Manassas Presbyterian Church (MPC)
“Embracing All People”
May 29, 2022
Ascension of the Lord
When Joseph and I lived in Florida, about 3 ½ hours from Florida’s Space Coast. People in our area would sometimes buy tickets to watch a rocket launch from the Space Center. The next launch is coming up soon, on June 9, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch a Dragon 2 spacecraft on a mission to take supplies to the International Space Station.
I am not a rocket scientist, but according to the SpaceX website, the Falcon 9 rocket has 9 engines with a thrust greater than five 747s at full power.1
I watched a news clip showing a Falcon 9 rocket lifting off with a magnificent display of power, blasting away from earth with a huge roar and a massive billow of cloud and flame. Crowds of people watching had hands clamped over their ears, heads raised to the sky, enthralled at the amazing scene.
I don’t know what that the Ascension of Jesus into heaven was like, but reading about the crowd staring up into heaven, I have to imagine it evoked that same kind of awe, of amazement, a spine-tingling, skin-prickling sensation of seeing something you don’t really understand; the awareness that you are in the presence of an incredible power beyond anything you’ve experienced before.
Before Jesus’ ascension, he gave his disciples his final instructions, his last command: “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Today is the final sermon in our series on “Being a Welcoming Church,” and every week we have broadened our perspective on what it means to be welcoming. The first week, the passage about two people meeting Jesus on the Emmaus Road showed us how we meet Jesus when we welcome the stranger. The second week, in Jesus’ command to love one another, we saw how our making people feel welcome in worship and our actions of service and hospitality help people experience God’s love. Last week, Gene’s wonderful message on Matthew 25 called us to think about our ministries of outreach to the community, and how we see Jesus when we care for the least of these. This morning, on Ascension Sunday, our vision of welcome is expanded beyond our worship, beyond our church walls, beyond our ministries in the community, to encompass all the world. We are to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, to witness to the world-wide welcome of God’s embrace, to the ends of the earth.
Our lectionary passages this morning recount Christ’s Ascension from the perspective of Luke, first in the gospel, then in his companion volume, the book of Acts. Both accounts tell us that the Risen Lord was preparing the disciples to continue his work. Jesus told them that through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they would have power to do even greater things that he had done. The incarnate Christ, living in human form, had been limited to a particular time and place. But the risen Christ would be present in all times and in all places through Christ’s people. And so the work would spread, not just in the small area where Jesus had lived and walked as a human, but beyond, throughout the entire region and to the ends of the earth.
The disciples were amazed, confused, filled with awe at seeing Jesus’ glory in ascending to heaven. And then the heavenly messengers appeared and said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” So they turned their gaze away from the skies and got to down to business. After the Holy Spirit came to them on Pentecost, they went out as witnesses to Jesus—preaching, teaching, healing, sharing the good news. In Jerusalem. Across Judea. Throughout the Middle East, and beyond.
Their lives had been powerfully changed because they had met the living the Lord, had experienced love and grace, had found a life and a truth they never knew before. They kept witnessing to the truth of the gospel, and more and more lives were changed, until by 312 AD, one in ten people in the Roman world called themselves Christians.
Like the first disciples, we are given the same call: to be Jesus’ witnesses, to the ends of the earth. And yet, how often, instead of going out like those first disciples did, do we just stand around staring into heaven? You’ve probably heard the criticism leveled at some Christians, that they are “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” Are we so focused on our own piety, on looking religious, and preserving the institution of the church, that we have forgotten our mission? Do we become too engrossed with our own wants and needs, using the church as a social club, rather than a vehicle for witness and mission?
This passage compels us to bear witness to the living Christ, to share the good news of what he has done in our lives, to tell the world about the love of God. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth.” To the ends of the earth.
There is no question that the world needs the good news of God’s love. The events of the past week have left us heartbroken. We grapple with how someone could perpetrate such unspeakable evil. In the midst of our grief, God’s Spirit is calling us to action. We who are God’s people have work to do in a wounded world, work to bring healing, to bring hope, to bring purpose and direction.
I am reminded of the story of the man who was railing against God, shouting, “God, how could you let people be hungry and homeless, how could you allow innocent children to suffer?” And God turned to the man and said, “My son, that is the question I would ask of you.”
We who are God’s people are called to carry out the work of Christ in the world.
There is no better time than this Memorial Day weekend to remember and reclaim Jesus’ mandate to witness. As we give thanks for those who gave their lives to give us the wonderful nation we have today, we should never take their sacrifices for granted. We in this country are so privileged. We have a level of wealth, security, and resources unheard of around much of the globe. Our freedom of worship and freedom of speech are both great gifts and great responsibilities. Of those who have been given much, much is required. Are we using these gifts to the fullest? Are we using our gift of free speech to proclaim the good news? In many other countries, people can’t speak openly about their faith, but must whisper the truth, hide their prayers, smuggle their Bibles. In other countries, they can’t worship openly, but must hide, in dark rooms and basements and forest glades. Do we realize what an amazing thing it is to be able to worship freely? Are we doing enough to share this hard-won gift, this joy, this privilege, with others?
You have heard before the statistics about the “none’s” ---N-O-N-E-S; those who are atheist, agnostic, or who have no religion are the fastest growing group in the U.S. But I read something in a Washington Post article that really surprised me. Do you know what group is responsible for the greatest growth of Christianity in the United States? Immigrants. Of the people born in another country who immigrated here, 74 percent of those immigrants are Christian.2
In years gone by, missionaries from the U.S. and Great Britain and Europe went around the world to share the good news. That mission work bore fruit, and today, Christianity is growing and thriving in those countries. Presbyterian missionaries went to Brazil, and now the Presbyterian Church in Brazil is 160 years old, and there are about the same number of Presbyterians in that country as there are in the U.S. You may know that Presbyterian mission work in Korea began in the late 1800s.3 Today there are more Presbyterians in South Korea than in the United States---between 9 and 10 million Presbyterians4 there compared to under 1.2 million here.5
According to that article in The Washington Post, Christianity is growing exponentially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The article said that in Africa, “Over the past 100 years, Christians grew from less than 10 percent of [the] population to nearly 500 million people today. One out of four Christians in the world presently is in Africa, and the Pew Research Center estimates that will grow to 40 percent by 2030. . . Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is expected to grow to 460 million by 2025.”6
Many of those people now are coming here, bringing their faith with them, effectively becoming missionaries here! We see that in our own church! We are blessed with church members from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Asia, Latin America---all over the world!
We are enriched by the faith of our sisters and brothers, and inspired by their perseverance despite some great challenges. How can we build on the work of those who have gone before us, those faithful folks who left home and country to take the good news to the ends of the earth? In our particular context, here in Northern Virginia, we don’t have to leave home to welcome the world. The world has come to us. Every week, people come into our church for BEACON English language, literacy and citizenship classes. They are from more than 40 different countries and speak 24 different languages!
One morning, as I standing in the narthex greeting Early Learning Center kids arriving for school, a young woman who was a BEACON student came by and asked if there were a place where she could pray. I took her into the sanctuary, and as we were talking, she told me that she is a Christian. She wanted to tell me what kind of Christian, but she didn’t know the English word, so she took out her phone and searched and then showed me the screen: “Here it is!” She said. “P-R-E-S-B-Y...” Yes! She is Presbyterian! She attends a Korean speaking Presbyterian church, but every day that she has BEACON class, she comes here early to pray.
One day as our Prayer Shawl knitting group was meeting, they heard a knock on the door near their meeting room. It was a man looking for information about how to sign up for BEACON. One of the ladies took him to the church office, helped him get the information, and then gave him a tour. She invited him to come for worship, and he did, and he has shared very openly with folks that he had never been in a church before coming here. I am thankful that he is here with us.
Our support of BEACON is a wonderful opportunity to welcome and witness, but right now, we have only one church member actively volunteering with BEACON. There are now 400 students, more than ever before, and the need continues to grow. Won’t you consider whether God might be calling you to volunteer? You don’t have to have experience, you don’t have to speak another language, and training is provided. There are opportunities not only to teach, but also to be an onsite person right here in our church, to staff the door as students arrive, welcome them and give them their BEACON lanyards. I would be happy to talk with you about volunteering, or you can go to the website—beaconliteracy.org—to learn more.
There are things we can do every day to witness to God’s love. When you hear people asking questions about God, wrestling with current events, seeking guidance and hope, be a listening ear, a supportive hand. Share about how God has helped you in your life. Reach out to your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and invite them to come to worship! Vacation Bible School is coming up; invite them to bring their children! The world is literally on our doorstep. How will we welcome them and witness in the name of Jesus?
The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright told the old story of the great opera-writer, Puccini, “who died suddenly before he had a chance to finish his opera, Turandot. One of his fellow-composers, Franco Alfano, wrote two final scenes that completed the story. When the opera premiered at Milan’s La Scala opera house in 1926, the famous Arturo Toscanini was the conductor.”
Wright shared, “Toscanini got to the place where Puccini had left off, and then he stopped the performance. With tears in his eyes, he turned to the audience and announced: ‘This is where the master ends.’ Then he raised his baton once again and declared, ‘This is where his friends continue.’ And he concluded the performance.”7
On this Ascension Sunday, we remember that when Christ ascended into heaven, he left the church to continue his work. We pick up where he left off, and filled with his Spirit, we are empowered to share God’s transforming power with a world that needs it. So let us follow the words of our Lord: “You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth.” Amen and amen.
- SpaceX.com, SpaceCoastLaunches.com.
- Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “Think Christianity is dying? No, Christianity is shifting dramatically,” Washington Post, May 20, 2015.
- Phillip Connor, “6 Facts about South Korea’s Growing Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, August 12, 2014. Web.
- PCUSA Church Trends and Statistics, pcusa.org.
- Granberg-Michaelson, Ibid.
- N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (IVP Books, 1999), printed in Homiletics.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church