Tuesday, 18 May 2010 17:39

May 16, 2010 Sermon

“In Theo’s House”
Acts 1:1-11
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 16, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

In early church art, Jesus is depicted as one who has ascended and sits among the clouds looking beatifically upon his people on this side of the veil.  Pictures of this image of Jesus appear in the arched apses of cathedrals, so that he can look down upon his people, really hovering over us.  After the Global Baptist Peace Conference last year, Jean Lubke and I toured a number of Rome churches.  One of them was St. John Laeterno.  Next to the cathedral church was a small octagonal baptistery, complete with a big bathtub in the center dating back to the 6th century.  Next to the baptistery was another ancient chapel.  Like most of the churches, it has gone through many renovations.  We saw another curved apse in the chapel but it was blocked by a large plaster crucifix-laden sculpture.  When we saw that no one was watching, we stepped up into the chancel area and maneuvered our way behind the plaster screen so we could look at the old mosaic in the apse.  It was Jesus in the clouds, along with a couple of other saints.  This is what Jesus looked like in the early art.  His eyes were open and he looked down on the gathered congregation.  Interestingly, many of these towering images were covered by crucifixes—a dead Jesus juxtaposing a living Jesus.  Now, I look for such images and engage my hermeneutic of suspicion.  Thanks to Rita Brock and Rebecca parker’s book Saving Paradise, I never look at church art the same way.

I always had trouble with the whole concept of the Ascension.  I can’t get the image of Jesus being beamed up by Scotty out of my mind.

The Gospel writer Luke wrote the book of Acts.  The ascension only appears in Luke’s writings.  In fact it appears in both of Luke’s volumes.  The Gospel of Luke ends with then ascension and the Book of Acts begins with it.  The opening verses are a recap—“previously on ER…”

It happens 40 days after the Easter resurrection.  Jesus hangs out with the people for 40 days.  In the first volume, Jesus hung out in the desert for 40 days.  40 is a big Biblical number.  It rained on Noah for 40 days and 40 nights.  Moses and company wandered for 40 years.   Forty means “a lot” in Biblical language.  My kids keep reminding me that I am an old man.  The fact that I am significantly over 40 proves this.

Luke’s Gospel focuses on Jesus.  He is always lead by the spirit.  In this book, Acts, we no longer have an earthly Jesus.  Instead, we have the Spirit which we hope exists in our churches.  And that Spirit hovers over us and dances from one of us to another.

At the beginning of Luke and Acts, Luke writes to Theophilus.  Who is this guy?  Why would Luke write two books to him?   The name literally means lover of God.  Theo is the Greek root of the word denoting God.  Philos is one of the words for love.

We come to church thinking that we are entering God’s house.  We hear the bells.  We see the candles.  We see the baptistery.  We imagine all of the people who have gone before.  We know just where they sat in this room.  We remember the lilt in their voices, the unique way that they looked at the world, the spice and flavor they added to our stew.

We remember the holy witnesses, the cloud of saints that go before us.  We come to this house to encounter the holy.

But is God here more than God is anywhere else?  Is God here more than God is in the most beautiful garden, the rushing river, the eagle’s wings, or even the community next door?  Does God only have one abode?  Of course God has the power to be anywhere and everywhere.  So what’s so special about this place?

The answer is that this is not God’s house—not uniquely anyway.  It is Theophilus’ house.  It’s the house of those who love God.  And we love God enough to love each other.  We love God and we seek to become betters partners with God in creating peace, justice, compassion and mercy in a world in need.  We love God and we dare to sing God’s praises, we invoke God’s name, we study about God and we unashamedly speak about God.  We ask ourselves and challenge ourselves about the depth of our commitment to God’s plan.  We challenge each other to be even better lovers of God and lovers of God’s creation—even God’s people.  It’s not just a vertical love of God we seek, we also seek to love our neighbors.  The completion of that form of a cross is a powerful symbol and reminder.

For this reason, we bring our children to be dedicated here, so that we can imagine together a new life for them.  We commit to being lovers of God together, so that we can be the healthiest parents and the healthiest community for Miles and all children.

O Theophilus, lover of God, says Dr. Luke, many people have tried to write down these stories.  Now, I write them for you.  It’s like his memoir—leaving it for further generations to pour over.  We have writers among us, John Medeiros, Gayla Marty, Hal Gold and others who have dared to write parts of their own lives down.  The odd thing is that as hard as they tried to capture the image and communicate it, as soon as it reaches our hands, the scene shifts and that story is welded into our story and it means something a slight bit different.  Luckily the book club gets to hear Gayla tomorrow night and I’m sure part of the discussion will be about how her story intersects with the sacred stories of that circle.

Luke’s story changed when Theophilus shared it with others.  With other lovers of God.  And the story will shift and change as we seek to live our lives with integrity.

Jean Lubke this morning joins in a five-year line of women who have been recipients of UBC’s Shalom Award.  Tai Shigaki, Vicki Wilson, Harriet Johnson, and Faye Kommedahl.  One of these years a guy is going to get the award.  You are all lovers of God—not only your deeds but your lives show that.  Jesus said we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  That’s how we live as Christians.  It follows that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Today we give the Shalom Award to Jean.  It’s certainly a way to honor her great work, but the work of Shalom cannot be accomplished by one person.  It’s a reflection of the community.  We seek to live Shalom and support each other in peacemaking initiatives.  And Jesus is watching over us all with eyes wide open.

As Jesus is ascending to heaven, two men ask them, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”  It’s just like the men at the grave asking, “why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”  The implication is that we have work to do on the ground and with each other—to bring shalom, to bring hope, to bring joy to a people in need.

Maybe Theophilus is not a person.  Maybe Theophilus is a community—of course then it would have to be the plural Theophilon.  But the point is that we can love God the best in community.  We try, we fail, are held accountable and support one another as we try to love God and love our world.

We are gathered here, with the ascended Jesus watching over us.  And we are not in Jesus’ house.  Not uniquely.  We are in Theo’s house. And we dare to live a bit like the lovers of God that we seek to be.

Twenty five years ago my good friends Tom and Patti Burkett became the parents of their first child.  Sarah, they later found out, was born with Down Syndrome.  As they processed the challenges ahead, they turned to their faith community at the First Baptist Church of Granville, Ohio.  They all committed to helping out Sarah and her family grow and thrive as best they could.  I see Sarah at least once a year at Peace Camp and she has certainly grown in love and has been granted the nurture and commitment not only of her family, but of the larger community.  And I like to think that the Spirit of Jesus watches over that whole community.  It certainly shines in Sarah.  As we have dedicated Miles Isaiah Gault this morning, let me close by singing the song Tom and Patti wrote for Sarah’s dedication.

In the garden Eden God spoke to the man
And the woman back before the world began.
Pain will come with girl or boy
But every life will bring you joy
In living and in all the things you plan.

Many years ago a little boy was born.  
Strangers looked up at the sky upon that morn.  
When the boy became a man
A different king of life began
For us and we’re still living it today.

These two little arms may lift a falling heart.
These two bright eyes may see the answers clear
This tiny voice may someday speak the words that make the storm clouds part
and through your life the Lord will love you and we will hold you in our hearts.

So we watch in wonder as the seasons spin
Mothers feel the quickening of life within
Then just as the Lord hath spoke
The promise of our joy and hope
Is right here in our arms to love and share


Will you stand with us to bless a child today?
Help her answer questions guide her on her way?
Will you give her love and care
Just when you think there’s none to spare
And will you laugh to see her run and play?