“You Shall Be My Witnesses”

a sermon based upon Acts 1:1-9

 

It has been six weeks since Easter Sunday -- nine weeks since we last worshiped face-to-face in the sanctuary. We’ve been isolated from groups of people, in a precautionary quarantine even from our own family members. (!) Yes, parents are with their children, since the schools have been closed, but they must keep their distance from their grandparents and their friends. There is sadness and loneliness.

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been six weeks since Easter Sunday; nine weeks since the closure of restaurants, bars, and most local businesses.  We’ve stayed at home, stayed separate, & we’ve stayed connected through the internet, and through phone calls.  It’s not been an easy Spring. (!)

 

But Spring it is – just look at the daffodils and hyacinths, the tulips and lilacs, the forsythia and the budding trees!  The grass has grown long enough to mow, and the squirrels and birds are chattering & chirping, singing and nesting, climbing, & running, & flying!

 

It’s almost like we can see resurrection happening everywhere around us, as things start to come back alive… in our business life, in our social life, and in the world of nature.  One reason we can trust Jesus’ resurrection is because we see it in so many other ways all around us.  “Resurrection” is another word for change -- rapid, radical change, particularly positive change. What seems dead comes back to life, darkness turns to light, loneliness & isolation turn to renewed friendship and social mixing. 

 

As the world itself seems to recover from winter lock-down, our spirits are also revived. Hallelujah! We are alive!  Jesus is alive.

 

When the news is bad and the outlook is bleak, people tend to see only in the short-run -- where statistics of contagion & death lead the news and where natural disasters (like the recent tornados in the South, last year’s flooding, wildfires in Australia & California) shock us.

 

But in the long-run, that which looks like death, is usually part of a much longer-term corrective or change for the positive.  I am much more optimistic than old Rev. Malthus, who theorized that epidemic disease, famine/starvation, and occasional war serve to periodically reduce the population so that the basic economy & food supply will be sustainable. Let me quote from an article in Sojourners Magazine:[1]

 

         In An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, Malthus wrote about             what he considered an imminent crisis in light of nature’s laws: People always have sex,            always need food, and the rate of human population growth outpaces food supply.                        Eventually, death & chaos ensue unless population growth is kept in check. Nature checks          population growth through events like famines and plagues. Humans can preventatively             check population growth through prudence and virtue. (unquote)

 

Rev. Malthus wrote that 222 years ago! But some opinion writers have suggested that the coronavirus-19 global pandemic is just  such a “Malthusian catastrophe” at work in our day, culling a few million from our herd. (!)  I prefer to believe that a different lesson is being learned: that even after a tragic event – after war, disease, famine, tornado, flood, or wildfire – human societies can recover their equilibrium by joining together in the effort as neighbors tend to do.  We are going through this TOGETHER; we will come out of it better.

       

We are wise to remember that the potential of natural disaster, contagious disease, and social dislocation is (potentially) on the horizon – and make adequate preparation of emergency supplies, collecting blankets for Church World Service, providing financial support to our community through United Way and other helping organizations – and not losing courage, not losing hope for the best. That’s what will bring us back into balance as a community.

 

I invite you to think back six weeks to the story of Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus’ death was a horrible blow to his movement. None of his disciples would ever have believed that it could happen!  But it did. (!)  And then, three days later, Jesus being raised from the dead was entirely unexpected by his followers… and even more so unanticipated by his adversaries, who thought they had ended his life on the Cross! 

 

Father Richard Rohr, in his book “The Universal Christ”[2] says: Resurrection is just “incarnation” taken to its logical conclusion. … The Preface to the Catholic Funeral liturgy says: “Life is not ended, it is merely changed.” …  Nothing is the same forever, says modern science.  [For example,] 98% of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year.  (!)  Geologists with good evidence over millennia can prove that no landscape is permanent. (!)  Water, fog, steam, and ice are all the same thing, but at different stages and temperatures.  “Resurrection” is another word for change,” he writes, “but particularly positive change.” Resurrection is a revival of the good that we feared was lost -- restoration of wholeness, repair of what was broken, reconciliation of relationships that had come apart.

 

“It was enough,” writes Father Rohr, for people “to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, [in order to] somehow plant the hope and possibility of resurrection in our deepest unconscious.”

 

Jesus’ first incarnate life – from his birth in Bethlehem, to how he lived his Gospel day-by-day, to how he died, and how he still lives in us today – that is, “his passing over from life into death, and his subsequent resurrection into the on-going Christ life [in us and in the world] -- is the archetypal model for the entire pattern of Creation,” writes Richard Rohr. “Jesus is the map of the whole journey, in case you need or want one.”

 

“Nowadays,” writes Father Rohr, “most folks do not seem to think that they need that map, especially when they are young…  [They already know better, or they are simply not yet curious.]  But the vagaries and disappointments of life’s journey eventually make you long for some overall direction, purpose, or goal beyond getting through another day.”  [Asking yourself, “Is this all there is?”]

 

“Even if they don’t believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead,” writes Father Rohr, “All who hold any kind of unexplained hope believe in resurrection, whether they are formal Christians or not.”  [He explains it like this:] “If matter is not only “created” [by God], but “inhabited” by God, then matter is somehow “eternal”. [The word “e-ternal” simply means with no beginning point and no ending.]  When the Creed says, we “believe in the resurrection of the body”, it means our bodies, too, and not just Jesus’s body!  As in him, so also in all of us. [Or, vice versa]  As in all of us, so also in him.

 

“Christianity’s true and unique story-line has always been “incarnation”.  If Creation is deemed “very good” at its very inception (Genesis 1:34), how could such a divine agenda ever be undone by any human failure to fully cooperate?  “God’s “very good” sets us on a trajectory toward resurrection, it seems to me,” writes Richard Rohr… and I agree.  God does not lose.  God does not fail.  That’s what it means to be God. (!)  All will be well -- all will end well. (!)

 

I think it’s time for us to get into the Bible…

 

Today’s Scripture reading is the opening paragraph of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. In it we discover that Jesus had been “presenting himself alive” to his followers for 40 days “after his passion”. What that means is: it had been six weeks since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the Risen Christ was still appearing to them, alive (by many proofs)… and speaking of the Kingdom of God.

 

For us (here in Alpena), it’s been exactly that many weeks since Easter… so we can get a feel for how long the disciples had been staying indoors in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.  Hunkered-down, hiding out, staying safe.  It’s just about how long you and I have been staying at home since the governor’s emergency order directed us to do so.  We are sequestered for fear of a microbe-virus; they were self-quarantined by fear of the authorities. (I don’t blame them!)

 

With the recent, blatant, public crucifixion of Jesus casting its shadow over their movement, these men and women who followed the radical “Rabbi from Nazareth” knew it was potentially a “death-penalty” offense to be caught spreading his Gospel message. (!)

 

It had only been six weeks since Jesus had been arrested, tried, and executed by the Romans.  Tortured, crucified, and buried!  It had been only 40 days since the crowd had turned on them.  Their social reform movement had been condemned by the Jewish authorities in the Temple and rejected by the leading Pharisee teachers of the Law. 

 

For the past 40 days since Easter Sunday, the disciples had been staying in their secluded Upper Room, for fear of the authorities, and (during these six weeks) the Risen Christ presented himself to them several times… and spoke about the Kingdom of God.  (Wow!)

 

Oh, don’t you wish we had a transcript of those teachings?  This is the post-Easter Christ, delaying his ascension (his return to God the Father in heaven) for six weeks, in order to be sure his followers fully understand what the “Kingdom of God” is…

… and how it may “come on earth, as it is in heaven”… and what it means for a person to be a part of it.  Yes, I wish I could have heard their questions and Jesus’ answers about the Kingdom of God!

 

What Jesus says is to charge the disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, you heard from me… for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”         (Acts 1:4-5) 

 

Those words get us revved up for Pentecost, coming in two weeks.  Pentecost Sunday, on May 31, will be the day we resume regular worship services in our sanctuary, face-to-face.  We’ll finally be able to burst out of our nine-week stay-at-home sequestering and “congregate” again (as we “Congregationalists” like to do!).

 

 Then, as though he needed to reiterate that promise, Jesus’ last words (before he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight) were these: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jeru-salem, & in all Judea & Samaria, & to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) 

 

So, in the end, the disciples got the promise that they would be “receiving power” alright, but it was not going to be political power… and it would not mean restoring the kingdom to Israel.  Instead, the Holy Spirit would empower – not their political power, their earthly power, their ruling power  -- but their witness… first in the City of Jerusalem (where Jesus had been condemned & killed), then outward into Judea (where their movement had hoped to reform society). But that’s not all… They would go into Samaria, which was considered unkosher!  The Samaritans were seen as unfaithful to Judaism, because the Samaritans were a “mixed-race” people who did not worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They had their own temples and sacred places where they worshiped God, as the woman at Jacob’s well had explained to Jesus one hot afternoon. (John 4:20)

 

Beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will empower them (in Jesus’ name) to be God’s witnesses to the end of the earth!  To do that would mean including (1) the Romans who ran the Empire (They were Gentiles!), and (2) all kinds of “foreign” people (Goyiim, non-Jews).  Jesus says nothing about restoring the kingdom to Israel, but instead he speaks about spread-ing the Jesus Gospel to all kinds of human societies well outside the borders and boundaries of their culture.  (!)  These disciples were going to be Jesus’ “witnesses” in places they don’t want to go to!

 

When Jesus speaks of “the end of the earth” in its context, it obviously means nations and people farther and farther distant from Jerusalem -- ever-widening circles of movement as the Jesus Gospel spread out in all directions -- to the “ends” of the earth. 

 

So… Are we, as followers of Jesus, supposed to spread his message to the farthest corners of the earth until the end of time?

 

Can we be real here? (!)  I’m afraid that our “mainline style” of spiritual fellowship has not been all that “contagious” lately.  (!)  And it’s not just because we’ve been quarantined in our homes. No, as a rule, we Congregationalists do not spread the word anywhere near as well as some more conservative and strident denominations do… let alone as much as those independent evangelical churches do. 

 

Maybe that’s why the United Church of Christ, which had two million members when our predecessor denominations merged in 1957, now has only 825,000 members.  We don’t seem to be very “contagious”.

 

I think we “mainliners” need to begin to spread the Kingdom of God like Jesus articulated it in his lifetime, not as a “set of beliefs” or a “superiority of lifestyle” that lords over others, but as a humble and effective way for people to fix what’s broken in our relationships.

 

Friends, as you sort through what all this means to you, in the privacy of your own home, I want to encourage you to find your voice and share your core values – share your faith journey -- with other people.  Be Jesus’ witnesses! 

 

Speak about our core values as a church -- values such as freedom, fellowship, faith, and education… the four “pillars” of Congregationalism -- while insisting on respect for the other person (whoever they are).  Think of ways -- once this quarantine passes and we are free to get out -- that you can initiate forgiveness and you can show generosity, compassion, and courage.

 

For to do such things in the Spirit of Jesus would be a way we can to do as He asks us: to be witnesses to God’s Good News and to enable resurrection to have the upper hand in the end.  Death will not win!  God will not fail!  But we have our part to play.

 

I believe we’re up to that task.  Once we are freed from our self-isolation, let’s do our best to be Jesus’ witnesses right here.  Okay?

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] “On Sacrificing the Weak and These Malthusian Times” by Daniel Jose’ Camacho, April 22, 2020 (on-line)

 

[2] Richard Rohr, published by Center for Action & Contemplation, Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC: New York, © 2019, page 171)

 

 

 

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