Marching Orders for a Vital Church – Acts 1: 8-14

Marching Orders for a Vital Church ~ Acts 1: 8-14 The Sunday after the Ascension of Our Lord – May 16-17, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA The Rev. Roy Almquist
Today we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. I think it is a safe bet that most of you were not in church last Thursday, the actual Festival of the Ascension. Most American calendars omit the heading ~ Ascension Day. Europeans still observe the holiday, but we are far from the euro zone. We could easily ignore the Festival of the Ascension.

But should we do that, I think we would deny ourselves the opportunity to reflect on a significant event in the story of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian Church.
So traditionally the Chapel observes this Seventh Sunday after Easter as Ascension Sunday, focusing our attention on two of the Biblical accounts of that event from Luke’s Gospel and his second book, The Acts of the Apostles. Symbolically, we stand this morning with the first disciples and say goodbye . . . this time a final goodbye to their friend, Jesus.

During the Easter Season we focused our attention on issues of critical importance for the Church of Jesus Christ in the world today. Throughout these Sundays after Easter we have reflected upon … The importance of participation in the gathered assembly … that unique worship

setting in which we experience the Risen Christ, who comes to us through the

breaking of the bread; The symbolic statement of Our Lord that he is the Good Shepherd, calling us to continue a Shepherding task of gathering, protecting, and feeding the lost and lonely of the world.

 Two weeks ago Jesus urged his followers to stay connected … with him and with one another … I am the vine, you are the branches. Again and again Jesus insists that there can be no isolated Christians … or as he stated it: Apart from me, you can do nothing.

 This past Sunday Jesus proclaimed a new commandment that we love each other

with all that this means in a cold, disconnected world. I have always loved the story of the Ascension … When I was a little boy in Sunday School … back when space ships were a fantasy … I loved the extraordinary account of Jesus levitating into the air with a dramatic flair … his disciples looking up in wonder.

When I grew a little older and worldly wise, I thought this story rather silly, the kind of thing that made people scratch their heads about the Bible. Indeed, I went through a time, when I considered the church a bit irrelevant to me and my plans for the future. Now I have come full circle and I once again love the Biblical image of Our Lord’s Ascension with the valuable truths the story preserves for us … truths that can be summarized by the words … Look Up, Look Down, and Look Out! … for when we look up we realize Jesus is no longer here, we are on our own … when we look down we see the foundation of faith and tradition on which we stand … and when we look out we see the world that cries out for the healing and the hope that Jesus provided and we certainly must recognize that now it is our duty to be present with those who are in need.

When I was in Seminary in the 1960’s, I went through a critical crisis of faith. I began my theological education a little over twenty years after World War Two. As a Lutheran seminarian and a student of history, I crashed head on into the painful reality that a large number of the high command in Nazi Germany had been raised in Lutheran

congregations. I struggled to come to grips with how the Lutheran tradition that had blessed me as a child could have become so grotesque in the land of Luther, Bach, and Schiller.

What saved me were two discoveries.
First, my discovery of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a dedicated Christian who gave his life resisting Nazism.

Secondly, my discovery of urban ministry and the difference that the Church can make in the lives of struggling people living in poverty.

Meditating on Bonhoeffer’s courage and serving in a struggling congregation in north Philadelphia I re-discovered the essence of what Jesus said before his Ascension to the disciples: … you are my witnesses ~ you will receive power from on high ~ and most specifically the words of Jesus that Matthew preserved …
All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28: 18-20]

Suddenly I understood the marching orders of Christ’s Church in the world. In that setting I discovered that the Church becomes vital and purposeful when it calls people into a life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s what we were doing with the children and teenagers in that neighborhood church at Fifth and Cumberland in North Philadelphia.

When I was ordained and served in my first congregation I quickly discovered the importance of witnessing to Jesus Christ in all that we say and do. That central principle of the Ascension proclamation … go ~ make disciples … has shaped my ministry and, as a result, I have never served a congregation that has not grown in a significant manner because of this emphasis.

When I was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Synod in the greater Philadelphia area in 1994, I centered our vision on the words of our Lord’s Great Commission. I challenged the congregations to take seriously the task of being winsome … warming their welcome … making worship vital … and removing all obstacles that limited their effectiveness.

Since leaving the Office of Bishop in 2006, I have returned to parish ministry. In every congregation I have encouraged an emphasis on hospitality and welcome. And you know what? Taking seriously our Lord’s final words actually works. Over the past five plus years that I have served this congregation we have had a dramatic increase in the numbers and commitment of our members. What is more, the Chapel has been transformed through our emphasis on welcome, worship, and intentional faith formation.

Look Up, Look Down, and Look Out! This is the message of the Ascension.

Look up and accept that Jesus has gone … we are on our own. No point in standing around, idly looking in the sky. If Christ is to be present in the world … we must be the vehicle … we must be his Body.

Look down … embrace the task before us. This is our moment. This is our time to be grounded in the Gospel and to reach out to those who are seeking a connection more profound than the ersatz communities offered through Tumblr or Facebook.

Look out … the promised Spirit is at work in our midst … listen and hear the cries of those who struggle every day for their daily bread and live in the wretched equivalent of that Bethlehem manger.

I close with the wonderful words of hope and assurance from a great Easter hymn:

Christ is alive! No longer bound. To distant years in Palestine,

He comes to claim the here and now, And conquer every place and time.


Washington Memorial Chapel