Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Power

Rev. Kathy Donley

05/28/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Acts 1:1-14

 

This is Ascension Sunday.  Ascension is the day 40 days after Easter which commemorates the resurrected Jesus ascending to heaven.  It falls on a Thursday.  It was special enough in the early church that it was celebrated on a weekday, just like Christmas is celebrated on whatever day it falls on.  But after a while, most traditions agreed to celebrate it on the following Sunday, which is today.  Now, you might be asking yourself, if this Sunday comes around every year, why don’t you remember it from last year?  Or the year before? Or the year before that? The answer to that would be my fault.  You don’t remember because it is not one of the days in the church calendar that I have paid much attention to.  In fact, looking back, I believe that the first and last sermon I ever preached on Ascension Sunday was in 2002.

 

I’m not totally sure why I’ve avoided it.  I really didn’t realize quite how much I had until I looked.  In my defense, only Luke tells us about Jesus’ ascension, at the end of his gospel and again at the beginning of the book of Acts.  Mark, Matthew and John don’t mention it.  So maybe I was just going with the majority.  And then too, it’s a weird story.  Jesus is having serious conversation with the disciples one minute and the next, he vanishes in a cloud.  They understand him to have been taken up to heaven, but I know that heaven is not above the clouds.  I know that because I’ve seen pictures of earth from the moon.  Maybe I have avoided this story because of that detail. 

 

The Biblical writers understood the world to have three layers.  The earth was flat and supported by pillars or by floating on the sea which surrounded it.  The sea was the second layer.  Above the earth was a dome which separated it from the third layer, the heavens.  In that worldview, it makes sense that when Jesus disappeared, he went “up” to heaven.  However, we do not have to accept the science of the first century in order to understand the meaning of this story. 

 

Remember not only the science, but the culture from which this story comes.  Remember that at this time, diseased or disabled bodies were not permitted to enter the Temple.  Remember that, among Jewish people, crucifixion was believed to be shameful, an indication of God’s rejection.  Remember that Greek culture idealized physical beauty, to the point that physical beauty was equated with moral goodness.    Jesus was crucified.  His resurrected body bears the marks of his suffering, torture and death.  It was that imperfect, scarred body that was taken into heaven. 

 

“That’s why the early church set so much store by Ascension Day, why it mattered so much to them.  It was the proof that you could be battered, mangled, suffering, a complete failure in the world’s eyes, and yet be loved and honoured by God.”[1]

 

We may not understand Ascension. We may not resonate with Jesus rising to a heaven located somewhere above the clouds.  But we do understand suffering and pain.  We do understanding enduring to the end and rising above it.  And so perhaps this video, which combines a contemporary poem with traditional art of the Ascension will convey the significance of this event for earlier Christians.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4ZzsoIOz0Y

 

We often recall Jesus’ last words on the cross as his last words on earth, but according to Luke, his very last words include the instruction to stay in Jerusalem and wait for power.  Staying in Jerusalem would probably not have been my first choice.  Jerusalem is not home for any of the apostles.  They had only come there to celebrate the Passover.  They must be staying with friends or maybe even strangers willing to offer hospitality, but after a month, they may have out-stayed their welcome.   Jerusalem is also the place where Jesus was arrested and executed.  Seems like any place else would be preferable.  Why not go home and launch their ministry in a more familiar, potentially less hostile place?  That’s what I would have wanted to do.

 

Whatever the apostles might have preferred to do, they chose to obey Jesus. Acts 1:14 says that the eleven apostles and Jesus’ brothers and his mother and other women were in Jerusalem and constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  Methodist Bishop William Willimon notes, “They gather to pray.  In an activist age, one might expect the disciples to undertake some more ‘useful’ activity.  They are told to be witnesses to the end of the earth and their first response is prayer.  The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort.”[2] 

 

He goes on, “Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church.  Our waiting implies that the things that need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort . . . Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays.” [3]

 

They were to wait for power, Jesus says.  The word for power is dynamis, which means “a robust force at work in demonstrative ways for all to see and feel.”[4] It is the basis for our word dynamite. “Wait for power,” Jesus says.  And I am intrigued.  What power?

 

They already had experienced some power in their days with Jesus.  They distributed 12 loaves of bread to thousands of people.  Peter had walked on water. In Luke 10, Jesus sent out 70 disciples on mission and when they returned, they said, “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us.”  They already had wonder-working power.  Did they need more of it? 

 

Or was the power they were to receive something else?

 

One of my colleagues suggest that the power they needed was the power of forgiveness.[5] He could be right. Some actions are so horrendous they seem beyond anyone’s ability to forgive.  A certain spiritual power is definitely required. 

 

The next thing that Jesus says is that they will be his witnesses.  So maybe it is the power to witness, to speak up, to own their truth even when they are afraid, even when there is good reason to be afraid. 

 

Maybe the dynamis of the Holy Spirit is the power to forgive.  Or maybe it is the power to tell the story of Jesus.  I have another theory.  I suggest it is the power to change.  In the last two months, I’ve attended two half-day workshops on leadership provided by the Samaritan Counseling Center.  In both of them, there was lots of talk about change and how hard it is, especially when someone else wants us to change and we don’t particularly want to.  But even when we want it, change is hard. 

 

Imagine this final conversation: 

Jesus says “you are to be my witnesses here in Jerusalem.” 

“Here, in Jerusalem, the place that Jesus once said stoned the prophets and killed God’s messengers. Start here.  We are familiar with it, but it’s not home.  It will take some adjustment, but maybe not that much.”

 

And then, “you are to be my witnesses in Judea.”  “Well, that’s a bigger territory.  We will have to tell the story to city folk and country folk and all kinds in-between.  There are some real characters in parts of Judea.  That will require some real adaptation, Jesus.”

 

And then “you will be my witnesses in Samaria.”  “Oh Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding.  The Samaritans?  They hate us.  They won’t listen.  They’re not even real Jews.  They don’t have the right books in their Bibles.  They’re pretty much heretics.”

 

“And to the ends of the earth.” 

“Wait, you mean like among the Gentiles?  The Gentiles, Jesus? They’re even more not Jewish than the Samaritans.  And they don’t speak Hebrew or Aramaic.  How are we going to be your witnesses to the Gentiles?”[6] 

 

The book of Acts is the story of one change after another as the early church owned its truth and kept telling the story.  Barriers of class and race, of language and culture all had to be surmounted.  Prejudices were strong and so were established traditions.   Jesus’ witnesses may have set out to change the world with the gospel, but along the way, they were also changed.    Think of Peter’s vision in Joppa which turned his understanding of who was and was not acceptable to God completely upside down.  Think of the early Christians who met in homes, where women had authority equal to men.  Think of Saul, who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, but then changed his mind and embraced Stephen’s faith. At every turning point, the circle of grace grew wider and people’s faith deepened.

 

Think of all the ways that people bore witness to their friends and neighbors, and their enemies and rivals, and strangers.  Until the gospel took hold in the country and the city, across the expanding Roman empire.  In every place, it changed those who received it and those who carried it.  So that the truth of the gospel endures, but it looks different in Turkey and Egypt and Kenya and the United States. 

 

And that, I think, is the power for which the disciples waited.  The power for which we wait.  The power to be Jesus’ witnesses to our own friends and neighbors and enemies and strangers, but also the power to accept the difficult change that it requires, to be changed ourselves, to our very core.

 

A very long time ago, St. Augustine said this, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”

 

For reasons known only to God, we are in partnership.   The things that need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort, but God has chosen us to be witnesses, to carry on the work entrusted to us by Jesus.  We are not alone; we are accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

 

Soren Kiekegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, lived in Copenhagen in the 1840’s and 50’s.  One day he noticed  a girl with a beggar’s basket, leading three musicians down the street, begging. The musicians were blind. They were trained, classically trained. They were playing Mozart and Beethoven; “it was just marvelous music,” he wrote in his Journal. And a small crowd of street people joined them, they didn’t have any money, but oh how they enjoyed the music. And then down the street, clattering in their chariots, went those who had money, going to the evening’s entertainment. Kierkegaard wrote: “There are two kinds of people in the world; those who are willing but cannot and those who are able, but will not.”

 

I agree with the Rev. Fred Craddock who says that Kierkegaard was wrong.  Craddock says that there are actually three kinds of people.  “Those who are willing, but cannot; those who are able, but will not; and then there’s you. . . .then there’s you.” [7]

 

  



[1] I’m grateful to my colleague, the Rev. Anne Le Bas, for her description of Ascension Day in her sermon “Battered and Scarred”.

http://sealpeterandpaulsermons.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/ascension-day-battered-and-scarred.html

[2] William Willimon, Acts:  Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville:  Westminister/John Knox, 2010).  p. 21.

[3] William Willimon, Acts, p. 21.

[4] Robert Wall, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 44. 

[5] The Rev. James Easton, pastor, First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

[6] This conversation is modelled on one offered by the Rev. Fred Craddock in his sermon “You Shall Receive Power” The Collected Sermons of Fred B Craddock, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 201 

[7] Fred. B. Craddock, “Does God Have Too Many Children?” in  The Collected Sermons of Fred B Craddock, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 292

 

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