7th of Easter — 4 May 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 & 11:00
Acts 1:6-14 Ps 68:1-10,33-36 1Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11 John 17:1-11
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?!!! :-)”
[Pounding forehead] “Some of you have been with me for years! You stayed together even after I was killed, until I came to be with you anew. And we have all been together for the last forty days, and we’ve been talking about the kingdom of God, and I have promised that you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit! And you are still asking, ‘Hey, is now the time when you are finally going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Do You Still Not Get It?!”
Well, actually, that’s not what Jesus said. (Though I suspect he may have thought it!) What he said was, “It isn’t for you to know either the scheduled moments or the appropriate times (the chronous or the kairous, it says in Greek) that the Father has determined by his own authority. But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power [not the power to rule over others, but the strength in yourselves to be and to do], and you will be my witnesses (we don’t know how Jesus said that in Aramaic; the Greek word is “martyrs,” but it’s not clear that the word had yet acquired its subsequent connotation of “witnessing even to the point of suffering and death”)…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…”
[“Okay, well, here we are! Jerusalem is right across the valley there!”]
“…and in all of Judea…”
[“Well, yes, sure, let’s do the whole province!”]
[“What? Even down to Samaria?! Do we really have to go to Samaria?”]
“…and to the very ends of the earth.”
So much for just restoring the kingdom to Israel!
We are Jesus’ witnesses. Whether we like it or not, our lives are visible testimonies to the redeeming, healing, unifying power of Jesus Christ in this fallen, broken, alienated world.
Part of what’s involved in being Jesus’ witnesses surely is paying some attention to exactly what witness we’re giving. Some of that has to do with language—what we say about Jesus. But who and what is this Jesus? The Divine Logos, the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was and is God, did not become flesh in order to be an object of religion. Jesus did not found a personality cult. The point of the Gospel is not Jesus but the Reign of God. The so-called liberal protestant Biblical scholars of a few generations ago were much too simplistic when they opposed the Gospel preached by Jesus to an alleged Gospel about Jesus preached by Paul and the early Church. But the person of Jesus is inseparable from the Gospel of the Reign of God, because it is in the person of Jesus, not only in his preaching and teaching and healing but in his death and resurrection, that the Reign of God is not only proclaimed and demonstrated but inaugurated, implemented, opened to us. But those old scholars were right about this: the point of the Gospel is not Jesus, but the Reign of God.
In the first reading this morning, the angels (I guess that’s what they were) chide the disciples: “Yo, Galileans, what are you guys doing just standing around staring at the sky?” What kind of witness do we bear when we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus? I think the Ascension of Jesus is important as an aspect of the Resurrection, and it’s good that we celebrate it liturgically, but the point is not to stand around staring into the sky watching Jesus lift off. That’s not what it’s about. What is it about? Part of it, anyway, I think, is just that Jesus is removing himself from the center of attention; just as he said to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, “Do not hang on to me,” so now he is sending his followers out to bear witness for his cause, which is the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God — the whole rich and diverse treasure which God wills to share with the creation — peace, and love, and joy, and truth, and goodness, and beauty, and justice, and integrity, and wholeness. This Kingdom is not a geographical region or a political order or a power structure like an earthly kingdom but a whole new state of affairs, a new realm, a new context of life.
How do we bear witness to the Reign of God (which is what being witnesses to Jesus means)? We bear witness by living within God’s Reign ourselves. (Ay, there’s the rub!) Not just by being religious, but by being holy, which is a very different (and very much more difficult) thing: bearing witness to wholeness within a broken world — even from within our own brokenness bearing witness to wholeness that a broken world may share with us in our hope. Being persons in whom the Reign of God can be seen, and seen as credible, and seen as possible.
“You will be my witnesses.” Yes, we will. Yes, we are. For good or for ill, we will be his witnesses. Future indicative; now realized in the present; simple fact. We are his witnesses. But also future indicative, now realized in the present, simple fact: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”; and therefore we will be able, therefore we are able, to be his witnesses—in Iowa City, and Coralville and in all Johnson County, and to the ends of the earth.