Why? – Sermon on Luke 24 for Giving Sunday

On Giving Sunday, you’d expect to hear me preaching about the spiritual discipline of giving. And to be sure, giving is a spiritual discipline. I direct your attention to the writeup inside the bulletin at the end of the worship for ways to think about giving spiritually. The choices we make with all that we have, including our financial resources, are spiritual choices—at least for Christians who claim to be sealed with the Holy Spirit who guides us and conforms us to Christ’s mind in all manner of life. But of course, discipleship is bigger than simply finances, and how we “give back” to God is a bigger matter than simply how much money we put into the church’s coffers.

“By the mercies of God,” St. Paul writes near the end of his letter the Christians in Rome, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We aren’t to become so caught up with culture that we fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your focus on God. Living a discipled life is a sacrificial life. But the Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. Unlike the world all about us, always dragging us down into the muck and mire of inane and stupid controversies or despair, God brings the best of us out, daily renews us to see life through a new lens—the lens of love, focused through the prism of Jesus’ cross.

And so on this Giving Sunday, how is God calling us, and in particular you, to give your bodies—that is, your whole lives—as a living sacrifice? How is Jesus calling you to newness of life, ready to take up the yoke of disciple? Jesus promises us that with him is life. How do we choose life as we choose to be his disciple?

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Ascension is something that people sometimes struggle to fit into the narrative of Jesus life, of his ministry of salvation. They get Christmas—Jesus is born. They get the crucifixion—Jesus died. They get the resurrection—Jesus is raised. But a lot of people struggle with the Ascension. After Jesus was raised from the dead, he hangs out with his disciples for forty days when all of a sudden he’s taken up into heaven, and the disciple are left there, staring up into the sky.

I, for my part, have always found it a bit funny what the angels say to the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Are you kidding me? They just watched their teacher, their Lord and their God, if the words of St. Thomas are to be taken seriously, just float up into heaven, “out of their sight,” as the text tells us. “Why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?” Oh, I don’t know—maybe because a man, raised from the dead, just ascended into heaven! It just seemed always a very odd thing to me that the angels asked the disciples this question.

It also seems to me that the angels are the confused one here, not the disciples. When someone just floats off into the sky, the natural thing to do is look upward…not behave as if nothing at all out of the ordinary just happened.

But what if the angels weren’t crazy…Did you ever think about that?

What if the question from the angels wasn’t that far off the mark, but instead was precisely the right question? “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” What about you, do you stand looking upward toward heaven, to see what’s going on with Jesus, with God the Father, the whole company of the heavenly host? A lot of Christians spend a lot of time on heaven…after all, the word for heaven ouranos, the word from which we get Uranus, like the planet, comes up, in some form or another, 278 times in the New Testament alone. Somehow it seems to me that it’s important.

But Christians have seemed to fixate on heaven. It reminds me of an embroidered wall hanging I once saw. It said: “Working for the Lord may be a tough job, but the retirement plan is out of this world.” This kind of thinking is quite prevalent in our churches, and in our culture. We’re Christians because God promises that the kingdom of heaven will be ours…And we, like Jesus, look forward to that day when we ascend into the sky to one of the many mansions he’s gone to prepare for us.

This upward-focused way of faith isn’t really what we’re called to, tough. Between today’s gospel text and second lesson, we have two accounts of the Ascension with different details. Let’s exercise some interpretative freedom, asking ourselves what the point of the story is, not the details per se, and see what’s going on. We have Jesus and the disciples some forty days after his resurrection, and as we said, they’re hanging out. They get as far as Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, when Jesus lifts up his hands over the disciples, and as St. Luke tells us, “he blessed them.” “While he was blessing them,” Luke goes on, “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

That part of the story is, without question, the most dramatic part, but what’s the most important part? Before we rush to the end of the story, let’s look at what Jesus says to the disciples before he ascends into heaven. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Before Jesus goes back to heaven, he charges the disciples to be his witnesses, his witness…Before he goes back to heaven, Jesus charges us to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within us, always and everywhere. Jesus gives us a job to do at his Ascension. He hands over his ministry to us and entrusts it to us—to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ job becomes our job.

We are now living in a liminal time—a time between two spaces. We have come through a pandemic and a rebuilding after a fire. This was a traumatic time for us as a congregation, but we proved we are Emanuel Strong. We are Emanuel Strong because of the very nature of our name, Emanuel—God with us. Throughout this difficult time, we have learned more fundamentally what it means that God is with us, that God never abandons us.

And yet we are now staring at a new frontier before us, much like the disciples that fateful day in Bethany. We know that God is with us as we embark on the journey into this new frontier, but it’s nonetheless before us. We don’t forget where we’ve been, but we cannot let the past dictate our future. We have a future before us that’s bright with possibility, but we must be shrewd in how we approach it. We could use this time as an opportunity, or we could squander it. Let’s use it as an opportunity.

Therefore, I challenge this parish, I challenge you, to answer the question, “Why Emanuel?” We have members in this congregation who are deeply involved with the work of Relay for Life with the American Cancer Society. Their work makes a difference, and they’re passionate about it. When you ask them, they have an answer why they relay. The simple message for them might be because “cancer doesn’t take a day off,” but everyone who is excited about Relay for Life has a more personal response to the question, “Why do I relay?” They are always ready to give an account for why they’re excited about this cause.

Might that enthusiasm, that commitment, that readiness and willingness be an example for us here? “Why Emanuel?” The simple message we could give to that question might be because “sin, death, and the devil don’t take a day off,” but everyone who is excited about what we’re doing here at Emanuel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, God’s very own presence among us, ought to have a more personal response to the question, “Why Emanuel?”

We can’t expect people to just join what we are doing as a church anymore because that’s what good people do. Society no longer has a view that church is what makes for a “good person.” People can be good people by going to synagogue, going to mosque, going to the Masons meeting, or simply…being a good person.

The church isn’t about being a good person.

Jesus didn’t die so you could be a good person.

The church has a mission that is far beyond simply being a good person. Jesus died to reconcile you and all creation with you to God’s creative and redeeming design for life above all else. Goodness will win out over evil, and that’s the message of the church—not that we lead moral lives, but that whatever is detrimental to God’s good design for fullness of life is destroyed by the power of love, made most clearly visible for us and for the world in the life and death of Jesus, the same life and death we participate in when we join the body of Christ, the church, in mission. This mission is more than doing good things for other people—although that is definitely part of it. It’s more than having social events or doing pledge drives. It’s about communing with God in all our life, knowing and understanding that nothing can separate us or anyone in Christ from that love. Sin, death, and the devil don’t take a day off, and neither does the mission of the church.

That message is lofty, no doubt. But it’s the core articulation of what the message of the whole church, across time and place, has been and will remain. We at Emanuel have this mission in a particular place and in a particular context. And therefore, we must articulate this mission in light of our own particular place and particular context. Like the disciples at the Ascension who needed to articulate the good news first for Jerusalem, then for Samaria and Judea, we must understand our calling as Jesus’ disciples first here at Emanuel, then in Fitchburg, Ashby, Leominster, Lunenburg, and beyond. We must be able to answer the question “Why Emanuel” as easily as we might for other things we’re engaged in. We must always ready to give an account for why we’re excited about what God is doing at Emanuel in, with, and through us as members of his Son’s body. God’s work. Our hands. When we can answer this question, we can share with other people and encourage them to join in the mission we share, not only of sharing God’s creative and redeeming love with the world, but sharing God’s creative and redeeming love here at Emanuel, through our church family, in our particular place and our particular context.

Let’s figure out how we’re going to answer the question, “Why Emanuel?” When we honestly and faithfully can answer that, we’re taking advantage of the new frontier before us as an opportunity—an opportunity where we know God is already waiting to meet us along the way.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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