1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So 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 toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
A Baptist, a Catholic, and a Presbyterian all die in a tragic accident, and are met at the pearly gates by Saint Peter, who tells them they can enter heaven if they can answer one simple question: What is Easter?
The Baptist replies, “Oh, that’s easy, it’s the holiday in November when everybody gets together, eats turkey, and is thankful…”
“WRONG,” replies St. Peter, and turns to the Catholic. What is Easter?
“Is it the holiday in December when we put up a nice tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Santa Claus?”
“WRONG,” replies St. Peter in great disgust. But the Presbyterian just simles, looks St. Pete in the eye, and says:
“Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus and the disciples were eating at the Last Supper, and He was later deceived and turned over to the Romans by Judas, one of the disciples. The Romans took Him to Pontius Pilate, made Him wear a crown of thorns, and He was hung on a cross. He was buried in a nearby cave which was sealed off by a large boulder. Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out, and if He sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.”
I’m guessing that the vast majority of you here today are actually quite familiar with the story of Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, as I look out at the congregation today, I think it’s probably a fair assumption that the vast majority of you are lifelong church-goers, and so you’ve heard the Easter story dozens of times or more–probably every Easter Sunday stretching back as far as you can remember.
So because we’re such an advanced crowd, I’m going to skip forward this year. We’re not going to begin with the resurrection of Jesus, but rather what happens in the wake of that resurrection. We ARE going to talk about new life, something at the heart of the Easter story–just not the new life God gave to Jesus, which is where the gospels end. We’re going to talk about the new life God gave to the church, and to the people, which is where the book of Acts begins. And we’re going to talk about how God continues to give new life to the church and to its people in every generation, including today.
Now, when I arrived here as pastor in 2012, I noticed that members had a curious habit of refering to this congregation as “First Church.” That’s how we would answer the phones, too: “First Church, may I help you?” Or, “I attend First Church.”
I always wondered how the folks at First Baptist Church, or First Christian Church, or Trinity-First Methodist church felt about that. I mean, we were certainly the first Presbyterian church established in El Paso, but not the first church–that honor belongs to the Ysleta mission, which is not only the oldest congregation not only in El Paso, but also in all of Texas.
I suspect that the members of this congregation probably knew that when they called themselves “First Church.” I don’t think they meant “first” in the chronological sense. “First” can also mean “foremost” in the sense of “best” or “most prominent.” And, for much of the 20th century, that was a legitimate claim, if you’re counting membership numbers, or influence in the community. Long before the big mega-churches of this century existed, First Presbyterian Church was, throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, the largest church in town, often the wealthiest, and its membership list read like a “Who’s Who” in the City of El Paso.
But although we may have been “First Church” in that sense for awhile…clearly we are not many of those things anymore. And that hurts, especially for those who were here, and those who remember. Even those who were not here, still look at empty pews and say, I sure wish we could be like that again.”
In this, I think we have a lot in common with the followers of Jesus in today’s scripture passage. Listen to the first thing they ask Jesus after his resurrection: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
You see, they didn’t see themselves as part of a new movement, but rather as part of a very old one: The Kingdom of Israel. A kingdom that used to be great, powerful, wealthy, and influential. The didn’t want a new religion. They wanted Jesus to magically bring back the one they grew up with.
Is this the time, Jesus? We’ve followed you for three years now, through the wilderness and through the cities, through persecutions and executions. We left our homes and our families…we gave up everything…but now here we are. Here you are, raised from the dead. Is this the time when you’ll raise our church from the dead, too? Is this the time when you’ll restore our country to the way it used to be? Is this the time when you’ll make us great again, too?
These of course, are exactly the sorts of questions we ask all of our would-be-saviors, even today, whether they are religious leaders, business tycoons, or political candidates.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t answer yes or no. But he doesn’t leave them completely emptyhanded. He promises them two things: “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.”
In other words, there is an amazing future in store for you–but it’s not going to look anything like what you were expecting. Your expectations were too small. And you were looking in the wrong direction.
Let’s unpack those two promises, as well as the two “course corrections” that Jesus gives his followers, and which, incidentally, are great for us, too.
First, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
You see, power was exactly what the followers of Jesus wanted. They wanted military power to fight against the Roman Empire and win Israel’s independence back again. As mostly poor, undeducated fishermen from the backwoods of Galillee, they also wanted political, economic and religious power to stand up to the Jewish priests in Jerusalem, who controlled access to the Temple, and therefore to God.
But Jesus says to them, in effect, power–real power–doesn’t come from strength, or wealth, or status, which in any case are external things. Real power comes from Spirit, which is internal. Not just any spirit, but a holy spirit–a spirit that values what is sacred, what is set apart from the world.
Second, Jesus promises that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Ok, Jerusalem, no problem. That’s the capital city, that’s a great place to start. Judea, no problem there either, that’s our country. Samaria–wait a minute…that’s where Samaritans are from. We don’t like Samaritans. They’re not our people. And what do you mean “the ends of the earth?” We just want to be your representatives, your witnesses here in Israel. All those other people out there are unbelieving heathens and gentiles. They aren’t part of your plan.
Interesting thing about that word, witness: In the Greek of the New Testament, the word is μάρτυρες. It means witnesses…but if it sounds a little like the word “martyr” that’s because over time it came to mean exactly that among the followers of Jesus. One who was willing to die, to sacrifice everything in order to be a witness for Christ. That’s probably not quite what Jesus’ followers had in mind that day, when they asked “Is this the time?”
God’s plans are rarely ever what we have in mind. I think that’s why Jesus never answers their question, “Is this the time?” If we are stuck in our own expectations about what God should do, if we are going our own way, and expecting Jesus to follow us, then the answer is always, “No, this isn’t the time. And it never will be.”
But if we are open to doing things God’s way, if we are open to following Jesus, even into unexpected places, then I think the answer is always “Yes, this is the time.” But time for what?
Restoration and Resurrection are not the same things. The followers of Jesus wanted the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. We want restoration. We want things to be like they used to be, in our church, in our country, in our lives at a happier time. But God doesn’t do restoration. God does resurrection. In order for something to be resurrected from the dead…it has to die first. And we generally don’t like that.
Restoration turns around and goes back to the past, giving you exactly what you had before. Resurrection brings something dead or dying out of the past and into the future, breathing new life into it, and making it something new, something different.
Look. I don’t want First Presbyterian Church to be the biggest church in El Paso, or anywhere. For that mattter, I don’t even want First Presbyterian church to be the best church in El Paso, or the most important, or the wealthiest, or the most influential. I don’t care about any of those things.
But I do have a dream for First Presbyterian Church, and it goes something like this: That we might be a new kind of church, a different kind of church, filled with a new and different kind of people like the world has never seen before. People who don’t get caught up in the world’s insane struggle for power through strength, wealth, and prestige. People who, instead, have an inner power that comes from a sacred and unshakeable place, that comes from a message of faith, hope, and love that we share with everyone–Christians and non-christians alike.
And we don’t get hung up on trying to convert people to our religion, our beliefs and our doctrines–we simply share with them our story, the story about a guy named Jesus, who taught us to look out for each other, and to take care of each other.
And so we walk with each other along life’s great journey, through the darkest valleys and brightest mountaintops.
We stand with each other. And we serve each other. We listen to each other, and we learn from one another.
And somewhere, in the midst of all that, we remember the words spoken by our Lord, who said that the first will be last, and the last will be first. So then let us be last! Let us be the least of all churches, the servants of all people. And in this way, not any other, will we live and breathe again as a new church…as “First Church” reborn.