Where Is He Now?

Acts 1:1-11

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Shirley Temple now

Do you ever watch those TV documentaries that follow the lives of celebrities from days gone by and ask, “Where are they now?”  I must admit that I find them fascinating.  Obviously, some of them are more fun to watch than others.  It’s always sad to hear about those who get swallowed up by fame and lose themselves in an ocean of drugs and revelry.  But then there are those who somehow manage to outlive their own fame.  Many of them go on to lead perfectly normal lives with spouses and families.  Others go on to do even bigger and more important things than when they were in the limelight.

My favorite example of this kind of celebrity is none other than the unforgettable Shirley Temple.  Shirley was the sweetheart of the silver screen in the 1930s and is still the youngest person to ever receive an Academy Award.  What most people don’t know is that, since then, Shirley Temple has had an illustrious career as an American diplomat.  She was a delegate to the United Nations and the Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia at different points in her life.  All in all, I’d say that she’s had a pretty successful post-show-business career!

It’s kind of the same way with Jesus.  Today, we’re celebrating Christ’s Ascension into heaven where he “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”, according to the Apostles’ Creed.  The Ascension represents the early Christian church’s way of answering the question, “Where is he now?” when it comes to Jesus.  After all, they claimed that he had risen from the dead, so they had to have some kind of response ready when people asked, “Well, if he’s really alive, why then can’t we see him?”  So then, the Ascension, on one level, is kind of a cheap cop-out.  But, on another level, it expresses a truth that goes much deeper than mere historical fact.

The Ascension is kind of a hard topic to write a sermon about.  It’s so abstract and mythical-sounding that it’s hard to pull anything useful or relatable out of it.  Have you ever seen a Jewish rabbi come back from the dead and then fly off into the wild blue yonder like Superman?  I can’t say that I have.

Biblically speaking, we read about the Ascension in two different places in the New Testament: at the end of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.  This is more appropriate than you might think because Luke and Acts are actually related to each other.  They were probably written by the same author(s).  Acts follows Luke like the sequel to a blockbuster movie.  The first movie (Luke) tells the story of Jesus’ life.  The second movie (Acts) picks up right where the first one left off and tells the story of what happened in the early church immediately after Jesus’ earthly lifetime.  The Ascension event serves as a kind of fulcrum or turning-point between these two stories.  Jesus continues to be an important and active presence in the book of Acts, but, like Shirley Temple, much of his most important work takes place after he exits the spotlight.

The Ascension represents an expression of the earliest Christian belief that Jesus is more than an historical figure who lived two thousand years ago.  For Christians, Jesus is a living reality and an icon of the divine (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus shows us what God is like).  This amazing person who worked as a carpenter and rabbi in Nazareth during the first century is, when seen from the Christian perspective, the king of the universe and the revealer of all that is sacred.

Jesus holds an iconic, even cosmic, status for us Christians.  What does it mean for us to hail him as the ascended king of the universe who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”?  There are many who say that, as king of the universe, Jesus is in charge of every little event that happens.  It’s easy to see why people might think this when things are working out for the better (e.g. during times of prosperity, happy coincidences, and chance encounters with opportunity).  But this same idea becomes a big problem when we think about things like disease, disaster, and death.

Do these events fall under the sovereign rule of King Jesus?  Some say yes.  They try to comfort suffering people with pithy phrases like, “God is in control” and “everything happens for a reason.”  If you’ve ever heard someone say that to you in the middle of a crisis, you’ll know how much it doesn’t help.  In fact, it’s downright offensive.  Phrases like that do more to comfort the speakers than the hearers.  It’s something people tell themselves in order to dismiss the suffering of others.

So, when I think about Jesus as king of the universe who reigns in power at the right hand of God, I don’t think of him controlling everything that happens in this world.  If we believed that, we would have to blame Jesus for a whole lot of horrible things that happen.

If we believed that, we would end up asking the very question that the story of the Ascension was meant to answer: Where is he now?

When we get that cancer diagnosis: Where is he now?

When we lose a job: Where is he now?

When accidents and disasters happen: Where is he now?

When children are made to suffer and die: Where is he now?

That’s why the idea of Jesus as “the king of the universe who controls everything” is so unsatisfying for me.  It leaves me asking the very question it was meant to answer.

When I think of Jesus as ruler over the cosmos, I think of him ruling from within rather than without.  The throne of the risen and ascended Christ is not on some cloud in an alternate dimension, but within our own hearts.  The power of Christ is the power of persuasion rather than coercion.  Christ works with our free will, not against it.  When we, as Christian people, freely follow Jesus and choose to live our lives in accordance with his spirit and words, the risen Christ lives and reigns in us.  The spirit of Christ is embodied again in us.  This is what it means for the risen and ascended Christ to rule from within rather than without, by persuasion rather than coercion.

Where is Jesus now?  Jesus is in you.  Christ lives and reigns in you.

When people are suffering, Jesus is in those who work to offer comfort and relief.  Even when the pain is too great to be healed by human hands, the spirit of Jesus is alive in those who sit by the bedside or on the other end of the phone, holding hands, listening, and offering the comfort of companionship so that those who suffer don’t have to do so alone.  That’s where Christ lives and reigns in power today and his work continues, long after he has physically left the spotlight.  That’s where his kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”.

We are the ones who must be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  Our risen Lord and Savior sets his throne in our hearts.  Will we pledge our allegiance to his kingdom?  Will we walk through our life in this world as he did: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God?

Will we prize our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth above every other conviction and commitment?  Will we take risks that put as odds with the interests of the powers-that-be?

If we can do that, we will learn what it means to worship the risen and ascended Christ who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”.

I would like to close by sharing with you a prayer that I love.  It was attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although he probably didn’t write it himself.  It’s quite famous, so you may have heard it somewhere before.  If you feel stirred by what we’ve talked about here today, if you find yourself asking “Where is he now?” in relation to Jesus, and you want to experience the risen Christ as a living reality and not just an historical figure, I invite you to join your heart with mine in praying this prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

It Gets Better

Today’s Sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  We celebrated Ascension Sunday and Youth Sunday.  Today also happens to be More Light Sunday for some churches in the PC(USA).  Visit www.mlp.org to find out more.

My text is Ephesians 1:15-23.

Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Harrison Chase Brown, Raymond Chase, Felix Sacco, and Caleb Nolt.  These nine names belong to nine teenagers who took their own lives during the month of September 2010.  Nine youths in a single month.  What’s even more shocking is that each one of these nine people were driven to suicide by the same thing: each of them was being bullied and tormented by classmates, roommates, and peers because of their sexual orientation.

This rash of suicides last fall received a lot of attention in the media.  Many people were wondering what caused such a sudden spike in such tragedy.  Personally, I wonder if it was happening around us all along, but we just weren’t paying attention until then.  Whatever the case, the events of last September caught the attention of a journalist named Dan Savage who decided to do something about it.  He launched a video campaign on YouTube to reach out toward other teenagers who might be considering suicide for the same reason.

Dan wanted to send a message of hope to these kids.  He wanted them to see videos of adults who persevered through the bullying and went on to find happiness, health, success, and love in their lives.  The message of the project is that, no matter how hard life might seem right now, it gets better.  In fact, that’s what the project is called: ‘It Gets Better’.

‘It Gets Better’ has been a huge success.  200 volunteers had uploaded videos by the end of the first week, telling their stories and offering their lives as an example of hope.  By the end of the second week, they had already reached the 650 video limit imposed by YouTube, so they had to open their own website.  Since then, over 10,000 videos have been produced and submitted.

Most of the videos are posted by regular people who have firsthand experience with being bullied for their orientation; others come from people who simply want to voice support as allies.  People from all walks of life have contributed: students, artists, police officers, soldiers, clergy (including the pastor of this church).  Pretty soon even community organizations and churches were jumping on board.  There are several famous household names who have volunteered as well: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, the Boston Red Sox, Dane Cook, Tom Hanks, Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, even the President of the United States contributed a video!

The message of ‘It Gets Better’ is all about hope, which is the same thing we’re talking about today, on Ascension Sunday.  The Ascension is not just a neat magic trick that Jesus did once.  It’s an event that has significance for us all.  Whenever we recite the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds together, we affirm that the resurrected Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

In today’s epistle reading from the book of Ephesians, the author talks a lot about what the Ascension of Christ means for believers today.  It starts with a prayer.  The author prays that God will give people “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that, with “the eyes of [our] heart enlightened”, we might come to believe in the power of hope.

The author looks to Christ’s Ascension as the basis for that hope.  By virtue of the Ascension, Christ holds dominion “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 the age to come.”  In other words, all of the powers-that-be in this world bow down to Christ as the Ruler of the Universe.  This would be incredible good news for Christians in the first century.

As many of us already know, Christians were hunted and killed during the first centuries of their existence.  The Roman Empire branded Christians as terrorists (because they refused to worship the emperor) and atheists (because they had no statues of gods).  It was a dangerous thing to “come out of the closet” as a Christian in those days because one could face the death penalty for doing so.  It seemed like the powerful Roman Empire was bound to eliminate this radical new Christian movement from the face of the earth.  The situation was utterly hopeless.

But the author of Ephesians has a different perspective on the matter.  All the guts and the glory of the Roman Empire was like a drop in the bucket.  As an international superpower, Rome was one of the “powers that be” in the world system of that day.  All “authority, power, and dominion” led back to Rome (and the house of Caesar).  But Ephesians sees Rome as just another pawn in God’s big chess-game of the universe.  According to Ephesians, the entire Roman Empire existed “under [Christ’s] feet.” Even the great Rome was accountable to a higher authority.

This means that Rome would not have the last laugh.  They could hunt Christians all day long (which they did), but they would be unable to bring a stop to the work of redemption that God completed in Christ.  The bad guys could not win.  The battle was already won.

The problem is that it didn’t look that way to the average person in the street.  For them, the Empire looked stronger than ever and was stepping up its ferocity in hunting believers.  Any logical analysis of the situation would lead a rational person to believe that the Christian church at that time was on its way out of existence and would amount to a footnote in some distant history book.

You and I, as people who live on this end of history, know full well that this didn’t happen.  In fact, it was the Roman Empire that faded away while the Christian Church has survived and thrived in almost every part of the world.  But how, we might ask, could the author of Ephesians be so sure that this would be the future of the Church?

The answer, of course, is that the author didn’t know for sure.  The power of hope is something that can’t be proved.  It has to be believed in.  So, when it comes to inspiring hope in these persecuted Christians, the author doesn’t construct a rational argument, but instead prays that “the eyes of [their] heart [would be] enlightened”.

That’s how hope works.  I have days sometimes when I feel really bitter and cynical about my life or the world.  What brings me out of that funk is usually some story or song that speaks to my heart more than my head.  There’s this inner voice that speaks without words from somewhere between the notes of the music.  When it happens, it feels like a hunch or a gut instinct.  If I were to try and put the voice into actual words, they would probably sound something like this: “It’s okay.  You’re going to be alright.  You’re not alone.”  Personally, I believe that’s the voice of God, speaking light into the darkness of my heart and inspiring hope.  I try to hold onto that feeling, even though I might not have a logical reason for believing in the power of hope.  I believe this is what it means in Ephesians when it says,

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.

This kind of hope is what the contributors to the ‘It Gets Better’ project are trying to inspire in the hearts of bullied teenagers who might feel so frustrated with their circumstances that they’re considering suicide, which is really just a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  As they make these videos, they’re praying that maybe some teenager who already has one hand on that gun, that bottle of pills, or that rope might stumble across one of these videos online and sense the eyes of their heart being enlightened by the power of hope.  And maybe they’ll put down that gun, those pills, or that rope and decide to live.

“Hope” is what comes to my mind when I say that I believe in the risen Christ, who ascended to the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion”.  To me it means that the power of hope inspired by Jesus is stronger than all the powers that be in this world.  Stronger than the forces of injustice and inequality.  Stronger than hate.  Stronger than the bullies.  Stronger than that voice inside your head that says, “You’re no good” and “Nobody loves you” and “Life isn’t worth living”.

I don’t know your circumstances this morning.  Maybe you too are being bullied because of your sexual orientation.  Maybe you’re facing a crisis in your job, family, or relationship.  Maybe the headlines of TV news are making you feel cynical about the future.  Maybe you’re even considering a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  The still, small voice of hope might just sound like a silly little hunch or whisper, but listen to it!  Believe in it!  That voice has the power to transform your world.  It’s the voice of the Creator God, speaking again into the darkness and chaos, saying, “Let there be light”, “I love you”, and “It gets better”.

This is a video of the choir at Immanuel Presbyterian Church performing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles for the ‘It Gets Better’ project:

This video is my humble contribution to ‘It Gets Better’:

You Are Witnesses

Preached this morning at Boonville Presbyterian Church.  The texts are Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11.

Growing up as an evangelical Christian in the southern United States, I got to experience a unique style of performance art that originated in churches.  It’s called the Testimony.

Here’s how it works:

Every so often, the pastor would invite certain members of the community to come before the church and share their stories of how they became Christians (or “got saved” as they used to say).  These were always exciting services.  We heard stories of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that ended in disaster but rebounded with glorious tales of redemption at the last possible moment.

While there was never any official competition going on, you could always tell when two or more “Witnesses” were trying to outdo one another in their ability to testify.  Testimonies were typically evaluated according to three criteria: 1) the popularity/fame of the person who spoke, 2) the intense passion with which the story was told, and 3) the depths of depravity to which one stooped before embracing the light of salvation.

The most memorable testimony I ever heard came from a veteran named Clebe McClary.  He had been an officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.  During combat, he lost an eye and his left arm.  After returning to the States and enduring years of recovery, he became a motivational speaker, encouraging people to press on in life, despite their difficulties and setbacks.

Even though these testimonies can quickly become outlandish in their content and presentation, I still think they serve a useful purpose: they get ordinary people involved in telling their own stories of God’s presence in their lives.

Human beings love stories.  We tell stories around campfires, we sing songs about them, we write them down in books, we make movies about them, etc.  Story is how we communicate truth to one another.  Aesop told fables.  Jesus told parables.  Ask any religious person to tell you about his or her faith, and that person will probably tell you a story.

Our Scripture readings this morning from the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke come at a very critical turning point in the Christian story.  Now, the first thing you should know is that Luke and Acts, while they are separate books in our Bibles, actually form one complete story.  Most scholars agree that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, although the author’s name is never signed on the paper.  Likewise, we know that they were written to the same person, Theophilus.  Acts follows Luke in much the same way that Return of the Jedi follows The Empire Strikes Back in the original Star Wars trilogy.  We read this morning from the very end of Luke’s gospel and the very beginning of Acts.  At this moment in our story, traditionally referred to as The Ascension, two major shifts are happening.

The first shift is geographical:

Most of the action in Luke’s gospel follows Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry in far-away Galilee to the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.  In the book of Acts, the action begins in Jerusalem and continues “to the ends of the earth”.  Acts ends with the Apostle Paul awaiting trial before Caesar in Rome.

The second shift is personal:

Luke’s gospel focuses primarily on the life of Jesus himself.  The story begins with Jesus’ birth and ends with his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.  The book of Acts focuses on the lives of Jesus’ followers in the years following his earthly ministry.  To be sure, Jesus is still central to the story (in a divine sense), but has taken a step back from the immediate action (in a human sense).  To put it another way, Jesus has become the director of the play, while the Apostles are the actors on the stage.  The story of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension into heaven but doesn’t have a climactic end in the way you and I are used to thinking.  I like to think this is because the story hasn’t ended yet.  It goes on and on through the generations, right up until today.  As followers of Christ, you and I have become the actors on the stage at this point in history!

Twice in today’s readings, Jesus calls his followers “witnesses”.  What does that mean?  Who qualifies as a witness?  First, a witness is someone who experiences something important.  Second, a witness is someone who tells others what she or he has seen and heard.  In a courtroom, this is called a “testimony”.  Sound familiar?  It should.

As followers of Christ, you and I are witnesses to the things he has done.  In the Scriptures, we already have the testimony of Jesus’ earliest followers, who knew him in the flesh.  Two thousand years later, you and I haven’t had that opportunity.  We know Jesus by faith, not by sight.  Does that disqualify us from being witnesses?  I don’t think so.

I believe that you and I can find our testimony as witnesses by paying attention to what Jesus has done (and is doing) in our lives.  We can tell others what Jesus means to us.  For some of us, our testimony might look like a dramatic conversion story.  Maybe you have been “saved” from a life of self-destruction in a sudden way.  If so, I encourage you to tell that story sometime.  You never know when someone else might need to hear exactly what you have to say in order to make it through a crisis in their own life!

Those of us who haven’t had a dramatic conversion experience (including myself) still have a testimony to give.  Many of us have experienced spiritual growth slowly over a long period of time.  We may have had moments of sensing God’s presence with us in subtle ways.  Gradually, we have learned (and are still learning) to trust that loving presence in our lives.  If that’s you, I encourage you to tell your story as well.  It might not be as dull as you think.  Keep track of those little moments with God.  Write them down.  Like spare change in your couch cushions, they add up quickly!

Finally, some of you might be sitting there this morning and thinking, “I haven’t had any conscious experience of God in my life!  What’s my testimony?  How can I be a witness?”  Well, there’s no time like the present to start looking for an answer to that question.  If you want to have a deeper sense of God’s presence and activity in your life, you should ask for it in prayer.  God has a tendency to answer that kind of honest prayer, provided that we keep an open mind for the unexpected ways in which God’s answer might come.  If you would like to try an exercise in awareness, I suggest writing your life story in as much detail as you like.  Then read back over it at a later date, asking God to show you where and how God was present in the events of your life.  You might be surprised at what pops into your head as you begin to see old events in new ways!

You might not feel that your story is all that important, but I assure you: it is.  As witnesses, our testimonies are the means through which God intends to spread Good News and transform the face of this earth.  Jesus left this planet because he wanted to involve each one of us in the work of redeeming it.  By telling your story about what Jesus means to you, you are allowing God to keep the Gospel alive in you.

So, go forth from this place today in the power of the Holy Spirit, as witnesses of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Go to the very ends of the earth and testify to what you have seen and heard.  Tell the world what Jesus means to you and watch the story continue for another generation.  Amen.