Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon: Bigger Plans

Acts 1:1-14
Bigger Plans
James Sledge                                                                                       May 28, 2017

According to the book of Acts, the risen Jesus hung out with the disciples for more than a month after that first Easter, speaking with them about the kingdom of God. Presumably he is continuing to teach his followers, just as he had done prior to his arrest and crucifixion. No doubt it was easier for them to understand certain things on this side of the resurrection.
Curiously, there is nothing at all on the content of Jesus’ teachings. Nothing about what Jesus said over those forty days besides the final instructions that we just heard. I can only assume that means there was no new content. Jesus didn’t cover any new ground. A refresher course, a bit of “Ok, now do you understand?” but nothing that we’ve not already heard.
All that makes the disciples’ question to Jesus even more startling. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Really? They’re still thinking about restoring Israel, about throwing out the Romans? After all this they still think Jesus is a local Messiah, sent to rescue them from their enemies? What a face palm moment.
I don’t know if Jesus did face palms, but if he did, he must be doing them still. His followers are still trying to turn Jesus into a Messiah who’s especially concerned with their group. The Jesus I grew up with was a white, European guy, and becoming a Christian was synonymous with acting like a white, European. We’re a bit more sophisticated on this nowadays. We know that Jesus was Middle Eastern and that faith transcends cultural divides. We know, as the Apostle Paul said, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus, but we’re reasonably sure that becoming one means others becoming more like us, preferring our style of music, worship, politics, and so on.
Some Christians are convinced that Jesus is especially worried about America. Some of them voted for Donald Trump because they thought God would somehow use him to restore the kingdom to America.
A parochial, provincial view of what Jesus is about seems to be a perpetual problem for the followers of Jesus. We’re forever imagining a Jesus, a God, who is especially concerned with what concerns us, worried about what frightens us, interested in helping us acquire whatever it is we want. Never mind how many times Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross…”

When Jesus’ followers ask him if this is the time when he’ll kick out the Romans and make Israel great again, he had to have been disappointed in them. But his reply is matter of fact. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, “That’s none of your business. It’s not why I called you or taught you, and it’s not what you should be worried about. Your job is to be my witnesses.”
I’m pretty sure that when the writer of Acts tells us this, it’s less about reporting what happened and more about making sure that later followers remember what Jesus expects of us. Right now, this congregation is in the midst of discussing and exploring such things. The Renew Groups that many of you participate in are a part of a process that the Session hopes we help answer the question: What does Jesus expect from this group of his followers? And perhaps that first group of his followers can give us some pointers.
The first pointer might be that Jesus has bigger plans for us than we realize. Like those first disciples, our concerns may be parochial and provincial, concerns about getting through our daily lives, meeting the church budget, growing the youth program, or figuring out what to do with the 9:30 Christian development hour, but Jesus says to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… You will be part of my hopes and dreams for the entire world.”
If that startles us, think how those first disciples must have felt. Some of them had never travelled further from their hometowns than they could walk. And they would be Jesus’ representatives to the ends of the earth?
No wonder the disciples don’t hit the road right away. They wait, and they pray. They gather as the first church congregation, and they wait and pray together. They know they can’t do this on their own, and this may be the second thing they have to teach us.
Jesus has bigger plans for us than we realize because we’re not on our own. We’re not left to our own devices. As the old and somewhat trite saying goes, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” But we often act like that wasn’t so. Church congregations can be terribly risk averse, unwilling to try anything they aren’t certain will succeed.
I wonder if that’s because we’re not sure if God will help and equip us, or if it’s because we’ve not heard Jesus tell us that he has much bigger plans for us than we ever imagined for ourselves.
There’s a famous quote from the reformer, Martin Luther that goes, “I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.” But I tend to be just the opposite. The more I have to do the less likely I am to pray. When I feel overwhelmed, I can’t stop and waste time praying. I need to use my time productively, and prayer doesn’t feel productive.
But I wonder if my lack of prayer might not impact both sides of the called and equipped equation. When I don’t spend significant time with God, the voice of Jesus calling me grows fainter and fainter. So too, the sense that God is with me, that the Spirit is strengthening and empowering me, evaporates. Pretty soon, it’s just me, doing whatever I think needs to be done and seems doable to me.
We live in a time when there is much that seems far beyond our power to address. Global terrorism that sees children as acceptable targets, the flourishing of hate groups here at home, partisan rancor that leaves both side unable to find a common good, famine and suffering in Somalia and Sudan, growing income inequality that leaves more and more Americans feeling left out and without hope, a proposed US budget that is the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus, and much more. It is tempting to retreat into a faith that is small and personal, that is focused on me and mine, on my salvation or spiritual fulfillment or just getting me through the next week.
But Jesus says to me, and to you. I have bigger plans for you, much bigger plans. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… You will be part of my hopes and dreams for the entire world.”

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