First United Methodist Church
May 21, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Becoming One in Ministry
On April 15, 2013, Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki was covering the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Everything was going on as usual. It was jovial – people were happy, clapping – and getting to a point where it gets a little boring as a photographer. And then there was an explosion. Tlumacki was caught in the midst of all the chaos, and as everyone began running in different directions, at first he didn’t know what to do or where to go. “Everything just stopped for a moment,” he says, but soon he followed his instincts as a photographer and told himself, “You’re a photographer first, that’s what you’re doing” and he continued to take pictures, capturing images that would reveal the immediate horror of that devastating day.
That moment in history is etched in his memory, just as it is in the minds of others who were witnesses that day. Every photograph captures more than a moment; behind each photo there is a full story that tells what happened. These photos aren’t just about the bombing. They don’t show the explosion, and they don’t show the people being injured. We may see a photo of a woman receiving CPR or a man in a wheelchair with missing legs, but behind these photos is the story of a rescue. These photos remind us of the bombing, but they also document the efforts of hundreds of people who risked their lives to rush to the aid of the victims.
Today’s scripture paints a picture of an event that has an entire story behind it. If we focus only on the moment, we may miss what the story is truly about.
Our story today is about Christ’s ascension, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9) After this the disciples must have stood in awe for a moment, wondering what they should do next. While they stand there gazing up toward heaven, two men in white robes suddenly appear and say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come [back] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but I would stand there, gazing up into heaven, especially if I just saw Jesus go up. I would stand there, asking myself, “What do you expect me to do now, Jesus? You’ve kind of left me hanging here.” And after being rebuked by the angels for looking up, I might respond, “Why am I looking up? Because Jesus just went up! And if Jesus is going to come from up, then shouldn’t I be looking in that direction?”
Because that is kind of response we have when we focus on the moment. When the man in the wheelchair noticed the photographer taking his photograph, he wondered why he was still taking pictures instead of helping the injured. But, he realized later that the photographer was helping; his job was to tell others what he had seen and his photos revealed the whole story.
What we have to remember is that before Jesus ascends into heaven, he spends forty days instructing his disciples about what they are supposed to do when he goes to be with his Father. Moments before he ascends, he directs his disciples to stop focusing so much on the order of things as they are now because their focus needs to be on the mission that he has lain before them. What are they supposed to do? Immediately they are to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. After that, they are to be witnesses to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ ascension is not about that final moment; it is about an entire story – a story that is about to change.
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, it says that the disciples spent the time from when Jesus ascended until the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, worshiping Christ and continually blessing God in the temple. In other words, rather than focusing on their sadness at the loss of their leader, they looked forward to the future when the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised them would empower them to carry out the ministry for which they were commissioned.
Both passages today prepare the disciples for their lives after Jesus’ ascension, or, as John says, Jesus’ return to the Father. As Jesus speaks to the disciples on the night of his betrayal, he ends his discourse with a prayer – a prayer that calls the disciples to unity. As Jesus’ disciples sit on the threshold from being Jesus’ students to being Jesus’ emissaries to the world, Jesus prays for them and for us – that we, though we are many, may be one in our mission just as the Father and Son are one.
Acts reminds us that the disciples are witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As witnesses, their job is to go and tell others about what they have seen. They have borne witness to the fact that he is the promised Messiah. They have experienced personally the power of God’s redeeming love shown in Jesus. They have received a divine blessing. Their eyes have been opened to the truth of God. Jesus is, for them personally, Lord and Savior! They are to proclaim the good news that in Jesus Christ the promises of God have been opened to all people.
The disciples have absolutely no idea what is ahead of them. But they do know that a) Jesus is preparing them for whatever may come and b) he will accompany them via the Holy Spirit and Advocate.
What would have happened if the first disciples had not gone and shared what they had witnessed with others? What if, instead of expecting on Pentecost to receive that power from on high, they had instead chosen to go back to their previous lives, to head home, rather than wait out the next ten days in Jerusalem? What if they had said, “Well, Peter’s the best speaker among us. He can go. He can be the one to proclaim the good news. God has not equipped the rest of us adequately for that work. We’re tired and disappointed and scared, and so we quit. We’re outta here. We’re going home. Best of luck to you, Peter!”
We live in a day and age when too many disciples of Jesus Christ are simply skirting their duty to give their witness. We want to leave the work of proclaiming the good news to the ends of the earth to someone else who is more equipped. And what’s the result? Too many people are going through life without ever hearing any reason why they might consider learning about who this man Jesus was and is. And this matters because we live in a world that is in crisis. If we all stop thinking that it is our responsibility to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, then the Christian faith will cease to exist.
Ascension Sunday is the day for us to remember that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are called to give our witness by proclaiming the good news to the ends of the earth. That means we need share the why of our faith with somebody. It is our time. It is our responsibility to give witness to the redeeming love that we have seen, felt, known, and experienced in Jesus Christ.
The photographer, Tlumacki, admits that the images in the photos he took continue to haunt him, but he has returned to Boston every year since then, not to remind himself of or to relive the horror, but instead to capture the beauty of the marathon, which is the reason he was there in the first place. His pictures continue to tell the story, but now the story is about those who have overcome the sadness of a life-changing event.
When we face change, or an uncertain future, we still have a story to tell. We can get hung up on the details of that change, or of that future, or we can remember who and whose we are, and we can carry out our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ. The disciples spent the time between the Ascension and Pentecost “worshiping Christ and continually blessing God in the temple.” As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to capture the beauty of the transforming power of God’s love. Our lives are the photograph, but behind each image is a story, a story that witnesses to why we call Jesus Christ our Savior. It is our responsibility to tell this story. It is our responsibility become one…in ministry. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship
Go now to live in Christian love and witness to the power of forgiveness in your homes, in your community, even to the ends of the earth, until that day when Christ returns in glory. Amen.