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. The old monk says:
“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.”
Carlo Carretto, the monk sharing this story, 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 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. And it comes with a stern rebuke.
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s the story of the ascension, found in Acts chapter 1.
What’s the big deal?
The disciples will receive the power of Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus would always be with 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?
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. 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 and surprisingly 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 at our late service when we say the Apostle’s Creed: “he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…” 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.
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, usually in May?
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 sanitary water; 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.
Mothers, for good or ill, 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 makes a big difference.
And it’s thus that mothers give us the answer to the question: what’s the big deal?
What’s the big deal of the ascension? What’s the big deal of taking the last of the coffee?
The answer? A little witness 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, 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 says, early in Acts, that the biggest draw for new converts was the way the disciples lived their lives: simply, on purpose, worshipfully. Their witnessing was often small. But a little witness makes a big difference.
And that is a big deal. The witness of Jesus Christ spread to every corner of the globe because of the small witnessing efforts of these eleven disciples who watched Jesus ascend to heaven.
A little witness makes a big difference.
That’s the big deal about the monk’s coffee, too. A little witness against Christ, a little sinful action that witnesses to evil instead of good, though seemingly insignificant makes a big difference.
Which can only mean this: the little things we do matter. The little things we do witness to the presence of Christ in our lives or witness to sin and evil in our lives.
And those little things influence the people around us, especially the people who know us well and the people who respect us; just like mothers with their influence on their children.
A little witness makes a big difference.
So this morning, with courage, let us ask ourselves: what does your witness reveal? The presence of sin and evil, like our monk? Or the presence of Christ, like so many mothers?
Our witness begins at home in our hearts. That’s what our monk, Carlo Carretto, 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 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.
We want our witness to be to Christ, to make a positive difference in the world. We want our actions to reveal the presence of Christ in our lives. And to do that, to ensure that our witness is of Christ who lives within us, to make the difference in the world that we all want to make, we must attend to our faith.
Because a little witness makes a big difference.
It’s been easy during the pandemic to let our disciplines go. News reports tell us that many of us have gained weight, having let discipline with food choices go. Those same reports tell us that many of us are out of shape, having let exercise go. And like diet and exercise, faith is a discipline. Attending to our faith requires discipline. It requires that we are intentional about praying, about spending time with God. Faith also requires that we are intentional and disciplined about church attendance.
The disciples were constantly together in community. They did not go it alone. They needed each other for mutual encouragement when life got hard. They needed each other to help each other discern how God was calling them. They needed each other to help sharpen their faith and keep them focused and disciplined.
So it is for us today. We need each other in the church environment. Our children need the instruction that comes through Sunday School. For all the good we accomplished while the church was closed, we never could adequately replicate that experience for our children. We adults need that discipling too; we need to be together in community, sharpened by each other as we fellowship together as Christians. And we need instruction, too, like we receive in Sunday school and small groups.
That’s why we need to be together as a church for when we are together as a church, disciplined in our faith, our witness to Christ, through our little actions, make a positive difference. We become forces for good in our homes, in our schools, in our community leadership, at the gas station, at Walmart, in the restaurants, because our little actions will bear witness to Christ.
A little witness makes a big difference. And like diet and exercise, the only way to stay fit in our witness of Christ to the world, through those little actions, is to stay disciplined in our faith through prayer and church attendance.
What does your witness reveal? The presence of sin? Or of Christ within you?
Let us decide this morning to become the people we most admire; people like so many of our mothers. 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 our life because their witness is powerful. The way they live their lives and the way they conduct themselves has set the example for you. Their little witness has made a big difference.
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.
So let us decide this morning to become like the people we most admire. We become those people we admire when we are disciplined in our faith, focused on prayer and attending church as a family. We become powerful witnesses to Jesus’s transformative power in our lives. And through our witness, just like through the disciples, the world around us is changed.
A little witness makes a big difference.
What does your witness reveal?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.