Sermons That Work

Crucifixion. Resurrection. Ascension., Easter 7 (C) – 1998

May 24, 1998

Crucifixion. Resurrection. Ascension. All of these were very public events as the first followers of Jesus began to form the community we now call the church. Busy, public events are important. But public events are just that — public. On display. Other people are watching, watching not only the event itself, but also people’s reactions to it. There isn’t a lot of room for personal expression of thought or feeling. And, with a lot of people around who may not be part of the ‘inner circle,” there’s a lot of stuff that we just may not want to say.

Over the last seven weeks, the Gospel lessons have taken us through these very public events as we remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And, then, being Thursday night, we celebrated Ascension, and await the day of Pentecost next Sunday, the real beginning of the church’s service in and to the world. These are more public events, time to be together to share and strengthen ourselves in the “inner circle” of Jesus and his disciples.

These more private, quiet times that the church has between its public actions are not wasted, idle time. If we read Acts straight through, we will notice that the time between Ascension and Pentecost was used for the very important tasks of planning and organizing. But that isn’t the only way, or even the most important way, the church spends its quiet, private time.

Today’s Gospel also recalls a quiet, private time Jesus had with his closest friends. We usually think of this Gospel as part of the farewell discourse in the Fourth Gospel. But if we only think about it in the context of the Last Supper, we’re cheating ourselves. There’s much more to it than that. In this story, we see a small group of close friends, gathering around a table for a meal, to show their love and thankfulness for one another. In private, their leader — their master, their teacher, their Lord — tells his followers how thankful he is for them. Their leader expresses his confidence that the disciples will be faithful in doing the work he has given them. And their leader lets them know how eager he is for all of them to be together again. They share bread, wine, conversation and love. As this small group spends quiet, private time together, they are strengthened and encouraged and renewed for their next public event, for service in the world.

But even this quiet, private time is neither between public events nor for us alone. In this Gospel, Jesus reminds us that through his disciples – through us – the world will come to know God. This means that we are an important part of God’s plan of love and salvation, and it is during these private times that we learn to be the bearers of God’s good news through Jesus Christ. It is significant that these words take place in the context of a meal. Learning to be faithful witnesses of God’s love is a lot like learning table manners: it takes place among those we know and love, and it requires constant practice until it becomes our second nature. Like table manners, Christian living is practiced in a family, the family of the church. After learning how to act properly, we are ready to go in public. And, unless the manners – whether of dining with others or of living as Christ’s witnesses – are made second nature, everyone else can tell that they are a sham. Our works and actions as Christians who are also participants in a wider society must be consistent with what we say we believe. Otherwise, the rest of the world will brand us as hypocrites, and rightly so.

In those quieter, private times, Jesus calls us – his close friends – to be with him at his table. Jesus invites us to share bread, and wine, and conversation. As we come together to share this meal with the Lord, Jesus gives thanks – he gives thanks for us! The Eucharist is our Great Thanksgiving, for Jesus and for God’s work of salvation. But it is also Jesus’ thanksgiving for us — thanksgiving for the people God has given to him and through whose words and actions others will come to believe in Jesus. And Jesus also tells us that he is confident that we will so the work he has given us, that we will go forth into the world and do that work well and faithfully. Even more, at this family table, the one we call the Eucharist is where we will learn, by example and practice, those manners of Christian living, which will make us credible witnesses of our Lord. Only by living the way we say we believe, will we be able to do that.

There are many more of us gathered here this morning than there were in that scruffy bank of fisherman and tax collectors that followed Jesus around the Judean countryside so many years ago. But just like them, we still need those time – times like this week between Ascension and Pentecost – to come together as his close friends. Time to plan, time to organize, but also, and perhaps most importantly, time for us to just be with each other and with our Lord. Times to be thankful for each other’s ministries, lives, and love. Time to know Jesus is thankful for us, the people whom the Father has given to him. We need to hear Jesus’ words, and enjoy his loving presence among us. Most of all, we need to come to the table where he has invited us to share a meal – bread, wine, conversation and love. Time to know Jesus is thankful for us, the people whom the Father has given to him. We need to hear Jesus’ works, and enjoy his loving presence among us. Most of all, we need to come to the table where he has invited us to share a meal, bread, wine, conversation, and love. And here we learn how to be bearers of that nourishment, communication, and care to a hurting and confused world. The world longs for the love of God in Jesus Christ; we can hardly look around us and doubt that. But if we have not practiced Christian living until it is our second nature, the world will reject our invitation to God’s feast of merciful love.

Today we prepare for Pentecost, the launching of the church’s public life. At that first Pentecost, God’s love overflowed the disciples to the point where they were able to make the message of Jesus’ saving power understood to everyone. It was credible, because they let God’s glory and not their own shine through. When Christians – either individually or as the whole church – use their faith wisely, God’s love will prevail. When we use our religion as a weapon to exclude or judge others, when Christian leaders use their positions of influence for their own gain, the message gets obscured and rejected because it is inconsistent. Even in today’s so-called secular culture, most people have at least an outline of what biblical Christianity stands for. When Christians fail to live lovingly, it does not go unnoticed. We need to practice our faith in the safety of the church family, so that it becomes as natural as breathing when we go outside of our worship to proclaim the love of Christ, not only with our lips but with our lives.

In coming together at this table, to share the bread and wine that Jesus offers us, all who come to this intimate gathering are strengthened and renewed. This is where our faith is strengthened, where we learn by example and practice what it means to be Christian in the world. Not only for ourselves, but so we can go forth into the world, to do the work he has given us to do, as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

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Christopher Sikkema


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