Month: October 2009

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.