By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 24:36-53; Acts 1:6-11
This morning is a special Sunday on the church's calendar: Ascension Sunday. It’s rarely accompanied by any fanfare. I don’t think Hallmark produces any greeting cards for it.
Only Luke provides us with the details of Jesus’ ascension… twice in fact: once in his gospel and once in the Book of Acts. Whereas Luke’s gospel gives an account of the earthly ministry of Jesus, Acts focuses on the ministry of his disciples’ (itself a continuation of Jesus’ ministry). And Jesus’ ascension – his being lifted back up into heaven after his resurrection – acts as a sort of bridge connecting the end of Jesus’ ministry to the beginning of his disciples’ ministry. In fact, Jesus’ ascension is the last episode in Luke’s gospel and the first episode in Acts. So it’s clear that Jesus’ ascension – and its implication for the mission of the Church – is of enormous importance to Luke.
But this is also Memorial Day weekend. And, although some focus on an extra day off work, cook-outs and getting the garden ready for summer, its primary purpose is as a day of remembrance; particularly a day to remember deceased soldiers and other public servants whose lives were laid down as a sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Now Ascension Sunday and Memorial Day weekend don't often coincide. But, it’s nice when they do because both provide us the opportunity to reflect on peace: what it is and how it can be attained. The lives we memorialize this weekend were the result of a marked absence of peace in our world… whether that involves a soldier who died in a war halfway around the world, federal law enforcement gunned down because of efforts to end a terror cell or a drug cartel, or a local officer killed while responding to a domestic violence call. Our world is too often characterized by an absence of peace and countless lives have been scarred by hostility and violence. So it is significant that we find numerous references to peace in Luke’s gospel and Acts.
In the scripture I read just a few moments ago, Jesus (on resurrection evening) greeted his disciples with the salutation “Peace be with you.”
In the context of first century Roman occupied Palestine, followers of Jesus must have been longing for peace, true peace; not peace at the tip of a sword. Like so many places in our world today, “peace” by the 1st century Roman definition simply meant that those in power had successfully stamped out resistance; defeated, even annihilated the enemy. But that’s not what Jesus meant. That’s not the kind of peace that governs the kingdom of God. Peace is more than an absence of war. Conflict averted by instilling fear hardly qualifies as peace. For ancient Rome and still for many people today, peace involves the destruction, or at least control, of the enemy. But for Jesus and those who seek to follow him, peace is about something more. It’s about transforming that enemy into a friend. It’s about restoring relationships. We have a tendency to define peace as the absence of violence, just as we have a tendency to define tolerance as the absence of conflict. Yet, tolerance does not mean we "put up" with someone different or peculiar as a neighbor or co-worker. Tolerance means we seek to understand and appreciate our differences. So, too, peace does not mean we cease to fight because we have declared a stalemate. Peace means we take purposeful steps toward reconciliation and understanding; we make deliberate, purposeful gestures of grace. True peace requires extending grace and forgiveness toward others and ourselves. Biblically, peace is not simply about the cessation of war. Biblically, peace is about the healing of broken relationships: our relationship with God and our relationships with others.
On the evening of his resurrection, Jesus' greeting of "peace" is juxtaposed against the disciples’ very understandable feelings of fear and a lack of understanding. That's important for us to notice because that reveals the reason why peace is so often lacking in our world today. Still today, we fear and we fail to understand in contexts of differences and change; when we are blindsided by the unexpected. Even more precisely, we fear because we fail to understand. We fail to remember that Jesus did not seek power and control; Jesus’ ministry was about extending grace and forgiveness toward those who’d done nothing to deserve it; Jesus’ ministry was about extending grace toward some pretty offensive and dubious characters.
Jesus seeks out those who have been wronged as well as those who have wronged others. He seeks out those who have strayed from God, like a wayward sheep who’s lost its way. He even seeks grace for those who have rebelled against God, behaving like the proverbial disrespectful, prodigal son. And, Jesus seeks to bring people into right relationships with one another, as well. In fact, before he returns to heaven, before he ascends, he entrusts that very ministry to his disciples.
Friends, fear reflects our inability to comprehend Jesus' gift of forgiveness, his expressions of God’s grace; and fear betrays our inability to receive that grace in a way that transforms our understanding of ourselves and others. So Jesus offers his disciples peace. He bestows it upon them: peace, a state of being that delights in and celebrates God's forgiveness and grace in our lives and our world. Conversely, violence and strife reflect our inability to accept God's grace and forgiveness for ourselves and for others.
It is, without a doubt, difficult for us to comprehend the peace Jesus offers. But Jesus does not leave his disciples – neither the ones in the bible, nor us today – to figure it out on our own. Jesus blesses us with the gift of his Holy Spirit; the gift we’ll celebrate on Pentecost Sunday next week. In Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit is the one who will cloth the disciples with power; a power that will, particularly, bless OTHERS; those who have wandered far from God just as the prodigal son who had wandered far from his father. That is the sermon Peter will preach on Pentecost day when the Holy Spirit falls upon him. He will tell the crowd that gathers around them that this story of forgiveness through Jesus is the promised good news; a free gift from God for those who are farthest from him; a chance for them to be drawn near to God and to one another.
At the time of Jesus' ascension, the disciples are still struggling with fear and confusion. But once the Spirit comes at Pentecost, it’s a whole new ball game. The Spirit not only gives them the right words to say; the Spirit gives them the courage to say them. And those words which the disciples speak are words of forgiveness, grace and reconciliation. Words about how Jesus' life, love and sacrifice have drawn us near to God.
People of God, it is the church's task to bring peace to the world; a peace that is the direct result of God's grace and forgiveness. It is a peace that overcomes fear and confusion.
Let me highlight some things our church has done and is doing to proclaim peace in a divided world. We’ve been having a study on World Religions. Last week we had a panel discussion on the three Abrahamic faith traditions. Now we’re not just doing that to be better educated. We’re doing that because in a world where religious differences and misunderstanding have led to so much violence, we want to cast out the fear and confusion that fuel violence so we can dialogue honestly and grow in our understanding of others and overcome attitudes of fear and violence with understanding and grace. Beginning in June, each month we’ll be having a Garden and Grill on our front lawn; an opportunity to invite our neighbors to a cookout. Our Centennial neighborhood is diverse. It includes the homeless; white collar professionals in new condos; grad students; poor, single-parent families and those diverse neighbors rarely come together and sometimes are at odds with one another. We hope our front lawn can become a place of reconciling fellowship, dispelling suspicions, assumptions and misunderstanding and promoting dialogue. What other ideas do you have of things we can be doing as a faith community to drive out fear and confusion and replace them with reconciliation and grace? Jesus calls us to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Finally, as we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow, perhaps we might honor the lives of those we remember not simply by planting flowers at a cemetery or by hoisting a flag – as nice as those gestures can be. Perhaps we might honor their memory by seeking out someone with whom we need to make peace: a relative or a co-worker or a neighbor. You’ve not been violent toward them; but you’ve been avoiding them, gritting your teeth, maybe even trash-talking them. As followers of Jesus, we are called to proclaim that his grace and forgiveness is not only about restoring our relationships with God; but also about bringing healing to our relationships with one another. Peace be with you.
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