Saturday, May 17, 2008

Commission Commencement (Matthew 28:16-20)

We learn two very interesting things when Jesus speaks to his disciples for the last time.

One, we learn there are doubters, even now. And two, we learn what Jesus says in response to them, which is maybe not what we might have thought of as the convincer.

We don’t know exactly what the doubting disciples doubted. They might have doubted something about Jesus – was he the Messiah, was he speaking God’s message, etc. Or they might have doubted that he was leaving them and this was the last time they would see him. Or they might have doubted something else or a combination of things.

I know I’ve heard people say things like how hard it sometimes is to follow Jesus or to know God’s will because we don’t have Jesus with us like the disciples did. If we don’t measure up to what they were able to do, it’s because they had that advantage. If you want to think of it in school terms, they had the AP Jesus and the rest of us are in the regular class, so we can’t be expected to live up to what they did.

But we see here that even though these people had seen and heard Jesus teach, even though they had watched the soldiers nail him to a cross and seen him walk among them again, even though they had seen miracles and signs, they still doubted. So we’re not off any hook about the expectations of what we need to do for the Kingdom of God.

It’s also possible they believed he was really everything he said he was, so they didn’t believe he was leaving for good. He’d just showed them God at work among them and how God was going to be working in the world – why would he leave them now?

Although it may not seem like an answer to their doubts, I firmly believe Jesus intended his words to reassure his followers when they doubted. Parents reassure children when they worry: “No, Mommy’s not going to leave you.” Would Jesus do less for his followers, especially since he was about to leave them? Would he leave them wondering about who he was or about what he wanted them to do?

So one last time, he tells them who he is, reassuring them they can trust his words about himself and about God. And then he does something a little bit different.

He gives them a job to do. “Go and make disciples.” We call it the Great Commission, and we take it as our main task in the church.

With that commission, he lets them know he’s really going away. After all, if he weren’t, then he wouldn’t have them do what he had been doing. No need for them to teach people to obey what Jesus commanded if Jesus himself is around to do it, right?

But he really is leaving, only to return at the last judgment he told them about earlier, and in the meantime if he is to be known among the people and the nations, there’s only one group of people that can do it. They have been his students and his followers, and now it’s time for them to be his witnesses and messengers.

You could almost see this as the disciples’ graduation, and call the Great Commission the Great Commencement instead. Jesus lets them know he remains with them, and the presence of the Holy Spirit reminds them he hasn’t abandoned them. But he’s not there the same way anymore, and now it’s their turn, and no tag backs.

It fascinates me that Jesus addresses their doubts by telling them they’ve got a task of their own now. He seems to lay out that if they throw themselves into the work of creating disciples in other nations and among other people, their doubts will fade. Not sure I am who I say I am? Well, get to work telling people about me and you’ll find out, trust me. School’s out, kiddos, and this hurtin’ world needs you to get to work on helping set it right.

I’ve found it often works that way for me. I may not be sure about what God has told me, for whatever reason. But if I believe that he told me, and I begin to share it as he wants me to, I find my faith strengthened.

So if I want the gospel message strengthened in my life, so that it fuels me, lifts me up and moves me closer to God, all I have to do is start spreading it around.

I’ll hope that sounds like good news to you.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What'd I Say? (Acts 2:1-21)

Whenever someone tells me God works in mysterious ways, I get the feeling they expect me to echo them out of some sense of awe and wonder.

I often fail that test, because my usual response to God’s more mysterious actions is something more like, “What the heck did he do that for?” Pentecost Sunday is one of those places.

“Pentecost” is the Greek name given to the Jewish festival Shauvot, which comes fifty days after Passover. On that day, Jesus’ followers gathered as many religious Jews might have done, and while they prayed together, the Holy Spirit came on them like a rushing of wind and tongues of flame. In response, they started to proclaim the gospel message. Although they spoke in their own language, Aramaic (Luke says it's "Galiliean"), the people who heard them seemed to hear their own languages. Luke, with his usual attention to detail, lists several different groups of people who heard these Galileans speak in languages from far countries.

Christians see this day as the birthday of the church. No longer were they simply people who followed a teacher around the countryside. They became the body of Christ at work in the world, something never before seen.

The “what the heck” moment for me comes in God’s methodology. What’s the point of this mass language exchange? Obviously, it’s a useful tool in getting the gospel message across to a variety of people and cultures. But the Bible never mentions it again in the church’s history. As far as we know, the disciples never display this gift again – the “speaking in tongues” Paul talks about in his letters is quite different.

The New Testament will be written in Greek, a language in which most people in the Roman Empire could limp along if not speak fluently. I can’t see the practical value of this gift if it stops after Pentecost and people just use Greek anyway.

Obviously, God had some other reason for causing this particular response to the Holy Spirit. But when I search the Bible, I don’t find anything like this event, which makes it tough to figure out that purpose. All I can find is something that’s really the exact opposite of Pentecost, language-wise…hmmm.

Back in Genesis 11, the people descended from Noah and the other flood survivors in his family lived in one area, the plain of Babel. They decided they would make a name for themselves. They probably had a little jealousy living in Noah’s shadow and wondered what they might do to compete with his fame. Someone, who may or may not have had more wine than was good for him, decided they should build a tower reaching Heaven. This would make sure their reputations and names were secure in history forever!

Well, God learns of their mighty tower and decides to see for himself what’s going on. Genesis tells us he stoops down to see this mighty tower – “mighty” in this case being a good early example of exaggeration in advertising – and isn’t impressed with the project or the idea behind it. So he stops the building.

Obviously, God could have blasted the tower from existence, rained fire on it, made it just disappear or done any of a thousand other things to it. Instead, he decides to confuse the people’s language. When people on one project don’t understand what each other says, work slows down.

Now, we know that if we want to work at it and listen, we can eventually understand someone who speaks a different language. In fact, we can learn enough of each other’s languages to communicate better and better as time goes on. But the Babel builders weren’t interested in listening, apparently. They all get disgusted with one another and leave in a huff, headed off in different directions. They were taken with the idea of making a name for themselves, and apparently that wouldn’t let them stop and listen to someone else.

They overlooked something important about their name, or identity, or what have you. They overlooked that God has already provided humanity with an identity. Consumed with their self-image, they forgot that God had already made them in his image.

Those amazing translators on Pentecost morning showed that a group of people who allow themselves to be made in God’s image were no longer scattered, disunited and divided.

They were the body of Christ, now at work in the world and unified by the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ascended Into Heaven (Acts 1:1-11)

Ever wonder why Jesus left this way?

I mean, he left the disciples now and again after his resurrection, but he always just appeared and disappeared. This time is quite a bit different. Why did he rise up into the air like this?

Luke says he was ascending to heaven, to be at the right hand of his Father. That’s because Luke, like most of the people who lived in that place and time, believed the world was flat, and that above it was another layer called heaven, where God lived (if you were Jewish or Christian) or where the gods lived (if you were some other religion). Below it was a third layer that made up the underworld – and which also looked different depending on your religion.

So naturally, Luke as well as the disciples who saw the Ascension and told him about it, believed that when Jesus rose into the air, he went to where his Father lived.

What about us, though? We know the world isn’t flat and the universe doesn’t have three layers. We know that we’re standing on the surface of a sphere, and that “up” is different for each one of us. Say we all went straight up from where we stand or sit right now. People who are next to one another would stay that way for some time, but eventually they would separate. People farther apart would just shoot out in different directions.

So we know that even though heaven is real, it’s not literally “above” us. And even though Luke didn’t know that, Jesus did. After all, he came from heaven, so we can guess he knew “where” it was.

All this is to wonder what Jesus meant to do by leaving the disciples this way. And I think he meant to put some finality to it. He had appeared and disappeared, so I have to think that if he just disappeared again, then people might very well have looked for him to come back sometime in the same way, even though he said he was leaving to be with the Father.

Of course, it would be neat to think that the disciples decided to go about their daily lives and watch for Jesus to show up somewhere in the middle of them. It would be neat, but what we know about human nature makes it more likely they would all stay together to wait for him to show up again. And the gospel isn’t going to be spread if the only way people learn about it is to walk by that roomful of people and ask, “What are you guys doing in here?”

No, I believe Jesus left the way he did – “ascended into heaven,” as we say – to emphasize the finality of this going away. He wasn’t going to be back in the same way as he had been here before. His presence and power remained with his followers, but in a different way, because his physical body was gone.

And I believe he planned to do that so his followers could grow as well. They’re still followers of Jesus, but what else does he call them to do in this passage? To become his witnesses as well. They will now follow Jesus by telling others about him and doing his work in this world, rather than just by trailing him around like little puppies.

I don’t know about you, but when I understand the ascension in this way, it asks me a real sharp question. You and I probably know people who look at some awful situation, like violent conflict or people in need or something else and wish out loud that Jesus would just show up and fix all that. Maybe you’ve been that person – I know I have.

And this story reminds us that Jesus has gone to be with the Father. His work on earth continues in a different way than it did when he was here. The physical body of Christ has left, and in its place stands the church.

We’re called the body of Christ for a reason. We are to do as a corporate body the things that Jesus did when he walked the world in a physical body. He taught, and he healed, and he helped…he did what God called him to do. If we are to live up to the name “Body of Christ,” then don’t we need to do those things too?

So when we look at the wrong things in the world and we wonder and ask why Jesus doesn’t show up and do anything about them, I think our answer is another question, asked by the same Jesus we direct our questions too:

“Yeah, you're right. Why isn’t the body of Christ there?”