After Jesus

Sermon preached June 5, 2011

Text: Luke 24:44-53

This past week I attended Annual Conference. It is the annual meeting of clergy members of the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church, mostly pastors but chaplains as well, and lay members from every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota. Dale Stahl represents you well as our lay member.
One moving part of every annual conference is the marking of life transitions for clergy. The ordination service with the clergy processional is a joy. We celebrate retirements and we mourn colleagues who have died. Three retirements were particularly significant – the retirement of the first female district superintendent who had been my superintendent in my first appointment as a pastor and later became a friend, and two colleagues just a little older than me who were retiring early. Friends retiring? Two deaths this year were particularly poignant for me – Toby Horst long-time pastor of First UMC in St. Cloud and a beloved mentor, and Loren Nelson who was one of my first mentors and then later someone with whom I worked as a district superintendent.
I was reminded of a Linda Pasten poem called “The Death of a Parent”: Move to the front/of the line/ a voice says, and suddenly/ there is nobody/ left stan ding between you/ and the world, to take/ the first blows/ on their shoulders./ This is the place in books/ where part one ends, and/ part two begins,/ and there is no part three.(Beloved On the Earth, 145).
We get a flavor of that in this morning’s Scripture reading. Jesus is leaving, then he is gone. “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Now it is us. There is nobody standing between us and the world. Part two, the part after Jesus is beginning. So what do we followers of Jesus do after Jesus? This text gives us some answers about what it means to be followers of Jesus, a community sharing the Jesus way.
Proclaim. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all.” As followers of Jesus we are to help make Christian faith relevant to people. We are to share God’s love in ways that make it more real to people. We are to create space where God’s Spirit can touch lives.
Proclaim. We usually think of that in terms of things we say, but Christian proclamation, while it is, can be, needs to be words, also needs to be deeds. St. Francis once said, “proclaim the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”
We are a people, a community, formed around the message of God’s love, which we see with particular vividness in Jesus the Christ. This love heals. This love frees. This love forgives. This love is the power for change in our lives and the world – repentance is just a churchy word for change. This love makes strangers friends. This love challenges us to embrace all creation with care. This is a love that not even death can kill – the Messiah suffers and rises from death. We are to share this love in what we do. We are to share this love in what we say. We are to share this love by who we are. Church consultant Gil Rendle has written that congregations will find their way in this wilderness time by moving toward becoming more purposeful organizations. A membership organization will ask if the members are satisfied. A purposeful organization will ask if people’s lives are being changed. (Journey in the Wilderness, 55) Our proclamation is found in changed lives and stories of changed lives – our own and those we reach out to in love with food, with an embrace, with justice.
After Jesus our work is proclamation in this broad sense. And it begins where we are – “beginning from Jerusalem.” We are not perfect, but we still proclaim the Jesus way. We would like to be bigger, but still we proclaim the Jesus way. There are policies in our denomination we want to change, but still we proclaim the Jesus way. Mainline churches are sidelined in our society more than ever, but still we proclaim the Jesus way. The challenges of being the church in our day and time are significant. With each challenge there is, perhaps, a new opportunity to understand our faith in new ways, to live our faith in new ways, to share our faith in new ways.
We are in that time after Jesus, but not exactly. Before he leaves, Jesus promises “power from on high.” The followers of Jesus know that his love is a living and powerful presence in our lives. We are not simply left alone to do our best. We do our best as we are empowered by a living Jesus.
This illustration is probably being used in countless Minnesota United Methodist churches this week, because it was shared by our speaker, Kenda Creasy Dean, at Annual Conference. Imagine this pitcher of water as God’s love. We sometimes imagine our job as Christians and as church to get filled up a little and then dump Jesus into the world. This model works whether our idea of “dumping Jesus” is some form of evangelism or some form of good work. It can be exhausting, even as we do some good. The model for our lives as followers of Jesus “clothed with power from on high” is to have our lives filled with God’s love – a love that is abundant, endless, rich, dynamic – and then let that love do its work of overflowing through us to the world.
We live after Jesus. Yet Jesus is with us. After Jesus, with Jesus, we are Jesus for the world. Our job is to share God’s love because we have known it deeply ourselves. We know forgiveness so we share it. We know being embraced in love, so we embrace. We see that God’s love is for all, and it breaks our hearts to see other lives lacking in love – whether that is in the form of bread or books or kindness. We understand that God loved the world and it breaks our hearts to see the very planet which helps sustain us damaged in our use of it. After Jesus, with Jesus, we are Jesus for the world.
And here is good news. Jesus love is a present power. And here is good news, “discipleship means joy” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 41). Amen.