I shared with you a couple of weeks ago my joy that I’d gotten to attend my niece’s first dance recital. She’s been taking tap and ballet, and she loves it. She’s in the three and four year old class, and of course, the skill level is - well, the skills at that point are mostly about being willing to stand up in front of a room of people who are all staring at you and smiling big goofy grins and taking your picture, and of course, the managing to be excessively cute while doing this, and all the children in Siggy’s class managed to accomplish this. No one ran off stage that I could see - everyone got up front and did their thing.
At one point, though, all though the children were standing up front and smiling and being cute enough, they didn’t seem to be doing much dancing. Ok - there was not much dancing happening at the best of moments, but they were mostly just standing there at one point, and I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t sure, that is, until after the song was over and Miss Jillian, the teacher, stepped up front and asked everyone to clear out of the center aisle. You see, over the course of the recital, anxious family members, wanting the perfect photo or recording of their little dancer, had creeped farther and farther into the center aisle, until it was quite full. (I don’t judge - I certainly had my own camera out even though I stayed in my seat!) And Miss Jillian had been standing at the back of the room, doing all the dance moves so that her students could watch and copy her. But with the family members filling the aisle, the dancers could no longer see the teacher, and so they just stopped dancing. They didn’t actually remember any of the steps on their own, and so if they couldn’t see their teacher, they couldn’t dance.
I couldn’t help but have this image in mind - all the little dancers, no longer knowing quite what to do if they couldn’t see their teacher, as I read our scripture text for today. Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s not exactly a “huge” Sunday in the life of the church, particularly in Protestant traditions, but over the years it has started to feel more significant to me. It was certainly significant to the disciples. The Ascension is the day forty days after Easter Sunday when Jesus ascends into heaven and leaves earth, at least in his physical human incarnation. We celebrate on the Sunday nearest to the forty day mark. I’m not sure why we don’t make a big thing of the Ascension. I guess Jesus leaving earth isn’t as exciting as Jesus arriving on earth at Christmas, and maybe because we figure Christ never really leaves if we’re talking about his presence, or the way we embody Jesus on earth, so it isn’t such a big deal, and maybe since Jesus has already left through his crucifixion and death but then returned as the resurrected Christ - maybe all of this makes the Ascension feel anticlimactic. But when I think about it, for the disciples - this moment is HUGE! It’s everything? Sure, they are not crushed in grief like they were just after the crucifixion. But this time they know Jesus is really leaving earth, and he’s not coming back, not in the same way, not now. This time, their time spending their every day with Jesus in the flesh is really, certainly done. The disciples must be overwhelmed with emotions. What should they be feeling? What should they do now?
The scene in Acts 1 just before the Ascension unfolds like this. Luke, author of both Acts and Luke, tells us that Jesus has instructed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem, because they’ll be receiving this thing called the Holy Spirit. They’ll be “baptized” with the Spirit Jesus says. We’ll be talking all about the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost. They’re to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit. But the disciples still don’t seem to understand - or at least they don’t want to understand - that Jesus is about to leave. They ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Essentially, the disciples are asking - still, as they and others have been throughout Jesus’ entire ministry - when Jesus is going to put things back in order in the world. It sounds like Jesus is talking about leaving. The messiah has come, and now the messiah is leaving, but Israel is still an occupied country. The Roman government is still in charge. Things still haven’t returned to the way they were in the golden age of David. Everything hasn’t been perfected yet through God’s action in Jesus. If Jesus is leaving, when exactly is all that stuff supposed to happen?
Jesus answers in a way that I’m sure frustrates them if they’re a group seeking concrete answers. He says: It’s not for you to know! It’s not for you to know the things that God has determined! The disciples have some tasks ahead of them, but knowing what God has planned when isn’t one of them. What they can know is this: they’ll be getting the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus reminds them, and then they will be witnesses for Jesus both in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they will be the ones sharing what they have seen and heard and learned from Jesus with everyone everywhere. With those words, Jesus ascends to heaven, and all the disciples are looking up at the sky, following as he moves out of their sight.
While they’re still gazing at the heavens, eyes fixed on the last spot where they could still see Jesus, two messengers of God appear. Their words remind me of the words of the messengers at the empty tomb on Easter, who asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Today, these messengers ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? He’s been taken up to heaven!” But: there are words of comfort too: eventually, someday, at that time that’s not for us to know, Jesus will return. In the meantime - “in the meantime” is the time that we, the disciples of Jesus, are responsible for carrying out the work with which Jesus has charged us. We’re to be witnesses, people who are recounting to others the truth about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what we are called to do in response to God’s offering of love and grace.
When I think of the disciples, gazing up into heaven, I picture my niece’s dance class, when they can’t see the teacher anymore because of all the people who are standing in the way. For Siggy and her class, they simply hadn’t been students of ballet and tap long enough that they could continue to dance without someone to watch closely. They needed the teacher right in front of them. Eventually, after more years of lessons, they won’t need that anymore. But they don’t know enough yet. They’re beginners. It’s all still so new, and they can’t do it if they can’t watch their teacher doing it too so they can copy.
I think for a moment, the disciples felt just that way. They couldn’t see their teacher clearly anymore, and maybe they should just stop dancing. How could they do it without Jesus right there with them? But they weren’t beginners. They have had years of lessons, years of following Jesus, learning his ways, practicing what he preached and taught. They have to keep dancing, even when the teacher isn’t standing where they can just copy his movements. Because if they can’t, they’ll never be dancers. They’ll always be students, and being folks who always are learning is good, but the disciples have to be ready to take on the work of Jesus themselves. That’s why Jesus had them follow him for so long - so they could be the ones to carry his work to the whole world. If the disciples can’t become dancers - messengers of the work of Jesus in the world - Jesus’s mission and purpose in the world would never be fulfilled. Thankfully, the disciples, empowered by the gift of the Spirit as we see next week, realize that Jesus has given them all the tools they need to do God’s work in the world, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to be the body of Christ in the world. And beginning with that small group of disciples, the message of Jesus and God’s grace spreads and spreads.
What about us, I wonder? We’re disciples too. We’ve been following Jesus too. Some of us may indeed be beginners. We’re following Jesus for the first time in our lives. We’re new to this Jesus thing. But many of us made the commitment to be disciples long ago. We’ve renewed our commitment again and again. Are we dancers? Or are we still looking for the teacher so we can copy the footwork?
Last week we had a Leadership Retreat - a team of us who are involved in the Council of Stewards, Council on Ministries, and Staff-Parish Relations Committee gathered to talk about our intentional discipleship plan here at the church. Our intentional discipleship plan, something we’re in the process of developing, is our understanding of how we help folks move from being curious about Jesus, meeting him for the first time, to making a commitment to follow Jesus, becoming a disciple, to then committing to a life of growing and maturing in faith, embodying Jesus more and more fully. That’s our hope for each of us who are connected to this congregation - that we are not just static observers of Jesus, but that we are actively growing in our faith - always drawing closer to God, always going deeper, always giving more and more of ourselves into God’s hands. That’s our priority for how we want to do things around here: how can make sure our ministries and programs and worship and studies are helping people grow as disciples.
I’m not sure everyone is meant to be a leader. Some people are called to servant leadership, and some are meant to be followers, and are never called to take a role as a leader, at least in the sense of being in charge of a committee or running a group or leading a study. That’s ok, truly. Jesus called followers after all, some of whom became leaders, but his priority was to call followers who could be equipped as disciples, apostles, people sent out with the message of Jesus. And I think we can be sent out with the message and work of Jesus, I think we can be witnesses to the work of Jesus without being leaders in the typical sense. But I think sometimes our desire to not be a leader gets mixed up, and turns into us not wanting any responsibility, not wanting to be required to do anything. We look around at the things that need our attention as people of faith acting in God’s name, and we keep waiting for someone else to do it, because we’re not leaders.
But friends, we are disciples. We are followers. We are called and equipped to serve God. We are charged with being witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are supposed to be dancers who have learned enough about the steps that we can do the work of Jesus even though Jesus isn’t physically with us. Why are we looking up at heaven? We already know how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus on earth. So let’s get to it. Let’s dance. Amen.