“The Expanding Community of Witnesses”


May 28, 2017:  Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon

Today’s scripture lesson is a bridge story. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) conclude with accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. And the book of Acts then tells the story of the first few decades of the church. The Ascension–Jesus being lifted into heaven– is the bridge between the two–the bridge from Gospel to history, from Jesus to the church.

I remember when I turned 15 years old and got my learners permit, what it was like to finally get behind the wheel and control a vehicle going down the road. Do your remember that thrill and that fear? First you start out in parking lots or cul-de-sacs, then you keep it to small neighborhood streets around town. Once you’ve built up the confidence you try out the highway, and eventually the interstate.

When I had had my permit for a few weeks I was driving with my mom in the passenger seat. She was trying really hard not to give too many directions and to let me build the confidence to drive through town. I came to stop sign and I did everything right. My hands were at 10 & 2. I had my blinker on well in advance. I came to a complete stop. I looked left, right, left again. Saw plenty of space to safely make a left turn. There was just one thing wrong. That stop sign wasn’t actually a stop sign. It was a red light. That stayed red as I made a perfectly executed left turn. My mom started screaming, because she was scared. But of course, I wasn’t scared at all…I had done everything just right.

I do remember the first time that I was really scared driving. It was when I first drove across the Bayway, the interstate-10 bridge–that 7.5 mile long elevated asphalt. I’d been a passenger on the Bayway for years and always loved it. It was fascinating and fun, but when you have the responsibility of control you see things very differently. Suddenly that long bridge became a very scary place. It was like being stuck up in the air. Trapped above the water. I wanted to just stop. To freeze. But you can’t. You have to keep moving forward, not matter how anxiety producing it is.

I think there was something similar (though much more profound) going on for the disciples in this bridge story. Jesus has been training them to take over the responsibility of the church. For 40 days they have had their learners permits, with him there to guide them, but now it’s time for him to leave and for them to steer the ship of the church without him.

Before he goes he gives them final instructions about where to go. He says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” There is an expanding geographic nature to this command about witnessing. It would be like telling us to shared Jesus’ love in Mobile, then in Alabama and Mississippi, and then all around the planet. When this story occurs they are already in the city of Jerusalem, the most important metropolis for the Jewish faith. Jesus tells them that their journey of witnessing starts here. It begins in the city, in the place where the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the homeless, those getting fat off the system and those starving to death in scarcity are all crammed together. Jesus calls the church—from the beginning—to bridge these gaps in our cities, in our society, to cross over the boundaries that divide people there.

But then he tells them to expand their witnessing to the whole region (Judea) and the neighboring region (Samaria). It’s important to rember that people in these two areas hated each other. Jew’s looked down on Samaritans as heretics and half-breeds, and Samaritans were just as antagonistic against Judean.   But Jesus sends his followers to bridge the animosity between these two rival territories.

Then after crossing that boundary, they are told to take the Christian witness, the good news of God’s love, the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, to take that story and share it with the ends of the earth. To travel and sojourn. TO cross over seas and deserts, through dangerous journeys risking life and limb. Building bridges across entire oceans, connecting continents and binding together nations and people that are so different from one another that the world would say they have no business being unified.

There is an intentional order to these instructions, that has everything to do with growing in authenticity. Before you can authentically go out to “change the world” you have to be intentional about making real tangible change in your own city, you own home, your own family, your own work place, your own local community. You can’t go to the ends of the earth if you don’t start in your own Jerusalem first. Likewise, before you can attempt to reach out to all people around the globe, you first have to be reconciled to those prickly people nearby who you would much rather just ignore and stereotype. You can’t go to the ends of the earth if you don’t go through Samaria first, and learn to love the Samaritans of our own culture today. That’s quite a task!

This charge and pattern given to the disciples continues to be foundational to kind of community we are called to be as Christians: to start local, to start in our city—bridging the divides here. Then expand regionally—bringing together different and diverse people that cannot stand one another. Then to connect around the globe.

When Jesus finishes these final orders to his followers he is lifted up into heaven. He ascends up in a cloud. Last month one of our members, Charlie Rice, was in a school drama presentation of the Wizard of Oz. On some of the nights he stole the show playing the role of the cowardly lion, but on others nights he was working behind stage with the ropes and harnesses that allowed the other actors to fly around in the air above the stage. I had half a mind to get Charlie to rig something up here this Sunday so we could reenact Jesus’ ascension. But thankfully we didn’t try to pull that off.

Jesus leaves them. As he float away his disciples just stand there staring as his cloud disappears from their sight. They are awestruck in wonderment, fear, and uncertainty. Wide-eyed gaping mouths unable to believe what they see happening before their very eyes. Like a 15-year old driver in shocked at the vast expanse of the wide open vista of the water around them, the disciples realize that on this bridge, they are feeling a different kind of fear and excitement than they have ever felt before, and they want to just stop. To stand still and stay on solid ground.

But then these two mysterious guys in white robes appear out of nowhere and get their attention. These fellows seem to the same two messengers that were at the empty tomb on Easter 40 days ago, who asked the women, “Why do you look for Jesus among the dead?” Now they ask the men on the mountainside, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” That’s their polite and prodding way of tell the petrified disciples, “Don’t just stand there like a bunch of idiots! Do something! Get moving. Jesus just told you to go out, to expand the faith near and far. He didn’t tell you to stand here staring into heaven.” They are saying, “Wake up…and get to work.”

So often we can be tempted by the emotional experience of fear to stand still in our faith. To fixate on other-worldly spirituality, staring off into heaven looking for something that we can quite make out. This kind of spirituality is far removed from the missional witnessing charge that Jesus gives to the community of faith. And sometimes we need others to remind us of our true mission. To shake us up and wake us up from our dreams. To jolt us and remind us of the truth that we need to keep moving, to cross those bridges that we are afraid to cross.

And so, waken back up to reality, the disciples head back down the mountainside and gather together with the other followers of Jesus: men and women, some fishermen from Galilee, some tax collectors, some prostitutes, some that the rest of the society cast aside as good-for-nothing sinners, and some of Jesus’ own immediate family. All told there were about 120 of them. Think about that. Right now, in this sanctuary there are more people here today to worship than there were in the entire Christian Church when it was first getting started.

The disciples know what Jesus has called them to do. They know that this little community is about to face difficulties in the days ahead. They knew that their expanding, witnessing, bridge crossing, globe trotting mission would not be easy and would call forth all of who they were as individuals and as a community. And so, before they set out on their journey, they take a moment to pray together.

Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the Christian faith, once said that, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That certainly was true for those first disciples. And may it be true for us as well. May our community follow in the footsteps of our ancestors in the faith. May we, like them, expand from our prayer and worship, moving out together into the world to witness, to share, to model the revolutionary good news of Jesus Christ, whose love bridges every boundary!

To God alone be the glory.


Acts 1:6-14


So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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