Based on Acts 1:1-11 | Ascension Sunday scripture
And old monk once told this story about life in the desert with just a few fellow monks. For any of us who love coffee, for whom the expression, “but first, coffee” rings true, this story will resonate:
“Coffee does me good down here in the desert…it helps me…I am old. I was worried about not having any, about spending a few hours feeling dull and weak, and so–without perceiving the evil I was doing–I went into the kitchen before the others and drank up all that was left. Afterwards, having suffered all day and made my confession, I thought in shame of my selfishness, of the ease with which I had excluded my two brothers from those black, bitter, remains. It seems a tiny thing, yet in that cup of coffee, taken and not shared with my brothers, is the root of all the evil which disturbs us, the poison of all the arrogance which selfishness, riches, and power create. The difference between me and Jesus is right here, in an affair that seems simple but isn’t at all: after a whole life time it is still there to make you think. Jesus would have left the coffee for his brothers; I excluded my brothers. No, it isn’t easy to live with hearts like ours: let us confess it.”
Carlo Corretto seems to be a bit hard on himself, don’t you think? He claims that taking the coffee for himself was the “root of all the evil which disturbs us.” He claims that his choice seems simple, like a small sin, but really isn’t simple at all. He states that this one action separates him from Jesus because Jesus would have left the coffee. That seems like a gross exaggeration!
So what’s the big deal?
In our scripture this morning, Jesus rebukes the disciples. He’s telling them about how they’ll receive the Holy Spirit in a similar way to how John had baptized him. After spending forty days together after the resurrection, Jesus’s words to them are to know that the great power of the Holy Spirit will soon be upon them.
To that, the disciples say, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, is this when you’ll finally set yourself up as king, remove the Romans from Palestine and make us an independent nation again? Will you restore the former glory we knew under Kings David and Solomon?
I chuckle a little bit because the disciples clearly still don’t get it, even after the resurrection, even after spending five weeks walking and talking with a dead man who came back to life; they still don’t get it. But I can say that because I have the hindsight provided by history; they do not. And so their question is understandable: won’t Jesus, now that he’s proven his special status by rising from the dead, won’t he now do what he wouldn’t do before: set them up as an independent nation again and rule over it by his own right?
Jesus, in characteristic fashion, rebukes them. He says, and I hear him say with some impatience in his voice, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” As if speaking to a petulant child, Jesus says that’s not for children to know. You need to focus on the work the Holy Spirit will empower: witness to me to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That must strike the disciples as odd. Witness to him? Why can’t he do that himself? He’s been around for these past five weeks, he ought to do that himself. But then he’s suddenly taken up, back to heaven, and two figures from heaven tell the disciples that he’s gone until he decides to come again. The disciples are suddenly, and decidedly, alone.
Imagine their shock. For us, this event is normal, even routine. We declare it every Sunday when we say the Apostle’s Creed: “he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” We’ll remember this moment later in the communion liturgy when we say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The ascension is normal for us.
But for the disciples, he’s suddenly gone. He’s not setting up Israel as a new kingdom. He’s not setting himself up as a King. He’s not doing anything at all. He’s left them with a promise that the Holy Spirit will come and give them power. And so, they’re left waiting.
On this Ascension Sunday, the day in the Christian calendar when we remember that Christ went back up to heaven, it’s worth asking what the big deal is. We don’t often speak of the Ascension; it’s doesn’t seem too key to our faith. Like taking the last of the coffee and not sharing, what’s the big deal about this particular event? What makes it worthy of being included in the Apostle’s Creed, inferred in the communion liturgy, and celebrated every year?
It’s worth asking, as we did with the coffee story, what’s the big deal?
In Grafton, West Virginia, at the Methodist Church there, a young woman named Anna Jarvis decided to honor the silent witness of her mother, Ann Jarvis, on the second Sunday of May in 1907. About fifty years prior, her mother had organized work days for mothers to come together to create sanitation, seeking to improve the living conditions of those affected by water-born illnesses and pollution. Her work, largely unnoticed outside of their small town, gave Anna the inspiration for both her own activism and to honor her mother, and indeed, all mothers, for the witness and inspiration they provide.
It was thus that Mother’s Day was born. The tradition begun on that Sunday in 1907 quickly caught on such that President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill, in 1914, declaring the second Sunday of May to be Mother’s Day across the country.
All this because of the small witness of one mother in her hometown. She saw a need and, empowered by her faith, she addressed that need.
For any of us who have mothers we respect, we can relate to this story. In small ways, the witness of these mothers has inspired our faith, provided the foundation for life, and instilled within us values we hold to this day. In the grand scheme of the world, individual mothers are small, seemingly insignificant. Their witness to their children seems small, indeed, compared with the world around us, for our mothers didn’t shape nations or give vision to entire states or provide guidance to entire regions, the way we celebrate many celebrities and heroes of our nation and world.
But where would many of us be without our mothers? And for those of us whose relationship with our mother is complicated, difficult, or nonexistent, the loss of having such a witness is palpable. Compared against the problems of the world, the witness of a mother seems small indeed; but in our hearts, that witness, or the lack thereof, is quite large.
On Mother’s Day, we’re all aware how much of an impact, for better or worse, our mothers have or had on us. They shape us, they mold us, they empower or disempower, they provide us with a sense of self. The witness of our mothers has a tremendous impact on who we are as individuals. Their little witness as made a big difference.
And it’s thus that mothers give us the answer to the big deal about the ascension. A little witnesses makes a big difference.
Such is the case here in Acts. Jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them that their duty is to go and be witnesses, beginning with their locale. Witnessing was to be a seemingly small affair, simply sharing with those they already knew through word and action the reality of faith in Jesus. And that’s exactly what the disciples did. When the Holy Spirit comes, they share with those who are nearby in word and action, in a few big ways and in many small ways.
Acts records them giving a big speech, but also records them living their lives, sharing property in common, worshipping together, drawing people one by one into their community. Luke suggests, early in Acts, that the biggest draw for new converts was the way the disciples lived their lives: simply, on purpose, worshipfully. Big speeches aside; their witness, composed of simply living their lives together through faith in Jesus, seems rather small.
But we know differently. We know that the witness they gave through how they lived their lives changed the world, for the gospel spread from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and around the world.
In this way, the disciples are like our mothers: their little witness makes a big difference.
That’s the big deal on this ascension Sunday. A little witness, things seemingly insignificant, carry great power because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
We often think that witnessing has to be some big, bold, thing, but the witness Jesus gives us in his words here doesn’t indicate that. He simply tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses first to their locale, Jerusalem, by the power of the Holy Spirit that will come to live within them.
And so it is with us. Witnessing begins in our locale of Eastman and Dodge County. Our witness begins at home in our hearts. That’s what Carlo Corretto, the monk at the beginning of our sermon who took the last of the coffee, reveals to us. It is, indeed, the root of all the evil which disturbs us because, when we choose to take small actions that are sinful, we reveal our heart and we witness to the evil intentions that live within us. His small selfish action of taking the last of the coffee is exactly what separates him from Jesus, for Jesus would never make a selfish choice, no matter how small it may seem.
Our little actions matter. Whatever we do in life, in our families, in our businesses, in our relationships, in our community leadership; in all the things we do in this life, our little actions matter. They matter not only because people are watching, but because the Holy Spirit uses our little actions to powerfully impact the lives of others. That’s what our mothers reveal to us this morning, that’s what those who have impacted our life reveal to us: the Holy Spirit takes our little actions and magnifies them.
That’s why our little actions here at home can make a world of difference.
We rightfully bemoan the immorality we see around our country and in the world. We rightly criticize our leaders when they act immorally, whether in their personal lives or in their leadership. We rightfully are concerned about the way the immorality we see around us can lead to our destruction. But what can we do about it? Ecclesiastes, as I preached it a few weeks ago, reminds us that we should be mindful of the things we’re capable of and leave the rest to God. Eat, drink, and be merry was the prescription, and that remains true today for we are limited in our power.
But we have power here in Eastman and Dodge County. We can make a difference in the lives of those who know us through the little actions we take, through the ways we live our lives, just as the disciples made a difference. We can make a difference by choosing to uphold the highest standards of the Christian life, including working hard to rid ourselves even of the seemingly small sins like taking the last of the coffee. If we all, as a church, acted in just this way, revival would begin and the gospel would spread like wildfire from our locale into Georgia and the United States and a round the world.
It would do so not because of our own limited power, but because the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us is limitless. What we need as a country, as a people, is to see the gospel spread again from a locale, moving outward in power. What if we decided that such a revival would begin in Eastman and Dodge County? What if we decided such a revival would start from this church?
What if we decided that we were all going to seek to become the people we most admire. My guess is that those you hold dear in your hearts are not celebrities, historical figures, or other big names. My guess is that those you hold dear in your hearts are sitting in this room, attend this church, live in this community; people like former teachers, mentors, and mothers. It’s those people, seemingly little people compared with the celebrities we know, who have had the biggest impact on your life because their witness is powerful. The way they live their lives and the way they conduct themselves has set the example for you.
Just like many of our mothers, they reveal to us the power of the witness of an individual. A little witness makes a big difference. And the same can be true of our witness, starting with our locale, for our witness relies not on our own limited power, but on the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Imagine with me if everyone in our community, or even if everyone in just our church, began to live lives that looked like those you admire. Imagine with me if your life looked like the witness of those you admire. Revival in our city, a revival that would catch this region on fire and spread outward from there, would be the result.
And if that sounds far flung, consider that this is just how the gospel began to spread from Jerusalem. We can see the same kind of results when we recognize that our little actions matter.
It matters if we encourage and say a kind word or if we demean and cut others down. It matters if we cheat, just a little, in our business dealings. It matters if we lie, even if its just a little, or obfuscate the truth, even if it’s just a little. It matters if we’re spending quality time with our families, if we’re making space for us as parents to invest in our children simply by being present. It matters if we’re coming to church on a regular basis or if we see it as more or less optional. It matters if we’re keeping up with spiritual disciplines that nourish us or if we’re frequently letting ourselves off the hook for not taking that time.
It matters because the Holy Spirit lives within us. We can either act in ways that are in line with our faith, giving the Holy Spirit the opportunity to do a powerful work through our actions, or we can act in ways that are contrary to our faith, squelching the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to move in power through us.
God has given us that freedom, a freedom seen in the ascension. When Jesus left, he gave us the responsibility to live out our faith, to be witnesses, especially through our little actions. Jesus left that role to us, which is why he rebukes the disciples. They were waiting on Jesus to act; Jesus told them it was now their turn to act.
So it is for us. It’s our turn. Will we act in the ways that give the Holy Spirit opportunity to dynamically change the world? Or will we squelch it by not attending to our faith, allowing ourselves the small sins in life, believing that they don’t matter.
They matter, for they can make a world of difference.
“God of love, help us remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the few with which he is to go about doing good.” Amen.