Becoming Disciples: Live As Witnesses

Becoming Disciples: Live As Witnesses June 6, 2011

Becoming Disciples: Live As Witnesses

Luke 24:44-53

Now that the weather has gotten warm, a phenomenon that reminds me every year why I love the co-housing community where I live has begun.  I like to refer to it as “college dorm for grown-ups,” but what it really is is just an old fashioned neighborhood kind of vibe.  Everybody hangs out on the balcony; kids run around chasing each other; someone fires up the grill and everybody eats dinner together; deeper issues of life are brought up in conversation, along with interesting neighbor-y things, like if anybody has heard exactly when the pool down the street might be opening.

Emerging from our winter hibernation gives us all a chance to catch up on the latest news with everybody, check how the kids have grown, and meet some of the newer neighbors we haven’t had a chance to get to know yet.  This year has been especially great for me, as my next door neighbors, who moved in in October, are just wonderful.  Many an evening we will find ourselves sitting on the balcony discussing books, parenting, the Dixie Chicks…you know, the important things of life. 

Both Terry and Tony have quite a bit of experience leading nonprofit organizations.  Tony is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and knows all about current leadership trends, organizational development and transition, and as these are topics of substantial interest to me, too, I will often ask Tony a question that has been bothering me, or check to see if he has any resources to share on a particular topic.

The other night we found ourselves talking about a prominent news event within the context of succession leadership—that is: when an organization or a movement is founded by a particularly motivational leader, with whom the movement becomes synonymous in public perception, what happens when that leader leaves?  From social movements like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement to organizations as familiar as Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, we all know of leaders and institutions who have found themselves in this situation of dealing with a change in leadership, and all of the uncertainty that comes with that inevitable event.  Will the organization remain viable after this leader leaves?  Will the mission change?  Will people lose interest or confidence when the transition happens? 

Succession is a time of great upheaval in an organization, and Tony informed me that there are now specialists in leadership succession planning—people who are specifically trained to help organizations navigate from a founding, iconic leader to whomever will lead the organization next. 

And, you can go to the Kennedy School and learn how to be a succession leadership specialist.  And then you can find lucrative consulting jobs, guiding organizations through scary transitions like these!

I think my neighbor Tony would agree that if anybody needed a succession leadership consultant, you have to know it was the rag-tag crowd of disciples who’d emerged from hiding, where they’d been for weeks since the whole arrest/torture/crucifixion of their leader Jesus.  He’d been raised from the dead, as you know, and had appeared to them in various situations over the weeks that had just passed.  However, no one was clear at all about what would be coming next.

Was Jesus back to stay (oh, dear, they hoped so!)?  And, if he was, what exactly did he plan to do about the political and civil unrest that had exploded since rumors of his resurrection began to circulate?  In other words, what was he going to do just to get things back to the way they were before??!?

Denial.  It’s one of the hallmarks of a leadership succession situation, for sure.  Because, let’s be honest: they knew it was true.  No matter what happened next, life together would never be the same after living through what they had just lived through with Jesus.

And so, that day when he came to them and began to teach them like he had so many times in the years before, they felt hopeful.  And he was going over the same thing, the Gospel message that they just had not really gotten, this message of hope and new life and relationship with God that they somehow still did not understand.  They still thought it was largely political, which is, of course, why they’d been cowering in hiding while all the events surrounding Jesus’ passion unfolded and the after-effects rippled out into the larger community.

But, thank goodness, he seemed to be back.  And he seemed to be fairly back to normal, as far as they could tell.  At least he was talking about the same things: God’s love for the world, God’s forgiveness and grace, God’s engagement in relationship with us all.  You know they’d begun to feel a measure of relief—their fears were calmed a little—they could go back to doing things the way they’d always done them.

But then he left.

When they got toBethanyand he turned to bless them, there he went up into heaven, and this time you could tell: he was out of there.  It was the moment of succession, the passing of the baton, the installation of the new leader…but who would it be?

Surely not.

Surely Jesus would not float off into heaven and leave the disciples in charge?!?!? 

Nobody from theHarvardKennedySchoolwould ever even think of suggesting that passing on the burden and responsibility of leadership to the eleven scared, unprepared, incompetent, under-resourced, uneducated disciples who were left was anything approximating a good idea.  On the surface it seemed to be a leadership succession FAIL, and anybody watching from the outside would reasonably chalk up this movement to an interesting paragraph in the history book, a nice memory like so many other political resistance movements that never got off the ground after their charismatic leaders moved on.

But here we are, over 2,000 years after that day in Bethany, and we’re sitting here. 

In church. 

And the same message Jesus tried and tried and tried to plant in their hearts and minds is now planted in yours and mine.

On this Ascension Sunday we hear the words of Jesus, not just for that first group of scared and unprepared disciples, but we hear them for ourselves. 

That experience of Ascension was truly the birthday of the church, the moment when everything changed, when the baton was passed, when the mantle of responsibility was placed firmly on the shoulders of those who were going to be leading next. 

Hmmmm, what a strange and fortuitous coincidence, then, that today also happens to be the 149th birthday of Calvary Baptist Church, this particular church.  On this day, we get to spend some time eating cake and celebrating everything that has gone before, which has been a considerable number of interesting and wonderful things, let me tell you. 

But we also face an important time of decision, of transition.  In the year ahead we will prepare to turn 150.  150 years as the church on the corner of H and 8th, NW!  Our decision is whether we have the courage and the resolve to move boldly into the future that awaits us—the next 150 years, or whatever happens to be ahead.  Will we be witnesses of these things, of God’s great love for the whole world?  Of the transforming power of Gospel community?  Of forgiveness and grace, redemption and hope found in Jesus Christ?  Will we be witnesses of these things?

I don’t know….

You know, times are hard; the institutional church just doesn’t have the status, relevance, or influence that it used to have….

Will you be witnesses of these things?

We also don’t have a lot of money.  Not nearly enough money to do all the work that needs to be done….

Will you be witnesses of these things?

We have an historic building that takes a whole lot of care and upkeep—even more than our dedicated lay volunteers and our staff can give it….

Will you be witnesses of these things?

These days, not too many people like to come to church, you know.  They prefer to stay at home Sunday morning; they don’t really see the point of making commitments in their already-packed schedules, so, frankly, we could seat a lot more people in here than usually come every Sunday.  It’s not so easy to fill all the committees and make the budget and get everything done with such a big job and such a relatively small crowd….

Will you be witnesses of these things?

The institutional church has made a bad name for itself, and, what, is it our job to single-handedly redeem its reputation to the world?

Will you be witnesses of these things?

The job is too big.  The task is too overwhelming.  We’re not qualified.

Will you be witnesses of these things?

I don’t know… I don’t know.

The disciples faced many similar challenges, and worse.  But something miraculous happened inBethanythat day when Jesus blessed them and told them to be witnesses.  We don’t know exactly where Jesus went or how his ascension was orchestrated, but Jesus’ ascension was not the miracle to which I refer.  The miracle happens in verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures….” 

I don’t know how it happened, or why it happened right then, but suddenly, finally, thankfully, those thick-headed disciples got it. 

In that moment, something changed for them.

We know this, of course, because the formerly fearful and cowering disciples responded to Jesus’ blessing, commissioning, and ascension with great joy the text says.  They were so excited, so fired up, so sure of the message they were now witnesses to, that they returned toJerusalemwith great joy.  They did not go into hiding.  They did not cower in fear.  They did not run away.

They went to theTemple, the holiest, most public place around, and they stayed there, telling everyone they could about what they now, finally, understood to be God’s message of love, redemption, and grace for the whole entire world.

And their leadership and courage continued, as we know.  They told others, and the message spread, and they traveled to new places and told people who were different about the hope and grace they’d experienced.  They persisted until this little message that was handed to them like a relay race baton when Jesus said, “You are witnesses of these things!,” took firm and stubborn root in the hearts and lives of all kinds of people, everywhere.

While we don’t know for sure, we think that all of the disciples died as martyrs for their faith.  That is, they left that moment of commissioning with Jesus so changed, so empowered for leadership, that they were willing to give up everything—even their lives—because they believed that much.  Those fear-filled incompetents totally and utterly changed the whole world when they took the direction of Jesus seriously, when they accepted the baton of leadership, and when they proclaimed with courage the message that they knew could change the whole entire world. 

If they could do it…do you think we might be able to do it, too?

Here at Calvary, 2000 years later?

Could we create a community where everyone would be welcome, even people who are sure that they would never be welcomed at any church anywhere?

Will you be my witnesses?

Could we live in a diverse family, with different backgrounds and languages, perspectives and even theologies, and still love, respect, and support each other?

Will you be my witnesses?

Would we have the courage to cultivate a community where we are faithful students of Holy Scripture and ever-attuned to the new and unexpected places God might lead us, where doubting is okay and questions are welcomed?

Will you be my witnesses?

Would we be willing to be prophetic voices in the church and in the world, even when what we have to say is not popular in either place?

Will you be my witnesses?

Would we give everything—even our lives—to the work of God in this world, so sure, so committed, so undeterred, that we will not allow discouragement or doubt to push us off course?

Will you be my witnesses?

Calvary Baptist Church, happy, happy birthday. 

On this anniversary of this dream of the church, we ask ourselves the same thing Jesus asked the first disciples, when he first walked along the edge of the Sea of Galilee, wondering who might be interested in living God’s dream for the world along with him: “Do you want to be my disciples?”

Then live your lives as witnesses.


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