An old monk once told this story about life in the desert with just a few fellow monks. For any of us who love coffee, for whom the expression, “but first, coffee” rings true, this story will resonate. The old monk says:
“Coffee does me good down here in the desert…it helps me…I am old. I was worried about not having any, about spending a few hours feeling dull and weak, and so–without perceiving the evil I was doing–I went into the kitchen before the others and drank up all that was left. Afterwards, having suffered all day and made my confession, I thought in shame of my selfishness, of the ease with which I had excluded my two brothers from those black, bitter, remains. It seems a tiny thing, yet in that cup of coffee, taken and not shared with my brothers, is the root of all the evil which disturbs us, the poison of all the arrogance which selfishness, riches, and power create.”
Carlo Carretto, the monk sharing this story, seems to be a bit hard on himself, don’t you think? He claims that taking the last of the coffee for himself was the “root of all the evil which disturbs us.” He claims that his choice seems like a small sin but really isn’t small at all. He states that this one action separates him from Jesus because Jesus would have left the coffee. That seems like a gross exaggeration!
So what’s the big deal?
In our scripture this morning, Jesus rebukes the disciples. He’s telling them about how they’ll receive the Holy Spirit in a similar way to how John had baptized him. After spending forty days together after the resurrection, Jesus’s words to them are to know that the great power of the Holy Spirit will soon be upon them. And it comes with a stern rebuke.
As well as an answer to our question: what’s the big deal?
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s the story of the ascension, found in Acts chapter 1.
What’s the big deal?
The disciples will receive the power of Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus would always be with them.
To that, the disciples say, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, is this when you’ll finally set yourself up as king, remove the Romans from Palestine and make us an independent nation again? Will you restore the former glory we knew under Kings David and Solomon?
The disciples clearly still don’t get it: even after the resurrection, even after spending five weeks walking and talking with a dead man who came back to life, they still don’t get it. Jesus, in characteristic fashion, rebukes them. He says, and I hear him say with some impatience in his voice, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” As if speaking to a petulant child, Jesus says that’s not for children to know. You need to focus on the work the Holy Spirit will empower: witness to me to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That must strike the disciples as odd. Witness to him? Why can’t he do that himself? He’s been around for these past five weeks, he ought to do that himself. But then he’s suddenly and surprisingly taken up, back to heaven, and two figures from heaven tell the disciples that he’s gone until he decides to come again. The disciples are suddenly, and decidedly, alone.
Imagine their shock. For us, however, this event is normal, even routine. We declare it most Sundays in our creeds: “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father…” as it says in the Nicene Creed. We infer this moment in our communion liturgy when we say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The ascension is normal for us.
And yet we don’t often speak of the Ascension; it’s doesn’t seem too key to our faith. Even though Jesus speaks of it as a big deal in rebuking the disciples, it may not feel nearly as significant to us as, say, death and resurrection. So, like taking the last of the coffee and not sharing, what’s the big deal about this particular event? What makes it worthy of being included in the Apostle’s Creed, inferred in the communion liturgy, and celebrated every year, usually in May?
It’s worth asking, as we did with the coffee story, what’s the big deal?
In Grafton, West Virginia, at the Methodist Church there, a young woman named Anna Jarvis decided to honor the silent witness of her mother, Ann Jarvis, on the second Sunday of May in 1907. About fifty years prior, her mother had organized work days for mothers to come together to create sanitary water; seeking to improve the living conditions of those affected by water-born illnesses and pollution. Her work, largely unnoticed outside of their small town, gave Anna the inspiration for both her own activism and to honor her mother, and indeed, all mothers, for the witness and inspiration they provide.
It was thus that Mother’s Day was born. The tradition begun on that Sunday in 1907 quickly caught on such that President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill, in 1914, declaring the second Sunday of May to be Mother’s Day across the country.
All this because of the small witness of one mother in her hometown. She saw a need and, empowered by her faith and church community, she addressed that need.
For any of us who have mothers we respect, we can relate to this story. In small ways, the witness of these mothers has inspired our faith, provided the foundation for life, and instilled within us values we hold to this day. In the grand scheme of the world, individual mothers are small, seemingly insignificant. Their witness to their children seems small compared with the world around us, for most of our mothers didn’t shape nations or give vision to entire states or attract millions of followers or garner thousands of likes or need that little blue checkmark next to their name on twitter; the way we celebrate many celebrities and heroes of our nation and world.
But where would many of us be without our mothers? And for those of us whose relationship with our mother is complicated, difficult, or nonexistent, the loss of having such a witness is palpable. Compared against the problems of the world, the witness of a mother seems small indeed; but in our hearts, that witness, or the lack thereof, is quite large.
Mothers, for good or ill, shape us, they mold us, they empower or disempower, they provide us with a sense of self. The witness of our mothers has a tremendous impact on who we are as individuals. Their little witness makes a big difference.
And it’s thus that mothers give us the answer to the question: what’s the big deal?
What’s the big deal of the ascension? What’s the big deal of taking the last of the coffee?
The answer? A little witness makes a big difference.
That’s exactly what we see with Ann Jarvis, whose actions in her small town in West Virginia led, without her ever knowing it, to the Mother’s Day we mark today.
Such is also the case here in Acts. Jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them that their duty is to go and be witnesses, beginning with their locale. Witnessing was to be a seemingly small affair, simply sharing with those they already knew through word and action the reality of faith in Jesus. And that’s exactly what the disciples did. When the Holy Spirit comes, they share with those who are nearby in word and action, in a few big ways and in many, many small ways.
Acts records them giving a big speech, but also records them living their lives, sharing with each other, worshipping together, drawing people one by one into their community. Luke says, early in Acts, that the biggest draw for new converts was the way the disciples lived their lives: simply, on purpose, worshipfully. Their witnessing was often small. But a little witness makes a big difference.
And that is a big deal. The witness of Jesus Christ spread to every corner of the globe because of the small witnessing efforts of these eleven disciples who watched Jesus ascend to heaven.
A little witness makes a big difference.
That’s the big deal about the monk’s coffee, too. A little witness against Christ, a little sinful action that witnesses to evil instead of good, though seemingly insignificant makes a big difference.
Which can only mean this: the little things we do matter. The little things we do witness to the presence of Christ in our lives or witness to sin.
And those little things influence the people around us, especially the people who know us well and the people who respect us; just like mothers with their influence on their children.
A little witness makes a big difference.
So this morning, with courage, let us ask ourselves: what does my witness reveal? The presence of sin and evil, like our monk? Or the presence of Christ?
Our witness begins at home in our hearts. That’s what our monk, Carlo Carretto, reveals to us. Taking the last of the coffee revealed the condition of his heart. That’s because, when we choose to take small actions that are sinful, we reveal the evil intentions that live within us. His small selfish action of taking the last of the coffee is exactly what separates him from Jesus, for Jesus would never make a selfish choice, no matter how small it may seem.
We want our witness to be to Christ, to make a positive difference in the world. We want our actions to reveal the presence of Christ in our lives. And to do that, to ensure that our witness is of Christ who lives within us, to make the difference in the world that we all want to make, we must attend to our faith through being disciplined.
To have a little witness that makes a big difference requires discipline in our faith.
Like diet and exercise, faith is a discipline. It requires that we are intentional about praying, about spending time with God. Faith also requires that we are intentional and disciplined about church attendance. And like when we fail to exercise for a time, or we let go of good eating habits, or we stop practicing regular and healthy rhythms of sleep, that loss of discipline gradually, slowly, sometimes even imperceptibly, leads to negative changes to our bodies and minds. The same is true for faith: a loss of discipline there leads to a life whose witness is less and less of Christ; less and less of what we desire to witness to.
A little witness makes a big difference, for good or ill, and, to have that witness be more of Christ and less of sin, we must stay disciplined in our faith together in relationship with each other.
The disciples here in Acts were constantly together in community. They did not go it alone. They needed each other for mutual encouragement when life got hard. They needed each other to help each other discern how God was calling them. They needed each other to help sharpen their faith and keep them focused and disciplined. That was especially true after Jesus ascended back into heaven, leaving the church in their custody; a responsibility now passed down to us.
So it is for us today. We need each other in the church environment. Our children need the instruction that comes through Kidz for Christ and youth group. We adults need that discipling too; we need to be together in community, sharpened by each other as we fellowship together as Christians, whether through Sunday School or small groups. Discipleship, growing in our faith, happens through relationship. We need to share life with others who will help us to grow and stay disciplined in our faith, that we together may offer a little witness of Christ to the world; a little witness that makes a big difference.
That’s why we need to be together as a church for when we are together as a church, disciplined in our faith, our witness to Christ, through our little actions, make a positive difference. We become forces for good in our homes, in our schools, in our community leadership, at the gas station, at Walmart, in restaurants, because our little actions bear witness to Christ. And sometimes, like Ann Jarvis, our little witness will make a big difference that we will never see but one that yet still makes a difference.
Let us decide this morning to become the people we most admire. My guess is that those you hold most dear in your hearts are not celebrities, historical figures, or other big names. My guess is that many of those you hold dear in your hearts are sitting in this room, live here in Macon, or are otherwise people you knew personally; people like former teachers, mentors, fathers, and mothers. It’s those people, seemingly little people compared with the celebrities we know, who have had the biggest impact on our life because their witness is powerful. The way they live their lives and the way they conduct themselves has set the example for us. Their little witness has made a big difference.
To become the people we most admire, we must be disciplined as they were. So let us then determine this morning to be just as disciplined, both in our individual relationships with God and in our life together as a church.
When we decide to be disciplined in our faith, we become powerful witnesses to Jesus’s transformative power. And through our witness, just like through the disciples, just like through those we admire, the world around us is changed.
Let us decide this morning to become the people we most admire. For a little witness makes a big difference.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.