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June 5, 2011
This Sunday is the last Sunday in Eastertide. Today’s scripture, from the first chapter in Acts, is set in the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. During this 40-day period, the risen Christ has been appearing to the disciples and speaking about the kingdom of God.
Today is one of those Sundays when many things are taking place in worship: baptism, teacher recognition, promise cards, hand bells, communion and much more—all in one hour. (Well, almost within an hour. Not that anyone is checking). Like today’s worship, the church in general sometimes feels like a three-ring circus. Just think of the multitude of ministries going on simultaneously under the tent known as UPC—teacher recruitment, adult ministries, music programs, mission trips, building and grounds to maintain, food pantry, assistance programs, bridge to worship, VBS, youth and college fellowships, and so on and so forth. Well, this morning, let’s pause and take a few minutes to refocus. Let’s take this opportunity to ask a very basic question: What does it mean to be church?
A good place to begin our refocusing is with the disciples’ question to the risen Christ from our reading this morning: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Notice that the coming of the Kingdom to Israel was the central concern of the disciples precisely because it had been so important to Jesus. According to Luke, when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, he continued to talk about the same theme that had dominated his ministry: the Kingdom of God. No wonder, then, that they would ask Jesus: “Is this the time for the Kingdom to be fully restored?”
Actually, the hope for the coming of God’s reign predates Jesus and the first disciples by some 500 years. When the people of Israel were broken in spirit, living in poverty and hunger, when they were captives in a foreign land—at that very time, the prophet Isaiah had lifted their hopes with a vision of redemption and liberation. The prophet envisioned a day when the exiles would return home to their own land, worship God in freedom and peace, and all the nations would rejoice. Jerusalem would be the center of God’s reign, but God’s reign would spread to all the nations. God’s Shalom would fill the earth as swords were beaten in ploughs and spears in pruning hooks. The peoples of every tribe and nation would feast and drink wine together in one human community. The promised Kingdom of God was nothing less than global healing, the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom of peace and justice for all.
And then Jesus came proclaiming the good news that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Everywhere Jesus went, signs of the Kingdom of God were breaking in—the sick were being healed, the hungry were being fed, women and men who were enslaved by disease or mental illness were being set free, the outcasts and the unclean were welcomed. It’s easy to understand how Jesus’ life—his words and deeds—reawakened the prophet’s vision of God’s reign. Of course, Jesus’ rejection and death seemed to put an end to such hope, but the resurrection vindicated Jesus and renewed the disciples’ confidence that the promise would be fulfilled, after all. But when? That was the question.
And, to be honest, it is a question that has continued to vex and challenge the church from Luke’s time to the present day. Yes, Jesus has proclaimed the coming reign of God, good news for the poor, liberty for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. But the poor remain poor, today as they did then. The hungry are still hungry. The broken-hearted still nurse broken hearts, and people still weep. The humble have not been exalted; the exalted have not been brought low. Is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come on earth” only wishful thinking? Was Jesus wrong?
Of course, through the years the church has been very clever in avoiding the problem of unfulfilled expectations. For example, the church has typically ignored Jesus’ radical, down- to- earth teaching about the Kingdom and simply relocated the Kingdom to some far-off future or to a heavenly realm. Jesus, some have concluded, was talking about a heavenly kingdom, a celestial city in the sweet bye and bye. Or, as many have declared, the Kingdom is a purely inner spiritual reality. They are always quoting the verse, “The Kingdom of God is within.” These and other truncated interpretations of the Kingdom of God aren’t wrong so much in what they say as in what they leave out. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed is all encompassing. Everything is transformed and everyone is included.
So the meaning of the church comes into clear focus only when it is set in the light of God’s Kingdom. Jesus didn’t answer the disciples’ curiosity about when the vision of the Kingdom would be fulfilled. What he did was to commission the disciples as his witnesses. The Spirit given at Pentecost was the gift that empowers the church to live as keepers of the vision, a vision that began in Jesus and that continues through the witness of the church. Australian theologian William Loader brought the meaning of the church in sharp focus when he said: “The Church is nothing other than the place within which and through which the Kingdom is coming into being. It is not itself the kingdom…But it witnesses to the vision and lives by it. The vision is the Church’s true agenda well as its hope.”
In a few moments we will come to the Table to celebrate Holy Communion. Why? Because coming to the Table is the Church’s visible sign of the Day when people from east and west, north and south will come together, sharing bread and wine in full communion with God and at peace with one another. We know that our world is still broken, violent and hungry, but we are confident that Jesus is Lord, and will one day come again to complete the vision that he has brought near.
This is the meaning of the ascension. We need not be put off by Luke’s pre-modern cosmology, which depicts Jesus ascending like a weather balloon into the sky. The ascension, theologians remind us, is not about location; it is scripture’s symbolic way of conveying the authority and reign of Jesus. The ascension of Jesus is an important article of faith because it reassures Jesus’ disciples that our hope for the coming Kingdom of God is not in vain.
This week I came across a one-sentence definition of church: “We are ordinary, broken human beings gathered around the ascended Jesus to share in his life and to be about his business in the world.” The business of Jesus, simply put, is to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. So whatever we do as church—ring bells, sing anthems, teach children, baptize babies, welcome strangers, feed the hungry—we are sharing in the life of our risen and ascended Lord. We are keeping the vision alive until he comes again.