Gone Up With a Shout: Clap Your Hands; Psalm 47:1-6; Luke 24:44-53
Plymouth First United Methodist; May 16, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Our daughter ran in high school. Her two main events were the 800 meter run and the 3200 relay. Over the years I watched a lot of relay teams passing off a lot of batons, and as you might expect, there is an art in doing that well. Both the one who hands off the baton and the one who receives it needs to be confident in what they’re doing and in what their teammate is going to do, in order that the race can continue as seamlessly as possible. The outcome of the race depends upon their ability to make a good exchange.
Competitive runners aren’t alone in the need to efficiently pass on a baton: it happens as a family business is passed down from one generation to the next, when a co-worker in any kind of work is trained for a new position, when you and I train our children for the first 18 or 20 or 30 some years of their lives so they can function well when we’re no longer around offering them coaching.
I worked on the Conference Board of Ministry for a number years, designing a moment around when our retiring class of pastors passed on a stole or a lit candle, or some sort of symbol of ministry to the incoming class of ordained pastors, symbolizing the passing on of ministry from one generation to the next. The liturgy offered thanks for what was and hope in what is yet to come for those newly ordained pastors who have accepted the call to make disciples in the name of Christ.
In each of these situations and more, we’re passing on the baton. We’re providing others with the tools they need to carry on, to pick up what we’ve started, to accomplish—we hope—even greater things than what we were able to do.
The text this morning from the Gospel of Luke describes the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Each of the gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles describe Jesus appearing to his disciples (and others) after the resurrection, talking with them and commissioning them to continue the work that he has begun.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers to “go out and make disciples.”
In Mark, he tells them to “preach the good news.”
In John, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep.”
In this Luke text, Jesus tells the disciples that they are witnesses to all that has happened, and that they will be recipients of God’s power. They are to stay where they are until that power from on high comes to them which will empower them for the task that lies ahead.
Jesus is passing the baton to the disciples, and he’s providing them with everything they need to continue to run the race well.
In these 40 days since the resurrection of Jesus, he has been deliberately, carefully, and painstakingly instructing his disciples. From the beginning of their time together, Jesus has been preparing them for the work he has called them to do, but now—they have experienced for themselves/they have seen with their own eyes—and now understand in a way they weren’t able to understand before. They’re ready to hear with new ears and to respond in ways that they were unable before.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar in your life—where something happened that changed your perspective and then everything became different.
They now have a proper diagnosis and you can see your way forward in a way you couldn’t before…
You didn’t know why your friend reacted as he did, but now you know the whole story and it makes sense. A piece of the puzzle that just didn’t fit has been found, and that changes everything.
It was like that for the disciples. Now, looking back over what they have witnessed, the things Jesus had told them now makes sense. Now they understand. Now they know what before they had only hoped for. This was no fiction, no fairy tale, no fantasy. This wasn’t the idle ranting of a madman…
Now they know, and they had been invited to be a part of it. Something had already happened and now, something incredible is about to happen. The resurrection of Easter completes and gives purpose to all the pain and suffering they experienced in the last few days of Jesus’ life. The ascension of Jesus and the gifting of the Holy Spirit sets the stage for the birth and growth of the church.
The disciples are ready to receive the baton, to run the race, to fulfill the mission to which they’ve been called.
They’re ready now in a way that they weren’t ready not so very long ago…
Do you remember those moments when they wanted to…they tried…but they just couldn’t? It wasn’t so long ago.
It wasn’t so long ago when James and John were volleying to be his right-hand men, scheming, trying to get his favor so they could help bring in a different kind of kingdom than what Jesus had in mind…
It wasn’t so long ago when Judas betrayed Jesus, for reasons that we can only speculate…
It wasn’t so long ago when Peter denied Jesus…
It wasn’t so long ago when Thomas insisted on seeing Jesus’ wounds. Otherwise, he insisted, he wouldn’t believe.
It wasn’t so long ago when they had gone into hiding, fearing that they, too might be killed.
But here it is 40 days later and these men are very different. By the end of the gospel, they’re with Jesus in Bethany, receiving his blessing, witnessing his ascension, worshipping him, and spending time in the temple praising and blessing God.
So, what happened? What changed? What’s different?
I think perhaps several things happened, that ended up binding these disciples together and giving them strength: changing them from shrinking violets into confident disciples.
The first thing that happened is that they finally, truly understood who Jesus was.
Remember how Jesus once asked Peter, “who do people say that I am”, and Peter had responded “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”? (Matthew 16:13, 15). Though I’m sure he believed what he was saying at that moment, it wasn’t so very long after that, when standing outside the chief priest’s house Peter insisted he didn’t know Jesus. At that perhaps at that moment, he was being just as honest as he had been earlier: he really didn’t know Jesus. Not really. Not yet. But after the cross, after the resurrection, in the course of these 40 days, all that changed. Now, he does know Jesus in a way that he didn’t before.
Secondly, I think the disciples finally came to terms with their own faith and doubt.
Before, they wanted to believe, they tried to believe, they had as much faith as they could muster, but they fell short. They always fell short.
When we’re totally honest, we can relate to that. Our faith is not always as strong as we might hope it would be. Frederick Buechner says it this way:
Every morning you should wake up and ask yourself: can I believe it all again? No, better still, don’t ask it till after you read the New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side-by-side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer is always “yes” then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least 5 times out of 10 the answer should be NO because the NO is as important as the YES, maybe more so. The NO is what proves you’re human, in case you should ever doubt it. And then, if some morning the answer happens to be really YES, it should be a YES that is choked with confession and tears and great laughter” (The Return of Ansel Biggs, p. 303-4).
I’ve recently spoken with a terminally ill individual with deep questions about how she had gotten to this point—she had always had faith, believed with all her might. And now, she was dying, leaving behind her children and grandchildren. How could this be?
And yet, in the midst of these questions/this doubt, she continued to express faithfulness that stood firm. Questions…faith. All in the same sentence.
Faith, according to Hebrews 11 is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” That doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come naturally, but it’s a dilemma that every disciple—then and now—learns to balance. It’s like standing on a teeter-totter, right in the middle of it, a leg on each side—attempting to hold yourself on, holding steady. There’s work involved; questions will come your way. That’s the life of a disciple. That’s the life we live in this world. But it’s okay. When the disciples come to terms with that, and when we come to terms with it, we’re able to live with a confidence that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
A third thing that happened for the disciples is that they finally understood their purpose. They finally understood their role.
How could they know when Jesus first asked them to come follow him; to be fishers of men? How could they know what it would mean for Jesus to come into his glory? They had envisioned a different kind of kingdom when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God. But now, it makes sense. It finally makes sense.
You have to know there’s a reason for what you’re doing in order to do it well. You have to feel like there’s purpose and meaning in order to stand firm in all seasons, particularly when the winds of adversity threaten. When you understand what you’re doing, even during those tough times, you’re better equipped to stand firm.
An important question a pastor is asked at the very beginning of the journey into pastoral ministry is to talk about our “call.” How has God brought you to this point in time? How is God working in your heart and mind? What is it that God is calling you to do? If you don’t have an answer, you’re given the time you need to think through those things. If you are uncertain of your call, ministry can tear you apart. That’s when a person sends a note off to the bishop and says, enough of this stuff and heads off to be a barista where the most challenging questions will be decaf or regular, skinny or whole milk, whipped or plain. Being a pastor is more than a career decision, more than a feeling…and a disciple, whether one of the original 12—or any one of us today—needs to think through and understand our purpose for living this life or we won’t be able to hold on when the winds of adversity prevail.
A 4th very important piece of the disciple’s strength and ability to grow is their commitment to remaining in community. The disciples remained with and for one another. From the time Jesus called them together, they ate meals with one another, they traveled together, they even hid out together after Jesus died. And then they came out of hiding and continued to work together, side by side.
They knew one another. They knew one another’s gifts. They knew one another’s growth areas. They knew who snored and who was best at grilling fish for supper. They knew who was good at money and who could best comfort the sadness of a grieving widow’s heart.
As a community, they were able to hold firm.
And finally, our scriptures show us today a 5th piece of the puzzle that helped them to sustain and grow: they worshiped together. That final sentence in the Gospel of Luke reads, “And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” In the description of the ascension in Acts 1, we read, “They all joined together, constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” They prayed, they worshiped.
They recognized the significance of worshipping together, in order to carry out the task Jesus had given them.
All these things:
- Worshiping together
- Being in community
- Recognizing their call and purpose
- Accepting their doubt and trusting their faith, and
- Knowing Christ…
…each of these things significantly impacted the growth and the development of these disciples, bringing them to a place where they were ready to receive the power God was about to give that would make changes in the world beyond what they would ever have imagined.
Simple, normal, every-day men: faint of spirit, weak in faith, but open to the call of Christ in their lives. Men who became students, disciples and friends…and were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Blessed by God. Blessed to bless others.
As Jesus ascended into heaven he passed the baton onto them…and on to you and me.
Are we ready to receive it? Amen.