I spent the better part of the week in Princeton, NJ, at a gathering of pastors, church planters, and other people doing all kinds of interesting and innovative things, representing congregations and communities truly participating with God in the world, people energized and discouraged, people that make me have great hope and stir my imagination.
When I shared our story the first day, the response overwhelmed me. One person said to me, “I’m really struck by how brave your congregation is.” Then another one said, “I am struck by how much you love them.” And for the next two days, I kept being reminded of these two things, over and over again.
And I came back feeling like I need to tell them to you.
So listen up:
You are very brave.
And I love you.
If sappiness makes you uncomfortable, buckle up for a minute because I am going to go there. I love you. I love your courage and your fear. I love your baking and your tinkering and your smiles and your tears and your memories and traditions and your risking and trying new things. I love your humor and your engagement with the world and things that matter, the details of truly caring for each other, and your many many stories. I love what we are building together, and how we are living together.
God is here.
This is Jesus’ body, broken, so broken, and in its brokenness we find wholeness. In the brokenness of our broken down bodies and our breaking down minds, in the brokenness of our impossible financial situation and the brokenness of our limited resources, we have found this abundance that spills out between us and beyond us.
It’s all a gift. Can you see that? Every bit of it. Every moment we have with each other, even the hard ones – and we’ve had some really hard ones – it’s all a gift. We exist not for ourselves or by ourselves, but only through the love and grace of God, to be broken and given away, to be opened up and shared with the world.
I have heard about you, your faith and your bravery, and I can’t stop thanking God for you and holding you in prayer. says Paul’s letter to the little church in Ephesus. He might as well have emailed it to this little congregation today, because it is what people said to me all week long. I have heard about you all, and it makes me have faith in Christ. I have heard about you and your journey and it makes me believe God is doing something in the church, that life can come from death and wholeness out of broken things, I have heard about you… have you heard about that little group of people? Who are committed to loving each other? Who are committed to meeting Jesus, the flesh and blood Jesus, overwhelmed even in their joy, uncomprehending but doing it anyway, have you heard about these brave people?
I think what is the very most brave thing of all, is that we are learning how to unapologetically be who we are. We are learning to be who we are. And what does Jesus keep saying to his scraggly, beat up, worn out and disillusioned group of shell-shocked disciples? The ones who can’t get their head around what is happening, who’ve seen him die, then meet him risen, who are watching him eat fish in front of their eyes and are about to see him vanish before their eyes… what does he say to these people along for this crazy ride?
You ARE my witnesses, you ARE – not you had better become my witnesses, or one day if you do things right or get it figured out you will be my witnesses, but you already are!
How much time is wasted in the church – how much precious, irretrievable time! – looking back at what we used to be, looking out at what we wish we could be, refusing to see the flesh and bones on the living Lord standing right here in the room saying YOU ARE my witnesses! You see me; I’m not a ghost, or an idea, or a wish or a doctrine or a pattern. I am not a figment of your imagination, or a theory to back your point! I am real, and you have seen me! And in their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering, these very first witnesses.
Luke uses this account of Jesus’ last encounter with the disciples that begins with bewilderment and broiled fish and ends with blessing and disappearing– he uses it to end one half the story, the part that talks about Jesus being here in body, the letter that is the book of Luke. And then in his second letter, Acts, he tells this encounter again to open the next half of the story, the part that talks about us being Jesus’ body, the part that tells the beginning of the church. From Christ in flesh to Christ enfleshed in community, the Ascension is the end of the story of God joining us, and the beginning of the story of us joining God. The story now lives in them. They become the witnesses.
You are a witness, by the way, to what you actually experience. What you really see and hear and touch and say and do. It’s about what’s real in your life. Really living in and sharing from where you are and what you see. You don’t have to understand it, or interpret. You don’t have to get it. If it happens and you’re there, you’re part of it. You can share it.
They haven’t been able to glimpse yet what the cross and resurrection means for their lives. They are filled with questions. And so are we. Can any of us really glimpse what it means for our life, or make sense of it, really? We just live into it, and then from time to time we look back and see what it has meant. We move into our lives unknowing, unsure, and doing the best we can with what we have. And the good news is, that is what we are called to do and be.
As Jesus prepares to leave them, he raises his scarred hands up and blesses them, these people he loves so deeply, he looks in their eyes and searches their faces, his friends, and I wonder if they have any idea in that moment what they are witnessing? Do they have any inkling what they are receiving without realizing it, what they are sending and how they’ve impacted him?
Now I am going back to the heart of the Father, I am returning to the source of love, having loved you and been loved by you, and I take with me all this fish-eating, fear-sharing, flesh-bearing life, I take with me all the tears and the bruises and the breathing and the living and the laughing with each other and the suffering alongside one another and the pleasure of life that we have shared together – it all goes with me into God.
Talk about redemption. Talk about real life. It all matters now. Witness that!
And so they begin to. And as the story goes on it is never easy, never clear-cut or simple, it is messy and hard and confusing, and most of the time they don’t know what they are doing. But the Spirit is with them, and the Body of Christ continues to grow, continues to love, continues to turn stone to flesh and connect people to each other and bring healing and bring hope.
And it all begins in this crazy crazy moment.
In the Ascension, the Dead and Risen Jesus leaving them as he does, Christ says to us - Enough already – I can’t be killed, and death doesn’t get to win, and everything that is the human life is taken into God and held close to the Father’s heart. So let’s move the story forward. And the life continues in you. The love lives on in you. The very real and risen body of Christ is now found in all of you.
The ministry of God enfleshed - the healing and listening and loving and confronting and touching and seeing and opening eyes and unstopping ears and standing up for the lost and forgotten and not letting the powers that be get away with oppression and the blessing and all of it is now lived through you. And you don’t know how yet. And that’s ok. Cause even that wont be about you. My Spirit is coming. So hold on and watch out, the power of God is coming, the power of love will live through you.
And even though this chapter closes with the disciples left in total unknown and undefined waiting, they return to the temple and hang out celebrating. Because somewhere in the middle of it all – all the ungraspable, inexplicable things happening in front of them - it finally sunk in, at least a little bit, that this is God’s story, God’s world, God’s love that we get to share and live in and live out. God will do what God does, in us and through us. And we get to be witnesses.
So come to the table, you brave and beloved people, come break the bread and know our brokenness, come, drink the cup and know our thirst, and see that in being broken for us and poured out for us, the love of God fills us up to be the fullness of him who fills all in all.
May your hearts know the gratitude of belonging to the source of love. May your lives reach out in the fullness of being claimed by the source of love. May you know in the darkest moments that you are always and forever connected to, and one day will return to, the source of love.
And while we are here, in this fleeting and fading time we have on this earth, this little bitty blip of a life that each one of us is given, may we live and move and have our being in this source of love, so that our lives may reflect the truth that is real about us – that we are witnesses of this love to which we belong.
We are the brave and silly, living and dying witnesses of this love. And this is table our reminder. So come to the feast and be fed. Come to the feast and be filled. Come to the feast and find hope. Come and be blessed, you marvelous, wondering, disbelieving and joyful witnesses!