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What Now?

A Homily from Luke 24:44-53

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 1, 2003 (Ascension of Lord)

The pattern of the Church Year serves a practical purpose. By centering our worship around the life and ministry of Jesus; we are given a number of opportunities to find intersection between our own situations and the teachings of our Savior. By covering the breadth of those teachings, we hope to also address the breadth of the human condition.

Along the way, we are also swept up in the grand saga of the story. We encounter Jesus as an infant, as a teacher, as a social radical, as a suffering servant, as a friend, as a victim of murder, and – gloriously in the season of Easter – as our resurrected Savior. Leading up to Lent, we learn what it means to study at the feet of Jesus. We see how the world is changed by his presence.

In Lent, we suffer alongside him. We look into the darkness of our own hearts, as surely the disheartened and even cowardly disciples must have done the same. Then comes Easter, and for a brief, shining moment we bask in the glory of resurrection. Our texts focus on the hope offered by a God who not only conquered death, but did so by surrendering to it.

Easter is a time of perfection and completion, and so we also look at the perfect love that defines those who would follow the resurrected Lord. He is no longer simply a teacher or a martyr, he is something more; and as such he calls us to be more as well.

And there is more yet to come. Today we honor Jesus as the ascended Son of God. He is the one who, having completed his work among us, returns to his rightful place in Heaven at the right hand of our Creator. From now until Advent there will be a different flavor to our texts. Earlier, we talked about what it meant to follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth. From this point on we will ask, “What does it means to serve under the authority of the Son of God?”

That’s a pretty tough question, and if it’s any comfort, the disciples apparently did not know the answer either. In our gospel lesson for today, they had just gathered to discuss Jesus’ strange appearance to two of their number on the way to Emmaus. Luke tells us that – while the disciples were discussing what such an appearance would mean for their future – Jesus appeared to them.

“Peace be with you.” he said. And they were terrified. The text points out that they thought they were looking at a ghost. I do not think it is too much of a stretch, however, to realize that their fear probably went beyond any concerns about the supernatural.

These were not only Jesus’ followers, they were his closest friends. When everyone else thought he was nuts, they had stood by him. They had stood by him, that is, until their lives were on the line. Then every single one of them had left him to die alone.

What does it mean to serve the Son of God? It means fear and shame. Our own responses are probably not unlike those of Jesus’ disciples. Whether we were raised in the Church or came to our faith as adults, all of us have encountered times in our lives where we feel that we have turned away from Jesus – turned away from God or from what is right and good.

After those times we step into a church or open our Bibles or kneel in prayer with a deep suspicion in our hearts. We suspect that we are not good enough to stand before God. We are not good enough to follow Jesus. Yet Jesus greets us also with open arms, and offers us peace.

Being humans, however, the disciples not only doubted themselves; they doubted what they were seeing. Jesus senses their doubts and shows them his hands and his feet. He even eats a piece of fish to prove that he has come back among them as a living, flesh-and-blood person. Death itself has been defeated, and he is the proof.

You’ll notice, though, that none of the disciples touched him. They took his word for it when he showed them his body. Part of serving our ascended Lord is recognizing that we also sometimes doubt, and that we also have to take his word for it. That’s not always as easy as it may sound, but like the disciples we must place our trust in the truth of what Jesus has said.

Jesus goes on to explain to the disciples that everything that has happened to Him happened for a reason. His life, suffering, death, and resurrection were all necessary to fulfill what had been promised in the scriptures. From the earliest days of recorded memory, a few faithful people had trusted God to restore the brokenness of humanity. They had carried that promise in their hearts, and faithfully guarded it in their writings. Finally, everything they had taught and hoped for had come to pass in the life of one carpenter from Nazareth.
What does it mean to serve the Son of God? It means to step into something that is much bigger than ourselves. It means to become a part of a movement, a tidal wave that has been building since the earliest of our ancestors first knelt in prayer. Jesus was not some simpleton who fell victim to the violence of his time. His life and death had a purpose. They served a greater cause. By following him, we offer our own lives to that cause.

The common thread of Scripture that defines that cause and Jesus’ role in it might be obvious to us now; but it was not to his disciples. I don’t think we can emphasize that point enough. Some people like to talk about what a “simple” book the Bible is. They claim to preach its “plain message.”

Well, it can’t be all that plain. Jesus’ closest followers, who had lived with him, studied with him, and heard him preach for three years didn’t understand what the Bible had to say about him. They didn’t understand when he was tried. They didn’t understand when he was executed. They didn’t even understand when he stood right in front of them, after having been resurrected from the dead.

They didn’t understand, we are told, until Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” What does it mean to serve the Son of God? It means knowing that there are deficiencies in our knowledge. It means recognizing our own limitations.

It also means depending on the presence of Jesus to help us understand. Now, that can be an excellent excuse for some really cockeyed theology. Consequently, it might be worth noting that Jesus did not go to each disciple separately and offer each of them their own interpretation of the Bible. They were gathered in a community, and he opened their minds collectively.

Understanding that all faithful interpretation of the Bible is dependent on the presence of Jesus does not absolve us of accountability to our larger community of faith. As much fun as it might be to run around claiming we have the one, true word of God; if we’re the only ones who know that truth it is more likely to be indigestion than inspiration.

Accountability alone, however, is not enough. The Bible will never be useful for us unless we approach it from a perspective of faith. Even the straightforward teachings and example of Jesus were not enough to help the disciples fully understand; and any attempt to reduce the gospel to nothing more than pithy sayings like those found in Poor Richard’s Almanac forgets the import of today’s text. There is a mystical, divine component to the Bible that can only be understood with the physical presence of God working within us.

If we hear the voice of God, what a message it proclaims! Jesus sums up the whole purpose of his life and the teachings of the Bible by saying, “repentance and forgiveness of sins in [the Messiah’s name] is to be proclaimed to all nations.”

Repentance – “change” and forgiveness – “mercy.” You can sum up everything in those big floppy preacher’s Bibles with those two words. What does it mean to serve the Son of God? It means we must repent, we must change. We must change our priorities. We must change our behaviors. We must change the way we think of ourselves and the way we treat other people. We must change what we do and who we are.

It also means that we do so knowing we are forgiven. I think we often understate the power and enormity of that gift. Have you ever disappointed or even hurt someone you loved? Have you ever had the rare privilege of knowing – deep in your heart – that the person you wronged genuinely and completely forgave you? The message of repentance is a pretty big stick. It doesn’t take more than a brief flip through the pages of the Bible to know we’re doing a lot wrong. But that is only half the message. The other half is the absolute assurance that someone who knows – in the tiniest detail – just how unworthy we are loves and forgives us anyway.

There is a price to be paid. Jesus proclaims that his friends are witnesses to everything he has done, and to good news he offers to everyone. Encountering that good news changes a person, and it changed the disciples so much that a greedy, selfish world couldn’t stand by and let them live. As a result, the word for witness in Greek become the word for sacrifice – martyr.

To see what Jesus can do, to share in the promise, carries an element of risk. What we have seen and been given changes us in ways that make us a danger to the powerful and the cruel; even simply the petty and the selfish. If we are to genuinely serve the Son of God, we must accept that doing so makes us enemies of a corrupt and broken world.

But we de not face that corruption empty-handed. Jesus promises to each of the men and women who would follow him power. It is a safe bet, though, that any king who rules by serving and who leads by dying is not going to offer us power of a conventional kind. We are not given wealth, or armies, or brute force. We are given instead the very Spirit of God. It is a Spirit which defeats arrogance by meeting it with humility; which overcomes violence by meeting it with peace; which feeds the hungry and clothes the poor by sharing what we have even if we don’t think we have enough.

We do not just serve a carpenter from the hill country who had some wise teachings. We don’t simply follow some wandering mystic who managed to work miracles. The one we call Lord is not just a human raised from the dead. Jesus is the very Son of God, and though he may not always do things the way we would like to see them done; he has at his command all the power of Heaven. When we serve the Messiah instead of merely ourselves, we are equipped with that same power, and the opportunity to change the world.

Once Jesus had reminded his disciples of these things, he went out to Bethany, and raised his hands in blessing. This is, I think, no small indicator of his trust in us. We don’t use the expression “with someone’s blessing,” except perhaps when someone seeks a parent’s blessing before getting married. To have that blessing means to have the person’s endorsement for what you are doing. It means to have their support, their approval.

Jesus looked out over a crowd of people every bit as flawed and imperfect as we are and gave them – gave us – his approval. He knows we won’t always get it right. He knows we’ll forget perhaps more often than we’ll remember; and that we’ll probably close our minds as often as he tries to open them. Nevertheless, he knows we’ll try, and we have his full support for the effort.

Having given his blessing, Jesus was carried up into Heaven. Jesus had walked in a body as frail as our own for over thirty years. Having completed his work, he returned to all of the power and glory that is his due.

His followers responded with such joy that they were continually in the temples praising God.

Isn’t that odd? When they first learned of Jesus’ resurrection, they didn’t not run to the temples in joy. Only after he came to them, told them of their part in the divine plan, gave them something to do, and gave them his blessing did they worship and celebrate.

Perhaps that had something to do with why they were afraid to see the resurrected Jesus in the first place. Perhaps they couldn’t celebrate until they realized that his resurrection was not just for him; it was for all of them. It is for all of us.

That is why all worship, even in times of tragedy, should carry with it an undercurrent of joy. We all are invited to this table. We all are given the chance to leave upon it our guilt and our self-doubt; and carry from it the good news of the Son of God and the power to change the world. We have cause to celebrate, because even as the Son of God welcomed and blessed the close friends who had deserted him; so does he welcome and bless us as well.