The (Re)Birth of the Church, I: His Witnesses to the End of the Earth

HomeThe (Re)Birth of the Church, I: His Witnesses to the End of the Earth
September 12, 2021

The (Re)Birth of the Church, I: His Witnesses to the End of the Earth

Passage: Acts 1:1-11

Well as you can guess Katie, Christine, and I have spent these last 18 months thinking about what the church will look like when this pandemic is behind us, if it ever will be behind us. So we’re teaching this sermon series about the (Re)Birth of the Church. The re is in parenthesis because Luke has given us a blueprint for what the birth of the church looked like in the Book of Acts. We’ll think about what the rebirth of the church might look like going forward.

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The last 18 months have been an unsettling time for all of us, in every arena of life, not least for parish pastors. One new minister said, “When I got ordained, I didn’t realize I was signing up to be a Chaplain to the Apocalypse.”

A Church Consultant said, “Your church is not returning to a new normal.  It’s returning to a new reality.”[1] Right now across America, in-person worship attendance is 36% of what it was in 2019. Last Sunday at Kenilworth Union, there were 50 people at the 8:30 service and 40 people at the 10:00, which is just about 36% of what we had on Labor Day Sunday in 2019. But YouTube tells me that 126 people worshiped with us virtually last Sunday, so if you count the virtual worshipers, and I guess you should, our attendance was roughly the same as it was two years ago.

We’re still Kenilworth Union Church, but the community is a little different, a little more dispersed. We’re still connected, but we’re less gathered. And it might be that way for a long time, maybe forever. Seventy-one percent of Baby Boomers want to return to in-person worship as soon as possible, but in the younger generations—Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z—only 42% want to return to in-person worship.[2]  Ever.

The Barna Research Group predicts that one in five American congregations will not survive this trauma over the long haul. For churches like ours—mainline churches: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians—traditional churches like ours, it’s one in three.[3]

So let’s think about what all that means, and to do that, we’ll go back to fundamentals. In December of 1960, the Green Bay Packers squandered a late fourth-quarter lead and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles, so at the beginning of training camp in the summer of 1961, legendary Packers Coach Vince Lombardi held up a pigskin and said, “Gentleman, this is a football.” I still remember the high school football game when our star running back fumbled twice. At the next practice, my coach called him up to the front and duct-taped a football to his arm. He got his point across. So back to fundamentals: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Church.” The Book of Acts.

The first thing to remember is that Acts is the second part of a two-volume work written by St. Luke who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, of course. Unhappily when the New Testament books were assembled and placed in their present order, somebody decided to slip the Gospel of John between Luke and Acts, partly disguising the bicameral nature of this one work (like the top shelf of this bookcase; maybe we should rearrange the volumes in our library to look like the second shelf—Mathew, Mark, John, Luke, Acts.)

It's a good idea to remind ourselves now and then that the Gospel of Luke fades to black with the words “To Be Continued” on the screen, and the Book of Acts begins like a serial television show: “Previously, on Ted Lasso...” “Last week, on The Walking Dead...”

Luke-Acts starts in tiny Nazareth with a pregnant teenager and ends in Rome with Paul seeking an audience with Emperor Nero, a thousand points of light flickering on here and there across the entire map of the Roman Empire, supplanting the Roman pantheon with the one true God and enthroning the Christ where the Caesar once reigned supreme.

The hinge between the two volumes of course, is the Ascension of Jesus, his departure from Jerusalem for parts unknown. Ironically, the Church is born when its hero leaves. The Church takes off when Jesus takes off. There he is chatting amiably with his friends and then he rockets up into the wild blue yonder like Jeff Bezos.

Now don’t let the antiquity of this ancient story throw you off. The Ascension of Jesus is an eccentric little story from an obsolete three-tiered conception of the universe almost inaccessible any longer to twenty-first-century minds. Even the metaphor hinted at in that word “Ascension” is unworkable in a Copernican-Newtonian-Ein­steinian universe where there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ but only ‘away’ from the curved surface of the only habitable world we know.

Someone asks, “Where did Jesus go? How far and how fast? What did it look like? If Jesus were ascending at the speed of light, he’d just now be reaching the edge of the Milky Way.” This little observation has not been fact-checked.[4]

But don’t let the antiquity of the image obscure the point of the story, which is that Jesus ascends to become Lord of all the world.  From death to life, from crucifixion to resurrection, from criminal to king, from cross to crown, he goes. It really is an Ascension, if not in space, still then in power.

Then the Book of Acts becomes a sprawling magnificence, telling the story of the Church’s explosion from an invisible, infinitesimal singularity into a cosmic, globe-spanning faith. Acts is filled with jaw-dropping miracles, spine-tingling sermons, improbable conversions, fearless empire-defyers, and invincible advance.

There stand the disciples staring slack-jawed into the sky as he blasts off, and these two messengers from the great blue beyond ask them, “Why stand ye gazing into the heavens? Get busy! You are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.” To the ends of the earth. To continue his ministry in his absence. To make the lame walk, to restore sight to the blind, to liberate the impoverished from their tenements, to welcome the immigrant to a new home. The likes of you and me!

What an 18 months it’s been, yes? But what have we to fear from all the cataclysms that keep battering the Church across the centuries? This tiny, little, microscopic virus is no match for the Church. Our church is still around. THE Church is still around. It’s just left the building.[5] And maybe that’s a good thing. We will still be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

What an 18 months it’s been. What a 20 years it’s been, since September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, we’re still facing the aftermath of what began on that day. Five of the 13 U.S. soldiers who died in Kabul in August were born in 2001. Like 9/11 itself, they were 20 years old.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Rylee McCollum of Jackson, Wyoming, was born in February 2001, so he was six months old when the Twin Towers fell. His life was bookended by this lingering conflict.  He got married on Valentine’s Day this year. His wife is expecting their first child. He died freeing the innocent from primitive but still seething malice. His father said, “Tough as nails. Heart of gold.”[6] Rest in peace, Corporal McCollum. Thank you.

It took them four hours to read the names of those who perished on 9/11. There were six Garcia’s, 10 Jones’s, and 15 Smith’s. So many precious souls.

But one woman who spoke yesterday said, “I remember September 12 just as clearly as September 11. So many tears. So much anguish. Such bitter ache. But then all of America started reaching out to us. So much kindness. So many prayers. Such rich blessings. It all brought us back to the land of the living.” And we’ve been reaching out to embrace for 20 years, and we will never stop.

Adrienne Rich says,
My heart is moved by all I cannot save.
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who,
Age after age, perversely,
With no extraordinary power,
Reconstitute the world.

We will be his witnesses, to the ends of the earth, until he comes again to take us all home.


[1] Thom Rainer, “Five Reasons Why 2021 Should Be a New Base Year for Your Church,” a blog at churchanswers.com.

[2] Carey Nieuwhof, “Three Shocking Statistics That Show How Quickly, Radically (and Permanently?) Church Is Changing in 2020,” careynieuwhof.com.

[3] David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, multiple sources.

[4] Benjamin J. Dueholm,What We See Reminds Us of What We Miss, and Vice Versa,” The Christian Century, April 19, 2021.

[5] Carey Nieuwhof, “Three Shocking Statistics…” op. cit.

[6]Jack Healy and Dave Philipps, “Marine Barely Older Than War Is Killed Bringing It to an End,” The New York Times, August 28, 2021.

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