May 16, 2021
Looking Forward With Hope
Click here to watch a recording of the 9am service on May 16, 2021.
Click here to watch a recording of the 11am service on May 16, 2021.
“Looking Forward With Hope”
A Sermon Preached by Frank Mansell III
John Knox Presbyterian Church – Indianapolis, Indiana
May 16, 2021
Acts 1: 1-11
Well, here we are. The last sermon I will give to you as pastor of John Knox Presbyterian Church. The first time you heard me preach was the day I candidated to be your pastor on February 2, 2003. My first sermon to you as your pastor was March 9, 2003. I have no idea how many sermons I’ve preached here – I lost track a long time ago! Needless to say, you have heard a wide variety from me through the years. I hope in that time, some have proven to be helpful and nourishing in your spiritual life, and I am grateful for your understanding and patience when some have not lived up to those standards!
I decided it wouldn’t be a sermon from me if I didn’t use a picture, so here you go. In the midst of all my cleaning out of my office, I found this photo. Many times through the years, when a member of the church died and the family was cleaning out the house, they would often send me anything they found that was connected to the church. I did not recognize the name on the back of the picture, but the date on it was 1966, and amazingly it was taken from the air. Must have been done the old-fashioned way in an airplane – no drones back then!
As a student of history, I was fascinated by this picture. It’s taken from the north looking south. It shows the original construction of the church building: the first sanctuary (before it was expanded), the inner core of education and office space, and the north driveway and parking lot. To the north and west of the church, you see the neighborhood homes being built, with many empty lots. To the south of the church, that must be the first funeral home building, before it was torn down and rebuilt in the 1990s. And at the top of the picture, you see the original interstate interchange at Crawfordsville Road.
I also think it’s interesting to notice what you don’t see. There are no apartment buildings between the church and the interstate – just open fields. High School Road is only two lanes wide – it hadn’t been expanded like it is now. And the church property looks vastly different. No Fellowship Hall, south driveway and entrance, or large parking lot to the back. And there are no trees except for at the southwest property line. I always assumed that the huge oak tree that has given me shade outside my office all these years was here long before the church was built. As this picture shows, though, it was planted sometime after 1966. Sometimes our longest held assumptions need to be checked by visual reminders.
As I looked at this picture over the last several days, a couple of thoughts came to my mind. One was my deep gratitude to those faithful saints who took a leap of faith in 1961 to start meeting as a new church fellowship, and in 1962 who formally chartered John Knox Presbyterian Church. They came from neighboring churches like St. Andrew Presbyterian, they came from other parts of Speedway and the west side of Indianapolis, and they came from both Presbyterian and other denominational backgrounds. Their faithfulness and commitment to God’s call is why we are here today, and I am grateful; I’m sure you are, as well.
The other thing I considered as I looked at this picture was what those first disciples of our church must have been thinking as they faced their future. They were just getting to know one another, they had moved into a building that was brand new, and they were watching things change all around them as this side of Indianapolis began to grow. There must have been excitement about what was on the horizon, about what they anticipated God had in store for them as they embarked on this new adventure together. But they also must have felt anxious and uneasy about what came next, as the future was full of unknowns. They most definitely had to rely on their faith in God to walk the road that was before them.
As the disciples stood there with Jesus before he ascended into heaven, what must they have been thinking? They’ve witnessed him teaching, healing, and performing all sorts of miracles over the last three years. They continued to hear him speak of going to Jerusalem to face the suffering he had to endure, only to be raised up after three days. And then they lived that prophecy – eating together in an upper room, one of their own betraying their Lord, another one of their own denying Jesus three times, seeing him being beaten, finally witnessing his death by crucifixion, only for them to encounter his empty tomb three days later. What an incredible journey this has been for them all! But, now what happens?
That becomes even more timely and important when, right in front of their eyes, Jesus ascends into heaven. The writer of Acts says, “As they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9). He was gone, and they were left standing there looking up into the sky. Now what happens? They must have been filled with anxiety, nervousness, unease about what their future held without their Lord being with them.
Jesus always seems to know how to speak to the disciples’ apprehension and anxiety, and perhaps, he’s also speaking to us when we feel the same way. In John’s Gospel, on the night when he is betrayed, Jesus reassures his disciples that after he is gone, God will send “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). And in today’s passage, Jesus shares a similar promise: “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” (Acts 1:8). Even though Jesus will be leaving them in his human form, God will never abandon them as God sends the Holy Spirit to empower the disciples to be Christ’s witnesses. Just like the covenants of the Old Testament, God is promising through Jesus that God’s people will always know God through the Holy Spirit – a promise we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost.
One thing that can happen whenever we part ways is that discord and dissension can fill the void. It can either be when a leader who has held a group together leaves, or when a group is dispersed across a wide area and no longer remains in close touch. Such an absence of leadership or unity can cause confusion, resentment, and division. We see it in our community whenever an election forces a change in leadership, or an organization chooses someone new to lead it. We see it in the church, as across a wide span people become divided on issues of sexuality, social justice, evangelism, and leadership – or yes, when a change in pastoral leadership takes place. Division can be very prevalent when people part ways.
Perhaps that is why Jesus also prays for unity for his disciples. In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:11). Also in John, we hear Jesus say: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Jesus knew that in his departure, there would be much uncertainty, which ultimately leads to discord. He prayed for unity, for harmony, for cooperation to those who would carry on God’s work on this earth.
One commentator notes: Our fellowship with God depends upon our unity, as does our witness to the world – we are to be one “so that the world may believe” that Jesus is from God and that God loves us.
Just before his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit to bear witness to him. Reading Acts alongside John, we may surmise that the Spirit empowers us not only for proclamation but also for unity. When we fail to embody in our communities the peaceful reconciliation that is salvation, when we fail to restore unity, our words about Jesus appear hollow. The solidarity of the church not only enables our witness, it is our witness. Our calling is not only to proclaim God’s reconciliation but also to live it (Scott Bader-Saye, “Long Division,” Christian Century: April 24 – May 1, 2002: 16).
As we both part ways today as pastor and congregation, I know that there can be a tendency for anxiety and concern. I know that there is worry about how the church will face the weeks and months to come. You’ve shared that with me in our Connecting Times over the last several weeks, as well as in personal conversations.
But I have also heard words of hope and promise in these conversations. I have heard words of blessing and affirmation to me and Debbie and our family as we embark on this next chapter in our lives. I have heard reflections of gratitude and joy in all that we as a church have sought to do in Christ’s name over the last eighteen years. I have heard you speak faithfully and hopefully about what lies ahead for John Knox Presbyterian Church, as you continue to be an Open. Caring. Community.
My prayer for you is what Jesus prayed for his disciples. I pray that you will know the love of God in such a way that you remain one in Christ, united in your mission and purpose as disciples of Jesus Christ. I pray that as you begin to look at who you are as a congregation, and learn anew who your community is around you, you will know that the Spirit is with you and will never leave you in your faithful service to the Lord your God. I pray that you will welcome your interim pastor, and eventually your new installed pastor, as you have welcomed me and my family, and in so doing recognize that all of these comings and goings are held in the loving hands of our Creator.
What would give me the greatest joy and sense of fulfillment would be to come back at some point in the future and see that you trusted that God would always be with you, and faithfully followed the Spirit’s leading. That would be embodied in new people participating in the church’s life who reflect the continuing diversity of this community. That would be embodied in trying new programs and initiatives that reflect the vision you have forged in this transition time that is to come. That would be embodied in not being beholden to the past and embracing the future that God has laid out before you, one which I know is full of promise, hope, and joy.
If someone took a picture of this church today, it would look very different than the one that was taken in 1966. What will a picture of John Knox look like in 5, 10, 20 years from now – not just of its building and grounds, but of its people, its mission, its service in Christ’s name? That is a picture that God will help you create in the years to come. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out!
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.