September 23, 2012

Mission One

One of the most significant moments in this life, ironically, comes at the end of it.  The moments we experience near the end of a person’s life on this earth are often viewed as fraught with meaning and significance.  If there are words spoken we hang on those as some of the most important they’ll ever speak.  The reason for this is that we assume those words will somehow be more free from the weight of this world than the words you and I throw around on a daily basis.  The person is near the end of life, what possible reason would they have for speaking something other than the truth in the plainest fashion possible?  The last words of a variety of famous people can be found by an easy internet search.  These are often treated as if they convey a special or somehow deep meaning.  If a person is that close to seeing through the veil separating this life from the next, perhaps they will take a quick look and share something with the rest of us who are still waiting to have clearer sight before they go.  The importance of dying declarations goes beyond even this, though.  In a courtroom setting, a dying declaration is treated as a more reliable testimony that just nearly anything else.  A dying declaration that points in a certain direction as far as solving a crime mystery will be given a great deal of consideration.  Now, is there really any special importance or meaning to a person’s final words on this earth beyond what we assign to it?  I don’t know.  What I do know, though, is that in such a moment, the truth is the only thing that makes sense and given that a person that near the end is more likely to have a proper perspective on what’s most important in life and what’s not, we do well to assume the truth.  We do well to take instructions given in such a moment as worthy of our attention.  We’ll come back to this idea in just a bit.

This morning we are beginning a new series.  Each year around this time I like to take a few weeks and spend some time talking with you about what we are all about as a church.  It is good to be reminded who we are, who God made us to be.  This year is no different.  For the next few weeks we are going to take another look at our mission and vision as a church.  The whole reason for our existence as a church is to help spiritual seekers—people genuinely interested in moving in the direction of Christ—find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  We do this by creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  We’ll talk more about both of those next week.  This morning as we start out on this fresh look at our purpose and identity as a church, I want to take an extra step back and look for a few minutes with you at the larger picture of the vision Christ gave to the whole church.  Then in a couple of weeks I’m going to share some things with you that have been on my heart related to our vision and how we can move forward together with creating this place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Namely, how can we make sure that we’re doing this not only within the walls of this building, within the limits of our property, but in this entire community?  Even more to the point: how does the vision God has set before us fit within the framework of His larger purpose in the church in this world?  How can we be sure that in our pursuit of what a great deal of prayer and discernment has suggested is the mission God has set before us as a church, we are still on track with God’s worldwide kingdom advancement plans?

It is this bigger picture that I want to look at for a few minutes with you this morning.  In order to do this, if you have your Bibles handy, open them to the beginning of the book of Acts.  Acts is the story of the church.  In a few months we are going to take a journey through the first half of the book that I’m really excited about.  It was a written by the Luke of Gospel fame and is actually a continuation of the story Luke told in his gospel.  Luke’s style in writing these two books is really incredible and fits pretty well within the larger framework of modern story-telling of the kind often seen on TV today.  If you watch any TV shows that are episode-driven in their format, like the drama 24 was when it was on, you know that at the beginning of nearly every episode the writers take a few minutes to rehash what happened in the previous episodes.  The purpose of this is to make sure that no one gets left behind when the story train leaves the station.  Well, the Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus ascending into heaven.  When we turn to the beginning of Acts, though, after Luke’s introduction, we find the disciples standing and talking with Jesus just before the ascension.  Luke essentially takes a closer look at the events briefly narrated at the end of the last episode in his Gospel in order to give us a bit more detail.  In this closer look what Luke presents us with is the final interaction between Jesus and His disciples before His ascension.  They ask some questions and in light of the assumptions resting behind their questions Jesus gives them a final set of instructions.  These are the things they are to do until it’s time for the kingdom to come in power.  The rest of the book of Acts is the story of how they began carrying out these instructions.  The thing is, when the book of Acts ends, the kingdom hasn’t yet come in power.  That means these instructions are still in play for us.  Let’s look together at these few verses from Acts 1 as we discover the mission Jesus left for His followers to work at until He returned.

Follow along in the text with me starting in v. 6: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’”  Let’s stop right there for just a minute.  Think about what the disciples are asking here.  How would the kingdom be restored to Israel?  By driving all the Romans out of the land.  How could that have happened?  Well, given the Roman Empire’s reticence to give up territory probably not without a total military defeat of the empire.  How inclined had Jesus shown Himself to be to the idea of an armed resistance or defeat of anybody?  Yeah, not at all.  He even stopped Peter himself when he rose to violently defend his Master.  So what’s all this mean?  It means that here the disciples were standing with Jesus forty days after His resurrection from the dead and they still didn’t get it.  Perhaps a bit more interpretive rendering of this might be: “Hey Jesus.  Okay, we believe You’re the Messiah.  When are you going to do with we’ve always understood the Messiah’s supposed to do?  We’ve waited through three years of weird teachings.  We endured the shock of the cross.  We were elated by the resurrection, but now we’re ready for some action.  Is this it?”  This is one of those places where it’s a good thing I’m not Jesus.  I would have probably thrown up my arms in exasperation, mumbled something along the lines of, “You guys are hopeless.  You know what?  Try it your way just like everyone else before me has and see how things go.  I’ll be back when you’re finally ready to do things my way,” and then I would have just disappeared.  It is absolutely incredible that the disciples are still asking this here, but there is a great deal of hope for us in all of this.  If Jesus could bear with them, He can certainly bear with us and our pitiful attempts to live out His commands.  Our vision is important, but His is much more so.  And given the proximity of the end of Jesus’ time on earth the vision He lays out here is paramount to understand.

Let’s keep rolling in the text at v. 7: “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”  Doesn’t Jesus handle that better that I would have?  Aren’t you glad I’m not Jesus?  Me too.  Look at how Jesus does respond to them though.  He essentially says, “You guys are asking questions to which you don’t need to know the answers.”  He doesn’t deny the premise of their question—that God will restore the kingdom to His people (whom the disciples understood to be Israel, but through the lens of Paul we understand to be all those who are a part of His household by faith).  Instead He seeks to lift their eyes beyond the immediate and fix them on the eternal.  The disciples were looking for an immediate and earthly solution to an eternal and heavenly problem.  They were ready to take up arms if Jesus asked them and even give their lives in order to advance His cause (which indeed all but one of them would).  All His words about the coming kingdom of God which seemed like mumbo-jumbo not all that long ago were given reality and power in the resurrection.  If He could come back from the dead what was the expulsion of Rome from the land of Israel?  They were on board with Jesus’ kingdom mission, but they still didn’t understand His methods.  They needed more help to see that.  Jesus’ method of love was not possible for them to grasp fully without being enabled to see things through God’s eyes.  Had Jesus given them some kind of a time frame on the end at this point, they would have fixated on that instead of on the more important task of heralding the coming kingdom.  Instead, Jesus patiently reminded them (again) that such information was on a need-to-know basis and they didn’t need to know.  He did this in order to focus their eyes on what they could be doing to hasten the arrival of that day.  We see this in the next verse.

Look there at v. 8: “But you will receive power…”  Those are five dangerous words.  We are a power hungry people.  The consolidation of power is something nearly all of us want to see happen in one way or another be it in ourselves or someone else we deem worthy.  Make no mistake, the disciples were excited to hear this.  And in the context of the passage this power must be the power to hasten the restoration of the kingdom to Israel.  Yet when would this kingdom power come?  Where would it originate?  Who would give it to them?  “…when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”  Now what does that mean?  It means first and foremost that the power necessary to advance the kingdom is not something which comes from us.  It comes only by the presence of the Holy Spirit—the third member of the godhead, promised by Jesus to the disciples upon His departure to be with the Father.  Apart from the Holy Spirit we don’t have any power.  If we aren’t doing things that can only be successful if the Spirit shows up, we’re wasting our time.  Anything we try and do on our own, no matter how good, is not going to accomplish much of anything on behalf of the kingdom of God.  And if we’re not accomplishing things on behalf of the kingdom of God, we’re not in line with the mission of Jesus.  In this sense, it’s better to try and fail to do things for God’s kingdom than it is to do nothing.

Yet what is the most important thing we can accomplish on behalf of the kingdom?  How is this Spirit-power intended to be used?  The end of the verse here is absolutely essential: “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Could this be any clearer for us?  Jesus didn’t call His disciples to do great things as the world might define it.  He didn’t call them to move mountains.  He didn’t’ call them to feed multitudes.  Oh, He would accomplish those things through them and still does today, but that’s not the first thing He called them to do.  That wasn’t the chief purpose of the Spirit-power.  Those weren’t His final instructions.  What were they empowered to do?  To bear witness.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  Now, this wasn’t a dying declaration as He wasn’t dying.  Rather, it was a living declaration since He was living to the absolute fullest definition of the word.  But these were His last words spoken on earth.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  And where were they to bear witness?  Everywhere.  After the coming of the Spirit the early church actually met in the Jewish Temple for worship.  That worked until God engineered events to kick them out so they’d go to all Jerusalem.  Then they got comfortable there so God intervened again to drive them out to Judea and Samaria.  From here, under Paul’s leadership, they took the message of the kingdom to the end of the earth.  As Spirit-empowered followers of Jesus Christ our chief mission is incredibly simple: bear witness.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.

Now, let me foreshadow where we’re going over the next three weeks, we’ll deal with what happened after Jesus left for a minute, and we’ll be out of here for the morning.  I said just a minute ago that when the Spirit did finally come and the church first came together with the initial 120 Jesus-followers gathered there in Jerusalem they met in the Temple for worship.  This was a good thing.  By their very presence in the public square they were pointing onlookers in the direction of Christ.  People would witness their activity and ask why they were doing what they were doing.  This in turn gave the Christ-followers an opportunity to answer and invite them into a relationship with Jesus as well.  Sound familiar at all?  They were bearing witness to the kingdom simply by their presence in the community.  I suspect that many of them would have been content to see things go on like this for a very long time.  They would have gradually grown at least a little bit, but that wasn’t the main goal.  The main goal was bearing witness.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  And so they were.  This was ideal, was it not?  No, it wasn’t.  Because that’s not what Jesus told them to do.  Oh, they were bearing witness, make no mistake.  They were doing evangelistic outreach.  They were doing some benevolence work.  They were doing those things so well they had to develop some structures and even appoint the very first deacons in order to help grease the wheels of the burgeoning organization.  Again, we’ll look at all of this in a lot more detail in a few months.  But still, this wasn’t what Jesus told them to do.  He didn’t tell them to bear witness in one spot where the world could come to them.  He didn’t tell them to park themselves on a fairly busy stretch of road behind a major community hub and let people come to them.  He said to bear witness first in Jerusalem—their community.  From there they were to go on to Judea and Samaria—their region, their state and nation, if you will.  And from here the end of the earth was their only limit.  Let’s get really personal with this for a minute.  Those of you who were here last week heard about some of our involvement in this last sphere of influence.  That’s frankly a pretty easy one for most of us.  God only calls a few folks to that kind of stuff at a time and the rest of us only need to raise some money and pray.  And that’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But, and here’s the kicker, do you realize that as a church we don’t have any official, active, ongoing kingdom expansion projects in our community?  None.  Not a single one.  There is nothing we are actively involved in in Church Road that takes place beyond the borders of our temple.  Before I get an argument let me gladly acknowledge that there are lots of individual efforts to do good here and there—and these are great—but nothing corporate.  This should unsettle us.  This should leave us deeply troubled.  Jesus did not call the disciples to individual efforts, but to group ventures.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness, and He was specific that this wasn’t to be a stationary witness, but an outwardly mobile one.  Anytime the church has stopped looking to move beyond its borders it has run the risk of ceasing to be the church at all.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  How can we make sure we’re being faithful?

Come back to the text with me one last time starting in v. 9: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went [wouldn’t you have been?], behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Jesus gave His final instructions and left.  So what’d the disciples do?  They stood there with their mouths open staring up after Him.  It’s like they were waiting for something more.  They wanted Him to come back and hold their hand.  I’m sure they were feeling terribly overwhelmed.  Standing there trying to figure out what to do when a visionary leader has departed is a scary place.  The disciples wanted to hang on to the moment.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness, but that meant literally descending from the mountaintop and into the trenches of open spiritual warfare.  It meant living on the edge, never quite knowing what to expect next.  It brought the promise of being led by a God who would always be with them, but didn’t often give them a full picture of where they were going ahead of time.  It guaranteed facing a great deal of what could only be defined from the world’s perspective as failure.  And so they stood there and stared.  They stood there until a couple of men dressed in white robes—angels—called them to snap out of it.  Wake up and get to work was the message.  Jesus will be back and you won’t be able to miss Him when He comes.  In the meantime, get on with following His instructions.  His last words were: bear witness.  So get to it.  And so the disciples waited for the Spirit as they were told and then they got to it.  Yet the angels’ call to move didn’t stick.  God had to keep driving them forward, often with the fires of adversity burning behind them.  Our fires aren’t necessarily adversity anymore, but the threat of irrelevance can be just as empowering.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  Go out and bear witness.  Over the next three weeks we’re going to take a look at how that can look for us.  I hope you’ll be here to hear it.