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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 5/21

          There’s a story, maybe you’ve heard it before, about Jesus when he arrives back in heaven following the Ascension.  As he arrived, the angels all came running to meet him or flying or whatever, however angels move, anxious to hear about all that had happened while he was on earth.  So Jesus told them how he had lived among the people, how he had shared his teachings with them and how he had tried to model a life of love to them, how he had talked about a kingdom that didn’t work by the same rules that governed most of life on earth. 

But he also said that he hadn’t been well received by everyone, that some had been threatened by what he said, but despite that he didn’t fight back like some wanted him to and that as a result he had been crucified as a common criminal.  Three days later though, Jesus told them that he had been raised from the dead, thus claiming victory for the ethic of love that he had modeled, his victory over evil and death that would make the same victory possible for everyone.

          When he was done, one of the angels asked, “What happens now, now that you’re back here?”

          Jesus said, “Well, I left behind a small group of faithful men and women.  They will tell my story.  They will express the love that I shared with them.  They will spread the good news of the kingdom I talked about.”

          “That sounds good,” the angel said.  “But what if they fail?  What if it doesn’t work?  What’s the plan then?”

          Jesus looked at the angel and said, “There is no other plan.”

          Just prior to his Ascension, Jesus told the disciples what the mission was; “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  You will be my witnesses; that’s really what Ascension Day is all about.  When you think about it, up until that point, a key part of the Jesus story, namely the Resurrection, was an inside story.  Jesus’ ministry was public, lots of people would have seen him or heard him or at least heard about him.  His crucifixion was public, something of a spectacle so a significant number of people would have watched him die and while they didn’t have the media we have these days, in and around Jerusalem word, no doubt, would have spread pretty quickly that Jesus had been executed.

          But the Resurrection was more of an inside thing and everything that happened for those 40 days after the Resurrection until his ascension was for insiders.  Only a relatively small number of people experienced the Risen Christ.  So from the beginning, the mission for the insiders has been to be witnesses, to tell the story of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and welcome, to live the story of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and welcome, because it’s the story, it’s the truth that the world needs to hear.  Two thousand years later, we are the insiders, so in a different time and a different place, this is our mission. 

As unlikely as it may have seemed to the angels, that first small group that Jesus left behind did a pretty good job, a miraculously good job actually. 

They needed to be prodded a little bit though, prodded a little bit to get started because apparently at first they were just kind of gazing into heaven, watching Jesus disappear into the clouds and who can blame them?  It had to be a pretty awe inspiring experience and maybe at the same time they were thinking about what a ride it had been.  To be sure there had been some frightening and horrifying unpleasantness along the way too, but on the whole it had been a pretty amazing ride with Jesus.

          But as they gazed into heaven, two men in white robes, it seems like we’ve encountered them before, two men in white robes kind of bring them back down to earth in essence saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back; but in the meantime he left you with a mission.”  You will be my witnesses.

          That was the mission and it’s still the mission and now we are the insiders.  But it’s easy to get discouraged with this mission because unlike those first followers, we don’t see amazing results; quite the opposite actually.  Where the early church grew and thrived, we see smaller numbers in church, larger numbers at home or wherever they are, seemingly indifferent and/or uninterested and we wonder what we are doing wrong, what we should be doing differently.

          There are a lot of ways one can answer that question, but however it is answered, the first thing to do, is to come back to the mission statement.  The mission is “to be my witnesses.”  To be Jesus’ witnesses means that however we do it, we continue to proclaim what he proclaimed,  which is an alternative kingdom, an upside down kingdom where the poor are lifted up and the rich are made empty, a kingdom where strangers are welcome, where those thought to be unclean for whatever reason are made clean by what Jesus has done for us, where God’s undeserved grace is available to everyone, where the last worker hired gets the same wage as the one who worked all day.  It’s a kingdom that does come with responsibilities, we don’t want to forget that either; Jesus talked about the responsibilities too; but they are pretty simple to remember; mainly to love God and to love the neighbor in a neighborhood that is pretty large; easy to remember but not always so easy to do. 

One problem in all this is that the church, the insiders are easily distracted by other things, things that Jesus didn’t seem to care very much about or at least he didn’t say much about them, and then the perception of outsiders is that we are not being Jesus’ welcoming witnesses but instead we’re finding ways to create conflict.  As a church we don’t witness well to Jesus when the perception is that we spend an inordinate amount of our energy focusing on that which divides us. 

The early church could have done that, some tried to do that saying that unless you met all the requirements of Judaism first you couldn’t be a Christian.  That’s not the path they chose though and the church grew and thrived as they removed the barriers that well meaning religious people thought couldn’t be removed.  They lived with their differences, finding their unity in Christ and his message, rather than in external laws that would exclude and divide.  We ought to learn from them.

If we are to be Jesus’ witnesses it means staying focused on his teachings and on telling the story of his life and death and resurrection and ascension and staying focused on how, by his love we are joined to him, invited into relationship with him and made right with God.  That is what unites us.  There are some issues that we’ll never agree on and on those it is best to respect our differences and trust that God will somehow be at work even through things we can’t settle.  Getting bogged down by those things, does not witness to Jesus, it’s not part of the mission.

You will be my witnesses.  That was the mission; it is the mission.  There’s no guarantee that being true to the mission we’ll see the kind of growth the early church did, but the Spirit will be at work.  That’s the only guarantee; and that is the plan.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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