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Reflections of a Healthy Church

The View from the Cross
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Lent and Easter
Ascension Day is a good time for the Christian community to assess where it has been and where it is going. We need to ask ourselves why we are here and exactly what is it we are supposed to be doing. Our lesson for this day provides us with much needed information on what we should be doing and what our final destination as we travel this road in ministry with Jesus is.

In order to gain the full impact of our verses for today we need first to take a quick look at those that have preceded them. In verses 36-43, Jesus proved beyond all doubt to those who followed him that he had really been resurrected. Not only did he stand in their presence so they could actually lay eyes on him but he also ate food in front of them to show them that he was real and not a ghost. They were overwhelmed, as we all should be as we participate in the story as it is told in Luke's gospel. Before Jesus returned to his rightful place in heaven there were some final things he wanted to do for his disciples. First of all he wanted to turn their panic into hope and that hope into a church. His presence with them scared them at first and so he looked upon them and said, "Peace, be with you." The one they had followed and loved has returned. He stood before them offering them peace of mind and heart, and a new hope for the future.

All people in all places look for the things that will bring peace in their lives. We all know that the world offers all kinds of false fixes to help people find peace of mind. It may be too much alcohol, too many drugs, or just too much of too much! But sooner or later these temporary fixes fail the test of time. And when they do fail, it often leaves us feeling worse than we did in the first place. Just think of all the effort that is put into these quick fixes to life. When these things do not do what was expected we become emotionally unhinged and confused as to just what we should do.

It is then that Jesus steps into the void and turns confusion into hope-filled clarity. Often as Jesus taught the disciples they did not truly understand what it was he was trying to tell them. We can see this in Luke 9:45 where we read, "But they didn't know what he meant. Its significance was hidden from them so they could not understand it and they were afraid to ask him about it." We can see how important it was to Jesus and how important it was to the disciples that at this time, in this place, they would know what was about to happen. Jesus was not taking any chances here and wanted to make sure there was no more confusion.

Have you ever been confused? I mean really confused! You may be like the university student I heard about. A university student was seen with a large "K" printed on his T-shirt. When someone asked him what the "K" stood for, he said, "Confused." "But," the questioner replied, "You don't spell confused with a K." The student answered, "You don't know how confused I am."

Jesus helped the disciples to turn their confusion onto clarity; to turn their lack of direction into something workable; to help them in discovering the purpose behind their relationship with him. It seems that the real problem for the disciples at that time and the real problem for all of us is that our confusion can quickly turn into a lack of purpose and then a deliberate turning away from what Jesus has taught us as we have traveled with him to this point in our journey of faith. Jesus says to them, "And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven" (Luke 24:49 NLT).

The problem then, as it is today, is that the disciples had become so inwardly focused they had forgotten their purpose. This fact should be a wake-up call to the church today. Lack of direction and purpose is often the reason people leave the church or worse yet a reason they never find themselves involved in church at all. The only good news in all of this is that we know it is not new. Luke, writing in the book of the Acts of the Apostles reminds them, "But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere -- in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8 NLT).

We can see that the direction and purpose of the church has not changed over time. We are to be doing the same thing as the church when it was first formed. We are to proclaim a message of repentance, forgiveness, and love to the waiting world. It is a message that supersedes time and space. It is a message that says, and I paraphrase a motto of the United Church of Christ that says, "No matter who you are or where you are in life's journey, you are welcome here." And the "here" is the church of Jesus Christ.

The problem for us today is in getting that message out to a waiting world. It is the "e" word that is the problem. That "e" word is of course evangelism. Most people think that telling people about Jesus is the job of the pastor or at the very least some of the more outgoing and gregarious members of the church. Most of us just do not feel qualified to be a gospel messenger. But that is a mistake and a big one!

The word "evangelize" is used 54 times in the New Testament, evangel or gospel is used 76 times, and evangelist is used three times. These are good words. They are biblical words. We are told by Jesus himself that we are to be the ones who do the work of the evangelist. We can evangelize the world.

When we take the time to look at the varying ways in which we have been told to do this work of evangelism we come away with a sense of just how important this ministry is to the overall health of the church. Think for a moment of the various figurative representations used in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is described as: a dove in Matthew 3:6, a seal in Ephesians 1:13, oil in Hebrews 1:9, fire in Acts, rain in Zechariah, wind in John 3:8, a river in John 7:38, dew in Isaiah 18:4, and clothing in our gospel lesson for today. The point is that we have been given so much in terms of how we might go about describing the power and majesty of Jesus Christ that there really is no good excuse for our not doing exactly what we know we are to do.

The ministry that we call evangelism is a group enterprise when we are talking about how the task of evangelizing the world can be accomplished. It is true that not every single person is cut out to be knocking on doors proclaiming Jesus Christ is Lord. Not everyone is gifted as an evangelist, but there is always something that every church member can do in the work of evangelizing. In light of the ways that the power of the Holy Spirit is described throughout scripture it should be no surprise that there is somewhere and something for everyone to do in the church of Jesus Christ.

That should be a liberating notion to those who feel threatened by not being able to speak in public.

Our journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter has shown us that Jesus was anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. That is the work of those who want to follow Jesus in their own lives. The good news is that we like Paul and the disciples of old can be servants of the ultimate servant to all, even Jesus who is Christ.

We must be like Paul, when he said, "For I am not ashamed of this good news about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes -- Jews first and also Gentiles." This good news tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the scriptures say, "It is through faith that a righteous person has life" (Romans 1:16-17 NLT).

The witness of the early church was not based on the empty tomb but on the encounter of the disciples with the risen Lord.

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me -- that Christ died for our sins, just as the scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, as the scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the twelve apostles. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, I saw him, too, long after the others, as though I had been born at the wrong time.
-- 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NLT

This is always the basis of a genuine resurrection faith.

A young, ambitious pastor was called to serve in a certain church. He was warned by his predecessor that this congregation was "dead." It was not even worth trying to save. But this pastor accepted the call because he believed with God's guidance he could bring life to that church.

He was an optimist and he worked hard, visiting the members and preaching his best sermons enthusiastically. He tried to develop an outreach of lay visiting program so that visits might be done in the homes of the active, the inactive, and new people moving into town. The harder he tried, the more he knew that his predecessor was right. This was one seriously dead church. It was a shrine for the frozen chosen. It was a mausoleum of faith. There was just nothing there. The spark for ministry, the excitement of sharing the gospel, was just not there. One Sunday he made a startling announcement to the few who were gathered for worship. He said, "Inasmuch as you are a dead congregation, unresponsive to resuscitative efforts, unresponsive to any effort of pumping life into the workings of the congregation, inasmuch as the vital signs of the congregation are dead, I will conduct a funeral for this 'dead' church next Sunday morning at 10:00 am." The members, at least the few who were there, buzzed with excitement following the service. One said, "What's he trying to pull anyway?" Another said, "I don't understand."

The pastor and his announcement of a funeral for the church was the main talk of the tiny rural town during that week. The phone lines were hot with talk. The coffee shop was filled with people talking about what they expected next Sunday. Sunday arrived, and as the people gathered, there was an open coffin in the front of the church. As 10:00 approached, the pastor looked out and saw that every pew plus some chairs were filled for this funeral service. He began the funeral service by reading scripture, he shared prayer, he even gave a very sad sermon on the demise of this over 100-year-old church and congregation. After he finished his sermon, he did something that again startled the membership. He asked the members to please rise and pass slowly by the open coffin to pay their last respects to this dead church. Row by row, the people rose and walked past the coffin. Each of them got the same sheepish, startled look as they scurried quickly away from it. The coffin was empty except for a mirror. As each person peered into the coffin to view the deceased each looked upon his or her own face."1

The witness of the apostles comes to us in the witness of scripture. But we never really believe in Jesus solely because of arguments based on their experience. We are assured that he is risen only when we encounter him in our own lives on some personal Emmaus Road of our own. When this happens, we too are filled with great joy and are transformed into evangelist and hope-filled proclaimers of the gospel. When that happens we will never have to look into an empty coffin and find that we are looking at our own image. I don't want to be a part of a dead church, do you?

The closing verses of our reading deserve another proclamation,

Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.
-- Luke 24:50-53 NLT

The image that Luke gives us of Jesus' return to the glory that is heaven calls us individually and corporately to respond. Our response on this day of Ascension should be one of worship filled to fullness with joy and a sense of wonder. Please notice that in our reading there is no more fear, it has been replaced by faith. There is no sense of being lost but rather a sense of being found. There is no sense of confusion about our place in the journey, we are partners as we witness for Christ. All four gospels communicate to us that in the end the disciples were changed. They now had a reason to continue on. Just as they had been filled with pain and sorrow, so now they are filled with faith and hope. They are faith filled followers who have discovered a new and wonderful way to live.

The question for the Christian community on a day such as this is are we or are we not a reflection of the way Jesus wants us to live? If the answer is yes, then we must ask ourselves are we ready to step forward to help others find what we have found. And if the answer is no, then it is time we reexamined our Lenten and Easter journey. The good news is that the journey is ongoing and we are offered all the chances we need to get to where Jesus wants us to be. Amen.


1. Educational Ministry "What Does a Dead Church Look Like?" 1989.
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