“As if by silent command they moved from the house and out beyond the village. When they came to an open area and found others come from Jerusalem, they neither felt nor expressed surprise. They were conscious only of sharing and expectation. The silence was total, as if this hillside had been isolated from the surrounding world and time. In the silence he came among them and in touching one another they were aware of touching him and he them. Suddenly they knew that this hour was both an ending and a beginning both meeting and farewell. Overcome with emotion, some cried out as if questioning. But their voices died away into silence. Some stood holding up their arms looking into the darkening sky. Then a few suggested that they return to the city and get some rest. Others began to sing softly.” (from Portrait of a Woman, p. 89, by Herbert O’Driscoll)
Anglican Priest, Herbert O’Driscoll, wrote those words as a description of what it might have been like on the day we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples witnessed the resurrected Christ ascending from earth into heaven. I like what he has done in this description, capturing the uncertainty and wonder of it – the joy and the grief mingled together as the disciples, still reeling from the surprising reality of resurrection, now have their once again living Lord taken from them by cloud and mystery.
Yet he did not leave them without hope. As he was being gathered up by divine power, he gave them a mission and promised to send them the power and guidance to fulfill that mission. His statement of mission to them was “you will be my witnesses”, and his promise was, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
“You will be my witnesses”. That is the central mission of the Church Universal. To be witnesses of our risen Lord Christ Jesus. Each branch of the church, each denomination, at its best is led in creative and life giving ways to do that. To embrace the world and share the good news that Christ has destroyed death and lives among us. This mission should both direct us and correct us.
When is the church most the church? Not when it is adding new members and growing, though growth is very important to the carrying out of the mission. And not when it is taking care of the needs of its members, though that is important too. The church is most the church when it is witnessing to the amazing and life giving grace of our risen Lord.
I once heard a bishop say that the church is more like a firehouse than a hospital. A firehouse and its members exist to go out into the world to serve. Whereas a hospital exists to take people in and isolate them from the germs and diseases of the world in order to take care of their ailments. Now it is true that the church is a source of comfort, healing and nourishment for us. We come weekly to be fed, but the purpose of the church does not to end there. We must not come here to St. Paul’s, just to be fed, but also willing to be led. Willing to be clothed more and more in the power of the Spirit and go out as a squad of witnesses for Christ.
A squad of witnesses for Christ! Yikes! That might sound just a bit too daring for many of us. But when you really think about the language, it becomes a little less hair raising. In his weekly lectionary commentary, The Rev. William Willimon reminds us, “The mission of the witness is simply to stand up there before the court and to truthfully tell what he or she knows – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… Nothing spectacular, nothing complicated…Just tell what you know.” (from Pulpit Resource). What do you know about Jesus Christ? Who is he to you? Share that.
St. Francis of Assisi is said to have instructed new converts to the faith to “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.” Maybe that is a useful admonition to us in our noisy, wordy world. Maybe these days, a picture or an action is worth a thousand words. It happened to me years ago now, but I will never forget, one day coming home in a tizzy about my overbooked calendar to find that our next door neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow the lawn for me. That got me out of my tizzy of worry and into a place of feeling understood and supported. Preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.
Sometimes words are necessary, but if so, no detailed theological treatise is required. All we are ever asked to do is share how God in Christ has touched our lives in ways that have mattered. Just let others in on the genuine presence of Christ in our lives, and make the best accounting of the hope that is in you because of it. We are given a wonderful example of this in the Gospel of John. You may remember the passage about the man born blind who is healed by Jesus – we read it on one Sunday this past Lent. In that passage Jesus’ critics come and try to convince the man that he is mistaken – that it wasn’t really Jesus who had restored his sight. The man made no deep theological argument, no long speech. His witness to the power of Christ in his life was simple: “One thing I know. That though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)
If we know God- and not just by hearsay- and we share our experience of God with someone else by what we do or by what we say, or both, God will be at work in that sharing. We don’t need to be hung up on the outcomes. “You will be my witnesses” Jesus says. It’s that simple. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God. And indeed it is God who directs us in this, and it is God who will bring about the most gracious outcomes.
When the disciples left that hillside of the ascension, they returned to Jerusalem, a bit disoriented and unsure of what would come next. But they dared to have confidence in his promise to give them the power to witness in the world. And so for 10 days, constant in prayer, they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The coming of which we will celebrate next Sunday. By the way, the color of the day is red, so it you have some in your wardrobe it would be great if you could wear it, so we can fill the place with as much red as possible.
“You will be my witnesses.” The mission statement of the church universal. Our own parish statement of call speaks to how we feel called as a parish to live this out here in our context. It is printed on the back of your bulletin. Let’s read it together:
St. Paul’s is a Christian community where people are met and accepted without judgment for who they are and are adopted into a loving a caring family. Our faith provides a framework within which we explore, honor and celebrate the presence of God in daily experiences, especially in the crises, conflicts and transitions of life, and are thereby equipped to live fully in an increasingly complex and changing world.
We believe we are called to center our life in Jesus Christ through a regular discipline of Eucharistic worship, scripture study and prayer.
We believe our faith leads us to fulfill our mission, which is to share ourselves and our resources with each other, our community and the world.
We believe we are called to discover and affirm our spiritual gifts and be responsible and committed ministers of these gifts in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the coming week, I invite you to pray with me, that God will kindle and rekindle the power of the Spirit among us, that we may continue to live into that call as a community that faithfully witnesses to Christ our Lord. Amen+