Easter 7B Sermon (2012)

7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:11-21a;
Acts 1:1-11


Imitation is a powerful way to learn life practices. As is the case with many people, our parents are a formative influence on one’s faith. Christian writer Diana Butler Bass tells this story about imitating her mother.

When I was young, she used to tell me, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Later, she shared with me the story of the day her high school was desegregated in 1956. Appalled by the court ruling opening white schools to African-American students, her friends arranged a student strike, refusing to attend school on the first day of integration. They invited her to join in. My mother, however, felt torn between her friends and what she knew to be right. She always believed that racial prejudice was wrong. Defying her friends, she went to school. And she decided to meet the bus and greet her new classmates.

I asked, “Mom, why did you do that?”

She replied, “Well, I realized that if I were a stranger at a new school, I’d want someone to be at the bus to welcome me.”

From that day on, “do unto others” was more than mother’s moralism. It was a heroic act of hospitality, one that echoed Jesus’s own words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35), and an action that I seek to imitate in my own life. (1)
The why for all Christian life practice is deceptively simple: Christians do certain things seeking to imitate Jesus and Jesus’s followers who went before. This is not a set of rules, a prescribed piety, a list of dos and don’ts, or convention. Rather, following Jesus and our forebears involves encountering the same God they encountered through prayers, study, and worship; imitating Jesus and the saints means enacting God’s love in the world by feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful, standing for the oppressed, caring for the poor, healing the sick, and making peace. Jesus and the saints serve as models and mentors in the way of practice. Indeed, Jesus promised his friends that they would not only do the extraordinary things that he had done, but would do “greater works than these” (John 14:12). (2)

In our First Reading today, Jesus ascends to heaven, leaving his disciples without their primary model for imitation. They would have the memories of what he said and did, which is plenty powerful in itself. But they would no longer have him to imitate in their day-to-day living. It was an important time of transition in their lives and ministries.

We celebrate our graduates today, who are at a similar place of transition in their lives. Parents have been the primary models for imitation. For many of our graduates, they will soon move out from their parents’ home and go to school, or go to work. And even for those who stay home for a time, graduating from high school still signals a sea-change in relationship, one of moving on to a time in life when one’s own decisions will be more impactful to day-to-day living, a time when one spends more and more time with other adults, at work and at school. How much through imitation will parents continue to be an influence? What influence will new adults play? And a question important to our church life: Will discipleship of Jesus, through imitation of how he lived, be an important measure for how to live?

It is very possible to imitate without thinking, without choosing, and without understanding. If you imitate without making a choice toward health, goodness, justice, or kindness, you may wind up imitating a drunk, a liar, or a criminal. In a fractured culture, like ours, you must choose what you wish to imitate, consciously understand why some actions are more true than others, and, above all, determine who is worthy of imitation. (3)

Pastor Dave and I, along with John and Laurie Brown, attended a 3D Ministry workshop yesterday, where they emphasized the importance of imitation. They drew a triangle of learning on the board: Information, Imitation, Implementation. These days, we like to think that information rules — that one simply needs the right information for making right decisions. But 3D Ministry rightly emphasizes that imitation is most often an essential and crucial step to learning. Even when training someone like doctors, for example, where so much information needs to be digested for understanding healing, we still require internships, a time of apprenticeship when the intern learns by imitating other doctors. Imitation is crucial for our basic life practices. We do not learn any worthwhile ways to right and fulfilled living without imitating the right models. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the best model of all.

Let me be clear about the importance of imitation, because the emphasis on information in the modern world threatens to overtake the Christian faith, too. We’ve come to put too much emphasis on information about Jesus — that he’s the second person of the Trinity, for example. Believing certain information about Jesus can certainly be important, but not without imitation of how Jesus lived.

In fact, I need to confront the traditional views of heaven and hell again. It’s not a matter of their just needing some tweeking. Our ideas of heaven and hell may have actually come to oppose the Jesus we need to imitate. For example, Christians have often used information about Jesus as a test for whether people are in or out of our group of Christians — and then whether or not they are in or out of heaven. In other words, we’ve used that information to divide between peoples, and that’s 180 degrees against what Jesus did in his life as he prayed and worked to make all peoples into one. Here’s my proposal of the Jesus we need to imitate: He came fundamentally as God’s way to unite us, not divide us — just as he prays in this morning’s Gospel. The world’s way to do things, which Jesus also talks about in today’s Gospel, is to do everything on the basis of division. Jesus’s Way is the basis for making us all one in God’s love.

So instead of using information about Jesus to create division, we Christians should be learning to imitate Jesus’ way of love that brings people together into one. The who we imitate is Jesus; and what we imitate is working so that we may all be one. It gives us a mission to carry out, something to do with our lives, something to be passionate about. So in these years ahead for our graduates of deciding what to do with their lives, I pray that being a passionate follower of Jesus can be at the heart of it — that whatever you do in life, it plays a part in uniting God’s children, not dividing them. Having that centering focus is a good thing!

I want to leave us this morning with one other very important correction on this business of going to heaven. Christians have not only used it as a means to divide us instead of uniting us, but we’ve also made heaven out to be some far off place to go after you die. That’s not how the disciples thought of it when Jesus goes to heaven at the end of our First Reading [the Ascension Day reading from Acts 1]. No, heaven is the dimension of God’s presence in the world. It is near, close-by, not far-off.

Think of it this way. Your thoughts and feelings, your consciousness, are another dimension of who you are. But are they far-off? No, your thoughts and feelings, your consciousness, is always close to your brain, somehow a function of your brain. But they are also transcendent of your brain, another dimension, the most important dimension, of who you are. If the surgeon opens up your skull, he or she will find your brain, but they will not find your thoughts and feelings. That’s how heaven and God works. God, who lovingly created each of us and this whole creation, resides in the heavenly dimension of creation, which is in, with, and under all of creation. God is in the heavenly dimension of creation, which means God is everywhere. So when Jesus goes to heaven in this morning’s reading from Acts, he is not going away from us to a far-off place where we can be close to him only after we die.

Let’s also understand that the business about going up is only a metaphor meaning that Jesus is now in charge of things. It’s like when we get a promotion in a job, we talk about moving up the ranks in power. We don’t literally go up — our new office may actually be on the next floor below. No, going up means Jesus is now in charge above all the Caesars, all the dictators, all the Presidents and politicians whose ways divide us. God’s way of uniting us in love is the now the power taking charge in this world because it goes beyond even the power of death.4

And that is so comforting in numerous ways. In going to heaven, for example, Jesus is going to that dimension of creation where he can be with us everywhere. If Jesus had stayed here on earth, he could have been with us only one place at a time. But because Jesus went to heaven, Jesus can be with all of us at every time and place. That’s comforting, isn’t it?! And it’s true of our loved ones who have died, too, by the way. In going to be with Jesus for now in heaven, they are present with him everywhere, and so they are present with us. They are here today.

The power of God’s love to unite us goes even beyond death. We may die before we see all of God’s children united into one family, but our deaths don’t prevent us from being part of the day when it finally does happen. We know that, even though there’s still so much division in our world, Jesus is in charge because he has defeated the final barrier (namely, death) to overcoming those divisions.

There is one other very comforting thing that the angels say to the disciples at the Ascension. It has to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that’s for next week’s celebration of Pentecost. For today, we simply end with a prayer that we know Jesus’ strong presence in our lives, not somewhere far away in heaven, but in that heavenly dimension of creation wherever we go, calling us and leading us to be a loving force for unity and peace, not division. Giving us something to be passionate about, something to live for: that we may all be one. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 20, 2012

1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening [New York: HarperOne, 2012], 155-56.

2. Ibid., 155; this paragraph is ‘borrowed’ from Butler Bass.

3. Ibid., 156-57; this paragraph is again borrowed from Butler Bass. I am much indebted to her fine book.

4. In the background to my views expressed about the Ascension is the work of N. T. Wright on this subject. The illustration of our thoughts as another dimension to our brain is my own take on Wright’s stress that heaven is another dimension of creation. Wright himself uses the example of being promoted for the up metaphor. See, for example, Simply Jesus, 195-98.

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