Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Thinking Cosmically and Acting Locally
A cat was once chasing a mouse. The mouse ran into a hole in the wall, just escaping the claws of the cat. Everything was quiet for a while. Then the mouse heard the sound of a dog barking. “Woof, woof!” And then nothing. Assuming the dog had chased the cat away, the mouse popped out of the hole, and the cat pounced on it. As the cat swallowed the mouse, it was heard to say, “It pays to be bilingual.”
This is true. You’re handicapped in this world if you aren’t bilingual. Being bilingual also helps in reading the Bible. A lot of us have trouble with the Bible because we hear it with 21st century ears, not 1st century ears.
Take the story of the Ascension, for instance. To our ears, the Ascension story sounds like highly doubtful aeronautics, or astrophysics, or something like that. It sounds like somebody is being transported into space – which makes no sense given what we know about the laws that run the universe. That’s especially true of the description we just heard in Luke, in which Jesus went up a hill, outside Jerusalem, a primitive launching site, where he lifted up his hands in blessing over the disciples, and was propelled into heaven. The disciples gathered around, looking up, watching Jesus get smaller and smaller until he disappears.
To see it that way is to pose the Ascension as a scientific absurdity, an affront to our intelligence. That’s the way it generally comes across in our time
Which is why you need to be bilingual. In the 1st century, the story was heard differently. It wasn’t a physical miracle – certainly not aeronautics – it was a political manifesto.
Listen again to the Ephesians passage. I’ll pick it up in the middle, where it says God has raised Jesus “…from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things…”
That’s the Ascension. It says Jesus is now Lord over all things. Which is to say, Caesar isn’t. To make such a statement in the Roman Empire was an act of political courage, with terrible consequences.
* * * *
In the second century, a bishop of the Church named Polycarp was arrested on charges of treason. This happened in 156 A.D. in Asia Minor. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. The charge against him was that he dared to declare not only that Jesus Christ is Lord but also that the Emperor was not. Polycarp was found guilty, and burned at the stake.
The man who sentenced him was named Statius Quadratus, Proconsul for the Empire in Asia Minor. When Statius Quadratus asked Polycarp, “Will you renounce your faith in Jesus?” he replied, “For all these years Jesus has never abandoned me, and I will not abandon him now.” After his death the Christians in Smyrna posted this: “Statius Quadratus, Proconsul of Rome; Jesus Christ, King Forever.”
Now, the Church didn’t rush into martyrdom. They tried to accommodate themselves to the world around them. That’s the message you get when you read the letters in the back of the New Testament, including the Letter to the Ephesians. The letters say, Be good citizens. Don’t cause trouble. Obey those who are in power. Unfortunately, you find passages that add specifically, Wives, obey your husbands, and, Slaves, obey your masters. They didn’t want to make changes. Didn’t want to upset things.
But the fact was they were upsetting things. Maybe that’s why the accommodating advice was given. They were upsetting things – because if Jesus is my Lord, then Caesar isn’t. And neither is some oppressive husband who lords it over me. Nor any slaveholder. To say “Jesus is Lord” has political and social implications. If Jesus is Lord, then I am slave to nobody. I am free, a person of dignity.
So why this advice to the churches to be obedient to the powers that be? It’s probably because they believed Jesus was coming soon to change all these things. He’ll change them, so for now, just hang in there. Put up with oppression. Come to church. Where you’ll be treated the way Jesus wants you to be treated. But outside in the world, be patient. It won’t be much longer now.
But by Polycarp’s time, the second century – in fact, before that – they began to say, Maybe, maybe, Jesus is not coming right away. Maybe what we are waiting for him to come and do, he is waiting for us to do.
If Jesus is Lord… he is at the right hand of God, “above all rule and authority and power and dominion… above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet…” If that is the case, then the world has to change and look like Jesus is Lord.
It took a while for the Church to understand this. Maybe they asked themselves, Why all this power ascribed to him? He doesn’t need all that power to solve the problems in my life. All that power must be for something bigger and greater in this world. He’s been given power over everything that is, so that everything that is will be his. And we are the Church over which he is Lord, so we are supposed to do the changing in his name. We need to do something to make this world look more like he is Lord.
In other words, “Think cosmically… act locally.” That’s what the Ascension means. Think of Jesus as Lord of the universe, the cosmos, with all authority, all dominion belonging to him. Think on that. And then, act on that.
So, what would it look like if we acted on that?
In churches I have served, I have sometimes asked prospective new members, What in the world especially grieves us, brings us pain? What do you want to change? And they have talked about homelessness and poverty, racism, hunger, the abuse and neglect of children, environmental degradation. And we’d stay with it, asking how together we might address one or more of these challenges. I’ve seen some remarkable initiatives have come out of such conversations: a transitional homeless shelter for women and children in Tucson, an inter-racial, inter-religious community organization in Cleveland, a computer recycling project for low income people in Ames.
Some of you have found ways to act effectively in this community. The Gleaning Project with the Deerfield Farmers Market is an ongoing effort. But what else? What now? Especially, as in a time of transition we are wondering, What that is special might we be – become – in and for this community? What might it mean – in this time, in our time and place – to follow the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
* * * *
Today’s epistle lesson was written to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus is a Greek city on the Mediterranean. It was the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis. She was the goddess of fertility, the goddess of agriculture. A cult grew up around her temple in Ephesus, where thousands of people would come to worship. The city of Ephesus thrived because of the tourist trade.
The Apostle Paul came to Ephesus. He came, preaching that Jesus Christ is Lord. And people began to change. They said, If Jesus Christ is Lord, then Artemis is not. The business leaders saw Paul as a threat. They denounced him, and organized a riot to kill him. Although he escaped.
In the Book of Acts, chapter 19, there’s a humorous story about some sorcerers and exorcists in Ephesus who saw Paul at work and admired the power he seemed to have. They wanted it for themselves. So they used Paul’s name to exorcise a demon. They said, “In the name of Jesus, and in the name of Paul, come out!” The demon looked at the sorcerers incredulously, and said, “Jesus I know. Paul I know. But who are you?”
Meaning what? – as we try to be bilingual. Meaning that evil powers know who is stronger than they are, who can do them in. Which is why, in the Gospels, the stories about Jesus, all the demons recognize him. Jesus they know. And Paul they know. But who are you?
In this town, in this region, who are you? Who knows you? Who fears you? Who is concerned that you might do something that would change things? Who knows, or even cares, that this church is here? Who wonders about what would happen if those Christians would ever start thinking cosmically, and act locally?
With thanks to Fred Craddock and Mark Trotter
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.