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Sermon for Ascension Sunday, "Changed from Glory Into Glory: The Road Divides"

Sermon 5/20/12
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

Changed from Glory into Glory: The Road Divides

Here is where the road divides
Here is where we realize
The sculpting of our God’s great design
Thru' time you've been a friend to me
But time is now the enemy
I wish we didn't have to say goodbye
But I know the road God chose for me
Is not the road God chose for you
So as we chase the dreams we're after
Pray for me and I'll pray for you
Pray that we will keep the common ground
Won't you pray for me and I'll pray for you
And one day love will bring us back around again
Painted on our tapestry
We see the way it has to be
Weaving thru' the laughter and the tears
But love will be the tie that binds us
To the time we leave behind us
Memories will be our souvenirs
And I know that thru' it all
The hardest part of love is letting go
But there's a greater love that holds us
Pray for me and I'll pray for you
Pray that we will keep the common ground
Won't you pray for me and I'll pray for you
And one day love will bring us back around again
Yes I know that love will bring us back around again.

            Here is where the road divides. These song lyrics, slightly adapted, are from the song “Pray for Me” by Michael W. Smith, and they were what I had in mind when I titled today’s sermon: The Road Divides. This past week we had an Evangelism Committee meeting, and at one point, somebody mentioned that it would be my last meeting with the committee. We talked about whether we could schedule another one before I left, but eventually we realized that was impractical – it wouldn’t be about doing the work of the committee, but just about trying to be together one last time. I think I have, and maybe you have, been pretty successfully avoiding thinking about it being the last of this, and the last of that. The last meeting of this group. The last time I might stop and visit so and so. The last newsletter article to be written. The last worship grid to turn into Lynn and the Worship Committee. But, denial will only work for so long, and we know that pretty soon it will be the last rehearsal, the last bulletin, the last Sunday, at least in this configuration of pastor and congregation. The road divides.
            Today is Ascension Sunday. And it is the day in the midst of the season of Easter, the Fifty Great Days of Easter, nearing the end of that journey between Easter morning and Pentecost, when the baby church receives the holy spirit, when Jesus returns to the heavens with God, and the disciples have to carry on and continue the work with which Jesus has charged them. I was flipping back through my past sermons from Ascension Sundays, and I found that just last year at this time, I was talking to you about my Uncle Bill, who was leaving his church in Boonville to become a District Superintendent. I had just attended his farewell party, and I said to you: “When all was said and done, plaques presented, presents given and received, speeches made, my uncle was invited to say a few words. And in his comments, and in his closing prayer, what he said was this: this church has been a place where my dreams and God's dreams for me have come true because of how you helped that to happen. So please make sure that you also partner with the new pastor to help make his dream and God's dreams come true in the future, in the years ahead as well. Because if this twenty year ministry has been all about me, I’ve been doing something very wrong. This ministry is about building up the kingdom of God. Because I know that for my uncle, the thing that would make him feel the worst would be to hear that Boonville United Methodist just couldn’t continue without him. The worst thing would be watching what he worked so hard to build fall apart. To know that the lessons he tried to teach hadn’t really sunk in after all, that the gifts he shared and cultivated had been in vain.”
            These words that I shared have taken on a new meaning as this year, we unexpectedly find ourselves in the same position. I haven’t been with you 18 years, like he was with Boonville, but I resonate with his prayer – what happens when I leave here is as important to me, maybe more important to me, as what has happened in the last three years. Because the last three years hardly count if you and I don’t continue to live into the dreams God has for us once we are headed down these separate paths. The road is dividing. But the paths are still God’s paths, and I believe they are still heading in the same direction.
            Friends, I do not mean to compare us to Jesus and the twelve! But I can’t help thinking that we can better understand the Ascension when we think about our own situation today, and we can better understand our situation today if we understand the ascension. Our two scripture lessons today, both describing the Ascension, come from one author – passages from the gospel and from Acts both written by Luke, who writes to explain Jesus’ ministry and the infant church that Jesus’ early work births. In our text from Luke, Jesus reminds the disciples that his time with them has been a fulfilling of the law and the prophets and the psalms – Jesus brings into fullness all the promises laid out by God in God’s story with the people. And then, we read, Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures,” a conversation we’d all surely like to have overheard. Then Jesus tells the disciples the task: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, in Christ’s name. He tells them they have a little bit of time yet before they begin, while they wait to be “clothed with power from on high,” but then they will be ready to begin their work. He blesses them, and then is drawn away to heaven.
Our scene from Acts overlaps somewhat with our passage from Luke, but the focus is the same. Jesus has gathered with the disciples and is speaking to them about the kingdom of God. He tells them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But still, they have questions. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He tells them not to worry about that, but to concentrate on the coming of the Spirit, and the fact that they will be witnesses of Jesus’ work to the ends of the earth. Then he leaves them to return to God, and they watch him go. Finally, a messenger from God rouses them, asking, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven?” urging them to trust that Jesus will still be a part of their lives.
During Lent I shared with you a passage from one of my favorite books, Christopher Moore’s hilarious novel, Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. (1) The book takes a comical look at what Jesus, called Joshua in this book, might have been like as a young child, a teenager, a young adult, coming to terms with his identity as Messiah, all from the perspective of Biff, Joshua’s best friend. There is another scene that is apt for our Ascension discussion today. In the book, once Joshua has begun his ministry, he gets ready to send the twelve out to the towns and villages to preach. Joshua says to them:  “Okay, who wants to be an apostle?” “I do, I do,” said Nathaniel. “What’s an apostle?” “That’s a guy who makes drugs,” I said. “Me, me,” said Nathaniel. “I want to make drugs.” “I’ll try that,” said John. “That’s an apothecary,” said Matthew . . . “Apostle means ‘to send off.’” . . . “That’s right,” said Joshua, “messengers. You’ll be sent off to spread the message that the kingdom has come.” “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?” asked Peter. “No, now you’re disciples, but I want to appoint apostles who will take the Word into the land . . . I will give you power to heal, and power over devils. You’ll be like me, only in a different outfit. You’ll take nothing with you except your clothes. You’ll live only off the charity of those you preach to. You’ll be on your own, like sheep among wolves. People will persecute you and spit on you, and maybe beat you, and if that happens, well, it happens. Shake of the dust and move on. Now, who’s with me?” And there was a roaring silence among the disciples . . . [so] Joshua stood up and just counted them off . . . You’re the apostles. Now get out there and apostilize.” And they all looked at each other. “Spread the good news, the son of man is here! The kingdom is coming. Go! Go! Go!” They got up and sort of milled around . . . Thus were the twelve appointed to their sacred mission.”
Disciples are students. And we are always students of Jesus, certainly. But apostles are ones who are sent by God. And eventually, we have to be brave enough to go where God is sending us. Yes, I am making a physical move, but that isn’t always how God sends us of course. Where is God sending you, spiritually speaking? The disciples, I’m sure, had their doubts and fears and questions about becoming apostles, being sent. But if their fears kept them from becoming apostles, where would we be? If they never felt ready enough to be ones sent, to be the ones to take over the preaching and the teaching, who would hear the good news about the kingdom of God?
There’s always more we can learn, isn’t there? That’s why as a pastor, and probably many of you in your careers, I am required to do a certain amount of continuing education each year. My learning is not just finished because I have a degree to show for my time. But, can I ever learn enough to feel like I know everything I need to know to be a pastor? When I was starting at my first appointment, I had some real moments of panic before my first day. One day I wasn’t a pastor, and the next day, it seemed, I was! I wasn’t ready for this. Sure, I’d been to a lot of school, but what did I know about being a pastor? I couldn’t have responsibility for a whole church! What was I thinking? Was there still time to back out? But I didn’t back out, not because I suddenly found some burst of confidence, and not because I suddenly felt like an expert, and not because I knew I would do everything right. I became a pastor because, from the start, I felt called by God to do so, sent by God to this place in this time. I had to transition from being a student of ministry to being a minister. I had a lot to learn still. We will always have a lot to learn. But if we wait until we learn it all to start teaching others and inviting them to join the journey, we will always be stuck where we are now, never moving forward or growing. And as much as we might like where we are now, if we aren’t growing, we’re dying.
We’re all working at discipleship. And we never have to stop being disciples. We’re always students of the living Christ, seeking to be like him, molding ourselves after his spirit. But we have to start being apostles too. The message has to be delivered. The good news aches to be preached. We are the witnesses. We are the ones sent. We are the apostles. And yes, the road is dividing. But since we carry Christ with us, we’re still going forward together. Amen.


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