Red Balloons and Jesus’ Ascension: The Church Being (Re)born
During the years I was a stay at home mom, I taught my daughter Stephanie’s pre-school Sunday school class. For the lesson on the ascension of Jesus, I had a brilliant idea: Since pre-school children often learn by doing, I decided to act out the ascension story with them. First we read it in our picture bibles, and then I brought out a red helium filled balloon w a smiley face on it. I explained that the balloon was Jesus, and that we were going to be his disciples We would go outside and say goodbye. Probably any preschool teacher or any practical parent could have told me That at least one child would not like this scenario. What kid likes letting go of balloon and watching it float away? But these preschoolers were champs. They dutifully followed me outside, ready to wave goodbye. It was my own son, Joel, who didn’t like to go to Sunday school, and instead was a ‘helper’ for this class, Who did not like this scenario. As were tromping up the stairs to go outside, he began to complain, Mommy, we can’t let go of the balloon... As we gathered outside, Joel became louder, “No, Mommy, no!” I tried to shush him, but I had to direct my attention to the class. The preschoolers and I waved goodbye to Jesus and the red balloon sailed away, And there was Joel, pounding the ground and crying. I am grateful to Joel, because I learned a lesson that day—don’t let go of a balloon in Sunday school class. But I also began to think about something that hadn’t occurred to me: Perhaps a few of the disciples were crying at Jesus’ ascension. Luke says that after the ascension, the disciples worshiped Jesus and returned with joy to Jerusalem. And surely it must have been an awesome sight to see someone levitating into the sky. But think about it: The disciples had spent three years of their life following Jesus. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would bring political and religious freedom back to their people. They thought they had lost him when he was brutally executed But joy of joys, Jesus miraculously rose from the dead, and appeared to them off and on for 40 days. The presence of their resurrected Lord must have been such a comfort and strength to them, A sign that not all was lost, but instead that Jesus was returning to the plan. They ask, “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” But instead of finishing the plan, Jesus leaves. Just like that. I think I might have crying or shouting, or both. But the deal is that Jesus’ plan was much bigger than the disciples imagined. It wasn’t just about empowering Israel—Jesus was about empowering the whole world. Jesus said, “ 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
I imagine the disciples in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension, waiting as Jesus commanded,
Pondering his words.
They had a heard him talk about the Holy Spirit, and that it would come to them.
But how could they have known what this meant?
Jesus was talking about a transfer of leadership from Jesus to the people themselves
Which would not become apparent until the day of Pentecost.
The spirit of Jesus would move from his person to all people in the gift of the Holy Spirit
And as such it would be an empowerment of all believers, not one leader or the chosen few.
It was going to be a new way to organize, and new way to live.
The church was being born, and a whole new way of being the people of God was coming into being.
In the past weeks, the Council, Call Committee, and Adult Forum have been studying a paper
written by our bishop, Jim Hazelwood, these early Christian days.
It’s entitled “The Church Is Being Reborn,” http://bishop.nesynod.org/goingforward.pdf
and it reflects on the possibility that something new is going on right now.
The bishop outlines changes that the church at large is undergoing, across denominations.
You are probably aware of the some changes, simply from your own friends and family:
Fewer people are affiliating with churches, and active members worship less frequently than the past.
This means a contraction of church organizations and the reinvention of what it means to be church.
Let me be clear about two things: this doesn’t mean that Church is going away—
the Church of Christ is Jesus’ body here on earth and is eternal.
The second thing is this: just like the Holy Spirit transformed a bunch of Jewish disciples into the church
The Holy Spirit is actively working to transform us and our institutions which bear Jesus’ name.
That means the changes we see around us are not necessarily antithetical to God’s work—
In fact, I’ve talked before about church historians see patterns of formation, growth, and decline
in the dominant models of church over the centuries.
Each time the church changes model, say from Jewish synagogue to house church,
the house church to the cathedral, the cathedral to the monastery, or the monastery to the local congregation,
The Spirit reaches new people and gives new gifts.
The deal is that like the disciples after the ascension, we don’t know what ‘the church reborn’ will look like.
We are pretty sure from present experience that the form of church we are most used to--
an organization with a building and full time pastor
supported financially by the local congregation is likely to be the exceptional model, not the norm.
What will the new norm be?
The Bishop’s paper gives a few glimpses at possibilities, including
church-on-the-move rather than church-in-a-building
Spirit-led ways of reaching people through technologies like social media and the web
A new economic model of creative partnerships between churches, for profits, or nonprofits that take
advantages of synergies of talent, space, and mission.
It can frankly be a little jarring to consider the possibilities.
When faced with such deep change, we may have excitement and awe
But we are also likely to feel a bit lost. Sad. Maybe even a little fearful.
We wonder: How are we going hold onto what we treasure?
What does it all mean?
And this is where in my view is where we can learn from the disciples in our lesson today.
We are in an in between time, when we are not yet certain of the shape things.
Because Christians have been over this territory before.
If you read on in Luke after the ascension, you see that the disciples, including women disciples,
Gathered together daily for support and guidance.
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer,” Luke says.
Prayer is the key ingredient to faithfulness in times of change.
It’s what helps the community discern which changes are of God, and which are not.
Like the disciples, we have the promise of Jesus:
“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.”
This promise contains a glimpse of the radical scope of God’s plan.
The disciples were beginning to understand that It wasn’t enough
for Jesus to liberate the Jewish people from the Romans.
It wasn’t enough for his resurrection to be salvation for a few.
God’s plan was to include everyone to the ends of the earth.
Likewise, we too are beginning to conceive how broad God’s vision is.
We are beginning to have a holy imagination about how to invite the whole world into relationship with the God
who loves them already and has revealed that love to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The bishop’s paper is worth a read. You can pick up a copy of the URL on the usher’s table;
For those of you without web access, I have also made copies, also on the usher’s table.
I hope you will read the paper, come to the Forum Pr Bill is leading on it, discuss it with others.
This paper is meant to initiate a synodwide conversation—I earnestly invite you to join in.
But be warned: the first time I encountered these ideas, I was sad.
I was formed and nourished by a model of church that is in many places is dwindling or passing away.
Sometimes I feel like the kid pounding the ground, wishing it weren’t so.
But I have to say, now I am excited.
Excited to read about new ways to leverage technology for confirmation class.
Excited to learn about congregations sharing spiritual autobiographies and partnering with nonprofits.
Eager to experiment with you about how we can better connect with the younger generations right in the towns
in which we live, and in our own families.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus.
He left to make his presence available in a new way.
The Spirit continues to challenge us to grow more fully into being the Church of Christ.
Our job in this in between time is to gather as a community.
To support one another and seek the direction of the Holy Spirit together.
And most of all, to remind one another that God is faithful.
The changes we feel today are a sign that the Spirit is alive and well,
Forming and reforming
Making all things new.