May 27, 2018 Sermon

            Dr. Christopher Atzinger was the stereotypical strict piano instructor with all-hearing ears and a love for German composers, and his mentorship is the reason that I am a halfway decent pianist. He held me to strict standards of quality, so whenever I finished performing my piece for the week, I would turn around and wait for his response which would either be a drawn out, “.... huh…” which meant that it going to be a rough lesson, or the desired, “well… that was… interesting” which meant that I had done well enough to not waste his time. But his high expectations gave structure to my absent-minded personality, and his insight and teaching helped me learn how to perform difficult solos and accompany student soloists and church worships. I grew more as a pianist in those four years than I had in ten years of prior piano lessons. So when I entered his studio roughly three years ago to hear him say, “This will be our last lesson together,” my heart sank, and I was terrified. I believe that my exact response was something like *Eric collapses on the piano*. I felt that my growth as a pianist was entirely because of his mentorship, and without his presence, I was terrified that all of my practice and improvement as a pianist would fall apart.

            We’ve all had mentors in our life who have shaped us to become greater than we thought possible, and the departure of a mentor from our lives is one of the most painful experiences we can know. This experience is where we encounter the Disciples in Jesus’ Ascension, as they realize that their friend and mentor who has transformed their lives will be leaving the earth. They quickly recognize the Ascension as an ending, but hold onto the hope for a triumphant ending when they ask Jesus whether now, after all that he has been through (and put them through) will be the time that he restores the kingdom of Israel, like the promised Messiah is supposed to. Jesus’ sacrifice and salvation isn’t relevant to them, they just want a clear, storybook victory where good defeats evil once and for all, justice is immediately restored to the world, and their mentor gets to rule over the world. And behind this anxious request for Jesus to remain present we can hear the lingering question of “Why?”—why did Jesus have to ascend and leave Earth, and would it really hae been so bad for Jesus to stay and just rule the world? Rather than recognize the present significance and responsibility of salvation, the disciples would prefer for Jesus to take control of the world and solve all problems forever, and to their credit, it’s difficult to conceive of why Jesus would just choose to leave after his resurrection.

Contrary to the disciples’ fears, Jesus makes it clear that they are nowhere near the end of the story, and that the next chapter will directly depend upon the involvement of the disciples. Rebuffing their question, Jesus tells the disciples to let God be God, and to be concerned with what they can control: namely, how they will respond to the salvation that Jesus has brought to the world. In his final guidance before the Ascension, Jesus instructs the disciples that, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The disciples have witnessed revolutionary teachings, healings and miracles, and a sacrifice and resurrection that changed the course of humankind’s relationship with God and defeated death. And for the world to know that this radical grace has given them salvation through grace and freedom from death, the disciples will have to share what they have seen with the world. And in this call, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will give the inspiration and power to share their witness of the Christ’s Gospel to all people. So while the Ascension does at first appear to be the end of Jesus’ time on earth, this culmination of Jesus’ ministry reveals that Jesus is not confined to a single time and place, but establishes his presence of love, liberation, salvation and forgiveness in all of the world through the actions of those who witness to the Gospel message of salvation.

            The progression of the Ascension call best shows how Jesus expands his presence from a strict, localized position to a global presence with a transformative impact through the disciples’ act of witnessing to the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, so let’s dig into that call.

Jesus first calls the disciples to serve as witnesses of salvation to the people of Jerusalem. This is the call to share the grace and peace of Christ’s teachings and sacrifice with the neighbor who looks, thinks, and acts like you do. The similar foundation is faith should make this first task simple, but how many of us are comfortable walking up to a neighbor and telling them about your personal faith and witness to the Gospel? It’s terrifying! Such honesty and openness with those closest to us invites judgment and risks disagreement, so we would rather live and let live when it comes to sharing our faith with our neighbors. But this first stage of Jesus’ Ascension call reminds us that those closest to us are often most in need of hearing the message of love and acceptance from someone who can lift them out of our darkest days, remind them of their connection to God, and reignite their hope in the promise of salvation and forgiveness. So the call to act as a witness to Christ’s message to the neighbor is the first way that the disciples are called to extend the presence of Christ beyond themselves, for by reaching out to the neighbor, the Holy Spirit guides us to offer Jesus’ healing forgiveness and care to a far greater number than Jesus would reach in a single body.

The second step goes beyond the neighbor, as Jesus tells the disciples to share their witness to the people of Samaria—the rivals and occasional enemies of the Jewish people. The divisions between Judea and Samaria were deep from centuries of hostility and hatred, so this call meant that they would have to go and share the teachings and sacrifice of Jesus with a people who didn’t want anything to do with them, and deliver the message of Christ’s peace, love, and forgiveness to people who would actively hate and revile them. The disciples would have to become vulnerable to share the Gospel message with their enemies, and begin the process of healing the damage of division by acting with compassion in the face of hostility. And today, this means that we are called to share the message of Jesus with those whom we would not normally associate with—we have a call from Christ to reach beyond the hostility that separates us to be witnesses to Christ’s Gospel by overcoming the differences that divide us. So in the second stage of the Ascension call, Jesus’ presence is made known in the world when we reach out to our enemies or others and let the Holy Spirit to guide our Gospel witness to heal and overcome earthly division until the gift of salvation is offered to people who would otherwise have no knowledge of Jesus’ gift of grace.

And if this distance wasn’t enough for the disciples to cross, Jesus calls them to be witnesses to all the ends of the earth. Imagine how impossible this call would seem to this group of Galilean fishermen, with a basic education, no foreign language experience or cross-cultural training, who may not have even left their homeland of Judea before. This final part of the Ascension call reminds the disciples and all witnesses to the Gospel to leap beyond their comfort zones, or even beyond their ability, to share the message of God with all people of the earth who are in need of the message of unconditional love and salvation through grace. It is a call to expand our vision of who needs to hear the Gospel message beyond the people we know to the people we do not, but are in likewise in need of the liberation that Jesus’ salvation provides. In this last stage of the call, we see that Jesus promises that the Gospel message transcends the differences of culture and language, and that the promise of salvation and forgiveness is one that will always be received by those in need of it so long as we are willing to witness to it. The Spirit communicates the presence of Christ through our presence—when we reach out into the world or the lives of others with the intention of sharing the Gospel, we are able to communicate Christ’s presence through the boundary-breaking and compassionate work of the Holy Spirit.

So in this daunting final step of the Ascension call, we see that Jesus’ ascension was not the end of his time on earth, but that it was the beginning of expanding his presence from a single location and time to the entirety of the world and of history through the witness of words and actions from all who reach out to share the Gospel of salvation.

So if we are called to carry Christ’s presence to the edges of the earth, how are we to serve as witnesses to the Gospel message? The answer is contained within the title of the book that begins with Jesus’ Ascension: Acts. Actions of faith speak the Christian message with greater power and volume than preaching ever can. Today is actually just the beginning of a sermon series on the book of Acts, and over the summer months, Pastor Tim will be walking through the many stories of the Apostles performing great actions of Christ-motivated love, compassion, courage, and service to demonstrate what it meant to be saved by grace, transforming hearts and minds with their witness to Jesus Christ. Through this book, we’ll be able to study what kinds of actions fulfill the call of Jesus’ Ascension. And with the knowledge that the book of Acts acts as a blueprint for the actions that allow the presence of Christ to be shared with the neighbor, the enemy, and to all edges of the earth, we can see how the Ascension is truly the transition from the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life and resurrection, to the spread of the Christ’s saving and restoring presence through the actions of those who witnessed the salvation of Jesus and needed to share it.

But the foundation of all actions that serve as a witness to Christ’s Gospel is the underlying theme in the Ascension story: presence—both Christ’s and our own. After Jesus ascends to Heaven, the apostles stare up at the sky, overwhelmed, until two men in white robes appear and tell them that they can’t just stand there. Jesus will return, but they need to go out and get moving—the disciples must be present in the world in order to fulfill their duty to share Christ’s presence as witnesses to the Gospel. The same is true for us. The problems of economic struggle, mental health, and religious difference that prevent us from communicating with our neighbor, the barriers of “-isms” that separate us from those different from us, and the wars and suffering still plaguing large areas of the earth can seem like impossible obstacles to overcome in the call to share Christ’s message. Yet we are called to do more than offer thoughts and prayers or hope for the best, we are called to be present in the conflicts of the world so that we may share the Gospel of Christ through actions of love, healing, and compassion where there is need for such actions. It means that we are to be vulnerable, take risks, and act with courage even when common sense may tell us to stay home and stay quiet. But the work of God does not begin until we are present in the needs and concerns of the world, and Christ’s presence will not be shared with those who need it unless we are there to share it.

If this seems like a lot of responsibility, it is. But Acts is filled with stories of Peter and John be imprisoned for daring to preach against authorities, Stephen murdered for his boundary-breaking compassion, and Paul daring to found churches across Asia and Europe where the name of Jesus was never heard of before. And tomorrow, we will celebrate the actions of those who were so willing to be Christ’s presence in the world, that they gave their lives in defense of the innocent and of the freedom that we have in Christ. Soldiers who lived their lives to protect others and make the world a safer place, and who died so that we may keep living in the love of Christ. Being present in the world is not easy—it means that we take risks, and have the courage to reach out, but it also means that we have the opportunity to bring Christ’s transformative and restorative presence into a still deeply damaged world.

But while presence requires courage and risk, the Holy Spirit can do incredible work through us from the simple act of being present. In my last lesson with Dr. Atzinger, my piano professor, we didn’t spend any time working on piano pieces. Instead, he showed me how to continue my work as a pianist in the real world by finding a place that could use my skills, and serve there. In the past three years, I’ve been able to use my abilities in piano to accompany and support student choirs and soloists, help at the church, or provide music for people looking for a relaxing evening at a restaurant. And through this practice, I’ve been shocked to witness how my mere presence as an expressive and supportive pianist has allowed the Spirit to work through me to offer Christ’s compassion, kindness, and encouragement to the people I work with—not through preaching or speaking, but through my presence and the actions that follow from it. And we all have gifts that allow us to be present in the lives of others, services that we can offer to enter into their experience, and once there, allow the Spirit to guide us to share the presence of Christ through our actions. I think of teachers who established Christ’s presence in my life with their knowledge and guidance, service workers whose kindness was the presence of Christ that lifted me up on a bad day, and mentors like Dr. Atzinger who are the challenging presence of Christ that helps forge who we are. Being present through our gifts is the first step towards allowing the Spirit to work through us and perform the actions that can share the presence of Christ, transform lives, and heal the world.

And while we may face greater difficulties in being present in this modern day, we also have so many incredible opportunities with the technology available to us. Our phones, for example, have so many applications that can allow us to be present in so many places we otherwise would not be able to go. In fact, I’ve posted a curated list of some of my favorite applications on the church website and Facebook page, and I encourage you to check them out! For example, the application Charity Miles donates to a global charity of my choice for every mile I exercise. It’s small, but through this act of being present for a run, I can have an impact across the world. The potential for acts that can share the Gospel is greater today than ever, especially if we choose be to present in the lives of others through our gifts, and it reminds us that Christ’s Ascension was not the end of his work on earth, but the next step in the restoration of the world through Christ’s presence. We just need to have the courage to go out, be present, and be ready act at witnesses to the Gospel of salvation.

We’ll continue to explore where the apostles go after witnessing the Ascension and receiving the call to be global witnesses to Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, but today we receive instructions for the first part: presence. The Ascension reminds us that we are an integral part of Christ’s mission of restoration—we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to God’s undying love through our actions and presence, and this has the potential to transform the world. It already has. So, as we begin our walk through Acts,take this beginning with the Ascension as a reminder that all actions require presence to be effective, and consider the ways that you can be present in the world to share Christ’s presence. For the Ascension is not about Jesus leaving us, but about Jesus working through us to be present in the entire world—not by restoring a single nation, but by working in all of us to share the message of salvation through grace when we use our words and actions to be the presence of Christ’s forgiveness and everlasting love. Now let us all stop staring up at the sky, go out, and be present for the sake of Jesus.