Pastor Steven Thiel's Sermon
THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
“Authorized, Not Abandoned”
It was 40 days after the resurrection. The disciples were still confused. Surely now Jesus was going to take charge and restore the kingdom to Israel. But, no! Instead, the Lord spoke elusively about some future date and gave them a few words of encouragement. Then he simply left, rising into the sky until he disappeared in a cloud. We can imagine his followers asking, “Okay, now what?”
Put yourself in their shoes. Would you feel abandoned? Just when things were starting to look up, your leader skipped out, bolted, disappeared. Do you feel a little foolish, as if you were left holding the bag? That’s how many of us Christians live today – as if we have been abandoned, left holding a bag of faith that seems to not do much and feeling a little foolish.
Now look at that scene as Jesus describes it. You are not abandoned. You are authorized. He left so he could give you more, not less. He ascended to strengthen his hold on you. He left to be put in charge of the entire universe and send you the power of the Holy Spirit. You can now live with authority, full of confidence, and walk steadfast in your faith.
The reality is that we don’t always feel, or live as we should. Therefore, any time you feel you have been left behind, remember that Jesus prepared his disciples for their feelings of abandonment. That preparation started at the Last Supper. Recall that he gave them a vision of what it was all about, for him and for them. We find it recorded in the first five verses of today’s Gospel Reading. His words may seem strange today because he insisted it was all about glory – his ultimate glory, achieved thru his lowly service and death for the world on the cross. Really? Lowly service? Death on a cross? Doesn’t fit the view of glory the world portraits, does it? Well, it seems Jesus didn’t stop there.
On the heals of his definition of what a glory seeker is, the Son of God reveals that he has authority to grant eternal life. What he freely gives is more than a life that does not end, it is a new quality of life empowered thru the Spirit. This means that we are authorized to know God and are transformed into new creatures who enjoy abundant life in Christ. According to Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, thru faith we take hold of this life now. (6:12)
In spite of all the upheaval and turmoil we are experiencing. The threat to our food supply; the collapse of a robust network of small businesses; the curtailment of rudimentary medical treatment; the erosion of Constitutional freedoms; the infringement on our right to exercise our religion. In the face of all this, what a vision for those who feel abandoned today!
On a trip to Russia back in the late 90's, Rev. David Luecke visited an orphanage that seemed well-run. It had been newly opened since the city, Iver, had a growing number of deserted children. Dozens of parents, it seems, just left them behind when they pursued their “glastnost” freedoms someplace else. What an abandonment scar those children have!
Scars, however, come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, some days we may feel like the baseball rookie who faced the great pitcher Walter Johnson for the first time. The batter took two quick strikes without his bat ever leaving his shoulder and headed for the dugout. As he walked away, he turned to tell the umpire to keep the third strike – he had seen enough.
Should any one of us ever feel like that rookie, remember that Jesus left to give you the power to have abundant life in him. At the same time, also recognize God’s hold on you. That’s because God chose you before you came to him. His attitude toward you does not depend on your virtues or lack thereof. Jesus makes this abundantly clear when he told his disciples, and us, that: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (Jn. 15:16) That we have been chosen by God thru Christ Jesus can be found throughout Scripture, even the Old Test. Psalm 139 testifies: “You [LORD] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.... My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (vss. 13-16) Clearly, God protects all of us by the power of his name.
Now, in these later days, the Holy Spirit brings you and me power to live boldly. In today’s First Reading from Acts, Jesus promised that after he ascended we would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. As the text appointed for the Sixth Sunday of Easter teaches, the Holy Spirit counsels us on how to live and interact with God’s kind of love – his unconditional love – toward the people around us. It is a model of love sorely needed in today’s world. Little wonder then that Jesus is praying for us. To live out that kind of love needs divine assistance. Therefore, while the Spirit is God’s advocate to you, Jesus is your continuing advocate with the Father.
It is in direct response to that advocacy that you and I are “appointed” – that is, we are “authorized” – to live with confidence. By the power of Word and Sacrament, Christians are empowered or authorized by God to live differently. We see this in a description of Christians during the earliest days of the church. A Roman named Aristides described Christians to Emperor Hadrian in this way: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They do not consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”
This is the epitome of Jesus’ vision for his disciples, which climaxes in today’s text with his “high priestly prayer” to the Father on our behalf: “... that they [all of us] may be one as we are one.” (17:11) Living in this unity, people who know they are not abandoned by God can lessen the abandonment of others.
But just how do we go about doing so? In our Epistle, the apostle Peter tells us how. It starts with each of us having an attitude of humility; not thinking more highly of oneself than we ought. Such an attitude leads to service. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet 5:5) And when we find ourselves distraught due to the isolation required by the Covid crisis, remember this gem of wisdom: “Cast all your anxieties on [God] since he cares for you” (5:7) This care is seen in Christ’s humility at the Garden of Gethsemane and most pointedly on the Cross at Calvary. As we fix our eyes upon that cross – or a facsimile thereof – we will come to experience how the God of all grace has turned our feelings of abandonment into confidence, so much so that he will “make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” (5:10)
One of the simplest and wisest things we can do right now, and indeed every day of our lives, is to learn from God. His mode of teaching is to use our brothers and sisters in Christ as his counselors and instructors. If a sense of abandonment is building into an ominously dark cloud over your heart and mind – get out of the house, now that the weather has turned so nice. If that is not possible, pick up the phone and call me or someone in the church directory. That person may be in as much a need of hearing your voice and clearing their mind of thoughts of Covid-phobia as you are.
In this way we are better able to pick up on Peter’s admonition to stand firm in the faith thru the knowledge that our brothers and sisters here and throughout the world undergo the same kind of suffering. It also helps us to become aware of Satan’s attempts to pull us away from God and leave us feeling abandoned. But the empty cross and tomb announce the great good news that Christ has defeated Satan.
Pastor Douglas Rumford (Scared to Life, Victor Books, 1994, p. 60) describes how two women said they had been praying for the fellowship of their congregation: “When we first started to pray, we were filled with a critical attitude and a concern with how the church was not meeting our needs. We are both relatively new to this congregation, but have not felt included. As we continued in prayer, the Lord showed us that we were part of the problem and that He did not want to change the church until He began to change us.” That was when the women set up a series of congregation-wide dinners in homes, called “Suppers for Seven.” They chose that number for obvious reasons, and, so that they always would be able to include at least one single person.
During the days and months that lie ahead, remember that our ascended Lord has not abandoned you. Quite the contrary, Christ Jesus has authorized you. Amen.