more difficult to define the "inward and spiritual grace." Some say that the "inward and spiritual grace" are the forgiveness of sins; others say that the inward and spiritual grace are the new birth that Jesus promises in John 3 in his conversation with Nicodemus where he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again by water and the Holy Spirit.

I think both are correct.

Baptism was extremely important for Paul. He refers to baptism in all of his letters. In Galatians 3, Paul says, "  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

In other words, being incorporated into Christ in baptism breaks down the most fundamental things that separate us: economic differences ("neither slave nor free"), racial differences ("neither Jew nor Greek"), even the difference between male and female.

In today's reading from Romans, Paul says, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."

In other words, Paul says that in baptism the normal course of things is reversed. In the normal course of things, we live and then we die. But in baptism, we die and then we live.

In baptism we are united with Christ who turns the world upside down. Christ proclaimed that God's blessing was upon the poor, not the rich; upon the hungry, not those who were filled; upon those who mourn, not those whose mouths were filled with empty and raucous laughter. Christ proclaimed that the way to eternal and abundant life was to embrace the cross, to let go of our quest for success and fame and wealth and embrace the way of service and humility.

If baptism is meant to convey the forgiveness of sins, why in the world are we baptizing King and Leonidas today? They are about as innocent as any human beings can be.

The problem is with the letter "S" in "sins". Remove the final "S". Make it singular, not plural.

The problem is with SINS not SIN.

SINS are misdeeds, immorality, bad conduct. SINS are things like driving too fast on I 15; having too many martinis; extramarital sex (and for some conservative Christians any kind of sex at all!).

But SIN - singular, not plural - is not primarily about misdeeds. The relationship between SINS and SIN is the relationship between symptom and disease.

Misdeeds, that is driving too fast, drinking too much, and all the rest, are the symptoms of sin. Sin is the fundamental brokenness and estrangement that characterizes life in this world. Not only are all of us sinners, but every single thing we do, no matter how good, no matter how well-intentioned, is sinful.

The three great prophets of the 20th century  - Darwin, Marx, and Freud - demonstrate this clearly.

Darwin showed that we are motivated not by altruism but by evolutionary forces to maximize our species chances to survive.

Marx proved that every single thing we do is done in order to advance our own economic self- interest.

And Freud showed that we are fundamentally irrational.

In other words, we are motivated by sin.

Sin is the drive toward chaos, disorganization, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement.

Apart from the power of God, there is no way to escape from sin, from our tendency to maximize our own well-being. That is why we are baptized.

Baptism connects us to God, connects us to that power that delivers us from chaos, disintegration, irrationality, and self-interest.

One more things about baptism: Up until the 5th or 6th or 7th century, baptism was primarily administered to adults. Why, then, do we practice infant baptism?

It's a good question, and it's not one that I take lightly. I had to think long and carefully about infant baptism before I decided to join the Episcopal Church.

What finally convinced me that infant baptism is right is that it is such a convincing illustration of divine grace.

God's grace comes to us, embraces us, forgives us, before we are able to do a single thing to earn it.

And this is true whether we are baptized as infants or as adults. God chooses us; we do not choose God. God loves us, embraces us, forgives us, take us as the daughters and sons of divine grace even though we have done nothing and can do nothing to earn it.

My first church was way down in rural southwest Alabama. I was actually in charge of three churches. St. Mark's was even further out in the country than St. Stephen's, the largest of the 3 churches that I was responsible for. St. Mark's only had services on one Sunday of the month. The church and adjoining cemetery were cared for by Dell Spree who lived nearby with her son and his family. One Sun morning I got there early and Dell was dusting the church. Dell was a wonderful woman but had had a difficult life and I think it had given her a rather dim view of human nature. That Sun the gospel reading was the story of the Prodigal Son. Dell and I were talking about it and she said, "I don't know, Mr. Vaughn. I think the father was way too easy on that boy. I would have given him a whipping!"

But that's not what God does. God doesn't give us a whipping. God bestows on us grace, forgiveness, freedom, life eternal and abundant.

The baptistery at the church of St. John Lateran in Rome puts it perfectly:

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility/ a brood destined for another City,/ begotten by God’s blowing/ and borne upon this torrent/ by the Church their virgin mother./ Reborn in these depths they reach for/ heaven’s realm,/ the born-but-once unknown by felicity./ This spring is life that floods the world,/ the wounds of Christ its awesome source,/ Sinner sink beneath this sacred surf/ that swallows age and spits out youth./ Sinner here scour away down to innocence,/ for they know no enmity who are by/ one font, one Spirit, one faith made one./ Sinner, shudder not at sin’s kind and number,/ for those born here are holy”

"Go, then, and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


Monday, June 16, 2014

The Great Commission and the Trinity (J. Barry Vaughn, June 15, 2014)

A little over a year ago I began to talk about Christ Church as a “Great Commission Church”. I think it has caught on because I hear other people talking about it, too.


Today’s gospel reading is the end of the 28th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It is Matthew’s account of the last words that Jesus speaks to the apostles before his Ascension, the words that we know as the “Great Commission.”


I grew up with the Great Commission. It was a constant refrain in the little Baptist church in which I grew up. It was even in our hymns:


From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.


Frankly, I reacted against it for many years. For a long time, I thought that the idea of carrying the Christian message to others was a kind of cultural imperialism. But I no longer believe that. Now, make no mistake: I do not believe that Christians have a monopoly on truth. I believe that there is wisdom and truth in all the great religious and spiritual systems of the world. But I also believe that we have a great story to tell, a great message to share. But above all I believe that we are commissioned to invite others to join us in following Jesus.


Now, Jesus never called this the Great Commission. Matthew didn’t even call it the Great Commission. In fact, “Great Commission” was the heading given to these words by Cyrus Scofield, a late 19th and early 20th c American scholar of the Bible. He published an edition of the Bible known as the Scofield reference Bible in 1909. Not everything in the Scofield Bible was based on sound scholarship. In fact, a lot of it was very unsound. Scofield was responsible for promoting something called “dispensationalism.” If you’re from a fundamentalist background, you may have heard of it. Regardless, I would recommend that you avoid dispensationalism.


But my point in saying that the words of Jesus in Matthew 28 were not called the Great Commission until the beginning of the 20th c is to bring up the fact that Jesus gave a lot of other commissions or mandates to his disciples.


For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13.34)


Or Mark 8.34: “"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”


Or Luke 9: “…he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”


And I could go on.


Nevertheless, I think these words of Jesus in Matthew 28 are of special importance: They are the last words of Jesus before the Ascension. Matthew clearly thought they were important because they are the very last words of his gospel.


The vestry and I have just completed something called a mutual ministry review. In a secular organization it would be called an annual performance review, but this is a church. The ministry of this church is not MY ministry; it is OUR ministry. My job is not just to do ministry; it is to make it possible for all of us to do the ministry to which God has called us.


During the mutual ministry review I was challenged to elaborate on my idea of making Christ Church a Great Commission church, to add some practical steps to this vision. It was a good challenge, and I’m going to try to do that. I’m going to start today, but it is going to be a work in progress. I believe that as we live into the idea of being a Great Commission church, we will see more and more of what it means to be a Great Commission church.


First, I want you to notice a few things about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 28. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” Jesus is the one with “all authority,” but we are the ones he commissions to go to all nations.”


Episcopalians are happy to acknowledge Jesus’ authority, but we have traditionally been pretty reluctant to obey his command to “go to all nations.”


When the United States began to expand westward in the early 19th c. the Episcopal Church was slow to send bishops and priests into the new territories. They elected two missionary bishops – Jackson Kemper in 1835 to serve as bishop of the northwest, meaning all of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin – and Leonidas Polk in 1838 as bishop of the southwest, meaning all of Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.


The Episcopal Church was just as bad or worse later in the 19th c. in providing bishops for the far west, that is places such as Utah and Nevada.


Our attitude toward missions was much like the situations that Baptist missionary William Carey encountered in England in the mid 18th c. when he sought support for a mission to India. Carey was told that when God wanted to convert the people of India, God would find a way to do it without Carey’s help.


United Methodist bishop William Willimon said that “To many outside the church, the Church is like a football huddle. You know that something important is being said there, but you can't understand a word of it, and all you can see is their rear ends."


Our job is not to huddle together and speak only to each other. Our job is to GO, to go to all the nations and invite them to follow Jesus along with us.


The second thing I want to point out about the Great Commission is that Jesus does NOT ask us to convert anyone. Rather, he tells us to “make disciples.”


Jesus’ invitation to the disciples was “follow me.” That is the invitation that we are to bring to the nations.


Note two more things about this invitation: First, following is not a one time thing; it is an ongoing process. That is too often forgotten by evangelical Christians. They frequently confuse discipleship with conversion.


Conversion is what the Holy Spirit does. We cannot do it. It is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to invite others to follow Jesus AND TO GO ON FOLLOWING HIM.


The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we cannot invite others to follow Jesus unless we are following him ourselves.


We are a people on the way, and we are to invite others to join us in this marvelous journey, this adventure, of following Jesus.


The poet W.H. Auden wrote:


He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.


He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy



Now, note another thing about the Great Commission: We are to make disciples “of all nations.”


It is interesting that Jesus phrased the Great Commission that way. He could have said, “make disciples of everyone.” But he used the word “nations.” That had a specific meaning in the 1rst c.


A “nation” was a group of people defined by a common language, religion, and set of customs. The Greeks were a nation. The Romans were a nation. The Jews were a nation.


Last week on Pentecost you heard the story from Acts 2 of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples and giving them the ability to speak in the languages of ALL THE NATIONS  - the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Chaldeans, and all those other difficult words. It’s always so much fun to watch the layreader struggling to pronounce them!


But I wonder, why didn’t the Holy Spirit give the nations the ability to hear Greek? Wouldn’t that have been easier and simpler? But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak a multitude of languages.


The Holy Spirit was acknowledging the integrity and validity of all the different nations. She was carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission – to make disciples of all nations.


Our job is not to make other people like us. Our job is to find ways to adapt our way of worshiping and proclaiming the Christian message to the language and customs and cultural norms of others, not to make them adapt to us.


Here at Christ Church we have made the decision to be a multi-cultural or at least bi-cultural church. We are a church that worships in both English and Spanish. This is not an easy thing. There is a kind of dissonance between English and Latino cultures at many points. But I want to encourage all of us to be patient. I want to encourage us Anglos to be patient with our Latino sisters and brothers, and I want to encourage our Latino sisters and brothers to be patient with us.


One more thing about the Great Commission: In 1966, John Stott, a priest of the Church of England and for many years the rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, addressed the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin. Stott warned evangelicals that they were missing the point of the Great Commission. He encouraged them to focus equally on what Jesus says in John 20.21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Stott warned evangelicals not to divorce word and deed but to take seriously the issues of poverty and disease, education and political oppression.


We need to read John 20.21 along with Matthew 28.19 and 20. There’s only one active verb in the verse from John’s gospel: send. Jesus sends us in the same way that God the Father sent him. The Father sent Jesus in love and humility. And it is only in love and humility that we can invite others to join us in being disciples of Jesus.


You may have noticed that I am sort of a bi-vocational priest. I have been a priest and a college professor, occasionally at the same time. In other words, I like to talk and to have people listen to me!


But Jesus was just as good at listening as he was at talking. Jesus was always asking questions and listening to others. “Who do you say that I am?” “Who touched me?” “Simon, do you love me?” And so on.


The story is told of the young rabbinical student who grew tired of the fact that every time he asked his teacher a question, his teacher replied with another question. So he asked, “Master, why do you always reply to my questions with more question?” To which his teacher replied, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”


We western Christians have been great at talking to others, at trying to make them listening to us, acting as though we have all the answers. But we are entering an age, indeed, we are well into an age, in which we will have to do more listening than talking. Today, most of the world’s Christians live in the southern hemisphere, the developing world, and they are starting to return to us, to bring the message of the gospel to us.


Today is Trinity Sunday. The Great Commission is all about the Trinity. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us in the power of the Spirit to invite others to follow Jesus along with us.


That is the message of the gospel, and I think it is not only good news – I believe it is WONDERFUL news.




Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ascension Sunday Sermon (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas, NV. 6th Sun of Easter. June 1, 2014)

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”


This of course is the Ascension, when Jesus was taken up bodily into heaven.  As I read this story, I find myself wondering about the state of mind of the apostles.  Remember that, while we have the benefit of history to use as a lens, the apostles did not have this same opportunity.  For them it was not history, but the present.  And their present was a time of unbelievable turmoil.  They were living through what was likely some of the worst times of their lives. 


The disciples had been living quiet lives as fishermen, tax collectors or simple peasants when they were called to follow this strange man from Galilee. And they left their nets and their homes and went.  They had no idea what was in store for them, but they found this man strangely compelling and his message of love and peace from God attracted them.  As the weeks turned to months, they listened to him teaching and observed his acts of kindness and mercy and they began to wonder if this might be the Messiah that had long been promised to Israel.  


We know of course that they were right, that Jesus was the Messiah, but remember that they were not looking at this as history, they were living it.  And so they waited and wondered.  If he was the Messiah, they were convinced that the deliverance of Israel was at hand, as the Messiah was certain to overthrow the romans.  Remember that this tiny country, populated by God’s chosen people, had been conquered at various times by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans.  As God’s chosen ones, they were certain that a Messiah would come and restore the Kingdom to Israel, and that was their fervent wish.  Again, we have the lens of history to tell us that Jesus did bring about the kingdom, not of Israel, but of God.  But that was beyond the disciple’s comprehension at the time. 


As Jesus’ popularity increased, they were proud of their master and enjoyed their travels with him throughout Judea and Samaria, and they were especially excited at the triumphant way he had been welcomed into Jerusalem before the Passover.  It seemed clear that he was a beloved figure and the disciples must have been anxiously awaiting what would come next now that they had been so warmly welcomed into the city of the powerful.


And then, what had been a wondrous time, turned to fear and tragedy virtually overnight.  Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified while the disciples stood by in horror and ran away in fear for their own lives.  To make matters worse, one of their own had betrayed him and they were left without a leader, wondering if they were next to be arrested and killed.  So they hid from the world, with no idea what to do or where to go next.


And then, a miracle beyond their comprehension.  The tomb was empty and Jesus, having risen from the dead, appeared to them alive and healthy.  Sorrow was turned to joy and they now knew, without any further doubt, that Jesus was the son of God.  No one had overcome the power of death, and they now understood that their hopes had been true.  Jesus was the Messiah, and all that was left now was for him to overthrow the romans and return the kingdom to Israel. 


But they were to be frustrated once again.  For we know that the kingdom Jesus would bring was not an earthly one, but a divine one.  Rather than lead the overthrow of the romans, the disciples watch as Jesus is taken up bodily into heaven on a cloud, without having done what they expected him to do.


Luke tells the story of the Ascension twice, once in the Gospel and again in Acts.  In the Gospel he says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  In Acts, he simply says that they returned to Jerusalem.  It seems like a small thing to leave out the joy part, but I think it is realistic.  These people, the men and women who had been with Jesus for months and years, following him, learning from him and caring for him, had just been through the most extraordinary experience of their lives.  They had gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, only to return to even higher heights of joy at the resurrection.  And now, they found themselves once again parting from their Lord, this time with a degree of permanence.  And yet, the work they had expected him to do was still not done.  


I don’t know about you, but I expect that if I went through all that they went through, I would be physically and emotionally exhausted.  I might just fall down on the spot and not move again.  But that is not what happened.  For even though they still didn’t understand everything, they were changed by their shared experience.  Jesus had given them a mission, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  And he had promised them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. 


They had no idea what the future held for them.  One thing was certain, their experience of the flesh and blood presence of Jesus was ended.  The physical ascension of Jesus body into heaven was an ending, but it was also a beginning.  While they would not have the physical Jesus to guide them, they would have the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit would give them power to accomplish Jesus work on earth and to support them in all things.  They also knew that Jesus had gone ahead of them to the Father and would be waiting to welcome them when their time on earth was over.  “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go before you to prepare a place for you.”  They now knew that there was no reason to fear death, as Jesus would be waiting for them in Heaven.


And so the disciples, no longer living in fear, returned to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit.  They knew they would suffer, they knew their path would not be easy, but they also knew that the spirit would give them power to accomplish great things, and they knew that Jesus and the Father waited for them in heaven.  That is how Peter, poor all too human Peter who once was so afraid for himself that he denied the Lord three times, could say to us “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you; after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”


Returning to our lens of history, we know that the ministry and travels of the apostles would be anything but easy.  They would be cursed and spit on, chased out of towns, arrested and jailed and some would be killed.  But they never lost faith and they never stopped acting as Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world.


In time, each of them died and returned to heaven.  But the mission remains.  It is our task now to take up that mission and to be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.  We who have been changed by our relationship with Jesus Christ have a responsibility to share the gospel with others that they too may experience the power and joy of Christ’s presence in their life.  And like the apostles, we too have the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us in baptism, to guide and strengthen us.


There will be times of great suffering in our lives.  Our plans will be frustrated.  We will not always get what we want, or even what we think we need.  We too will suffer through fiery ordeals.  But like the apostles did, we can rely upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to strengthen and empower us, and we know that the Father and the Son wait to welcome us to heaven when our time on earth is over.