Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Surprise Vocation: Acts 1:1-11 - Ascension of Our Lord

[Luke writes:] 1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV)

Rise Up Together! Concert, Oct. 2015.  Photo by author.
Picture this: it’s your last day of school; and it’s been a fantastic year.  Grades are up; good times were had; parents are proud; everybody’s happy.  And now, you’re looking forward to ten weeks of fun, sun, and relaxation. 

All the sudden, you wake up—and realize it was all a dream.  It’s not the last day of school; it’s the first—and an entire year of hard classes, hard teachers, hard work, and stress lies before you. 

Talk about having the wind let out of your sails!

This is what Jesus’ disciples were feeling—except that the stakes were far higher…

Forty days ago, they began their spiritual roller-coaster ride of Jesus arrest, crucifixion, and death—along with their own failure to stand by him through his passion.  But then, Jesus appears to them alive, forgives them for their failures, and affirms his unconditional love for them.  Since the religious leaders and the Roman authorities have ultimately failed to exterminate Jesus, the disciples now have their sights set on Israel’s highest hope—that Jesus will conquer the Romans, reclaim the Temple, and take the Davidic throne as ruler of a reunified Israel.

But then, Jesus pulls the ground out from beneath their feet, and tells them “No, now is not the time, and it’s not your business to know…” 

Here they were, convinced that their foes are about to be vanquished, that all their work is done, and that paradise is at hand.  But instead, Jesus tells them, “your work’s just beginning.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Then, Jesus is carried off into heaven by a cloud and disappears from their sight.

They are left with a surprise vocation that they didn’t want; they weren’t prepared for; and given their lackluster performance as disciples; they definitely weren’t qualified.  And: they won’t have Jesus with them as he’d been before.

I imagine most of us (myself included) feel the very same way about ministry: it’s a vocation for which we have neither the time, the training, or the natural-born ability to undertake.  Considering the day and age we’re living in, it’s much more practical to be a Christian-in-private, rather than a Christian-in-mission.

I know I felt this way last Saturday when our Future Forward team met with our consultant.  Over the last fifteen years, he led his church from the brink of bankruptcy and death to become one of the fastest-growing congregations in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  He spearheaded sweeping changes to the church’s worship and programming, with everything focused on reaching a new generation of believers—in other words, mission.  He spoke about creating an atmosphere that is so loving and energizing that people wanted to be there and considered it a privilege to invite friends and family.  Folks were happy to give up other things in their lives to participate in the church. 

Theirs was a successful revitalization—but one that required huge risks and incurred tremendous costs.

That’s what worries me: the risks and the costs.  Part of me believes that we shouldn’t have to change anything to participate in Jesus’ mission.  The world didn’t ask God’s permission to change, so why should we change for the world?   

Another part of me feels like the whole thing is an exercise in futility.  Leechburg is an aging, declining community, and Lutheran congregations like ours are a dying breed.  Non-denominational mega-churches are “where it’s at.” 

And still another part of me believes that revitalization is the right thing to do, but it’s not for us.  It’s not realistic.  Therefore, we should do whatever it takes to keep the doors open as long as possible and accept our fate.

But Jesus didn’t leave his disciples with some pie-in-the-sky ideal.  The mission was impossible, but only from a human standpoint.  But with the Holy Spirit, impossible happens.  Jesus says, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).  God will act in you to reveal Christ to the world and make God’s mercy and righteousness a reality.  God will act in you to give daily bread to the hungry and bind up the brokenhearted.  God will act in you to gather people from far and wide into God’s own family. 

The cross of Jesus shows us where the mission begins: where God’s children are hungry and hurting.  God’s call begins in your hunger and hurt; in your fears and anxieties; in your brokenness and inadequacies.  That’s where you know Jesus and the power of his resurrection.  People who’ve never known pain or brokenness aren’t effective witnesses, because you have to experience death to know resurrection.  You have to know sin to know the power of forgiveness.  People who never know anxiety or inadequacy can never witness the power of the Holy Spirit working through them. 

It’s okay to be a church that’s broken and struggling—because God’s people are, too.  We are broken but made beautiful through the cross and resurrection.  Despite all our struggles and disappointments; despite our smallness and the context we find ourselves in, Jesus has given you a vocation that’s also a promise: you will be my witnesses.  The power of the Holy Spirit that created the universe and raised Jesus from the dead is alive in you to reach a new generation.  You have been given a new life that’s worth waking up for.  You’ve been given a vocation that’s worth taking risks for. You have been given the life a dying world is desperate to find. 

It is a daunting and difficult mission to be sent by Jesus as witnesses to a new generation.  It’s a daunting and difficult mission to be a part of a Church that’s dying and rising with Jesus.  Change opens the door for resurrection.  Resurrection moves you forward into tomorrow.  It’s the life and love of Jesus, making all things new, that you will witness when you go.