They still didn’t get it. Even after all this time. Even though Jesus had been with them for years. Even though Jesus had taught them and trained them and showed them the way. Even though Jesus had been raised from the dead. Even though Jesus was resurrected from the grave and spent another 40 days giving them instructions. Despite ALL that Christ had done, the disciples still did not understand. They did not understand – or perhaps they just refused to accept – that “their political aspirations were not Jesus’ primary agenda.”[i] Being a national hero was not Jesus’ primary goal. Jesus came to do God’s work. He came to fulfill God’s purposes. (Luke 24:44-48)
And the disciples were cool with that. In fact, they were totally on board with that plan. Jesus was the Savior that God had promised. “Excellent! We’re with you, brother. Just like Moses, you have come to rescue our people. You are going to overthrow the evil powers that rule over us, and you are going to be the new king of Israel. Sounds great! We thought you were going to take over the throne when you rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. Kind of surprised us when you got arrested instead. And it sure looked hopeless when they hung you on a cross. But, hey, you are with us now! And you’re talking again about the coming of the kingdom. Sounds great! When is it going to happen? When are you going to take over? When are you going to restore Israel to greatness? When will we be the ones with the power?”
Jesus told them bluntly, “That is not your concern. It is not for you to know WHEN God’s kingdom will be established on earth. That is God’s business. You’ve got your own business to tend to.”
The people of Israel had always been a bit narrow-minded. They forgot that God’s promise to Abram was that all people would be blessed through Abram. He would be blessed so that he could bless others. (Genesis 12) And Isaiah had told them that the temple of Israel was supposed to be a temple for ALL nations (2:2). “[The people of Israel] were passionate about being God’s people in God’s land but often neglected God’s mission and justice.”[ii]
No more, Jesus said. “You are going to receive power all right. The power you will receive is the Holy Spirit. And when you are filled with the Spirit of God, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all over Judea and Samaria…. In fact, you will be telling people about me all the way to the ends of the earth.”
And then he was gone. Jesus gave his followers a glorious vision of the future, and told them to get to work. And then he was lifted up into the heavens. And the disciples just stood there with their mouths hanging open. Ironically, many Christians today spend all their time looking up to heaven, waiting for Christ’s return. But the message of the angels is clear: Why are you standing there gazing up into sky? Look out at the world. There’s a LOT of work to be done!
According to a recent article by the Associated Press, Memphis is one of the poorest big cities in the United States and one of the most violent. Last year, 228 homicides were reported, and, so far this year, there have been another 84 killings. In fact, the overall crime rate in Memphis is 7 percent higher this year than last, but the number of police officers has dropped.[iii]
Clearly, there is still a lot of kingdom building work to be done right here in Memphis. But where do we begin? How do you figure out what God is calling you to do next?
The first step is prayer. Before you do anything else, take time to pray. What else can you do when your leader is taken up into heaven right before your very eyes? What else can you do when the bottom falls out of your world? What can any of us do when our foundational relationships disappear? Or when the wind and waves blow our lives away in an instant? “Before Christ’s followers could advance they would have to retreat, to an upper room, for prayer and empowerment.”[iv]
They say there is a shrine in the French Pyrenees where people go to pray for healing. A war veteran who had lost a leg appeared at the shrine sometime after World War II. As he hobbled his way alone the street to the shrine, someone said, “Look at that silly man! Does he think God is going to give him back his leg?” The young man overheard the remark and turned toward the speaker and said, “Of course I do not expect God to give me back my leg. I am going to pray to God to help me live without it!”[v]
The veteran knew that he needed to spend time in prayer, gaining strength and insight, before going on to face this new stage of his life. The disciples also needed to spend time in prayer before going on to face a new stage in their lives. But that time of prayer would soon be followed by action. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not stand around, gazing at the sky, hoping that God will come and deliver them from their circumstances. Instead, they pray for guidance and power and then they go forth, full of the Spirit, to do God’s work.
Sometimes people think it is the pastor’s job to do the work of the Church, and all the members have to do is write checks. But that’s not true. Everyone who claims to follow Christ is called to share his love everywhere they go. And there are a lot of ways to do that.
Lou and Dottie Riedlinger were serving as greeters at their church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when they realized that their congregation was reaching out to a lot of different people, but not to veterans.[vi] So Lou, an 82-year-old veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and his wife started an Armed Services Support Ministry. They started by raising money to purchase phone cards for the troops. In four years, they raised $11,000, which was enough to purchase 2300 phone cards. Then they turned their efforts toward a nearby veterans’ hospital. In addition to collecting underwear, socks, chewing gum, and crossword puzzle books for the patients, Lou and Dottie organized a group to make lap blankets for patients who are confined to wheelchairs. Others make cards, which Lou delivered to the hospital.
There are countless ways to be a witness for Jesus Christ. This church is a witness when we give to the Lenten World Hunger Offering, to Grace Place, and to Congo Women Arise. We are a witness when we participate in the Boy Scout Pancake Breakfast and read to toddlers at LaPetite Academy. You are a witness every day at school and on the job when you obey your teachers or boss and work hard and do your best. You are a witness when you play fair on the golf course, in the board room, or at the dinner table. You are a witness to the kingdom of God when you take up special offerings for flood victims and give to Golden Cross. You are learning to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ when you attend Sunday School and mid-week Bible study. You are a witness when you invite friends to come with you to church, to First Sunday Lunch, or to Trunk or Treat.
There are countless ways to be a witness for Jesus Christ, so let’s pray for discernment and open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit because it will take all of our creativity, all of our hard work, and every bit of power we’ve got to take the Good News to every home, every school, every neighborhood, all around the world. We can’t just stand there looking up at the sky. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
[i] “Preaching Helps for May 5, 2005—Ascension Day, Years A, B & C” was developed by the staff of the Center for Worship Resourcing of the General Board of Discipleship and is published on the GBOD website at www.gbod.org/worship/preaching/articles. Posted April 11, 2005. Downloaded May 7, 2005.
[ii] “Abandonment? No Way!” a sermon on Homiletics Online. Author not named. Downloaded May 11, 2013.
[iii] Crime statistics were reported in “Attorney general warns gang members: ‘We’re targeting you’” by Adrian Sainz. Published May 25, 2017 by the Associated Press. Posted online at https://www.yahoo.com/news/attorney-general-address-violent-crime-tennessee-visit-082808057.html. Accessed May 27, 2017.
[v] “The Proper Focus of Prayer.” Illustrations Unlimited. James S. Hewett, editor. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988. P. 421.
[vi] The story of Lou Riedlinger is told in “Veteran Dedicated to Vets,” which is a video that was produced by the United Methodist News Service and published on their website at www.umc.org/news-and-media/umtv-veteran-dedicated-to-vets on April 15, 2013. Accessed May 27, 2017.