Genesis 5.21-24; II Kings 2.9-13

Acts 1.6-11

Who’s In Charge Here?

Ascension

Quick:  can you name a major church holiday that always falls on a Thursday?  I’ll give you a hint:  there are actually two, and one of them has the word “Thursday” in its name.  Right, one is Maundy Thursday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.  How about the other one?  That’s a little tougher, even though it occurred just this past week, and it is right here at the top of the bulletin:  it is Ascension, the day which commemorates the event Diane just read about, Jesus’ ascension into heaven, forty days after Easter.  Since Easter is always on a Sunday, forty days later is always on a Thursday.  Ten days after Ascension, or fifty days after Easter, is the better known celebration of Pentecost, but I’ll leave that story for Eileen to tell next week.

The first year I was in graduate school, I attended quite a number of weddings, because a lot of my college friends started getting married once our college years were past.  I remember one wedding in particular, I think it was in West Hartford, where after the ceremony was over and I was walking back to my car with an old college friend, I noticed a bumper sticker that was somewhat popular at the time, and which vexed me every time I saw it.  It read, simply, “I Found It,” and it bothered me for two reasons:  one, what it meant was “I Found God,” and I didn’t like the fact it depersonalized God to an “it.”  But even more to the point, it is bad theology (not that anyone should expect good theology from a bumper sticker):  we don’t find God, like God is just hanging around out there somewhere not doing much of anything, just waiting to be found.  In fact, my understanding of God is quite the opposite:  we don’t “find” God so much as God finds us:  God calls us, God gives us purpose, God gives us the gift of mission and ministry, and the active agency belongs to God, not to us.  God is in charge here.  And since I had recently completed my first year of seminary and knew everything there is to know about God, I shared my opinion – at some length - with my old college friend.  I rambled on about how we don’t find God, God finds us, God’s call, God’s agency, blah blah blah while he stood listening patiently to my brand new shiny theological expertise.  And when I was finally finished, he looked at the bumper sticker and simply said, “That’s my car.”  I do hope I’ve learned how to be a little more pastoral/diplomatic in the years snce.

The story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in the first chapter of Acts is a brief one; the entire act of it takes place in less than a verse:  “As [the disciples] were watching, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Now the disciples would not have been unfamiliar with what just happened; the story of Elijah’s ascension that we heard from II Kings is an important story in Hebrew tradition, and they may also have heard the tale of Enoch from Genesis, who was also thought to have done the same:  “Enoch walked with God, then he was no more, because God took him.”  Nevertheless, it had to be a jarring moment; really it was the second time in a little more than a month that they lost Jesus; first the crucifixion, now this.  But this time he left them with instructions; two, actually.  The first was, in effect, Wait here.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  And as you’ll hear next week, this is what happened at Pentecost ten days later.  But the disciples had no way of knowing how long that would be or what that would look like, and Jesus’ departure essentially left them leaderless.  What were they supposed to do besides wait?  Remember what happened last time Jesus was taken from them:  effectively they scattered, and only John stuck around long enough to see Jesus on the cross.  Would the same thing happen now?  Could they hold it together without Jesus?  What do you do when such a charismatic leader suddenly leaves you on your own?  Who’s in charge here, anyway?

But even though Jesus left them temporarily leaderless, he did not leave them without a purpose, without a mission.  Just before he left he laid out for them a kind of long term ministry:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  This charge has often been considered a kind of Table of Contents for the book of Acts, which is the history of the earliest days of the church.  Jesus’ last words to the disciples become the trajectory of the story of early Christianity:  it begins with a ragtag bunch of Jesus-followers standing around looking up into the sky after their leader disappears, with no one really in charge, yet by the end of the book their little movement has indeed moved from Jerusalem, where in that moment they stood, spread from there into all Judea, then into Samaria, and by the time the book of Acts concludes the gospel of Jesus Christ has moved all the way to Rome, the capital of the empire and crossroads of the world.  And in so doing the nature of leadership changed.  It was no longer located in any one individual, as it had been in Jesus of Nazareth; instead it was located in the mission and ministry which claimed them and formed them into a church, the movement of the gospel from their tiny neighborhood to the center of the known world.

There is a powerful lesson in this brief story for today’s church I think, particularly in smaller churches where the temptation is strong to rely on one or two charismatic leaders. Not even Jesus could carry that off for more than a few years.  Today’s church at its best is motivated and energized by the mission and ministry we do together.  In fact if you take a look out the window, you’ll see that motivation in action as our Mission Team, minus one leader, is out in the parking lot washing cars.  Actually, it only looks like they are washing cars.  What they are really doing is organizing with a clear sense of purpose, of ministry, working in the church parking lot on a Sunday morning in order to be able to go to Florida and do a different kind of work on behalf of families who have lost nearly everything and are struggling to get back on their feet.  In other words, they are not being driven by leadership, they are being driven by mission.  What we see in the parking lot is a micro-expression of what the macro-church can look like.  A wise mentor once told me that mission is the life-blood of the church.  Mission is the life-blood of the church.  Not Sunday morning worship, not the minister, not a not a lot of kids in the Sunday School and not a lot of people in the pews, no my dear New England friends, not even a balanced budget, but mission.  When we say “church” most people will think about what you and I are doing right now inside this building between the hours of ten and eleven o’clock.  The real church, I suggest, is taking place right now in the parking lot.  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

John Holbert was professor of preaching at SMU's Perkins School of Theology until his retirement in 2012, and he’s continued writing and leading seminars since then.  In an article for the online journal Patheos, he writes about what it means to be a witness rather than a spectator, someone who only watches without getting involved.  “Witnesses…witness to the truth of the gospel,” he writes.  “The truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast.  As Acts 1 makes clear, the world needs far fewer spectators and far more witnesses.”  This is what ministry is made of; this is what witness means; this is the lifeblood of the church; this is what it looks like when God’s mission is in charge:  leadership is located in the fruit of the work we do together.  It is not something we find; it is in reality what has found and embraced and shaped us as beloved children of God.

So as I was leaving work the other day, starting up that long hill on Route 9 south that exit 6 comes into, a huge Ford F-350 comes screaming by me going at least 85 miles per hour, and there on the tailgate, in large white cursive letters, were the words, “Got Jesus?”  And I thought, you’re going to get Jesus if you keep driving like that.  But then my mind went back to that “I Found It” place and I said to myself, “What is that supposed to mean, Got Jesus?  Jesus isn’t out there like some trinket you can grab, something to be possessed or consumed like a glass of milk.  If anything, it’s just the opposite, that Jesus has got you!  What kind of theology is that…” and I’m having this mental conversation with myself, when, a couple miles down the road I spy sweet, sweet justice.  A State Trooper has pulled Got Jesus over to the side of the road, and I smile with deep satisfaction that finally, finally, someone is getting a ticket for driving while theologically impaired.

            Amen.

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