Month: October 2009

Expand Your Reading Using A Class Syllabus

Courtesy bbc.co.uk
Courtesy bbc.co.uk

Looking for a good book on a specific ministry topic?  Seminary and university course descriptions can be a good source for books on subjects you’re searching for.  Of course, I’m usually looking for books related to Christian ministry, but the most popular books on a subject may not be the best ones available.  After all, books with big marketing budgets are written for a mass audience in order to sell a lot of copies.  Not that those can’t be good.  Many are, and I’ve bought lots of the latest titles.  But, sometimes you want something more.

If I’m looking for a more academic approach to a subject — say pastoral care — I google “pastoral care course syllabus” or something similar.  Amazingly, I am ushered into the online world of several seminaries and universities offering a variety of courses.  Course titles range from Essential Skills in Pastoral Counseling and Ministry, to Pastoral Care Through the Life Cycle, to Pastoral Care and Counseling.

Or, I search a specific seminary or university’s website for course syllabi of interest, and harvest bibliography information from them.  The obvious advantages of consulting seminary and university websites for reading material are:

  • Respected academicians have selected these texts to use in the classroom.
  • Academic texts, or those used in an academic setting, represent a level of research and complexity often missing in popular treatments of the same subject.
  • Academic titles do not always show up on an Amazon search, or in blogs or on other ministry sites.
  • Course bibliographies offer a comprehensive view of a subject from a variety of perspectives.

The downside to consulting course descriptions and syllabi is that some professors continue to require out-of-print, and sometimes out-of-date texts because those are the texts the professor knows best.  I always check the dates of publication when I’m searching course bibliographies.  While there are some timeless books that are classics in each academic field, a bibliography consisting completely of books published more than 10 years ago might not be as helpful as a bibliography of more recent, or even mixed, publication dates.

As a side note, one way I have chosen DMin seminars at Fuller is by reading the course descriptions and looking at the reading lists.  I’m usually looking for books I haven’t heard of, or topics I haven’t read extensively about.  That’s not a bad way to develop a reading plan on a doctoral level, even if you’re not going for the degree.  I also try to read at least one book on a subject that challenges my thinking or previous position.  For me, that’s what makes reading fun and rewarding.

That’s how I look for the best in ministry reading.  What do you do?  How do you compile your reading lists?

Sermon: I Believe In Jesus The Coming Judge

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe in Christ The Coming Judge

Acts 10:34-42
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Where We Are In The Apostles’ Creed

We now have arrived at the part of the Apostles’ Creed that states —

From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead…

This is the final statement about Jesus, after the statement about God, and the statements about Jesus, that precede it.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell. [See Calvin]

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church.  And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.

But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything.  So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:

  • For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
  • For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
  • For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
  • And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.

All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality.  Jesus was born.  Jesus did suffer and die.  Jesus did rise from the dead.  Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.

Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”  1 John 1:1-3a

But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.

One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”

The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”

“Great,” the Pope responded.  “But what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world.  We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not.  Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.

Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.

So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles.  The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.

Why This Statement in The Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians.  It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed.  Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.

One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions.  The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.

Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body.  Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices.  So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.

But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.

Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete.  The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.

Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation.  Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.

The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right.  Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people.  In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.

So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.”  Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.”  That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What’s the Return of Jesus About?

First, Jesus will return.  The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would.  In Matthew 25, Jesus says,

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” — Matthew 25:31-33 NIV

So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations.  Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line.  Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.

But, we are skeptical.  Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus.  Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.

Okay, let me ask you this:  Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby?  Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.”  But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;

Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?

Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.

Okay, but that’s not the only reason.  As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete.  Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One.  The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was.  The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.

Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time:  Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus:  everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.

I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?

We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure.  But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything.  But let’s take a close look.

Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads.  And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment.  But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.

Psalm 98:8-9 says —

8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth.  God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.

A quick personal story:  I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports.  To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back.  Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.

This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico.  Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry.  We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border.  The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.

But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida”  with the appropriate date of my exit.  He refused to let me enter the country again.  And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.

I was stunned.  First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question.  Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment.  So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”

The immigration official looked at me, and smiled.  “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.”  Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa.  Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.

My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story.  And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.

But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful.  Judgment is God’s opinion.  So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people.  Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”

Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.”  The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.

Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God.  Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.”  Well, the good news is judgment made plain.  The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.

Judgment is both good and bad.  The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”

And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.

In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” — John 3:16-18 NIV

Okay, but here’s the disclaimer:  Jesus is the righteous judge.  In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would.  Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world.  To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd.  To love God and love others.

Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us.  Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter.  What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.

A Change of Tone Garners Nobel Peace Prize

nobel_peacePresident Barack Obama has captured the imagination of the world, and by doing so has earned the world’s most prestigious peace award, The Nobel Peace Prize.  Like millions of Americans I woke up this morning to the stunning news that the President had been awarded the Peace Prize.  I congratulate him because I believe he has elevated America again to a position of leadership in the international community.

My commitment as a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, means that I am theologically predisposed to peace here on God’s good earth.  Jesus’ encouraging words — “Blessed are the peacemakers” — have more than just a spiritual application.  Jesus himself lived in an era in which the Pax Romana came at the end of a Roman spear.  I believe he understood well the need for both political and spiritual peace among humankind.

Of course, there are those who will seek to detract from the award to the President.  For the skeptics, the naysayers, and the cabal of critics, my question is this — “Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a nation of peacemakers?”

I am reading Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and The Path to War in Vietnam.  The thing that strikes me so far in this book is the casual attitude those in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had toward escalating the war there.  If we have learned anything in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan it should be that war does not guarantee peace.   I have long contended that one cannot fight for peace.  You can fight for a host of other issues, but peace is never achieved by fighting.  Peace comes by seeking peace, by peacemaking as the first order of concern.

I realize that many of you may disagree with me, and that is your privilege to do so.  But this morning I am heartened at the news that the world recognizes Americans have the capacity to make peace, as well as wage war.  What do you think?

The Care of Souls as Outreach

My latest interest focuses on exploring pastoral care as outreach.  I talk to lots of small church pastors and leaders, picking their brains for stories of smaller churches doing effective ministry.  More and more I’m hearing stories of people helping people — people caring for people —  as a means of outreach.

Pastoral care, to use the well-worn phrase, has not been in vogue in the past 20-years or so — really since the church growth movement changed the pastor from shepherd to CEO.  (But that’s another story for another post.)

David Augsburger, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Seminary,  bemoans the neglect of pastoral care in evangelical churches today.  In their new book, Connected, sociologists Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler point out that 12% of Americans have no one in their network with whom they can discuss important matters, or go out with socially.  That in itself should present churches with new opportunities for caring ministry.  But, too often the care of souls, or “the cure of souls” as it was called about 500 years ago, conjures up images of the pastor as pseudo-counselor or chaplain. Hand-holding is not what most pastors aspire to, even if we all have to do some of it on occasion.

But the kind of care I’m talking about isn’t psycho-spiritual navel-gazing.  Nor is it practiced only by pastors.  I’m talking about the kind of care that seeks out those in need and helps them.  And, help isn’t just defined in spiritual or psychological terms.  Help, or care, is that which responds actively — with food, rent, a warm meal, a heartfelt conversation, or a word of encouragement.

Just about every church I’ve written about exhibits some form of caring ministry.  Small churches can do that because caring is about relationships with people; not programs or marketing.  The big kicker is that the unchurched are ahead of us on this one — they think the church ought to do more caring for people in need.

What are your experiences?  Have you used a caring ministry as outreach?  What were your results?  How did caring change both you, and your church?  Let me know because this is a topic I’m going to visit regularly from time to time.

The Indispensable Church

People don’t need to go to church.

At least that’s how the majority of people in America act.  Less than 18% of the population attends church on any given Sunday.  In the U.S. we are chasing downhill Europe’s church attendance rate of 7%, and David Olson predicts by 2020 we’ll be halfway there.  And that is precisely our problem:  we’re stuck on Sunday morning church attendance as both the measure of a church’s health, and an indicator of a person’s spiritual life.

The question that church leaders need to ask now is not, “How can we get more people to come to church?” We’ve been asking that question since the numbers started turning down in the 1970s.  All our solutions together haven’t turned the tide of declining church attendance.  Throw in all the megachurches, all the church growth seminars, all the church marketing, the millions spent on programs, and the kitchen sink, and the result is the same:  people continue to stay away from church in droves.

The question we need to be asking is, “How can church become indispensable to a community?”  People don’t come to church because church isn’t essential to their lives.  Church is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, and most are leaving it.

Our challenge is to make our churches indispensable to our communities.  The well-worn, but telling question — “If your church closed tomorrow, would anybody notice?” — has been answered by millions of Americans with a resounding “No.”

But, I am not advocating a return to “attractional church” programs and activities, either.  Rather I am advocating the following:

  1. Sunday morning worship isn’t the most important thing we should be doing.
  2. Missional isn’t missional until people outside the church notice.
  3. The unchurched will tell us how we can be indispensable to them.

Those three ideas all reflect the need to change perspectives from our self-congratulatory, self-validating point of view to an outsider point of view.

Here’s an example:  In North Carolina, Crossfire United Methodist Church got started because one biker (the Harley riding kind) had been befriended by a member of the dying Moravian Falls United Methodist Church.  When Alan Rice, the UM district superintendent, showed up to close Moravian Falls, Duncan Overrein showed up on his Harley and wouldn’t leave until Alan promised him to keep the church open.

But, the old church congregation was too small to sustain the church, so the old Moravian Falls church died and the new Crossfire UM Church was born in the old church building.  Now 110-plus people, bikers and others, ride from 30-40 miles away each Sunday to come to church.

But Sunday isn’t all they do, or even the most important thing they do.  They help each other.  They repair houses, fix cars, buy groceries, care for the sick, pray for their brothers and sisters.  Crossfire is buying an old abandoned refrigerated warehouse as their new home.  Part of the refrigerated space they’ll rent out, but they intend to start a beef aging business there, too.

The church has become indispensable to the community of bikers and their friends and families.  It’s there because one pastor listened to one long-haired, do-rag wearing biker who wanted a church for people like him.  Crossfire doesn’t have any problem with attendance, except they’re outgrowing the old Moravian Falls building.  They don’t have any problem with wondering how to get people to come.  Instead they go into the community to families in need, to those who are sick, to brothers in jail, and they listen to them.

I want our church to become indispensable to our community.  I want us to touch more lives during the week than we have bodies in the pews on Sunday.  I want people to ask us to stay in business because we’ve made a difference in their lives.

I am repeatedly drawn to the Celtic Christian abbeys.  Those early monks built their monastic compound at the crossroads, or next to a village.  The abbey became the center of the community.  It became necessary for the community’s survival because they fed people, cared for the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, provided refuge for the weary and wanted, and lived out the Gospel in tangible and essential ministries.

What do you think? Is your church indispensable in your community?  Would anyone notice if your congregation folded?  What are you doing to become indispensable to the people around you?

Toward a Theology of Economics

I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy.  I’d be interested in your comments.

Toward A Theology of Economics

Acts 5:1-11

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy

We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.

Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more.  And that’s just the latest bad news.

I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months.  I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.

My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.

So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like.  Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean.  I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.

But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy.  But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it.  I want us to think about the economy differently tonight.  I want us to think about it theologically.

Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.”  The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.

Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently

One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title.  Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists.  Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.

His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,

“As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.”

So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”  Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.

But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project.  In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.

Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books.  What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers.  Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses.   The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year.  But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour.  Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”

So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.

What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’

Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?”  Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.

I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.”  But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?  Economics is more than money.  Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money.  And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”

Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.”  Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order.  Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.

So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s.  And, we are the managers.  We’re God’s economists.

So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

So far, we’re making good progress.  We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.

But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?”  How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?

Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies.  This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%.  And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates.  But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess?  The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.”  And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression.  Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations.  I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China.  I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.

I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed.  OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day.  And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.

Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is?  Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops.  But, do you know why this is so important?  Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.

This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children.  The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home.  I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine.  So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.

An Example From Nature

Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples.  Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy.  Jesus said,

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[a]?

28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing.  And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.

A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance

Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years.  And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden.  We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year.  But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew.  And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out.  As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted.  (That’s another parable, by the way.)

God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.

And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance.  God did not plan for shortages.  We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.

We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution.  Some of us have more that the rest of us.  Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t.  But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.

God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around.  There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly.  Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on.  But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.

Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.

Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there.  But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant.  Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.

Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics.  And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves.  They want to sell you a new plant every year.  You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.

That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.

Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity

Okay, we’re making progress.  The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.

Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.

Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden.  The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15)  Not just some, or even many, but all.  Everyone who was sick got healed that day.  Exceptional generosity.

Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics.  The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.

Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation.  There is enough for all, and it is available to all.

The cross is God’s comment about economics.  The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving.  The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.

The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord.  Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven.  But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.

Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.

A Third Characteristic:  Eternal Consequences

A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences.  Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.

I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.”  My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately.  I got some amazing responses.  One respondent said,

You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.

My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”

But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.

Back To Ananias and Sapphira

Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira.  I really like this story.

In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing.  They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources.  They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings.  They just had to solve the distribution problem.

So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money.  Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most.  From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.

But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed.  So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church.  They would keep back some.  Rather than see abundance, they saw limit.  “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said.  “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”

So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”

Peter knew Ananias was lying.  So, Peter said,

“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.

At that, Ananias fell down dead.  They carried him out.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church.  She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.

An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?

Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy.  They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.

And that’s where we find ourselves today.  Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy.  Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble.  Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit.  Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira.  What about ours?

It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis.  It’s not enough that we find something that works.  Our understanding of economics begins with God.

For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.

And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.

Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.

But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.”  “No one else will act like this.”  But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different?  That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth.  So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world.  But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.

Sermon: I Believe in the Ascension of Christ

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed series continues with this sermon, I Believe in the Ascension of Christ, from Luke 24:36-53.

I Believe in the Ascension of Jesus
Luke 36-53

36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

What Do You Do With The Body?

A favorite part of just about any murder mystery is what to do with the body?  You know how those stories go: first,  the murderer kills the victim.  The details of the murderer — is he or she an escaped convict, a deranged lunatic, a jealous lover, or a scheming con artist?; and, the victim — is the victim an unfaithful lover, a double-crossing partner, an innocent bystander, and so on — change with the particular plot line, but the basics of the story are the same — one person kills another.

This story is as old as Cain and Abel, and the problem of what to do with the body of the victim is as old as the murderous act itself.  Cain apparently buried his brother Abel in the same field where he killed him, and when God asked Cain “Where is your brother, Abel?”  Cain replies, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Nice try, but it didn’t work.  God tells Cain that the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground.  In other words, I know what you did with the body.

Same thing happened to Moses.  Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the bulrushes of the river, and eventually is raised in Pharaoh’s household.  But somewhere along the way, even though he looks and dresses like an Egyptian, Moses finds his Hebrew identity.  He is outraged at the treatment the Hebrews are receiving under Pharaoh’s regime, but there’s not much he can do about it. Until one day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.

Moses anger swells, and before he knows it, Moses kills the Egyptian.  Which is sure to be a big problem for him with Pharaoh and his henchmen.  So, Moses buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand to conceal his crime.  It doesn’t work, however, because someone saw Moses do it, and so he has to flee to the backside of the desert, which is a long way off.

But with the story of Jesus, we have a different problem.  The Apostles’ Creed has us affirm —

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried,
He descended into hell.

On the third day He rose again from the dead.

Now, the problem is this — Jesus has risen from the dead.  That’s Easter, that’s the resurrection, that’s the moment in which God breaks the power of sin and death, and the life of Jesus becomes the prototype for all humanity, for all life to come.

But, what do you do with the body?  The empty tomb is mute evidence that Jesus is not dead.  Jesus appears to the disciples for a period of 40-days between Passover and the coming of the next big Jewish festival, Pentecost.

But, this is a big problem now.  Jesus appears about 11 times to various individuals and groups of followers.  And, he is very much alive, not a ghost like they imagine in the passage we have just read.  In his appearances, Jesus does several things:

  1. Jesus encourages some of the disciples to touch him, Thomas being the first case in point.
  2. Jesus walks with the disciples.  The most famous episode being the walk on the road to Emmaus with two followers of Jesus.
  3. Jesus breaks bread with his followers.  Again, the road to Emmaus story.
  4. Jesus cooks breakfast.  He makes fish and bread, which is not something you would expect the resurrected Messiah to do.  But, it probably reminds the disciples of the time Jesus fed 5,000 with fish and bread, and this is just as real.
  5. Jesus eats with the disciples.  John has him eating fish, and so does Luke.
  6. Jesus speaks to the disciples and others.  Apparently he speaks in his normal voice, not some kind of heavenly booming bass profundo.
  7. Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
  8. Jesus blesses his followers.
  9. Jesus gives them instructions, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, the Holy Spirit.

So, Jesus does at least 9 things, and maybe more, that show he is a real, live person, not a ghost, a vision, or an apparition.  But, then what? What do you do with the body of Jesus, even if He is alive?

Getting Off The Stage

When I was in high school I got involved with the drama club, and we put on several plays of somewhat uneven quality, I must admit.  But, we learned a great deal about what actors call “stage craft” — the business of acting.  One of the big moments in any play is an actor’s entrance.  So, if you’re coming through a door, you make sure the door knob turns, or the door doesn’t get stuck, so your entrance is smooth and doesn’t become a sort of comedy of errors in itself.

But just as important as getting on the stage, is getting off.  Again, if you’re going through a door, you want to check ahead of time to be sure the door opens, or the knob turns, or whatever needs to happen, happens.  An actor wants his exit to be important, but not awkward.  If you aren’t in the right position on stage when you need to exit, things can get very awkward.

And, in one way, that’s where we find Jesus.  In a place on the stage of history that no one has ever occupied.  His entrance was to be born.  That, of course, was pretty dramatic in itself, for he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”

Pretty amazing stuff, and in terms of stage presence, Jesus had that too.  He went about healing people, feeding people, teaching, raising the dead, and training a band of followers who continually seemed not to get what Jesus was trying to teach them.

But, the story takes an distressing turn for Jesus’ followers.  He is opposed by religious leaders, eventually arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  Then, he’s crucified.  When he dies, he’s taken down off the cross, and buried.  And here is where the story might end, because all the other stories like this, or even close to this, have ended this way.  The hero gets killed, the body buried, and that’s the end of the story as his followers slip away into the darkness.

But not this story.  In this story, the hero doesn’t stay dead.  In some inexplicable, supernatural event, Jesus rises from the grave.  And, in case there is any doubt about His resurrection, the massive stone gets mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the grave, the grave clothes are lying neatly folded, and angels announce the news that “He is not here, He is risen from the dead.”

But, now what?  How does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak.  Most of us exit through the door of death, but for Jesus, death was just a revolving door — in and then out again.  How does this story resolve itself.

I suppose Jesus could have just hung around.  But that wasn’t the plan.  The plan from the beginning was that Jesus enters the human realm, does what only God-Incarnate can do, then goes back to his throne in the presence of God the Father, but in His place sends the Holy Spirit.  So, that’s the plan, but how does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak?

Who Comes Down Now Goes Up

We have the old saying, “What goes up, must come down.”  That’s called the Gravity Creed.  But, in Jesus case, what, or better, who came down to earth, must also go back up into heaven.

In the 19th century, theologians got really upset that Jesus ascended “up” to heaven.  Some even said that the idea of heaven being “up” was an outmoded, primitive idea which proves that the story about the ascension couldn’t be true.  Heaven wasn’t up, they said, and so Jesus would not have gone up to go back there.

Well, they’re batting .500 — they got it half right, in other words.  Heaven isn’t up.  Heaven is the presence of God.  Heaven is no more “place” as we know places than God is a man as we know men.  But we speak in the only words we know, and in the first century their idea was that the living were on the earth; the dead were in the pit, or the underworld, or the land of the dead which was under the earth; and, that heaven was above the earth.  Theologians call this a three-tiered cosmology, which is pretty much how we still think of life, heaven, and hell today — here, up from here, and down from here.

And remember, the Bible tells stories with a theological point.  Which doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go up, but it does mean that there is a deeper meaning to “up” than we might think.

The Significance of Up

The Bible uses this “up-and-down” language to represent a lot of theological ideas.  Here are some of them:

  • Adam and Eve are told to go “down” from the Garden of Eden after they sin.
  • The Tower of Babel is a failed attempt to “go up” to God and heaven.
  • Noah and his family are preserved by the ark’s ascent on Mt. Ararat.
  • Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to speak with God and receive the Law.
  • Mount Zion, the mystical dwelling place of God, is reached by “ascending” the hill of the Lord.
  • At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Jesus and three of the disciples go up on the mount where there Jesus is transformed, and speaks of his coming death with Moses and Elijah.
    • Moses has gone up to be with God on the mountain several times, including right before his own death.
    • Elijah is taken up by God into heaven by a fiery chariot.

So, the people of God revealed in Scripture understand that one goes up to God, and down to sin, death, and the grave.

One way or the other, Jesus is going up to God, to heaven, and to the right-hand of God for eternity.

Going Up Doesn’t Mean Going Away

But, just because Jesus goes up to God at the ascension, doesn’t mean Jesus goes away.  Jesus goes up, so the Holy Spirit can come down to Jesus’ followers.

Jesus has already told his followers that he’s going to send the Paraclete, the One-Called-Alongside, to help the disciples.  They’ve seen the power of God in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, and Jesus has promised them that they will do the same things, and greater than He has done.

Jesus has already breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  That in itself was a theological act, and act reminiscent of God’s act at creation, breathing into Adam the breath of life.  Only this breath of life was the life of the Spirit.

Jesus had told the disciples that all authority was given to him, in heaven and earth, and that they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

And, so they waited.  For days.  In fear.  In Jerusalem.  Uncertain what would happen, or if they would even know it when it did.

And then, all heaven broke lose.  The wind blows with a mighty rushing sound — the presence of the Spirit.  Tongues of fire — another manifestation of the Spirit appear on the disciples heads.  The disciples speak in languages they have never learned, a reversal of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel.  And Peter, inspired by the Spirit, says, “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of.”

The Spirit comes, the church is born, the followers of Jesus are empowered, Peter preaches and three thousand who had great doubts about the man called Jesus were converted in an instant and were baptized.

Going up doesn’t mean going away.

We Are Living The Story

We tend to think of all these things as past-tense:  Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus ascended back to heaven.  The Holy Spirit came.  End of story.

But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning for us.  The beginning for the church.  The beginning of witness.  The beginning of the faith.  The beginning of the good news which would be carried to all the world.  Jesus is alive, and what’s more, He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father.

It has pleased God, the Bible says, to put all things under Jesus’ feet.  In other words, Jesus is in charge.  Jesus reigns.  Jesus is the Lord of All.  Jesus sends the Spirit to us.  Jesus is still active in this world that he came to live and die for.

We are living the story of God’s redemptive love.  We are the present actors in this great drama written and directed by God.  Jesus the Messiah has made his entrance as the most helpless of humanity — a tiny baby.  He has lived his life as the most unusual of men.  He has died a horrendous death.  He as risen victorious from the grave.  He has resumed the mantle of heaven and ascended to his rightful place.

But here’s where it really gets good — He’s left us to represent him here in this world that he loved so much he gave himself for it.  And, we’re not alone.  He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us, gift us, guide us, and empower us.  We are living the story of Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, for the life of His creation.

That’s what the ascension is all about.  Not just a clever theatrical trick to get Jesus off-stage, but a dramatic theological transition, a moment that transcends time and space, where heaven received in victory the risen Christ, and earth received in gratitude His ever-present Spirit.

As we gather at His table today, He is present with us.  Theologians have argued for almost 2,000 years about “how” Jesus is present in the broken bread and poured out wine.  The church was split, denominations formed, and wars fought over the “how” of Jesus presence at this table.  But that misses the point.

Our concern today is not “how” Jesus is here.  Our concern today as we gather at this table is that He is here, and we are present with Him.  Had he not come, he could not have gone.  Had he not gone, he could not have sent the Spirit.  Had the Spirit not come, we would not be gathered here today.