Every preacher has had this nightmare before—you find yourself at church on Sunday morning completely unprepared for worship. I’ve had this dream a few times and, I know quite a few preachers that experience this nightmare on a more regular basis. I think one of the reasons I don’t dream about this too often is because I’ve lived this dream. It just so happened to be the first time I ever had to lead a worship service by myself on a Sunday morning. Thankfully, it turned out to be just fine—mostly because I wasn’t even supposed to be “in front” that morning.
Rewind the clock to my first job in ministry. It was almost 23 years ago. As the youth coordinator and camp director for the Presbytery I was serving, it was my job to visit the churches and promote summer camp and our season youth programs. I arrived at this small rural church where I was supposed to speak for four to five minutes about the benefits of camping and outdoor ministries. The community of faith I visited was part of a three-point pastoral charge and they were the last stop on the preacher’s Sunday morning worship schedule. On this particular morning, the church was having a congregational breakfast. And so, I joined them for that portion of the morning and—when things finished—we were supposed to head upstairs to the sanctuary for worship.
Ten minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, the minister (Al) showed up. He looked awful. I greeted him at the door and asked him, “Are you ok?” Al responded by telling me that he had thrown up three times on the drive between the last church stop and this one. “I’m so so sorry” I responded. I didn’t initially begin to get worried and sweat it out during the pregnant pause that followed my comment. But, when Al began to push the papers in his hand toward me it started to come together. “Would you mind taking the service, Dave?” He continued, “You could just extend your presentation and use that as the sermon.” My mind was racing. I really didn’t have an option on this. And so, with less than nine minutes of prep time I had to get in the mindset for leading the service—something I had never done before in my lifetime.
I don’t remember much from that morning, but I do remember the looks on the faces of those who gathered for worship that day. There was this, “You can do it!” “We believe in you!” look on their faces. I may have misread a few people. I’m sure there were some who were thinking, “This should be entertaining!” For those who believe that God has an interesting sense of humour, I’m sure they would’ve enjoyed watching me fumble my way through the service. There is a moment in the ascension story that, in some ways, mirrors the experience that I had at that rural church over two decades ago. Jesus is lifted up “in a cloud before their eyes.” What do the disciples do? They stare into space as if to say, “Now what??” I’m pretty sure that’s what I did when Pastor Al handed me his service papers. “What am I supposed to do now?”
The Ascension story is one that is mostly forgotten. It receives very little fanfare in most churches. The Good Friday story is deeply woven into the fabric of the church. Easter is the highest Holy Day. We know what to do on that day. We know what to sing in celebration of the resurrection. Even Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) is a day that is familiar to most of us. On Easter Sunday we say, “Christ is Risen!” and we respond with “Risen indeed!” What do we say on Ascension Sunday? Perhaps—“Christ is ascended… now what?”
I think one of the reasons we don’t celebrate Ascension Sunday with the same kind of enthusiasm as Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost is because it reflects something that is a bit of a nightmare for all of us. We want someone else to take the papers. We would rather not have God rely on us to carry out the important work of the gospel. Surely there is someone more equipped to carry God’s message of grace, peace, mercy, and care. Just as Jesus prayed, “Abba, take this cup from me”, we know what it means to long for someone else to “handle the ball” in those critical moments when the good news needs to be shared.
It says something about God that Jesus would disappear into a cloud of smoke, leaving it up to his humble followers to carry his message to the ends of the earth. It makes me think about that story I once heard a mentor of mine shared from the pulpit. The story isn’t rooted in any kind of biblical tale. It’s not found in any of the apocryphal gospel stories. But it is a powerful one.
It goes like this… Just after Jesus ascends into heaven (so the story goes) the angels come rushing to him. They’re desperate to hear the good news. And so, they ask Jesus, “How did it go down there? Are the disciples spreading your word with courage and conviction? Is the good news being shared with all creation?” Jesus responds, “No. The disciples are locked in a room right now. They’re a little scared and unsure what to do.” The angels respond to him as you expect they might. “So… they’ll go out and start the important work tomorrow, right?” Jesus tells them, “I’m not sure. We will see.” The angels then ask him, “Well, what’s Plan B? There must be another backup plan to share the news.” And, Jesus simply says, “There’s no Plan B (no backup plan). It’s up to them. Put into the context of today—”it’s up to us.”* That might be a heavy burden to bear. That might lead us to the same response as the disciples. It might prompt us to stare off into space in disbelief. Eventually, we may get to that place where we cease standing still and take that first step of faith.
For the followers of Jesus, the first step was silence and disbelief. It was one that prompted them to go back to Jerusalem—to go into the Upper Room and pray. While it may seem like this is a poor way to start the work of “building the church”, I can’t think of a more beautiful beginning to that important work that lays the foundation for the church. Jesus had instilled within them the confidence to put one foot in front of another and begin following in the Way of Jesus. The only way they could have done this was if they had confidence that God could work through them. I could have never made it through that first service I had to lead almost 23 years ago if it had not been for the people in that community of fait. Something miraculous happened that day. When I stood in the pulpit and began leading the liturgy the eyes and the smiles in the sanctuary that morning spoke to me, as if to say, “We don’t doubt for a second that God is going to speak through you today. Somehow God will show up.” Jesus showed up that day. The Spirit was with us, reminding us all (but most especially, reminding me) that with God’s help the work of the church will be done. The work will be done even when we feel ill-equipped to take the lead… even when we think we’re not good enough or lack the training to lead.
The ascension story reminds us what the way of Jesus should look like. The truth is, if this is all we had as the story of faith, it would be enough. For in this story we see who God is and how we fit into God’s Plan A for the world.
American author and professor, Darrell Johnson, shares some important words on how we might understand the early church, especially in light of what our experience is today. He points out that Richard Halverson (Presbyterian minister from the US, chaplain of the US Senate at one point) once said, Christianity begins in Palestine as a relationship with a person (with Jesus). It moves onto Greek soil and it becomes a philosophy. It moves onto Roman soil and becomes an institution. It moves onto British soil and it becomes a culture. It moves onto American soil and it becomes an enterprise (a business). Johnson suggests that the “enterprise” version of Christianity is getting in the way of the church carrying out its mission.** So many of us want to turn our faith tradition into something we can easily package. What we really need is to get back to that first way of being followers of Jesus.
Following in the way of Jesus is about relationship. It is concerned with each and every person. It’s not merely a spectacle to passively observe. It is a relationship where we embody what it means to speak those words of love, care, and compassion to all creation. The good news is that God has faith in each and every one of us. We can be the eyes of Christ. We can be the hands and the feet of Christ. God has given us everything that we need to carry the good news to the end of the earth. All we need to do is to wait and watch, preparing for that moment where we can say to one another, “I have faith in you”. I don’t think I would have stayed in the church (made this my vocation) had it not been for those kind and faithful people who partnered with me that day as a young, nervous, ill-equipped me stepped into that pulpit.
Jesus’ ascension is a moment where God shows what faith God has in us. We have everything we need to do the work of Christ and more. For a modern day portrayal of what this looks like and how it might empower us and others, let me close with this image that comes not from the church but the world of professional basketball. I can’t be sure, but I think what the disciples experienced on the day of Ascension was akin to stage fright (which is why I find it so similar to my story). They gaze into space after Jesus leaves them, as if to say, “Line please” (like forgetful actors). And, though we may have never stepped onto a stage and acted or performed in front of an arena full of people, we know what it means to experience stage fright. Young Natalie Gilbert experienced one of these moments in 2003, when she was just 13 years of age. She had the honour of singing the national anthem in front of her hometown Portland Trailblazers basketball team. As the anthem begins, she stumbles. Unsure of what to do and very embarrassed by her gaff, the coach of the Blazers (at the time), Maurice Cheeks, steps in to help. He stands by her until the very end, leading her word-for-word through the rest of the anthem.
The ascension of Jesus is a story that reminds us that with the help of God’s Spirit we can continue that work of Christ. We need not fear because God looks upon us and believes in us. Even when the world doubts, God is there to look upon us in love. Life is beautiful and our worst nightmares can easily turn into beautiful dreams when we stand together as one. When we embrace what it means to be handed God’s words of love and invited to share them with all the world. We are not alone. God is standing beside us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*This story was shared with me by Rev. Dr. Victor Wilson (formerly of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Devon, PA)
** From: “The Ascension and Jesus Christ” video featuring Darrell Johnson from theworkofthepeople.com