Where are you focused?

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Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, a Principal Feast of the Church, one that is never transferred to a Sunday, which always takes place 40 days after Easter.  The Lectionary appoints both versions of the ascension that were written by Luke to end his Gospel account and to open the story of the Church’s beginning in Acts.  While the account in Luke’s Gospel is powerful commissioning story, because of some timing issues related to the way in which Luke tells the story, I’ve always been partial to the way the Ascension gets told in Acts.

After promising his disciples, yet again, that the Spirit would come to lead them in his absence, Jesus is lifted up to heaven by a cloud while the disciples looked on.  Luke doesn’t tell us how long the disciples remained there, staring slack-jawed up toward the sky, but at some point we are told that two men (angels) in white robes appeared and said, “Men of Galilee, why do stand here looking up to heaven?”

This is a polite way of saying, “Why is your focus fixed up there, when Jesus was clear that there was still plenty of work to do down here?”  The Feast of the Ascension is an annual reminder of God’s incarnational love for the world he created.  As Christians, our call is not to be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good, but rather to roll up our sleeves and get to work wherever the Spirit might lead us.  We are called to focus our attention not on the age to come, but on the prayer Jesus taught us, that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus has left the earth, and he has left us in charge of building the kingdom in his absence.  So, dear reader, where is your focus?  Where is God calling you to get to work?  Where can you build the kingdom?

Becoming Apostles

It being Easter 2, no matter the year, no matter the RCL affiliated congregation, we will hear the story of Jesus and his disciples in the upper room from the second half of John 20.  This is one of those stories that have become so familiar, the preacher has a significant challenge to make it relevant to the (smallish, low Sunday) congregation before them.  There are so many points of entry into this text, and by the time you’ve preached it for two lectionary cycles, you’ll feel like you’ve exhausted them all.  Couple that with the fact that many of us have short weeks and are maybe preached-out after Holy Week, the struggle in preaching this text is real.

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One of the cliches that I found myself saying more than once during Follow the Word, our children’s sermon program, this Easter is that Jesus being resurrected from the dead changed everything.  As I said it, I imagined a child asking me a classic children question, “how did Jesus coming back to life change things?”  How, indeed.  Specifically, how would you explain how the resurrection changed the world to a child?  What are the practical examples of resurrection in a world that still seems full of death, fear, and sadness?

In the Gospel lesson for Sunday, we have a few examples of how Jesus’ resurrection changes things.  First, there is the disciples’ move from fear to joy.  Second, there is the move from disciples to apostles, which I’ll focus on in a minute.  Third, there is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Fourth, the establishment of the authority of the Church (sins forgiven and retained).  Fifth, there is the evangelistic moment, “we have seen the Lord.”  Sixty, there is Thomas’ shift from doubt to proclaiming “My Lord and my God.”  Finally, we have Jesus’ assertion that there will be those who come later who will have to believe without seeing.  That’s a lot of change in 13 verses.  No wonder the RCL thinks we need to hear it every year.  Maybe one of these years, we’ll realize that life in the resurrection means that change is the only constant.

Of all this upheaval in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, what struck me today was that Jesus gives the disciples a new identity in his resurrection.  For three years they have been disciples – students under the Rabbi Jesus, learning what it means to live under his teaching, or what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”  In the the Matthean and Markan stories of the resurrection, the job of teacher now falls on the disciples, but first, they are called to go.  For John, the task isn’t to teach, but simply to go: that is, to be sent.

“As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.”

The group gathered in the upper room moves from discipleship to apostleship, which literally means “one who is sent.”  The resurrection of Jesus means that each of us is called to be sent into the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ on our lips.

On Being Sent – Apostleship

There are a lot of important verses in the Bible: Genesis 1:1, Micah 6:8, John 3:16, Mark 16:15, and Romans 12:12 come immediately to mind.  Apart from some of the theologically significant ones like Genesis 1:1, John 19:30, and Acts 2:4, usually the most important verses in Scripture are lessons for the reader and their community on how to live the life of faith.  Through these verses, we are called to love, to serve, to preach, and to repent, but there is perhaps no more important call than the commandment to go.

On that first Easter night, after Jesus had appeared in the room through locked doors, he offered them Shalom, the Peace of God, and then instructed them, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  John uses two different words to convey the message of being sent: Jesus was sent “apostelos” by his Father and he is sending “pempo” his disciples.  Despite John’s use of these words interchangeably through his Gospel, I find it odd in this particular situation that he would use both words.  It just doesn’t make sense in the context of the sentence.

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  We are sent by Jesus under the same commission that he was sent by his Father, that is, we are “apostelos,” or more familiarly, Apostles.  I ran across a blog post by Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor at Connexus Church in Toronto, Canada, entitled “Why we need more entrepreneurial church leaders, not more shepherds.”  In it, he argues that what the Church as lost is leadership that has at its very core an identity as Apostles, which he defines in the 21st century context as “spiritual entrepreneurs.”  He argues that there are five skills of the modern day Apostle that are crucial to the future of the Church.

  1. Willingness to Risk
  2. Experimentation
  3. Restless Discontent with the Status Quo
  4. Boldness
  5. Bias Toward Action

Nieuwholf give a nod to Apostleship as a gift, but as we read the Resurrection Day account in John 20, it become clear that one is not sent except with and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  These qualities, which I agree are extremely important and mostly missing in my context of The Episcopal Church, come from the deep peace of the Spirit of God.

There was a time when I thought of myself as an entrepreneur.  Back when I was Business Administration student at Millersville University, I took every entrepreneurship class I could find, but the Church is built for shepherds.  Rectors, mostly solo priests these days, are so busy with the hamster wheel of ministry that there is no time to think outside the box and certainly no incentive toward risk and experimentation.  Maybe that’s why I’m approaching my 7th year as an Associate.  There is time, and even some incentive, to think beyond the walls, to be sent forth with the power of the Spirit, to bring about change for the good of the Kingdom.  I’ve been feeling discontent as of late, and I think I understand why.  I’ve allowed myself to get comfortable, complacent even.  Perhaps it is time for a spiritual kick in the ass and an Apostleship booster shot.  Not just for me, of course, but if Jesus’ call is any indication, the whole Church should be looking for ways to be sent.