[ Read the texts
at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
Who runs this church?
There are a number of possible answers that may come to mind. Some people will immediately think of the church board or governing body as the group that "runs" the church. Then there are others who are of the opinion that the pastor runs the church. (The pastor is more than likely keenly aware that this is not the case!)
So let's think about this for a moment and ask the question this way:
"Who is the head of this church?"
Now it becomes clear doesn't it? Most churches of every denomination in some way or another affirm that -- who is the head of the church? [Jesus Christ]
This is where the crunch usually comes. Most people have no argument with the concept that Jesus Christ is head of the church. At the same time most of us would probably agree that Jesus Christ is not actually running the church. Yet, it is important to who we are that there be a relationship between the true Head of the Church and what actually takes place in our life together as a community.
The texts for today are the texts for what is called Ascension Sunday. For many churches, Ascension Sunday comes and goes without much notice. And yet these texts contains some of the most powerful statements in all of the bible about the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ. They could serve us well in taking a serious look at the relationship between our affirmation of who Christ is in the church and the day to day conduct of our life together.
Here's why that is so important for the church in our time. When Christ does not reign in the particulars of a church's life, the affirmation that Christ is Head of the Church will be inauthentic. The world will hear the church's talk about Christ, the love of Christ and the reign of Christ, but the glaring evidence will be that Christ is absent from who we are in reality.
There are two important questions which we need to ask. We will want to look at the question. "Who is head of this church?" in light of the more general question, "Who is head of the Church?" The texts will help us with the answers.
Who is Head of the Church? - Ephesians
The word power which is used in the epistle covers everything from raw power like the power of a nuclear chain reaction to the power of an absolute monarch. The meaning of the last part of the reading from Ephesians is this:
This is the church in principle.
Christ is the only true ruling authority in the church. As the Body of Christ, the church is to be for others what Jesus Christ would be if he were here in the flesh. There should not be division in the church, because the Head of the Church is not mixed up about what should take place in the church. Division, strife, anger and envy in the church are characteristics that point to a "disconnect" between the Head and the Body. The church is loving, accepting and forgiving because the Head of the church is loving, accepting and forgiving.
This is the church in principle.
Whether a church is governed by a governing board, a clergy person, a bishop, a vestry or a session, the church is nevertheless under the authority of Christ and any other authority is a "derived" authority. None of these groups or persons have inherent authority or power in the church. Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me..." [Matt.28:18] No governing body of any church and no bishop or clergy person of any church would affirm in good conscience that they are the absolute authority for the church. When there is a claim of absolute authority by a group or especially a single individual, you can be certain that you have one identifying mark of a cult.
Christ alone is Head of the Church. That's why we are the "Body" of Christ. We are not the "brain" of Christ, but the "body" of Christ. When we are true to our calling as the Body of Christ we are much more an organism than an organization.
This is the church in principle.
This is the central point of Ascension Sunday. Jesus Christ reigns in the church from on High.
This is the church in principle.
Is this the church in practice?
Which takes us to the second question:
Who is Head of this church? - Luke
This is where the crunch comes, does it not? The lesson from Ephesians points to an absolutely wonderful foundation for who we are. The power of God available to the Body of Christ is breathtaking. You see that power at work in the beginning chapters of the book of Acts. This power is the only thing that can account for the incredible fact that all the power of Rome could not destroy the earliest church.
When Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciple of all nations, the whole concept would have been nothing more than the wishful thinking of a Jewish peasant -- except for the fact that the power of God was at work in those disciples.
Throughout history there have been times when the church grew like wildfire and transformed the lives of countless hundreds of thousands of people.
But... there have been times when the church has acted shamefully. The fact that there are something like 6000 groups in this world which claim to be "Christian" is scandalous in light of Jesus prayer that we "might all be one."
Most of us can name someone who has been burned by their experience in the church and most of us can name a church that is better know for its fighting than its friendliness.
It behooves every local expression of the Body of Christ -- the church -- to examine its relationship with the true Head of the Church. The gospel lesson from Luke has five important concepts that can help in evaluating how we are doing in applying the principle of Christ's Headship over the church to the practice of our life together.
The Scriptural Foundation [24:45] Just as he did with the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, Jesus opened the minds of his disciples, "...to understand the scriptures." In the gospel of John, Jesus told his followers that his word should live or abide in them. If we do not know the Word of the Master, we will have difficulty maintaining our connection with him.
The church which is biblically literate will be much more equipped to allow the reign of Christ in their midst.
The Foundational Message [24:47] There is one message at the heart of the Good News. "...repentance and forgiveness of sin in his name.." There should be no confusion about the central message of the church, since Jesus very clearly spelled it out.
There is so very much we can say as a church, but there is this one thing we must proclaim.
The Central Task [24:48] It is amazing to hear churches struggle with questions like, "What is our purpose." Jesus allowed no wiggle room in the commission he gave to his followers. "You are witnesses of these things."
We have no new thing to offer. There are literally hundreds of ways the church can configure its ministry, but every expression of authentic ministry must have a direct connection to the central task of the church. We are witnesses to the forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ.
The Equipping Power [24:49] The disciples were sent, but they were to wait. The power to accomplish the central task of the church is a power which is bestowed upon the church. As with the question of authority -- so it is with the question of strength to carry out the task. We are not to go in our own strength, but rather in the strength of the Holy Spirit of God. The clearest picture of this principle is seen in the life of the Apostle Peter before the resurrection and ascension of Christ and after the ascension.
Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is the story of how the equipping power of the Holy Spirit came to the church. One of the key issues in waiting for God's power to accomplish the central task of the church is the prayer life of the community of faith.
The Central Mark of the Authentic Church [24:52] After the ascension of Jesus and the commissioning of the disciples, there was a simple, yet powerful response:
"...they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy..."
That's it! That's the bottom line. When the church is living in authentic relationship with its Head, there is joy in the fellowship. The absence of joy in the life of the church is a sure mark of serious "disconnect."
These five concepts will help us greatly as we keep this question before us in our life together.
"Who is Head of this church?"
Connections in the Text
The focus that runs through the texts for this Sunday is on the power of God, the reign of Jesus Christ with God and the giving of power to the people of God for witness and ministry.
Ascension Sunday is an affirmation that things did not end with the death of Jesus and the resurrection was not the end of the story, but in fact was just the beginning of the work of the gospel. Jesus had said to his disciples, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." John 14:12
With the ascension, the work of the kingdom gets underway in earnest. The texts for Ascension Sunday are at the heart of the rationale for the life and witness of the community of faith -- the Body of Christ on earth.
When Jesus opens his disciples minds to understand the scriptures (as he had done with the two disciples on the Emmaus Road) he connects his ministry, death and resurrection with the threefold division of Hebrew scriptures -- The Law, The Prophets and The Writings. This is God's age old plan.
The disciples are told (as Luke expands upon in his second volume) not to attempt to continue the ministry of witness until they have received the power of God's Holy Spirit for their kingdom work.
It is characteristic of Luke that the mission Jesus gives to his followers is a mission to "all nations." There are no boundaries or barriers to the filed we are called to reach.
Luke alone, of the gospel writers, has an account of the ascension. The mention here is expanded upon in Acts where the ascension is the bridge and theological foundation for the continuing ministry of the followers of Christ.
Acts 1: 1-11
This introduction to the ministry of the church in Acts very clearly sets down the principles by which the mission is to be continued.
The import of the text is that the community of faith is never separated from its Lord.
The initial note in this text is consistent with recent gospel and epistle readings which emphasize the relationship between faith and the practice of love toward each other in the community of faith. Mutual love in the church is the mark of authentic faith.
The text moves to what it means to affirm Christ as the Head of the Church which is "...his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Christ as head directs the body. The point may be made that when we are out of touch with our head, we are in fact a paralyzed body. When the church tries to function on its own without its head, it is a bizarre thing.
However, when we are properly connected, there is a wonderful divine power that infuses the people of God and inspires the church to become in the world what Christ was when he was here in the flesh.
There is an interesting point about language to be made in verses 19 - 21, in that three different words are used which are translated as "power." All the bases are covered -- from raw power ( from "dunamis" - dynamite) -- to vigor or energy ("kratos") -- to power in the sense of authority or jurisdiction. ("exousia")
This passage from Ephesians points out that the ascension of Christ is a powerful representation of the spiritual treasure we have in our faith. Though the Master was crucified, the work and the power of God continues in the Master's community. The power which is at work in the authentic community of faith is the same divine power that was at work in the resurrection.
Call to Worship
Worship the Lord all you people sing, songs of joy to the Lord.
Prayer of Confession
We humbly gather before you today O Lord as we acknowledge that while we name you as Head of the Church, we fail to seek you in our life together. We act out of our own will in our daily lives and thus grieve your heart. We ask you to forgive us, Lord and help us to make you the true head of our church and of our lives. Free us from our earthly bondage so that we may truly embrace your holy reign in our lives. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Be comforted in the grace and mercy of God, sisters and brothers, the Lord who forgives us of all our sin and restores the joy of our salvation. Receive the forgiveness of God and be at peace with God.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
O Lord our God, with the Psalmist, we declare that you are an awesome God. The earth and every glorious thing our eyes behold are from your creative hand. You spoke and the worlds were created, your voice brought light out of darkness and order out of chaos. You are the wondrous God of all.
When your people went astray, you came to seek them. You gave your only Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ to bring us back from the chaos of life without you. You are the source of every good thing and the foundation of joy filled living. You gave us the fellowship of faith, the Body of Jesus Christ where we are nourished and sustained for living.
O Holy Lord, we pray that you would make us grateful recipients of your gifts and messengers of your mighty works to the world around us. Amen
Prayer of Dedication
Everlasting God of power and might, you are the one who gives us strength to labor and you bless us with every good gift. May we be cheerful givers of that which was first given to us, that the name of Christ might be glorified. Amen.