Becoming Disciples: Live as Witnesses
Manuscript Only, Not Preached
Calvary Baptist Church, D.C.| June 5, 2011
Good morning on Calvary’s Birthday. It’s remarkable how all of us today are sitting in a place that has had a life for 149 years! Many great things can happen in 149 years and at Calvary that’s been true. Our Calvary ancestors lived through the riots, chose to stay in the city when the trend was to move your church to the suburbs, was the place where the first Libyan woman was on a Baptist roll, saw women in need and created Calvary’s Women’s Shelter, cared for youth through the Horizons after school program, lived through many changes, including changes in church leadership, has found ways to live out the gospel by expanding its worship style to include two languages, and has proclaimed the need for transformed lives through seeking and creating justice and loving their neighbors while proclaiming the good news of Christ.
This is a very rich culture we belong to; one that continues to develop our understanding of being Baptist, being a downtown church, being a presence internationally, and being disciples. Calvary is proud of her history and doesn’t let it only be told on her birthday. No, she’s proud of it always and continually shares part of her story when people walk up and down 8th and H streets taking in her beauty. Those of us here today celebrate this wonderful legacy Calvary has lived and are challenged to continue this legacy for the next 149 years as we live our lives propelling the culture of Calvary. We receive a continually blessing from those who have lived before us in this life we call Calvary. Their work, vision, and beliefs bless us as we do our work, create our vision, and live out our beliefs. We may be separated by time from our Calvary ancestors but we are most certainly connected to them in our hearts and spirits.
This is also true for the celebrations in our faith tradition. Today in the church we celebrate Ascension Sunday, a birthday of sorts of when the disciples received their first commission for ministry. Growing up I was always told that Pentecost was the birth of the Church but when I was looking at the Ascension text in Luke and hearing the staff talk about it as the birth of the Church I found great truth in that. This is where we see Christ’s ministry be transferred to the disciples. Up until this point the disciples were still trying to figure out what Jesus was saying, what he was doing, and what it meant for them to follow him. Yet, in this passage of scripture we see the disciples understand what has happened before them, how they got to where they were, and have clarity for where they are to go from that point on.
If we look at the text we see Jesus stating that he fulfilled the Hebrew scriptures, then opened the disciples minds to understand those scriptures, followed by their commission, then concluding by telling them when to embark on this new part of their journey. The text also reveals to us that the disciples finally got it! They finally knew what they were supposed to do and they did it. We see them waiting in Jerusalem for the promise from God and while they wait for that promise they begin praising God for all that had done in their faith tradition up to that point.
Even when we look at another depiction of the Ascension passage from our readings today, we see that in Acts the disciples were given instructions for what was to happen with Christ, that they were going to receive the Holy Spirit, and then they were to go and be living witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the World. The Ascension passage we have read today in both Luke and Acts reveal that this is when the birth of the Church took place. Christ had finished his work on earth, gave the instructions and insight to the disciples, and passed on the narrative story of God interacting with creation on to the disciples to continue proclaiming the love of God, creating justice, and being living witnesses to the work of Christ. Not too shabby of a birthday, not too shabby at all!
There are many reasons we as people tell stories of our ancestors, faith traditions, and family. As we celebrate Calvary’s 149th birthday and the birth of the Church today I can’t help but think of other stories in my life that have been told and retold and told again. For my family it’s the story of my brother Jason. Jason is my older brother who was born October 13, 1979 and whose life was full of strength, courage, and sorrow. You see I know a great deal about my brother’s life but I have never met him. Jason Allen Caruthers’ life was a remarkable four months long. He was diagnosed with Leukemia at five weeks old and fought hard to beat his cancer and inspired many of our family members along the way. Sadly the doctors couldn’t do more for Jason so my parents made the tough decision to bring him home and love on him for as long as they could. My amazing brother died on February 6, 1980 but his life has continued to live on in my parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and even myself. I might not have had the honor of meeting my brother but I can certainly say I know him. I know those four months almost as well as I could have had I actually been there. I am inspired by my brother’s life and the impact it has had on our family and his doctors; we still keep in touch with his oncologist and nurses. Jason’s my brother, and my nieces and nephews will know of their Uncle Jason, and if I have kids one day my children will know of him as well. His life was incredible and he will forever be a part of our family story. I’m so thankful that my brother’s life inspired my parents and his doctors and our extended family because they have shared the joys and sorrows of his life with me and that’s how I’m able to know my amazing brother, Jason. He was a tough kid and one that brought transformation to my parents’ lives. Every kid of my parents has transformed them and made them into the remarkable parents and people they are today. I’m honored to be the youngest of seven children whose lives have brought transformation to their parents.
I know my brother because his story has been retold to me by my parents and I know Jesus Christ and the disciples because their stories have been told me by my family and teachers as they have been captured in the Bible.
We all have our stories we tell, retell, and tell again for good measure. Our faith tradition is full of them! To better understand the story we are retelling and celebrating today let’s take a closer look at Luke 24:44 – 53. In the books authored by Luke we can see this thread of Jesus’ story and the story of the church being combined. Luke does not write these two stories disjointed from one another but rather provides the stories as revealing that God’s work on earth through Christ is continued through the work of the church. Which is what we see happening in this passage of Luke. Christ was a great teacher and knew the disciples needed direction for how to continue God’s work on earth so he provides them with the necessary information.
First, Christ tells the disciples the scriptures they knew well needed to be fulfilled, then Christ opened their mind and they understood these scriptures more fully than ever before. It was the first time Christ’s teachings, the teachings of their ancestors, and their understanding of these things came together in full comprehension. The disciples now have the knowledge of their faith tradition and the work of Christ to go forth and begin their ministry but they are still lacking the details of what their ministry would be.
Jesus continued with this commission of the disciples by laying forth what they were to go and do in their ministry. The Voice is a translation of the New Testament and has verses 46 – 49 reading
“This is what the Scriptures said: that the promised Liberating King should suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, that in His name a radical change of thought and life should be preached, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to all nations. You have witnessed the fulfillment of these things. So I am sending my Father’s promise to you. Stay in the city until you receive it – until the power from Heaven comes upon you.”
With these few sentences the disciples are given insight to what they are to proclaim, assurance that they have seen what they will be sharing with others, how it will be lived out in their lives, the promise of God’s continued presence with them, and where to begin once they have been baptized with the Holy Spirit.
This was the culmination of all they had seen Christ do, what they had experienced God to be, and how they were to continue the tradition of their faith. Theologian Larry D. Bouchard puts this part of the Ascension story like this, “The Law, Prophets, and Psalms and the mind of Christ and the minds of the disciples are emptying into each other in a mutual kenosis that involves the future – because repentance (meaning change of mind and heart) will pour out from Jerusalem into the world, and the disciples will witness this motion.” The instructions Christ gave to the disciples in verses 46 – 49 were not to simply be retold to others but lived out in their daily lives. They were to proclaim this knowledge they had received in both word and action. The disciples were to tell of God’s faithfulness, justice, and mercy which wasn’t an easy task; they saw what this lifestyle brought to Jesus. Since Jesus knew this he assured them that God would keep the promise of bestowing them with the Holy Spirit so they would never be alone as they lived out their lives as witnesses.
But, before Jesus was finished and the ministry of the disciples could commence Jesus keeps with tradition and offers them a blessing. In verse 50 we see Jesus raise his wound marked hands and speaks a blessing over the disciples which is similar to the way Moses gave his blessing to his successors. Then in verse 51 as Jesus is still speaking the blessing he ascends unto the heavens.
I love this part in the story! Jesus hadn’t finished his blessings before the ascension but rather was continuing the blessing when he ascended. It leaves me to believe the blessing never stopped and continued through the work of the disciples and through all the years of our faith tradition reaching us today and will continue in the years to follow us. Because Jesus’ blessing never stopped and continued as he ascended to the heavens it brings the disciples into the ascension, no longer looking up at Christ but joining Christ to receive a new perspective for the ministry they had been commissioned with. They receive in the continual blessing the new perspective which is that of God’s mercy. It is from this new perspective that the disciples are to live out their transformed lives and go forth preaching the good news. With the blessing from Christ and his ascension, the disciples had received all they needed in order to begin their ministry but was that the birth of the church? Well, in part but the church’s birth doesn’t reach its fullness until the next two verses.
As the Ascension story concludes we see the disciples worshiping Christ, returning to Jerusalem to wait for the promise from God, and continually going to the temples blessing God. The disciples didn’t wait to go to the temples teaching what they knew until the promise of the Holy Spirit had come to them. No, they were actively living their lives as witnesses while they waited for the Holy Spirit. With the resurrection of Christ and the living witnesses of the disciples the birth of the church took place. Theologian Richard Manly Adams Jr. says “the end of the Gospel of Luke is not the end of the story of Jesus but, rather, the beginning of the story of the church, begun by the resurrected Jesus and continued by his followers.” So, here with the resurrected-Jesus bestowing the necessary knowledge, insight, direction, and blessing to the disciples and the disciples being living witnesses we see the birth of the church take place.
On this Ascension Sunday and every other Ascension Sunday this is the birthday we celebrate, the birth of the Church. At birthdays it is common to offer gifts, so what gift do we as followers of Jesus offer to the birth of the church? We offer our lives as living witnesses to the continued work of God here on earth. What is it to offer our lives as living witnesses? We embrace the blessing given by Christ to the disciples thousands of years ago, walk confidently in the fact that we have received God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. We daily live out the radical change of thought and life of repentance by creating justice, loving our enemies, forgiving an outrageous sinner, and being a channel for peace to enter the world.
In all we do as the church let us lean into the truth that God is merciful, loving, forgiving, and calls us to be the continual presence of these things to our world, city, and community of faith. Those of us sitting here today are continuing the narrative of God interacting with creation by being living witnesses to the work and life of Jesus Christ. I don’t know of a better present we can give in celebration of the birth of the church. Let us keep in mind that this is a gift we give every day of our lives and not just on Ascension Sunday.
It’s a big day for us here at Calvary; we are celebrating two remarkable births: the birth of Calvary Baptist Church and the birth of the universal church. On days like today let us celebrate with our lives! As we retell the stories of Calvary and of the church allow yourself to recall your own personal stories that you tell and retell. Maybe a personal story for you will be like the one I shared today of a loved one whose life transformed those around them and yourself. Maybe the story you think of will be of a time in your life when you were transformed by an act of kindness given to you. Whatever the story you recall is let it transform you once again, just as the stories of Calvary and the Ascension of Christ transform us as we retell them today. It’s in the retelling of these stories that we remember why we participate in our faith tradition’s narrative of active liberation.
As we leave here today living our lives as witnesses of God’s active presence on earth through Christ Jesus and continued by the disciples and us, allow me to leave you with this blessing taken in part from our Epistle lesson today. May the Liberating King give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that will enlighten the eyes of your heart so that you live in the hope of peace, trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Christ did. As God put all things under Christ’s feet and made him the head over all things for the church go forth living out your witness in full knowledge that the scriptures and life of Jesus Christ have been fulfilled. Amen.