by Daniel Harrell
Luke is the only Gospel writer who records Jesus’ ascent into heaven; and he does so twice, both here in his Gospel and with detail in the Book of Acts. The language recalls the Old Testament prophet Elijah being whooshed up to heaven. This is intentional. Jesus said everything written in the law of Moses, experienced by prophets and even sung about in the Psalms was finally fulfilled in him.
Genesis and Leviticus, Abraham and Moses, Joshua and David, Esther and Ruth; Passover, Tabernacles, Temples and sacrifice, prophets and kings, fire and water, exile and redemption—Israel’s story previewed Jesus’ story. To be fair, however, the Old Testament never specifically forecast a crucified Messiah coming back from the dead, his body intact. Having been to Sabbath school themselves, the disciples remembered enough to resist Jesus’ insistence that he suffer and die. And they doubted when they saw him risen in person. They were rightly perplexed by his claim to be the Scriptures fulfilled.
Only when Jesus opened their minds did they get it. Sometimes we need help to understand. Jesus explained again how he had to suffer and die and rise for the sake of love and grace, good news too good to keep quiet. “You are witnesses of things,” he told them. And like they instruct us at the airport, “if you see something you gotta say something.”
Of course, at the airport what they mean is for us to report suspicious activity: but what could more suspicious than a man with holes in his hands and feet claiming to be God back from the dead? Or his followers, watching him get carried away, going on to broadcast how in fact resurrection really happened, and then behaving as if it really did: loving their enemies and turning their cheeks, no longer worrying about money or their futures, caring about the marginalized and the miserable, embracing those whom the rest of the world abandoned, preaching repentance and wholesale forgiveness, speaking truth and doing right for no reason other than a hunger for truth and righteousness, overcoming evil with good and blaming it all on faith in a crucified man they said they saw woke up from the dead. Very suspicious indeed.
Sometimes we need help to understand. We also need help to act. “I am sending you power,” Jesus promised, meaning God’s very own spirit, Christ in us, a power surge promised by the prophets. Jesus went up so the Holy Spirit could come down, but Pentecost doesn’t happen until Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts. Here the disciples are told to hang on and wait for the surge. Be patient.
It’s a kind of waiting we’re doing as a church in this ReForming season. We pray every Sunday for the Holy Spirit to transform us, to open our minds and hearts to whatever God is calling us to next. Our prayer derives from Romans 12 where the transformed apostle Paul speaks of our bodies as living sacrifices. And not just our individual bodies, but our bodies together as one body of Christ. Paul explained how, “we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.” This is congregationalism at its core. We covenant to walk together with God because faith is never something you do by yourself. And not only is this true as one congregation, but congregations together. Our relationship with Upper Room as led by Joe has been intentionally and increasingly collaborative. In a day when division and discord and territorialism are all status quo, congregations can bear witness to the spirit’s power and obey it by working together for the good of the gospel. Rather than power over others, gospel power is relational power, power with, God with us and in us, between us and each other, driven to obedience by love.
For Jesus, obedience came by way of a cross. Calling his cross a kind of baptism, he signaled how spirit power would seem suspicious—losing yourself to find yourself, going last and being least, death for the sake of new life and true love. Spirit power blew in with fury and fire at Pentecost because that’s what it took. Fire that empowers also burns. The prophet Joel spoke of God’s spirit coming with “blood and fire and columns of smoke.” Jesus said “everyone will be salted with fire,” a reference to the Temple practice of salting a sacrificial animal to draw out its blood. Gospel power is cross-shaped power—ironic and suspicious, requiring surrender and sacrifice. Change has to happen for mission is to be more than survival. We guard what we love. Yet love also lets go. Change is loss. Yet loss is life. When we present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12) we prove holy and acceptable to God.
Colonial Church is pushing 72, a mere baby when you consider Protestantism just turned 500. The original Reformation, as we know, got ignited by the young millennial, Martin Luther, who in the midst of the mess the mother church had made of itself, decided to do something about it. Rather than leave, he leaned in. Utilizing new technologies of his day—the printing press and the power of copies—he hammered his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, and then circulated copies to a lot of other churches and blew their doors wide open. But these open doors soon closed as churches jockeyed for status and worldly success. A long and divisive slide toward secularism ensued, and seems to be almost complete. So many churches in decline. Go to the Wittenberg Church on this Sunday and I’m told by someone who’s been there recently that worship attendance is down to eight people. That can’t be good. Then again, by the time Jesus finished his earthly work in Luke’s gospel he was down to three women. Fourteen if you count these eleven guys here at the end.
Gospel power is ironic. Obedience looks like a cross. Fire empowers and burns. Genuine transformation requires something more than just more. I so want to grow as a Church, but wondered in my report for our Annual Meeting today whether we need a new metric. Rather than resorting to the word “growth” as a measure of success (which almost always means bigger numbers and more money), what if instead we used the word “depth” (a measure of our discipleship and love and connection and impact in the world)? You can compromise and cut corners to make big in ways you can’t do to go deep. I know, it does sound suspicious: trying to make good news out of bad, make decline look like accomplishment and small the new big—a bunch of preacher-speak and spin to save myself from the sad fate of the US House of Representatives Chaplain who got sacked this week.
But what if it’s true? What if a tiny mustard seed or yeast is how the kingdom of God works best? In America, small businesses have generated 64 percent of new jobs in the last 15 years. Stanford MBA and business blogger Seth Godin writes, “small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs. Small means you can tell the truth on your blog. Small means that you can answer email from your customers. Small means that you will outsource the boring, low-impact stuff like manufacturing and shipping and billing and packing, while you keep the power because you invent the remarkable and tell stories to people who want to hear them. A small law firm or accounting firm or ad agency is succeeding because they’re good, not because they’re big. A small restaurant has an owner who greets you by name. A small venture fund doesn’t have to fund big bad ideas in order to get capital doing work. They can make small investments in tiny companies, innovative social entrepreneurs with passionate ideals. A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick.” If you don’t like the word small, substitute focused and strategic. Churches, young and nimble, are popping up all over the place stressing intimacy of worship and community and concentrated, righteous mission. Working in collaboration with other congregations, my friend Tim’s church of 85 in North Carolina managed a 6 million dollar state grant for affordable housing in Durham and got a police chief dismissed who was racially profiling arrests. Provinga church is only small when it insists on being a church by itself. As part of the embodied and empowered kingdom of God, we are huge.
“Let us not conform to the ways of this world, but transform us—reform us—by your Holy Spirit.” The motto for the Reformation was Semper reformanda: the church must “always reform.” We guard what we love, but love lets go. Change is loss. Yet loss is life. Reduction sometimes has to happen for the sake of true flavor and strategic focus. Stirring a pot of good ingredients for a sauce, or boiling down sap for syrup (if you were here last Sunday), with time and fire and letting off some steam will lead to an undeniable succulence—sweet syrup on pancakes and a salt that will not lose its taste, to quote Jesus. It sounds so suspicious, but it sure is delicious.