I want to invite you to imagine that the Bible simply ended with Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus ascends and sits down in heaven. Imagine: that forty days after Easter, the disciples gather atop Matthew’s mountain. The Risen Christ speaks “peace be with you” and shows them the wounds in his hands and side. Jesus shares a sandwich to calm the disciples’ nerves. As they picnic, Christ “opens their minds to understand the scriptures” talking about suffering, resurrection, changed hearts, transformed lives, and radical forgiveness. They walk a couple of miles to Bethany, and on the slope of the Mount of Olives, Jesus lifts his hands and blesses them. While blessing his friends, Jesus leaves them, being taken up to heaven. The disciples worship Christ, once crucified, now risen. Peter, John, and Magdalene “return to the city overwhelmed with joy and were continuously in the temple praising God.”
What if Christ’s work had ended with the Ascension? What if no one wrote Acts, James, or Paul’s letters to Corinth or Rome? Personally, I would not mind losing Revelation. Martin Luther agreed with me! If the Bible ended at Matthew 28, we might more closely follow Jesus’ teaching. However, our after ascending Christ does not sit around Heaven doing nothing. On Easter Jesus promises to go ahead of us, meeting us in the journey. (Matthew 28) Jesus’ final words to the disciples are not about a glorious past or a future in heaven, but about Christ with us “on earth as in Heaven.” Luke ends with Jesus saying, “Stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.” Acts: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” Matthew ends, “Look,I myself will be with you every day until the end of the age.” The Incarnation does not end with Jesus reclining in heaven. There is Always more to come!
Jesus still appears each time we feed the hungry, provide clean water, provide healthcare, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, release the oppressed, welcome the immigrant, and defend “the least of these”. In John 14, Jesus said, “I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” Do we live like Christ is with us? Let us know in the comments!
After ascending Christ gets out in front of the church- pulling it along. On Pentecost, Christ inspires new visions and dreams. Along the Damascus Road, Christ transforms Paul into the Apostle of Inclusion. Christ will appear with new faith expressions in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi! Each city’s incarnational ministry plan becomes a book of the Bible. Paul writes to his friends in Corinth, “You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. …You are Christ’s letter, delivered by us. You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.” (2 Corinthians 3) That is a radical understanding of the incarnational… we are Christ’s letter. Jesus is not locked up in the pages of the New Testament. God is writing new letters in each of our lives!
It would have been easy to go back to the old “ways of being” after the ascension. Like July Fourth revellers we might have watched the vapor trail fade away, gathered the blankets, and headed home. On July 5, we would be mostly unchanged. Many movements die upon losing a charismatic leader. The disciples might have asked, “Who will feed the 5000? Who will heal the crowds? Who will still the storm? Who will walk on water? Who will raise the dead? Who will we decide which books get in our New Testament? How do we do ministry without Jesus standing right beside us?”
How do we do ministry without a visible Christ to guide our every step? I love this quirky story of Jesus paying his taxes. Jesus tells Peter, a commercial fishing captain, to throw out a line and catch a fish and inside the fish’s mouth there will be a gold coin. So Peter wets a line, catches a fish, and pulls out a gold coin like a rabbit from a hat. Maybe that was exactly what happened. Maybe Peter sold some fish and paid the tax. What do you think? How do we apply Matthew 17:27 to our times? How will we pay the church’s electric bill? Do we send Heather down to the Cumberland to catch a gold-mouthed bass? Have you ever heard a preacher proscribe this Christ-instituted method to pay the church bills? I have not.
I do not suggest explaining to the IRS a delinquent payment rooted in fishing for gold coins. However, for years I treated Jesus’ ministry of healthcare as if I did. I considered it my Christian duty to pray for the sick, not help them get healthcare. I focused on Jesus’ method not Jesus’ compassion and care for the sick. I enshrined the wrong values. Matthew 9 tells us, “Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. And when Jesus saw the crowds, Christ had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said, ‘The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Plead with the Lord to send out workers for God’s harvest.’” What is God’s harvest? Many sermons chide us to get to work “winning” people to Jesus. But why do we flip the subject and script to “soul winning” when Jesus is “healing every disease and sickness”? Christ has compassion for the sick. Jesus stirs up our compassion. If you find people lacking compassion for the sick and helpless crowds, remember “anyone who doesn’t love does not know God.” (1 John 4) If you think God sent this pandemic to punish some people then you do not know God, for God is love and God loves the world. When God’s love is poured into our hearts: Christ’s deep compassion fills us. We can’t love God and fail to care for the sick, helpless, and troubled crowds. Christians must do more than pray for the sick, we must work to offer everyone basic healthcare. I see no other way to interrupt Jesus’ healing ministry for our times.
And yet, right now, the needs of the world overwhelm us. Our souls must be replenished with love. We will not have the strength to keep on serving neighbors, if we are not continually renewed by Christ’s compassionate presence within us. In Acts 2:42, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” This is our prescription for pandemic soul care.
This passage is not as exciting as pulling a gold coin from a sea bass’ mouth, feeding 5000 with a single lunch box, or walking on the water. Yet, it tells us how to stay renewed amid persecution or pandemic. It holds the pattern, way, or lifestyle that keeps us deeply connected to God’s love. It is the everyday spiritual practices that anchor us with God and neighbor. The first Christians dedicated themselves to four spiritual practices:
- Dedicating themselves to opening the scriptures together.
- Dedicating themselves to each other.
- Dedicating themselves to sharing meals (with gladness and simplicity).
- Dedicating themselves to shared prayers.
This prescription makes Christ visible. We come together to pray, share, open the scriptures, and watch over each other in love. “Christ with us” transforms our sense of duty with love. When we love people, the work is transformed. Everyone needs this prescription. 1) do your life inside a safe learning community, 2) Express care for and with others (Right now consider who you can reach out to with a call, email or note. Ask, who needs love right? You can offer your presence without being physically present!), 3) Breaking sacramental bread and cornbread with others, 4) Share life through prayer. Pastor Kate, Heather, Darren and I would love to help you connect with a group. Reach out and we will help connect you.
And when Christ, the incarnate love of God is in our midst, new life emerges….
- A sense of awe came over everyone.
- People knew “God was at work”.
- Unity emerged.
- They shared everything.
- People began selling pieces of property and possessions to meet needs.
- Gladness and simplicity reigned.
- The church demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone around them.
- God drew people to the church.
Acts 6 tells us about the first church committee organized to run a community food bank. How will they fund that feeding ministry? I am sure they prayed, but Acts says they sold stuff. There is no record of anyone trying to pull 5000 lunches out of a child’s lunch box or catching a gold-mouth bass! They focussed on Jesus’ compassionate care for people not the miracles Jesus performed! They focussed on needs not enshrined methods. Compassion will stir us to find new ways to feed hungry crowds.
Recently, I heard Christ calling through Harvard University’s “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience”, “the safety of each one of us depends on the actions of every other one of us. Each of us has been called to perform innumerable ‘small missions,’… Yet our ‘small missions’ add up to the tactical foundation for our collective strategic success. … This is a moment for service….(Let us) be looking for an opportunity to serve. Indeed, this is a moment (…to) establish a universal expectation of service… this is our moment to serve and each (of us) find the mission to which we’ve been called.”
Oh, Nashville, unlike the tornado that drew thousands into the streets, this Covid pandemic calls us to love our neighbors by wearing masks and standing six feet apart. When have we ever been asked to show compassion by staying apart? If this global pandemic stirs a deep brooding sense of compassion for the helpless crowd, be of Good Cheer, Jesus felt this. Our prayers alone will not solve the pandemic, nor will gold-mouth bass unlock the economy. Filled with compassion, we must learn and innovate. We must find new politics and challenge old ideas. I am sure, this pandemic calls us to change our hearts and lives. God can’t use hardened hearts. So take the prescription: 1) be dedicated to opening the scriptures, 2) watch over one other in love 3) Share life in prayer 4) Share bread. And upheld by Christ’s compassionate presence let us adapt and interrupt Christ’s mission of sacrifice, compassion, and service in this time and space. And as God’s Love melts old ideologies and our hard hearts, we will find new ways to love and heal people on earth as in heaven. Amen.