Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
What titles are you known by? Do you think titles are important? Next weekend Aaron will graduate with his Doctor of Ministry, and officially earn the title of “Doctor.” I hope to join him in that when I finish my own degree, but really, I still prefer titles like “Her Eminence.” In some churches I have served, people have preferred to call me “Rev. Beth,” while in others, like this one, people more often call me, “Pastor Beth.” Does that make any difference? Aaron recently had his job title for our Conference changed. Previously his title was “Associate Director of Connectional Ministries for Congregational Revitalization.” In theory, the folks who gave him that title thought it helped make clear that his job was part of a certain department in the conference structure. But mostly, it just confused people. Now, his title is just, “Director of Congregational Revitalization.” You can actually tell what he does by his title now, instead of falling asleep before you get to the important part! What titles do you carry with you? What do they tell us about you? How have they changed over time?
I remember the sense of strangeness I experienced when I started at my first church, St. Paul’s UMC in Oneida, in 2003. I was just out of seminary, and although I had spent time interning in various capacities at churches, chaplaincies, and agencies, this was the first time I would be the pastor of a church. And on June 30th, 2003, I wasn’t a pastor. And then, on July 1st, I was. At least, that’s what my title said! Elizabeth Quick, pastor. It said so right on the sign out front. I had some real moments of panic at first. 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? How did I go from being “regular old Beth” one day to having the “pastor” title the next?
There’s certainly always more we can learn. There’s always more I can learn about being a pastor. This week, I’ll attend a continuing education event in Nashville called The Festival of Homiletics, which focuses on preaching and worship leadership. My learning isn’t finished just because I’m qualified to be a pastor. Pastor, like many of you in your careers, are required, in fact, to do a certain amount of continuing education each year. But there are some things that you just don’t learn about being a pastor in seminary. For example, you never figure out how to hold a baby, read the words of a baptism liturgy, and bless them with water all at the same time until you’ve awkwardly tried to do it a few times! You could spend an endless amount of time preparing to be a pastor, and never just start being a pastor, if you were always trying to learn everything. So in those first days, I felt unprepared. But I plunged ahead, with many helpers and guides, 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 take this particular journey in ministry. I had to transition from being a student of ministry to being a minister.
I read once about a man named Johnny Lechner who refused to graduate from his undergraduate school. I’m not sure quite how he got started – he was ready to graduate, and a friend urged him not to rush, so he decided to stay an extra year. That’s not so uncommon. But Lechner ended up being an undergrad for about 15 years. It wasn’t that he just couldn’t complete the requirements. Indeed, he had credits to graduate in half a dozen majors – Communications, Health, Education, Women's Studies, Theater, and so on. He would say he was finally ready to graduate, and then back out at the last minute, remembering he’d never studied abroad, or never been in such and such club. His University became so sick of having him as a student that they implemented a so-called “slacker-tax” – students who take too long to graduate have to pay double tuition. Lechner was unfazed. Bolstered with income from speaking appearances and acting jobs related to his unique life path, he had enough money for double tuition. Lechner said he just likes learning. I can relate to that. But when do you have to be more than a student? When do you have to also move on, move out, spread out, branch out, and start becoming whatever you’ve been studying to be for so long?
Today is Ascension Sunday, and it is a weird in-between sort of day before Pentecost that we don’t spend much time thinking about. It is the day that we remember that Jesus, forty days after the Easter Resurrection, returned to heaven to be with God. Our two scripture lessons today come from one author – passages from the gospel and from Acts both written by Luke, who writes to explain first Jesus’ ministry and the then 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 he 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.
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. That is what the Ascension is. But we need to know the why or it doesn’t much matter. Why is the Ascension important for us to think about?
We’ve talked today about being students. Throughout most of Luke’s gospel, the twelve are referred to as disciples. Luke occasionally gives them a different title, but most often, they’re label “disciples,” students, students of Jesus and his teaching. But then, in Acts, written by the same author, even today describing the same events, Luke uses slightly different language. A small, but important shift. In Acts, we find the same followers of Jesus most frequently called apostles, a word that means “ones who are sent.” Actually, the full title of the second volume of Luke’s account is called, “The Acts of the Apostles.” Same people, different titles. Suddenly, those who were students are something else too, something more: ones sent by Jesus for a specific purpose – to continue the work Jesus began, by preaching about the kingdom, about repentance and forgiveness.
Perhaps, in such a state of chaos following the death and resurrection of their teacher, it would have been easy for the disciples to not want to move from their comfort zones. Were they ready to go out and be messengers of the good news? Certainly, the disciples had bumbled through years of Jesus’ teaching, barely seeming to get it at times. Even in this opening scene from Acts, the disciples exhibit that they still don’t get everything, and God’s messengers have to tell them to stop staring dumbly into the sky. But now, they’ve been sent. Can the baby church be planted by these disciples who still have so much to learn? The disciples, I’m sure, had their doubts and fears and questions about becoming apostles. 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?
I think we all experience this struggle, if in our own unique ways. In the church, we are sometimes very good at discipling, and not very good at apostling. I mean that we are very good at nurturing our members – taking care of those who are inside the church family already. If you walk through the purple doors of Liverpool First, we will try hard to welcome you and invite you to be part of us. We try to be students of the scriptures. We’re good at being in fellowship with one another. We’re seek to grow in our discipleship, nurturing the faith journey from infancy to adulthood. We’re good at being the church for the church. But are we as good at being the church for the world? Are we as good at being apostles – being sent – as we are at being students of God? Are we as good at going out into ministry as we are at the ministries that serve those who are already here? Are we willing to answer God’s call once we hear it, or will we insist that we are not ready enough, not prepared enough to be sent?
The official mission statement of the United Methodist Church, and really, the Christian Church in general, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our discipleship won’t accomplish much if being disciples doesn’t lead us to do something. If being a disciple has no impact, if being disciples doesn’t equip us for something, if being a student doesn’t help prepare us for a purpose, why bother? If being a disciple doesn’t lead us to apostleship, if being with Jesus doesn’t lead us to spreading the gospel, how can the world be transformed? How will others find out about God’s love?
We’re all working at discipleship. And we never stop being disciples. That’s a title we should always keep. 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. Let’s go. Amen.