Jesus and the Deeds of Power

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Luke 19:28-40

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about.

The Triumphal Entry points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are parallels and contrasts between Harry’s story and Jesus’. Both stories have murderous tyrants trying to kill a baby. Both stories have times when the baby’s potential power causes a world-wide stir—and then things quiet down for years. Famous, then living in obscurity, then famous again.

Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is. Did everyone forget those Magi and how the whole city of Jerusalem was frightened by word of an infant king?

When the Harry Potter saga begins, and Harry starts at Hogwarts, he causes commotion because of his famous name and family. When Jesus starts his ministry, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?”

It doesn’t take long, however, before the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”(Mt. 11:4-5). Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has finally spread around.

The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus hears, asks the man what he wants, and heals the blind man’s sight. The man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about, but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree. As Jesus walks by, he looks up and calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down

from the tree, but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich, and his wealth is corrupt, ill-gotten gain.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. These deeds of power would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved by greed and corruption. Both men are described as “saved.” Deliverance and salvation through Jesus is spiritual and social, economic, and physical.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air.

Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.”

I’ve spoken on the historical, cultural significance of the Triumphal Entry before—and there is a ton to unpack about Roman and Jewish military history. There is much to say about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but we have little time today with our Love Feast. Even though he has great power and the signs and symbols point to Kingship, Jesus demonstrates

Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. Even with all of his deeds of power, Jesus is not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but to demonstrate the wholeness and the saving that God’s reign brings: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the rich and greedy are set free, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

There are several streams of how people approach the Bible and how Jesus changes our lives and our world: for some, the gospel is solely spiritual, while for others, the Good News is about social transformation. However, the gospel of Jesus in scripture does not make it an either/or: the saving that Jesus did affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The saving that we celebrate in Holy Week is saving that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here at Washington City Church of the Brethren is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

Where do you need Jesus’ deeds of power in your life? Is it in your relationships? Is it in your pride and arrogance? Is it in your integrity? Is it in how you treat the earth, or the people on the margins of society? Do you need Jesus’ deeds of power to bring you mercy and grace, unburdening from guilt? Do you need Jesus’ power to bring hope and comfort amidst deep pain and loss?

The message of Palm Sunday and Holy Week is that we follow Jesus, whose deeds of power can raise the dead, heal the blind, comfort the hurting, free the greedy and corrupt. Jesus entered Jerusalem and stands ready to enter and re-enter our lives to enact the deeds of power that transform our souls, our wallets, our bodies, and our relationships.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.

(Embodying Hope) A baby, a girl, a body

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:36-38, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 1 Timothy 4:12

You probably recognize our texts in Isaiah and Luke as scriptures we read in Advent, but they are also from a church feast day held on March 25th, called the Feast of the Annunciation. Hands up if you typically celebrate the Annunciation, or if you’ve ever celebrated it. I didn’t think there would be many—or even any. In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically mark the Annunciation, though I’d like to change this, at least for our congregation. The Annunciation is the announcement from Gabriel to Mary that Jesus would be born.

I stumbled upon the Annunciation passages in the Lectionary and thought they would complement our Lenten theme, the start of April (which is Earth Month), and Tori’s report about Christian Peacemaking Teams. Within today’s passages, there is a broader theme about embodying hope, about God bringing hope through those whom society says cannot contribute, through people whom we would not expect, in ways that rulers and leaders would not imagine.

Our passage in Isaiah shows someone with the opportunity to ask God for a sign. If I was in trouble and the Creator of the Universe says, “Ask me for a sign that everything is going to be okay,” I hope I would actually ask for something. Whether it would be good or smart or witty or pious is another story. I think I would at least ask for something.

In our Isaiah text, the people of Judah are facing calamity. The Lord gives King Ahaz the opportunity to ask for something cosmic to signal God’s deliverance. It’s implied here that God will rescue them, if Ahaz is just willing to ask. The Lord says, “Ask me for a sign—let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” In other words, God is saying, “Ask for something as metaphysically unfathomable as the place where souls go, or as cosmic as the sky or the place where God dwells. I can help you through this coming calamity, but all you need to do is ask. For something.” Yet Ahaz says, “No, no, no. I’m okay. I don’t want to test God.” Ahaz is trying to look pious, but really doesn’t want God’s involvement – probably because it would mean he’d need to change how he lived or worshiped. Rather than trusting God, he’s putting his hope in some wheeling and dealing with another ruler (the King of Assyria). Lots of money, big armies—that’s a bit more comforting than a God you can’t see.

Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is not what God wanted. Isaiah sends this message, “You’re trying to act religious here? Do you realize you’re playing holier than Thou with the Capital T Thou. You don’t want to ask for a cosmic, transcendental sign? Well, God is going to give you one anyways, something cosmic and miraculous: a baby, born to a young woman. The baby will be the sign that God is with Us and he will be named that—Immanuel.”

The baby is a sign that God is trying to work against all their wayward, idolatrous intentions, and is trying to bring about hope. God ends up delivering Ahaz and Judah from the nations who threaten the country, but also ends up promising judgment on Ahaz and the people for their ongoing idolatry and injustice. The baby is a sign of hope—but the presence of hope does not mean the people can just sit idly by. God still requires that people reckon with their failures and their consequences, God still requires that people transform their lives to work for the healing of relationships and the healing of our whole created world.

Babies bring hope. When there is ecological devastation, when species are threatened or endangered, the birth and growth of offspring are signs that the situation is turning around. I follow a few different Smithsonian Instagram accounts and I’ve seen recent postings of baby cheetahs or baby pandas born and growing—making a future of these vulnerable species a little less bleak, thanks to countless hours and dollars of research and ecosystem conservation. The furry little ones born give hope—and their cuteness often prompts people to donate and, I hope, to act in ways that guarantee their future.

My son is 10 months old. As my husband and I were preparing to have a child, we discussed what it means to bring life into the world when injustice and violence seem to be growing, when governments are chaotic and not caring for the common good. Theologically, we believe in a solidified outcome—that God will redeem and restore all things. Thus, we can bring new life into this world knowing that the Divine hope and reconciliation will overcome the chaos. Our baby is sign that we believe God is making all things new (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The presence of life brings hope—and gives us the vision we need to do what God calls us to do. When we want children to live in a world of God’s wholeness, it can help us focus on our tasks and calling: To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption.

Our passage in Luke is the Annunciation passage itself. And in it we hear that God is acting in a way we’ve never seen. Not in a whirlwind, not in a burning bush, not in a pillar of fire or a cloud. God is acting through a young woman and a baby. Again, of all the cosmic ways to give a sign, of all the possibilities to manifest and deliver salvation, the LORD does not choose the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Of all the cosmic possibilities for a noncorporeal cosmic ruler to be manifested, God chooses to enter a womb. The womb of a young, unmarried woman—a girl, many would call her—who bravely says yes to God. God chooses to enter our journey of cells multiplying and organs growing, with arms and legs wiggling and kicking, squishing a bladder, kicking a rib. God chooses to enter our world with a tiny, helpless body. Hope is found in a baby, a brave girl, in a body. Hope is found in bodies.

The story of the gospel is that hope is found in babies, in girls, in bodies. God’s hope is not ephemeral but tangible. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message). God works through babies, through girls, through bodies, through people.

God works through people the world does not expect and that the world thinks little of. We read 1 Timothy 4:12 this morning, “Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” God works through youth who sue the government to try to address climate change. God works through students who organize a strike around the globe, who use their bodies not in class to make a statement: the health of our planet is serious, and we need to act.

God acts through bodies. God acts through bread shared together, cups of tea drank, through relationships and accompaniment. God embodied hope through Jesus. Jesus has tasked us to embody hope in this world. To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption. Hope is in the baby born, the brave girl, the youth striking, the tea shared. We see hope in Jesus Immanuel: God is with us. AMEN.

Yay Trees!

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

This week, we celebrated Ayuba turning six months old. We’re often asked how parenthood is treating us. My response has always been, “Delightful and exhausting.” It’s getting a little less exhausting and always more delightful, especially as we see his curiosity grow and interests develop. We’ve been trying diligently to develop Ayuba’s sense of delight and wonder at the world around him, especially for the natural world. Child development research teaches that parents should regularly narrate their daily lives to their babies, facilitating language development as well as curiosity and knowledge. As we take our family walks each day, we talk about flowers, shrubs, weather, and trees.

Ayuba was born in late spring, when the leaves on the trees were lush and full, giving us shade from the sweltering DC heat. We’ve noticed him look up and stare on our family walks, especially at some of the tallest trees in our neighborhood. When Autumn arrived, we pointed out the shimmering red maple leaves lining the walk to his daycare and the yellow gingko leaves carpeting the ground on our block. On Friday, we stopped so he could touch the sweet gum tree leaves that persistently remain on their branches—some of them yellow and some of them steadfastly green.

When Autumn began, I spoke to Ayuba about how the leaves were falling off the trees. I said, “The trees look like they are dying. They are losing all their leaves. It feels sad, but the trees and plants are only sleeping. Winter comes and there is beauty even when everything seems dead, like when it snows. Thankfully, Winter is followed by Spring, when the trees and all the plants all wake up, everything begins to grow, and there is so much beauty and new life.” I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes. While I’m one of those people who very much loves winter, my favorite time of year is spring.

Trees symbolize what God is doing

My sermon title and our theme for the first Sunday in Advent is “Yay trees!” This came out of an email thread where I listed a few images from different Advent scriptures. Jacob—not looking at the contexts per se—went with them to create themes for each Sunday that could work with our overall Advent 2018 theme, “Let Your Face Shine.” “Yay trees!” represents some of the Advent joy that the Worship Planning Team thought should characterize our preparation for Christmas.

Trees tell us the seasons. In our northern hemisphere, the differences between seasons is starkly seen on trees. Yet even tropical trees vary by the season, in terms of fruit or flowers, depending on the rains or temperature. Two of today’s scripture passages utilize tree imagery to symbolize what God is doing in the world. In each of them, if you want to see what’s going on in the grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation, look at the trees.

A Sobering Fig Tree

In our Luke passage, Jesus gets pretty dark. He foretells a time of trial and tribulation for his disciples, for the Jewish people, and for Jerusalem. It’s a tricky text to interpret. Commentators historically apply it to both an application in Jesus’ day (Roman destruction of Jerusalem, persecution of the early church) and to a future eschatological event, something of the last days (or eschaton, which is the Greek word for the final event). We see cosmic signs, distress among nations, confusion, roaring of the seas and waves, people in a panic: it’s a time characterized by national or global anxiety. Jesus explains that such a time will characterize the Son of Man’s return.

He says to his disciples, “when you see these signs, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near!” In other words, don’t be afraid—stand tall and trust that God is both with you and will lead to through the tribulation to the final redemption. Jesus instructs the disciples to use the fig tree as an example. Just as we can see that leaves on a tree indicate that summer is here, so we too can look around at signs to see the Kingdom of God at hand. Though there may be anxiety and global turmoil, Jesus’ followers are to stop and recognize that God oversees the final outcome.

Jesus ends our passage by warning his disciples to “stay alert!” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus calls us to “Stay alert!” What aspects of this holiday season, as celebrated within US culture, can cause our hearts to be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and worries? Are there practices in our holiday festivities that make us forget that the Kingdom of God is at hand? How can we celebrate the holidays while also using Advent as a time to “stay alert” to God’s Kingdom at work in the world?

God’s Branch

Our passage in Jeremiah also mentions a tree. If you haven’t read Jeremiah (and, I admit, I haven’t read the whole book for a while—which makes me want to re-read its entirety), the Prophet has a rough time. Things are not going well for the people of Judah, so Jeremiah needs to use all sorts of strange object lessons to send a message: Yahweh will judge Judah, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and take the people into exile. This is a rather weighty burden for a messenger to bear.

Yet Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. There are oracles of judgment offset by glimpses of hope. Chapter 30-33 are hope-filled chapters. In chapter 31, Yahweh promises a New Covenant. In 33, we see a vision of restoration and return from exile. The LORD will not abandon his people but will raise up a righteous Branch out of the tree of King David. The Branch image is the agent of God’s deliverance, God’s renewal, and God’s hope.

While there were some good kings and some kind of okay ones, David’s heirs had basically trashed the kingship and helped lead the people astray with idolatry and injustice. Since the people of Judah broke their part of God’s covenant with that idolatry and injustice, Yahweh took away the covenant’s protection. The Babylonians then came and destroyed everything. The people of Judah and even the last King were taken into bondage. Our passage’s context is one of profound loss.

Yet Jeremiah speaks of a promised leader who will not lead God’s people astray but will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. These words together (justice and righteousness) are codewords for harmony, social justice, and devotion to God. In that day, Jeremiah says, the city and the country will be renewed. It won’t be about the people’s righteousness (or their failure to do what is right), but the city will be defined by God’s righteous reign among them. The place in the last days will be called, “Adonai Tsidkeinu,” or The LORD is our righteousness.

Through the New Testament’s revelation, we interpret the Branch to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jeremiah speaks of the Branch as a message of hope in the face of hopelessness. Against all odds, all grief, all devastation, there is God’s promise of renewal, transformation, and resurrection.

All the music and movies tell us that Christmas time is “supposed to be cheery.” Culturally, that happiness expectation runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Yet for many, this season is marked by heavy hearts, mourning loss, dealing with grief, or burdened down by conflict or broken relationships. For many people, Christmas is not an easy time.

The Advent message here is that—amid great pain, sorrow, and unbelievable brokenness—God promises to bring future restoration. Where the NRSV says, “The LORD is our righteousness,” the Message translation paraphrases it, their motto will be, “GOD has set things right for us.” The hope of Advent is not plastering on a smile or pretending to be cheery. Rather, the hope of Advent involves trusting in the God who promises to set things right for us, the God who comes and enters into our broken world to shine the Light of God on our brokenness. Jesus, Immanuel: God with us.

Remember the Fig Tree and the Branch

Today we have two tree images. One is a fig tree sprouting leaves, a sign that our world of injustice and horror will one day have God’s dramatic intervention. This image tells us to be prepared and to use Advent as a time for centering, being on our guard for the distractions that make us forget God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, justice, and peace. The second tree is the image of a branch sprouting out of a tree thought to be dead. It’s an image with hope that God renews the broken, exiled, and devasted, giving a future of new life and restoration.

One tree is sobering and a call to action, the other reminds us that God brings life and hope out of that which appears dead. Each tree has a message for Advent that needs to be told; we might need to hear one message this year and the other message in the next. Perhaps we must hold them both in tension throughout all the weeks leading up to Christmas. Which Advent message do you need to hear today?

Sisters and brothers, remember both the fig tree and the branch. Find that balance between keeping alert and finding solace in God’s hope. Be on your guard for too much feasting or drinking or gifting, that you don’t

lose sight of God’s Kingdom and your role in it. Find solace in God’s hope, in the face of brokenness and loss, trusting that sorrow is not the end, and that God is at work—renewing both this world and you. AMEN.

Ecumenism and Interfaith

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture Readings: Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6; Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21

Mini-Sermon 1: What does it mean to live together as the body of Christ?
(Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6)

Ice cream comes in many flavors. My favorites include lavender honey, caramel pecan praline, cookies and cream, and a wonderful one called Double Dunker (mocha ice cream with cookie dough and cookies and cream combined). While I chose the Church of the Brethren to be my faith home as a young adult, I’ve always loved ice cream – something that apparently is almost as core to the Brethren identity as peacemaking. (Why don’t we combine them? Peace through ice cream?)

Like ice cream flavors, churches also come in flavors. I chose the Church of the Brethren “flavor.” I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Later, as an elementary school kid, I was dedicated in a Baptist Church. I’m the only non-baby child dedication that I’ve heard of. After we moved to Ontario, I chose to be re-baptized at a church that was a different type of Baptist than where I was dedicated. It was here at this 2nd Baptist church that I had my first taste of Ecumenism, though I didn’t know the word yet. Apparently, the churches in my town had once been in conflict. The Baptists, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals – you wouldn’t have found them together, cooperating or worshiping. However, by the time I was in high school, the churches had finally gotten over themselves and whatever divided them to cooperate in two joint worship services a year and some shared youth events.

While we found ways to demonstrate unity, it didn’t mean that we all agreed with each other. For instance, a friend of mine told me that she would pray for me to speak in tongues so that I could receive the Holy Spirit. I was like, “um, you don’t think I have the Holy Spirit even though I already follow Jesus?” She doubled back and referred to it as an extra blessing of the Holy Spirit… but I know her church sometimes taught that if you didn’t speak in tongues, you might not have the Holy Spirit. Theology could still divide us, even though I worshiped with their youth group sometimes.

Also, when I was in high school, I would sometimes hear another friend’s mom (a Baptist friend) make sarcastic remarks about the Pentecostal youth pastor, who was a woman. The church that I attended and where I was baptized did not allow women to be pastors.

Clearly, there are things that divide Christians from one another. Robes. Bells. Incense. Women in ministry. Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer persons in the ministry of the church. Patterns of organization and hierarchy. Beliefs about the ways the Holy Spirit works (what gifts exist today and who can get them). Beliefs about ways to practice communion (or perhaps not to practice such an outward form, if you’re Quaker). Beliefs about what happens during communion. Do the bread and cup become Jesus’ actual body and blood, like changing in matter and substance? Is Jesus present with it, even if it’s not his actual blood and body? Is it just a way to remember Jesus’ death? Or is it some altogether other mystical experience with Jesus? We differ on what communion means and as to who can even legitimately partake in communion. As my own rebaptism story indicates, we diverge in terms of what baptism means, who can be baptized, and when.

And yet, as we see with our scripture in Ephesians, even if we have different beliefs and practices about baptism, there is just one baptism. Even if we think our baptism is the most biblical, all of us are being baptized into Jesus. Brother Paul the Apostle writes, there is one baptism, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one hope of our calling, one God of all—who is above all and through all and in all. We are all connected—beyond the ways that we differ—through our faith Jesus.

For 5 years, I had the privilege and joy to be an author on a paper that was finally approved by Annual Conference this summer, A Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st CenturyA Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century. The paper describes church unity like bodies of water:

The Church of the Brethren, along with the other groups in the Brethren movement, traces its beginning to baptisms in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. The Eder connects to a series of other rivers (the Fulda and Weser), and the water eventually flows into the North Sea, before joining the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the Eder River is connected to other bodies of water, the Church of the Brethren is part of the worldwide body of Christ. As we hold fast to our identity and calling in Christ, the Spirit of God calls us into partnership with brothers and sisters who have also received living water’ in Jesus (John 4:10). The Greek word oikoumene, which means the “whole inhabited earth,” is a reminder that we are connected by faith in ways that are far greater than our differences. It is from this word that we get the term “ecumenical.” Our ecumenical interests and activities connect us to one another and to God as tributaries and rivers connect to the ocean) (Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, 2018).

I think that this river imagery is more poetic than my ice cream flavor analogy. It highlights connectedness and the life-giving nature of water, rather than just speaking to different flavors. Yet it also speaks to differences – rivers have different speeds and geographic features that make each distinct. They each have their own ecosystems, allow diverse creatures to flourish.

Our psalm passage also uses moisture imagery for unity, but in the form of oily beards and mountain dew. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! When God’s people are unified, it’s something holy and pleasing to God—just as ancient anointing oil on the high priest was holy and pleasing. The 2nd image needs a bit more context. According to one writer, the land of Israel has a dry season for several months. During this time without rain, dew becomes very important to the ecosystem. The dew from Mount Hermon trickles down during the dry season to nourish the earth—sustaining crops and making the land fruitful even without rain (Tverberg, n.d.). Unity is holy, pleasing, nourishing, and it bears fruit—leading to abundant life.

The Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century paper shares a lot of scripture, history, and recommendations for congregations, districts, and the denomination on engaging with other Christians. The first recommendation for individuals and churches is this: “Every member of the Church of the Brethren is challenged to take seriously the meaning of Jesus’ prayer that all his followers be one (John 17:20-24).” (Annual Conference, 2018, p. 16). This is the only time in Scripture that Jesus prays, not only for the disciples, but for all who would believe in him in the future. Jesus prays for us and all Christians worldwide, that we might be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. As such, weighty question stands for all Christians: what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? We may not typically think of it as an urgent question, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ prayer heightens the responsibility that we all must take the call for unity seriously. How should this shape our ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with other flavors of Christians? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative? What were they like?

What do you think are the benefits of Christian unity?

What are the challenges of Christian unity?

What are some gifts that other denominations or Christian traditions might bring to the body of Christ?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Mini-Sermon 2: What does it mean to be Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world?
(Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21)

Our passage in Luke serves as a bridge passage, tying these two topics together. The section begins with an emphasis on humility—come to Jesus as little children, ready to learn and love on the journey with Jesus. Then, we see an interaction between Jesus and his disciples around who can legitimately call themselves Jesus followers. The disciples say, “Master! Someone is going around and casting out demons in your name.” Jesus replies saying, “Well, if they’re not hurting anyone and they’re not going against you, they’re actually for you.” Early ecumenism before the church was even a thing.

Then the story continues. Jesus is preparing for the final days of his ministry, so he gets ready and sets out toward Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith where the temple stood. Some messengers go ahead of Jesus, likely to get hospitality set up as he traveled through. But the village of Samaritans are not willing to show hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, especially since his end goal is Jerusalem. The Samaritan religion had gone a different direction than Judaism and one of the main areas of contention was where to worship God. The Samaritans said Mount Gerizim, while the Jews said Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In our text, the Samaritans probably find it offensive to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to support what they perceive as false beliefs.

The disciples are not happy about this. They take offense and get worked up. In their view, such hostility should be met with hostility. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus looks at them and, while we don’t have the actual words recorded, scripture says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I’d like to know what Jesus said. Even though not showing hospitality was a big offense in their culture, and even though the Samaritans are rejecting Jesus, Jesus doesn’t repay them with violence or hostility. He just goes on his way to another village and teaches his followers to overlook this lack of hospitality.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t gloss over religious difference; he doesn’t pretend that Samaritans and Jews believe the same thing. Yet Jesus also doesn’t get bent out of shape when people reject what he believes. These are helpful principles for us today as we think about being Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world.

When the committee first began its work on the Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century, we couldn’t help but talk about both ecumenical relationships and interfaith relationships. There had been precedent before and we knew that the Church of the Brethren needed clear guidance on both types of engagement. People use the term “interfaith” in very different ways, so we placed our definition in our paper’s glossary just to be clear. For the Church of the Brethren (according to the paper), interfaith means: “Partnerships, communication, or gatherings that bring people of differing faiths or understandings together for a common goal or purpose.”

We also knew we had to be quite clear about what we meant by interfaith and what we did not mean by interfaith. We knew that some Brethren would hear interfaith and think that we meant syncretism or relativism. What we advocated for instead was “a religious pluralism approach—which calls for peaceful coexistence and understanding, not a religious combining” (Annual Conference, 2018, p.10). We wrote in the paper, “Pluralism allows us to understand others while maintaining our specific belief in Jesus as reconciler and redeemer, while keeping the New Testament as our creed. Specifying the purpose of various [interfaith] interactions (building understanding, doing interfaith community service, or evangelism) can allow us to build trust, maintain our witness, and extend love and understanding in a world rife with hatred and division” (p. 10).

In interfaith events that I’ve been at, we don’t pretend that everyone believes the same thing. That honesty, when combined with authenticity, humility, and love, allows us to learn from one another to promote understanding and cooperation. I think that it can engage the most people in interfaith peacemaking because it does not require leaving your faith behind. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others would not want to participate if it meant signing onto a universal religion. For me as a follower of Jesus, I can engage in interfaith and still believe that God’s truth is most fully expressed in Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Staying true to my faith does not mean that I am mocking or denigrating another religion. In fact, I can learn about them, learn from them, and maybe even be strengthened in my own faith in Jesus because of what I learn.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” God’s children are called to make peace. As Paul writes in Romans, we are to love sincerely. Cling to what is good. As far as it possibly depends on us, to live at peace with everyone. AMEN.

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with people of other religions? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative?

What do you think are the benefits of interfaith engagement?

What are the challenges of interfaith engagement?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?
Two recommendations from the paper are here:

Congregations are encouraged to offer opportunities (classes, workshops, special
services) for members to understand neighbors. One goal of these opportunities is to encourage dialogue and understanding about how the Church of the Brethren is part of the larger body of Christ. This understanding will build awareness of who we are as Brethren and how we are connected to other sisters and brothers in Christ. It will also identify points of connection and divergence between Christianity and other world religions.

Congregations are encouraged to communicate with local religious groups and to participate in community opportunities for worship and service, such as pulpit exchanges, intentional dialogue series, community worship services, and other gatherings designed to bring a community together. CROP Walks, workcamps, food pantries, and other local Christian and interfaith initiatives are examples of service that focuses on human needs and values that are common to major faith traditions.

I invite you to read the document further and to consider—as we discern moving forward in new ministries—how we can take seriously Jesus’ call to be one with other Christians and to live out our calling as Jesus’ peacemakers.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN

Living Parables

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Reading: Matthews 9:35-38

You may find it funny that the title of my meditation is “Living Parables,” but that the scripture we read does not, in fact, include a parable. I thought it was a bit strange, but that’s because, at first, I didn’t get the right sense of the Annual Conference theme. Brother Samuel Sarpiya was the Annual Conference moderator and he chose this year’s theme, Living Parables, and selected this Scripture for his opening night sermon.

This year, my Annual Conference was different – joined as I was by a tiny 5-week old baby (as far as we knew, the youngest conference attendee there). My mind during worship was not always focused… occasionally hogged by feeding a baby, comforting a baby, or just generally snuggling a cute baby. So, I re-listened to Brother Samuel’s sermon and I understand more about the conference theme. His point was not that the parables are living (though they are, as the Living Word of God). Rather, it is that we – you and I, children of God – are living parables. We are living parables. Brother Samuel had us repeat after him, “I am a parable.” Say it with me, “I am a parable.” I am a parable.

Jesus used parables to teach his disciples. Brother Samuel defined these as “heavenly stories with earthly meaning” to illustrate how God was acting in the world. In Matthew 9:35-38, we see Jesus going through all the towns and villages, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people. Jesus showed compassion to those around him. To his disciples specifically, Jesus said that the harvest was plentiful, but the workers were few, and to ask “the Lord of the harvest” to send out workers into the fields. Brother Samuel’s message is that we—you and I, sisters and brothers, our lives—are the stories meant to illustrate how God is acting in this world. We are the stories. We demonstrate the Living Word of God through our lives.

This happens as individuals, as a community, and as a denomination. One of the highlights of Annual Conference was the Church of the Brethren video report. There is always a written report, but the video reports of the past few years have illustrated the work of the church in beautiful, hope-filled ways (shout out to Wendy McFadden for her inspired creativity as producer).

This year’s video can be found on our church’s facebook page and it highlights the COB as the “not-so-big church” – a church that is small but has big ideas. Big ideas of peacebuilding in Nigeria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of disaster relief and solidarity with sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico, of caring for children during disasters through Children’s Disaster Ministries, of commitments to service, and more. This not-so-big church denomination works around the world and points to something much bigger than itself—the way of Jesus.

This also happens at the congregational level. Brother Samuel shared about the congregation that he pastors, Rockford (IL) Community Church of the Brethren. The church plant sought to build off its strengths and resources to minister to the community. They run a mobile technology and arts lab, while also teaching kids conflict resolution skills and building bridges between the community and police. Not everyone can or should have a mobile technology lab, but every church should be engaging its community. Brother Samuel said that at times, he sees churches not doing anything outside of their buildings, that the churches are just waiting or hoping for people to come in.

For 37 years, our congregation labored and ministered through the Brethren Nutrition Program, a soup kitchen ministry for people in need. We laid it down last year, realizing that the community’s needs have changed. We also had very few people from our congregation who could be involved in the daily work of that ministry—which took place during the lunch hour. We began a discernment process to think about our gifts and strengths and what God might be calling us to next. That conversation is not over.

Brother Samuel’s call for us to be Living Parables reminds me to pick up the questions: What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs? I recognize that “community” in our city and broader metro area can be a vague thing. It could be neighborhood-specific or generally applied to several million people in the “DMV.” So perhaps the best starting point is to think about our strengths and to reflect on Jesus’ word in Matthew 9. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the One in charge of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest and to reveal where the harvest is and what the crop looks like.

The “not-so-big church” lives out its calling of Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together. My prayer is that we have a holy imagination to live out our calling as Washington City Church of the Brethren. We want to be a church “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” Let us go and find our gifts and strengths and holy opportunities to live out this call. AMEN.

Cloud Gazing and a New Reality

Preacher – Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings – Acts 1:1-14; Ephesians 1:15-23

A little voice asks, “Where is Jesus? Is Jesus going to be at church today? Is Jesus buried in that cemetery that we drive by regularly? Is that man Jesus?” These are some very real theological questions, as asked by a preschooler. Doing preschool theology is not easy, particularly when there are concepts or realities that are difficult for even adult theologians to wrap their heads around. The Ascension of Jesus, like the Resurrection, is an act of God that stands contrary to our understandings of reality. People are not typically raised from the dead. Neither are people whisked up into a transcendental reality and seated at the right hand of God.

The Resurrection and the Ascension are big concepts where theology and physics mix in ways that are beyond all our comprehensions. Both the preschoolers and the adults need to spend time pondering and absorbing the miraculous nature of it all.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. It technically falls on forty days after Easter, which was this past Thursday, but I chose to exchange the lectionary Sunday passages for the Ascension passages because Ascension is often overlooked. Easter and Pentecost both stand out as earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church, while the Ascension is a bit quieter. Though somewhat less showy than the resurrection from the dead or the coming of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day still brings with it miraculous circumstances and deep theological significance. In fact, the Jesus story is not complete without the Ascension.

The Ascension continues the shift in reality which started Easter morning. Because of the Ascension, Jesus reigns in cosmic glory and sends the Holy Spirit to be with the Church at Pentecost. This new reality enables the disciples to continue the Jesus story in mighty and powerful ways. Yet the nature of the Ascension (Jesus not being physically with us) also means that the church must actively struggle to keep our new reality in focus.

The Big Goodbye

Goodbyes are always hard, but I can’t imagine the goodbye that we see in Acts 1: Jesus leaves the disciples. It’s been forty days since Jesus was resurrected. After the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing during those 40 days, being with the disciples, teaching them, walking with them, eating with them, and even cooking them fish (John 21:1-14). 40 extra days with Jesus! I imagine the disciples were comforted by Jesus being with them, but they probably tried to avoid thinking about if and when Jesus might leave.

One day, while he is eating with them, Jesus gives the disciples what would be his final instructions. Jesus says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. While John baptized with water, in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).

Even though the disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days and several years before that, they still weren’t always tracking with Jesus. The disciples come closer to Jesus and crowd around him, asking, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus doesn’t exactly say no, but basically. Jesus reorients the disciples away from speculation about the culmination of history, reminds them that it isn’t about empires rising or falling but about continuing Jesus’ work, witnessing to Jesus’ work. He responds, saying, “the timing isn’t for you to know. God the Father is working out that end. But you—you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.” Jesus tells them they won’t be alone, instructs them to wait for the Spirit, and leaves mysteriously. Jesus goes up. The disciples are left gaping, jaws hanging open, gazing at the clouds. The book of Acts says, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (v. 9).

I won’t try to explain the weird trans-dimensional process that occurs here or the physics of it. I trust that Jesus actually ascended and went to the Father, though that place isn’t a literal “behind the clouds” in our earthly sky. Luke wasn’t trying to be scientifically accurate but was using words to indicate Jesus’ ascension and connecting it to the presence of God’s dwelling place. In the Hebrew scriptures, clouds often symbolize the presence and power of God (Boring & Craddock, p. 367; cf. Exodus 13:21; 19:16; 40:34; Ps. 68:4; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13). Without knowing the technical details, Jesus is taken up and goes to the presence of God.

The disciples stand agape and reasonably so. They’ve just seen something miraculous, marvelous, and other worldly. I’d stare too. Beyond the natural shock at one’s teacher and messiah finally saying goodbye and leaving, the exit is pretty jaw dropping. The gaping jaws of the disciples only come shut when two messengers in bright white clothing snap them out of it. “Hey, Galileans! Why do you keep looking up? Stop gawking. Jesus, who was taken up to heaven from among you, will surely return again—in a manner just as mysterious” (v. 11).

Somehow, the combination of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ ascension, and shiny bright messengers (clearly from God—pay attention to those folks in shiny bright clothing), this combination helps the disciples finally put it all together. They set out on their way and quickly head back to the main part of the city to pray and wait for the Spirit, as Jesus instructed them to do. They don’t know what’s coming, but they pray and focus on this new reality—a reality of a crucified, raised, and ascended Jesus, who is lifted up to reign with the Creator of the universe.

A New Reality

How do we know what reality is? When I was a small child, around 7 or 8, I remember asking myself, “How do I know whether I’m sleeping or in a coma or whether my life is all a dream? Is this real?” I would pinch myself to try to be sure.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is a man who has suspicions that reality is not as it appears. He goes about his work and everyday life, with a growing desire to learn about an alternate reality—another world and dimension that he’s heard coexists with and is, in fact, more real than his everyday experiences. Neo meets up with Morpheus, Trinity, and their crew, who lead him out of his tranquil but naïve existence. They guide Neo to a new reality, where he has a purpose and is part of a broader mission to save humans from their slavery to machines.

Our second reading today is from the book of Ephesians. This letter reads more like a sermon than other letters, such as Philippians or the Corinthian letters, and Paul includes sections that seem to be hymns or worshipful poetry. Our passage is one of those sections, that acts both as a prayer and as a poetic discourse of superlatives about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

In Ephesians, it’s been more than days and weeks since Jesus ascended—it’s been years. The context and audience of the Ephesian early church is very different than what we see in Acts. The gospel of Jesus has spread around the Roman empire and beyond. It’s mostly made up of people who never encountered the earthly ministry of Jesus, who didn’t break bread with Jesus, didn’t see Jesus heal the sick or cast out demons, didn’t see Jesus crucified, didn’t meet with Jesus after he was raised from the dead, and didn’t see Jesus ascend behind the clouds. These people, both Jews and Gentiles, have heard the Good News, the gospel of Jesus, and believed that they should follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The apostle Paul, with his spiritual gift of shepherding, knows that Jesus and Kingdom of God still needs to be made real for these new Jesus-followers, and so he prays for them.

He prays this way: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I don’t stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. And what do I pray? I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:15-19).

Paul wants them to know the depth of the new reality—a new power and work of God in the world—that is made possible only with a Messiah who is crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven. The Ascension of Jesus has given the Christians hope, purpose, and power. Paul continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (vv. 20-23).

Paul prays that the church would know—despite not having seen Jesus face to face, despite the fact that we are in an in-between age when we aren’t fully experiencing God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven—that there is a new reality. He prays for them to know this new reality where Jesus is reigning, where sin and death have lost, and where all humanity (Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, and all other divided identities) can be brought together before God, in Christ Jesus. The church has the power to be Jesus’ body, to continue Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance in a world of pain and captivity. Paul prays that the early church’s hearts and minds would be given wisdom to see this new reality in existence. He prays that the power of Jesus—the crucified, risen, and ascended One—would be made concrete and tangible, that they would know the source of strength and life to continue his work in this world.

Remember to Breathe, My Dear

Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathing isn’t something that we typically forget to do – it’s an autonomic process. Breathing goes on without any involvement of your consciousness, without thinking or planning. Yet one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re in labor, you do need to intentionally remember to breathe. I’ve had some practice contractions, or Braxton Hicks contractions, and the pressure gets so intense that I’ve found myself holding my breath to brace against them. I’m glad that these “practice” contractions happen – to give me a glimpse of how I might respond when the real labor comes and to prepare accordingly. Since then, I’ve been trying to practice breathing.

Yet, breathing practice isn’t just beneficial for pregnant people. A colleague of mine has a reminder on his computer that will typically go off during our meetings. A little screen pops up that says, “Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathe in, Breathe out.” The intention here is for deep breaths, centering breaths. These breathes can calm you down, lowering your stress. Deep breathing can help remind you of your values, your purpose, and your source of strength. Breathing deep can help us listen to our bodies, become aware of our emotional and spiritual state, and can help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit (and in Hebrew, Spirit and breath use the same word). Intentional breathing can be a type of prayer that focuses our hearts and bodies on God.

Like the early church in Ephesus, we too have not had the privilege to be physically present with Jesus. We didn’t get to hear him teach on the mountainside, receive bread from him, be healed by him, and we didn’t see him resurrected or ascending. The nature of the Ascension means that the church must actively struggle to be centered and focused on Jesus’ new reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real thing; we don’t have Jesus walking beside us and so it’s easy to just fall into a trap, thinking that our daily routines are all that exists. Our jobs, our schools, our families, our bills to pay. But Jesus ascended and made another cosmic reality that runs alongside and intersects our ordinary lives.

Following Jesus involves training ourselves, requires that we find ways to keep the Kingdom of God at the forefront of our minds, to keep it a reality. It involves building our skill for breathing and paying attention, for seeing God at work and for making ourselves available for God to use in this world.

Take a deep breath with me. Remember to breathe, my dear. How can you cultivate time to focus on the new reality, to look for and open yourself up to God’s work in this world? Cultivating time to pray is like remembering to deep breathe – it’s how we draw our strength, life, and energy from God. It’s where we tap into the power of the ascended Jesus. Is there a time in your commute when you can take deep breathes and ask for the Holy Spirit to move and reveal? Can you find some quiet moments to center in the morning? Can you stop and take a minute to breathe and reorient yourself to God in the evening, taking stock of the day and considering if and how you saw God at work that day?

Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised. Jesus ascended – and is seated above, empowering us through the Spirit to continue his work in this world, until he returns to make all things new. Sisters and brothers, let us remember to breathe and find ways to keep the risen and ascended Jesus in our focus as we live out our roles as his Body, the church, making his love and power manifest in this world. AMEN.