Early Church History (Acts)

Day of Adoption

It is Pentecost Sunday, and we of course should not gather on this day without hearing the story of the Holy Spirit falling upon a small group of Christ’s followers, birthing our Savior’s church in the process.

The Spirit’s falling that day had immediate, obvious effects, of course. There was an ongoing miracle, the miracle that Christ’s followers could declare him Lord and Savior regardless of the language spoken by the audience. The Spirit also filled Peter so he could preach the first full, great Christian sermon. If you keep reading in Acts, you hear much of that sermon, and you see the results—more than 3,000 in the crowd accepted Jesus as Savior that day.

With that story in mind, I want us to continue our Romans series, where Paul talks about life in the Spirit. What he writes illuminates what we celebrate today and hope to live out every day. We’re going to work our way through our Romans text, Romans 8:15-30, a little at a time.

It begins:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.

My brother and his wife adopted a boy from Haiti a few years ago. They were in relationship with the boy well before the adoption; Chad met the boy we now call Nathaniel while doing medical missionary work in Haiti. Chad and his family continued to visit him and remain in contact with him in other ways while the long adoption process proceeded.

The day the Haitian judge signed the papers changed everything, though. Nathaniel had a new home, one very different from the little orphanage where he lived. He even had a new language to learn. And he had two new people to call Mom and Dad.

The nature of the relationship had changed dramatically. Think of the Christian Pentecost this way: It marks the day of adoption for all believers. Our relationship with God changes because of the Spirit’s very active presence in our lives. We are now on affectionate, familial terms with God as we experience him as the Holy Spirit.

It is not just a matter of knowing by way of creeds and Scripture we are saved. We are now so close to God that the Holy Spirit can whisper directly to our spirits, giving us assurances of salvation. We have been taken into a new home, and the good, perfect Father draws us close and says, “You are mine, and all will be well.”

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

This can be troubling. No one likes to suffer. We are part of a new family now, though. Holy families stick together and work together. There is work to be done in a broken world, one where sin and death still have a lingering hold, causing continuing suffering.

Our older brother in the family, Jesus Christ, suffered mightily in this work to defeat sin and restore all things. We know his death on the cross is enough to restore us to God in full! His resurrection proves it!

We also know his work will be made complete—the astonishing thing is we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are invited to play a role in this family business.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Have you seen those ads on the internet that say, “This will make your jaw drop!” The ads are never for anything very exciting, but this text, properly understood, should make your jaw drop. It asserts something rare in Scripture.

Creation—not just human beings, but all things made, the animals, the grass, the oceans, the stars, everything—longs for the completion of Christ’s work. Everything is broken; everything is suffering because of human sin.

Restored by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted into a powerful task. As we let the Holy Spirit move us toward the time of full renewal, the world is literally watching, straining toward the day of remaking and resurrection.

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

Do you believe the promise and trust the promise enough to feel the longing Paul describes?

Oh, for that day of resurrection renewal to come! Oh, to see the glory we know we have been granted as children of God! The idea is so powerful, so beautiful, that we can find ourselves at a loss regarding how to pray for such a thing.

But it’s okay. The Spirit senses our longings, and when we let him, he can plead our emotions and desires to God when we cannot put them into words.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

Sometimes these ideas get abused. People read “God causes everything to work together for the good” and interpret it to mean God makes evil occur so some good can come of it later. That is not what Paul means.

Instead, Paul is saying God will take the results of sin and use even the worst horrors to the benefit of the kingdom. That must drive Satan crazy. Can you hear him complaining? “Every time I think I’ve got those humans whipped and beaten, God comes along and turns my work against me.”

Our dear Father, Abba, wins, and through the work of our dear older brother, we as co-heirs in the family win. The horror of the cross has turned into resurrection glory. The terrible things we see and suffer will dissolve into glory one day, too; they will be completely reversed, undone, and every tear will be wiped away.

That is the promise the Holy Spirit whispers to us every day as we work with his guidance and strength in us.

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

The Returning Fire

Acts 2:1-21

Fire dancing on the heads of the first Christians—that’s the primary image I get from Pentecost. It was not a burning fire, however. It was a spiritual fire entering them. Jesus sent them fire for their bellies.

And did it ever work. A people who had moved from cowering in fear to quietly praying and waiting suddenly ran into the streets declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Crowds gathered; Peter preached. Three thousand new believers came to Christ that day.

Would you like to see something like that happen today? Would you like to see a returning fire in the bellies of American Christians? Would you like to have to figure out how to handle dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new Christians in our community all at once? (Yes, there are ways to organize for such events.)

Lord knows, we need such an awakening. I suspect the Lord simply waits on us to let it happen once again.

What led to that astonishing moment remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see how we can open ourselves to a new, fiery experience of the Holy Spirit.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Stop cowering in fear. Like Jesus’ earliest followers, you’ve had some experience of the resurrection. Yeah, you didn’t see the risen Christ or see him ascend into heaven, but something brings you here. Some experience of Christ in your life, some sense of connection via the Holy Spirit, draws you.

As I said before, Jesus’ followers trusted their experiences, let fear go and began praying. What would happen to us if we went to praying, alone and in groups? I don’t just mean on Sunday, with congregants lifting up names and situations and the pastor saying words. I mean praying in our homes, in our workplaces, morning, noon and night, until we find ourselves living in a continuous state of prayer.

Something will happen. Something will happen. Of that, I have no doubt. New convictions and new gifts from the Spirit will come. At that point, we would be truly different from the world and even from most of the churches around us.

From there, the model is kindergarten simple, as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

With the returning fire visibly working among us, Christian show and tell should become easy. We naturally will show more love, grace and forgiveness. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by simply seeing actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what we have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw in the believers; some will always sneer. Peter used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.

Prayer. Show and tell. Let’s try it. We will see the fire return again and again.

How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?

With Us in the Last Days

Acts 2:1-21

The most immediate and personal expression of God usually is the most difficult for us to comprehend.

For many Christians, the first story that comes to mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the one we celebrate at Pentecost, the falling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. While the Pentecost story found in Acts 2 is powerful, I have wondered if its mysterious tone contributes to the confusion even longtime Christians sometimes experience.

The Spirit rushed in like wind and danced like fire on about 120 of Jesus’ followers. They began to speak loudly in languages they did not previously know, attracting a crowd, some of whom accused them of being drunk.

In other words, the Spirit caused them to behave in a way that made people stare.

That can make people who don’t like to be stared at a little uncomfortable with the idea of encountering the Holy Spirit directly. Open yourself to the Spirit, and hey, the next thing you know, you might be speaking in tongues. (Speaking in tongues is biblical, by the way, although the gift should be used with limitations; see 1 Corinthians 14.)

It helps me to spend time studying what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s purpose in John’s gospel, specifically, in chapters 15 and 16. It is a purpose designed for the last days, the era between the Spirit’s arrival and the return of Christ, the era we live in now.

Working through us, the Holy Spirit accomplishes three particular tasks, laid out in John 16:8-11.

Task no. 1 is to provide a clear definition of sin. In this new era, all sin is rooted in the failure to fully declare in our hearts and with our mouths that Jesus is our savior. When we do this—when we humble ourselves enough to say we are dependent on God and cannot save ourselves through strength, intellect, wealth or power—we open ourselves to discerning what is and is not God’s will.

For most Christians, even devoted ones, it remains an imperfect understanding, of course. So many aspects of our broken humanity, in particular our emotions, still get in the way. That is why Scripture remains so important to us, even with the Spirit at work in us. We know God is unchanging, and that thoughts and feelings we experience cannot be from God if they conflict with clear scriptural teachings. We are blessed in the last days with dual revelations co-witnessing to Christ, one written for our eyes and one whispered to our spirits.

Task no. 2 is to declare to the world that Jesus is right in what he taught and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit. Now, it is not politically correct these days to declare anyone right. “Tolerant” has replaced “righteous” as the secular description of an upstanding member of the community. But guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to share with the world the definition for righteousness, as provided by God. Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, is the shining example of righteousness.

This is not as harsh a task as it might sound. The word “righteous” can have such negative connotations. But remember, from a Christian perspective, righteousness is best defined as loving God completely while at the same time loving other people as we want to be loved. We obey God, but a big part of that obedience is loving and forgiving people who are difficult to love, even when their sin touches us negatively in some way.

Task no. 3 is to declare that judgment already has come and remains under way. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that his work to break the power of evil in this world is complete. As terrible and messy as it can be at times, our fight with evil is now a mop-up operation. The evil spiritual forces opposing God know they have been defeated because God’s Spirit is visible to them in the world.

Note that all of this involves our active participation. God wants us to play a part, in the process growing into the beings he intended us to be. Trusting the Holy Spirit, we are a people who are working to expand Christ’s kingdom and waiting for Christ’s return.

We may have other work we do to get by, along the lines of Paul continuing to make tents while in Corinth, but service to God’s kingdom is our primary reason to exist. Anything we put ahead of that responsibility likely is an idol.

Let me add something important: It is glorious work. If you seek meaning in life, know that the moments you walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to serve God’s kingdom will be your best moments. We can even make what should have been otherwise mundane moments shine with the glory of God, if only we learn to constantly look for opportunities to let the Holy Spirit work through us.

Hear again the mystery in Peter’s words as he speaks of people working in conjunction with the Holy Spirit in these last days:

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

If you want a life that is more than what you feel you have now—if you want a life that transcends a normal life—engage fully with God’s Spirit. He is available to you always through prayer and meditation, in the sacraments, through Scripture, and in all those other places God has promised to meet you.

A Temporary Goodbye

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.

Many of us who are Methodists make this statement every Sunday as part of the Apostles’ Creed. This declaration of the importance of “the ascension” seems to flow naturally from our affirmations that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead.

In conversations with fellow churchgoers, however, it sometimes seems the ascension is more tightly wrapped in mystery than the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection. (Not that we can fully grasp those two astonishing ideas!)

As best we can, we want to understand all three ideas—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—so we can see how they work together to make salvation possible.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what ascends, what is carried “up.”

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

When explaining all this to Luke, Jesus’ followers were trying to describe something almost incomprehensible, the visible crossing of Christ from one plane of existence to the next. They struggled for words as children sometimes struggle when confronted with a new idea.

A couple of years ago, at the funeral of my wife’s aunt, the preacher had a unique habit of kneeling whenever he prayed, even if he was standing behind the pulpit. At one point as he kneeled to pray, disappearing like a puppet behind a box, a three-year-old girl asked loudly, “Where’d he go?” I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers uttered a similar phrase in Aramaic as the Christ vanished from sight in such a mysterious way.

The point of the account as described by Luke is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.

So, why does it matter that Jesus ascended into heaven? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God in heaven, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

We’re also to understand that Christ’s return, perhaps to occur while we are all alive, will be a real, physical event, a moment when God-in-flesh will once again stand within his creation and claim it as his own.

I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.

A Curse Reversed

Mark 16:1-8

Many scholars think the original version of the Gospel of Mark ends with its three women witnesses to the resurrection fleeing from the empty tomb. “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the closing line reads.

Yes, in all of our Bibles, there is more there in Mark, brief accounts of Christ’s resurrection appearances, his instructions and even his ascension. You don’t have to be an expert, however, to see how the writing seems different, how everything beyond verse 8 feels added on in some way. Indeed, the extra material cannot be found in most of the oldest manuscripts, and most good translations today mark “for they were afraid” as the original ending of Mark.

It makes for a relatively bleak Easter account, one noticeably different from the other gospels, where Jesus appears repeatedly, comforting his followers and offering them peace. The author of Mark may have been deliberately trying to communicate a different idea, however. His ending captured something we sometimes miss, the fear that must have run through Jerusalem when word of the empty tomb first began to spread.

Let me illustrate. I’m going to tell you a story that’s not exactly biblical. When you consider a couple of incidents that are in the Bible, however, a version of this story very well could have happened.

You may recall from Matthew that when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate to be sentenced to death, Pilate was reluctant to send Jesus to the cross, believing him innocent. Pilate passed sentence only because he felt politically pressured to do so. He also performed a symbolic act, however. He ritually washed his hands to show he did not consider himself guilty of Jesus’ death.

As he washed his hands, he declared to the crowd, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”

We are told the crowd answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” For all practical purposes, they were calling down curses on themselves.

Imagine, if you will, a father and mother in the crowd with their two children, a little boy and little girl. Led in what to say by powerful looking Jewish leaders and swept up in the mob mentality, they join the cry, nervously looking at their little ones: “His blood be on us and on our children!” It would have been a powerful oath to make, a powerful curse to risk, particularly for a people raised on the idea that God punishes sin for three generations or more.

Jesus, of course, is taken away and nailed to the cross. With the large number of witnesses, word of his death quickly spreads. The parents of these small children, perhaps a bit embarrassed at what they said, mostly are relieved the day’s strange events are over. Until …

Until Sunday. Until word begins to spread the tomb is empty. And everyone, everyone who doubted Jesus, everyone who had discounted him, feels a shiver of fear.

Imagine being those parents, looking at those precious children and considering what might be in store for this cursed family. Jesus demonstrated great power before; now it is clear he has power to overcome even his own death! What will the punishment be for those who sent him to the cross? Death for the son? Barrenness for the daughter?

Except for the fortunate few who encountered the resurrected Jesus, that fear must have continued for some time—for seven weeks, I figure, until the day of Pentecost. That’s the day the Holy Spirit falls on Jesus’ followers; that’s the day Peter preaches to the crowds who gather at the scene. I like to think the family with the two children are there as he preaches.

Oh, Peter lets them all have it. He makes it clear they were all complicit in Jesus’ death. But as they declare how they are cut to the heart with guilt, Peter begins to tell them about the promises. The resurrection is about hope. It is about a glorious future with God.

“For the promise ….” Hear what Peter says? The promise, not the curse. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Imagine the relief as the parents grip their children close to them.

Here’s a strange notion: It is good to have the blood of Christ on us and our children. By his blood, all curses are reversed. The sin at the root of all our stupid decisions, our foolish statements and our bad acts is washed away. And eternity is ours.