Thursday, August 16, 2012

Disciples Become Apostles

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
Disciples Become Apostles

“But 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.”  Acts 1:8

So, as we saw in last month’s Bible study, the Risen Christ doesn’t hang around the place of his temporary burial following Good Friday.   Jesus the Living One has places to go, people to see, a world to capture with the astonishing news of God’s victory at the Cross.

But in the first chapter of the Book of Acts the disciples encounter a sharp curve in the road.   Having broken free from the grave, having returned to Galilee—the place of mission—the Risen Christ takes his followers by surprise.   While he was speaking with them he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:9)

Jesus’ Ascension stops his followers dead in their tracks—mouths agape, staring off into the stratosphere.  What now?  

The disciples might have stood there forever, dumbfounded by the Ascended Jesus’s unexpected departure.   But fortunately two men in white appeared, snapping them out of their momentary stupor:  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:11)

So Jesus was still alive, still out ahead of his followers, but no longer with his feet planted on the earth, at least for a time.   Ascension would not be the end of it all.  Jesus would return one final time, to complete all things and make the whole creation new.

But what were Jesus’ followers to do in the meantime?

No Time for Distractions!

One thing the disciples were not to do was to get lost in speculation about the whys and wherefores of Jesus’ subsequent return.   Jesus himself called that a dead end.   “It is not  (emphasis added) for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  (Acts 1:7)

Despite the crystal clarity of the Risen Christ on this subject, generations of his followers have ignored his teaching.   As recently as last year, a radio “evangelist” Harold Camping predicted Christ’s final coming on May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. sharp.  All over the world billboards were put up, possessions were sold, “Rapture” sermons were delivered and “Left Behind” parties were planned.   And, of course, our Lord didn’t return on Mr. Camping’s timetable.  

There is a genuine issue at stake here, though.  We long for God’s final purposes to be achieved.   We ache for God to consummate all of God’s saving work.  All Christians affirm the final word about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed, that “he will come again, to judge the living and the dead.”

But how and where and when exactly will that happen?   Jesus’ clearest answer is:  “No one knows.  Not the angels in heaven.  Not even the Son.  Only the Father knows….and he isn’t telling!”  (Matthew 24:36)  Speculating about matters that are “beyond us” will only distract us from what matters most to God.

Truth be told, we 21st century disciples still get distracted by other things---end of the world speculating, moralizing about other people’s behaviors, arguing over church politics.  We can become so distracted by other, lesser things that we miss the Main Thing, which is sharing Christ.

How does your community in Christ sometimes become distracted from what matters most to God?

The Way Ahead

It is way above our pay grade to know all the details of Christ’s final coming.  So we would be wise to focus on other things.  And fortunately here in Acts 1 Jesus tells us what those other things happen to be.

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.”  (Acts 1:6-8)

It’s not for us to peer into God’s heavenly timetable.   But what we can do is bear witness here and now in this world.

Jesus paints a picture of how that would play out for his first disciples.  Picture it as a series of concentric circles.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus declares, “and you will be my witnesses

·       in Jerusalem,

·       in all Judea and Samaria, and

·       to the ends of the earth.”

It all starts where it all started for Jesus, in Jerusalem, where the Cross was raised up on the city’s garbage heap and where the crucified Jesus was raised up three days later.  Jesus says:  “start here, in Jerusalem, then move on out to the first ring of witness, Judea and Samaria.  Walk where I walked, and then keep on moving out to the ends of the earth.”

This is, in fact, exactly what unfolds in the Book of Acts.   With the ascended Jesus no longer bound to a single spot on earth, he now lives and moves in and through the community of disciples that bears his name.   Their communal life mirrors remarkably the life of the earthly Jesus:

·       By calling Matthias to replace the traitor Judas, they reconstitute the Twelve followers whom Jesus first called (Acts 1:12-26)

·       They are “baptized” by the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, claiming his identity as God’s beloved, chosen one (Acts 2:1-21)

·       The disciples proclaim God’s in-breaking Rule, as boldly as Jesus did, drawing thousands into the community of Christ (Acts 2:22-47).

·       They continue Jesus’ redemptive ministry of healing (Acts 3).

·       They stand up before opponents—the same Council that condemned Jesus—and testify fearlessly to Christ  (Acts 4).

·       They shape a radical new life, along the contours of Jesus’ way of praise, service and generosity—even in the face of persecution “push-back” (Acts 5).

·       They enter into their own Holy Week “passion,” exemplified in the arrest, trial and martyrdom of the deacon Stephen (Acts 6-7).

Slowly it must have become apparent to the disciples that Jesus did not leave them at his Ascension.   Jesus did not become absent from them—but rather, he became powerfully present to them and in them, in the power of the Holy Spirit.   Their new life as the community of Christ replicated and re-presented the life of Christ in the world.

Is this not true for Christ’s disciples, his followers in every time and place?   How does your congregation, your community of Christ, reflect and re-present the life of Christ today?

To the Ends of the Earth

Jesus’ pre-Ascension commissioning of his disciples in Acts 1:8 plays itself out in the first seven chapters of the Book of Acts.   There’s just one problem, though:  the disciples don’t get any farther than Jerusalem. 

This reminds me of what a Christian leader from Africa once said:  “Oh, you Americans!   You’re always trying to fish INSIDE the boat.”

But Jesus, in Acts 1:8, is crystal clear.  His followers’ place to fish is OUTSIDE the boat, in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.   “Move on out,” Jesus commands.

Follow the narrative in the Book of Acts carefully, and you’ll notice that Jesus’ first followers didn’t actually DO all that Jesus commissioned them to do until Acts 8.   The disciples got “stuck” in Jerusalem until the horrific martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7).  THEN, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1)

God uses whatever’s at his disposal—even the horror of persecution—to pursue God’s purposes, through God’s people.  

God doesn’t call us to stay stuck in one place or to try “fishing inside the boat.”  God in Jesus Christ calls us to move out, to advance into the world, bearing the Good News about Jesus, wherever we are sent.   God calls and energizes disciples (“followers”) to become apostles (“sent ones”).

When we get stuck, God gets us unstuck.  In her book, The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle quotes an Anglican bishop who believes that about every 500 years the Christian church holds a big rummage sale.[i]  Every five centuries, give or take, God turns the church upside down, in order to get us off our duffs and move us out once again, to recapture for a new generation the freshness and alluring aroma of the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Do you think we might be in such a “rummage sale” moment in today’s church?   How do you perceive God getting us “unstuck” so that God can get us all sent out once again?

QUESTION:  How is God transforming disciples into apostles today?   Where is God sending you?  

ANSWER:  Out of the boat.  Into the world.  Bearing witness to Jesus.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:  Please use the questions printed in red throughout the Bible study.
This is the ninth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

[i] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence:  How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker, 2008), p. 16.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

God's-Eye View

Ordination of Scott Marlin Morey
Fridhem Lutheran Church, Lengby, MN
August 4, 2012
Isaiah 6:1-8 and Ephesians 4:1-16

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Last month I traveled 14,587 miles over two continents, one ocean, involving nine takeoffs and nine landings in jet airplanes of all sizes.

Although I don’t fly as often as some business travelers, I have gotten to a point where I read my newspaper right through the flight attendants’ safety instructions…and I yawn during the takeoffs, the landings and the high-altitude scenery.

But not last month.  Because most of my travel happened in the context of vacation, I actually looked out the window of those jet airplanes and I marveled. 

·        I marveled at the sight of a moonrise over the Atlantic Ocean as night literally descended upon us. 

·        I marveled at the magnificence of those mountains that surround Salt Lake City.

·        I marveled at the green-and-tan farm-and-ranch checkerboard that one beholds from above our part of the country.

Simply put, when you are cruising  between 7 and 8 miles above the earth, you see things you don’t notice when your feet are planted firmly on the ground.

You see things—dare I say it?—perhaps more the way that God sees things.   You finally see “the forest for the trees,” quite literally.

In today’s scripture readings we’re treated to a God’s-eye view of things, a high altitude panorama that permits us momentarily to escape the dirty details of earthly, grounded life….envisioning heaven and earth from the Creator’s vantage point.

So in Isaiah chapter 6, we look over the prophet Isaiah’s shoulder as he stands trembling in the heavenly throne-room, with the Lord “high and lofty,” and angelic beings attending to him, and the smoke and  rumble of an earthquake punctuating the announcement that ”Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the earth is full of his glory.” 

Now there’s something we don’t hear or see in our everyday lives—God in all his “Godness!”

And here in our second reading from Ephesians 4, the same high-altitude view of things is rolled out as the apostle sees past all the divisions that appear so daunting on the ground, so that we too-often forget there is (finally!) only ONE:   “one body and one Spirit,…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

When our feet are nailed to Mother Earth we can miss all that.  Our attention to the differences, divisions, and details….can rob us of the “forest for the trees view” that God has—God who is “above all and through all and in all.”

Take a jet airplane ride….survive nine takeoffs and nine landings…..and catch a glimpse of how big God is and how wide and far and deep God’s reach extends.

And yet, even this little comparison I’m drawing between seeing at ground level and seeing from 39,000 feet above the earth….even this “angle” doesn’t quite get it right, because you see God’s angle of vision is another animal entirely.

God, after all, sees the forest for the trees at all times….and yet not without also always seeing each and every tree in each and every forest.   

God’s vision is amazingly “bin-ocular.”   God sees what you and I cannot see:  the huge, broad patterns right alongside the tiniest, most intricate details.

And we encounter that reality as well in these breath-taking texts for today.

For, although Isaiah sees God, “high and lofty” in the smoking, thundering heavenly throne-room….Isaiah is not swallowed up by that vision.   Isaiah, a creature of time and space, is not overlooked. 

In fact, this whole scene unfolds precisely for Isaiah’s benefit, and for the benefit of Isaiah’s wayward people.    A call rings out:  “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”    We need someone down there.  Who will go to speak on the ground for the One whose glory fills the earth?

“Me,” ventures Isaiah.  “Here I am, send me.”    “Me,” we whisper.  “I could do that.  I could be that on-the ground witness.  Here I am, send me.”

This compelling vision is repeated in Ephesians.   For even as we see the forest for the trees—even as we catch a glimpse of what God sees, of who God is:  ONE reality, one God, one great story of God descending in Jesus and ascending back to heaven before descending again in the power of the Spirit…

Even as the fog clears and we “get it” that God is going to be all in all….we are not swallowed up by that vision, our individuality isn’t simply  dissolved into the One who is “above all and through all and in all.”

No.  God never loses sight of us, each of us, in all our intricacy, in all our variegated giftedness, in all the conditions of creaturely, down-to-earth life….because the issue remains the same:  God needs feet on the ground to go for God into all the world and reflect God and serve God and bear witness to God’s glory that fills the earth.

So we have here in Ephesians, that laser-focus on God’s calling once again:   “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called….”

Someone writing from a jail cell (can you get more down-to-earth than that?!) …a prisoner writes to encourage disciples to “lead a life worth of your calling” because God needs you “on the ground,” living and working and being and speaking up for God….

And because that happens in a whole host of ways, God pours out very specific gifts for this royal service, like a victorious conqueror distributing the booty, passing out the spoils of his victory….God sprinkles gifts across the whole world for ministry-on-the ground:  

·        gifts for crossing borders to testify that Jesus is risen (we call them apostles)….

·        gifts for fearlessly telling the truth in a world that prefers to live by lies (we call them prophets)…

·        gifts for making sure that the story of Jesus lives as truly good news (we call them evangelists)….

·        gifts for tending vibrant Jesus-communities with generous care and compelling insight (we call them pastors and teachers).

God showers down all those gifts in order to get the job done—the job of bringing heaven and earth together again, Jesus’ job of breaking down all the dividing walls and creating in himself one new humanity, one new Body of Christ through which God truly will be “all in all.”

We belong to a God of “bin-ocular” vision who, unlike any of us, can see the forest for the trees while at the same time never missing a single tree in the forest.  

And because this God’s love for us is made manifest in Jesus’life, death and resurrection…because Jesus has set all things right in heaven and on earth…you and I can dare to go for this God into our bounded, earthly lives….reflecting, witnessing to, and staking out a claim to this world, for God.

And although that is really and truly something that ALL God’s children are called to do—to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called….it does all come to a particular focus whenever we call, ordain, and install a pastor.

Because we ask pastors to center and invest all their time and attention on tending what we all are called to be about: building up the Body of Christ here on earth, in and through the church.

And this too, is a big picture/little picture reality.   For the “holy, holy, holy” God has called you, Scott Marlin Morey---called you not to work at 39,000 feet above sea level….but right here, down on the ground, in dusty places, among dirty people like all of us gathered here.

For as certain as the “devil is in the details,” even more so our God is in the details of creaturely life, now renewed and transformed in Jesus the King.  

So we set you aside this evening, for some very specific work, Scott.   We lay hands on you to signify that God has laid claim to you to

·        Cross borders to announce that Christ has died, is risen and will come again;

·        And to speak truth fearlessly to persons who prefer to live by lies;

·        And to make sure that Jesus’ story is always told as the good news that it is;  

·        And to tend the church—here at Fridhem and wherever else you will be called to serve—to tend God’s people with generous care and compelling insight;

·        And to do a whole bunch of other things that pastors do, not all of them very “high or lofty,”  but all of them necessary so that God’s people might grow up fully into Christ Jesus.

So there you have it.  This calling to which you have been called should keep you busy for as long as God gives you life and breath.

Count on it, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.