May 13, 2018
Ascension Sunday, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Luke 24:44-53
In his new book, former FBI Director James Comey talks about his first meeting in the Oval Office. It was 2003, and he was the deputy attorney general. On this day, he was filling in for his boss, the attorney general, at a daily terrorism threat briefing. For years after the September 11th attacks, the president met every morning with the leaders of the country’s counterintelligence agencies. Just two years after 9/11, there was no higher-priority meeting than this one.
Comey writes that when he arrived, he looked around the room and saw faces he recognized from TV: the president and vice president, the FBI director, the National Security Adviser, and the Secretary of Homeland Security. And he says in that moment, he had a realization: “It’s just us.” He said he always thought that in these kinds of meetings there would be someone better, but it turned out it was just this group of people trying to figure things out. He didn’t mean that as an insult; they were all talented people. But, he says, they were “just people, ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times.”
Just ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times: I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt on the day of Jesus’ ascension.
I can imagine it was a traumatic day for the disciples. It had been a traumatic couple of months, really. By the time Jesus’ ascended to heaven, they’d already been through a lot.
Six weeks earlier they had been marching beside Jesus, who was riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Throngs of people were gathered along the road waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” They were certain that this was the moment when Jesus would finally become the kind of king they were expecting, that Jesus was about to expel the Roman authorities and re-establish a Jewish kingdom like the one David had ruled centuries earlier. But suddenly all their hopes were crushed as Jesus was arrested, brought to trial, and put to death—all in a matter of just a few days. They watched him die. And then three days later they were stunned to learn that he had been raised from the dead, that Jesus was living again. He remained with his disciples for 40 days and told them to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit, which he promised would happen soon. And then, as if being Jesus’ disciple hadn’t already been enough of an emotional rollercoaster, Jesus suddenly ascended toward heaven on a cloud, disappearing from their sight.
It must have been a traumatic day for the disciples. Unlike us, they didn’t have the benefit of 2,000 years of theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. They were just a bunch of ordinary people doing their best to walk with Jesus, and they were doing it all in real-time. So it’s not surprising, at the end of today’s first lesson from Acts, that the disciples are standing there dumbfounded, mouths hanging open, looking up to heaven, as Jesus is taken away on a cloud. After all they’d been through, after all the upset expectations and unforeseen changes, this was just one more staggering surprise. And at the heart of all their anxiety seems to be one question: How could they possibly go on without Jesus beside them?
While Jesus is being raised up on a cloud and the disciples are gazing up toward heaven, two angels appear and scold them. “Why do you just stand there looking up toward heaven?” These angels don’t console them or offer comforting words in the wake of Jesus’ departure. Rather, they prod them into action. “Don’t just stand there looking toward heaven. He’s gone. It’s time for you to get to work.” The angels are pointing the disciples toward a new era. They’re urging the disciples to get busy with the work of ministry. Earlier in this lesson from Acts, Jesus had told the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is what this new era of ministry will look like: Empowered by the Holy Spirit, theywill be the ones doing the work, telling the story of Jesus and emulating his life and work for the entire world. It’s up to them: just a bunch of ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times.
Some of you know I did my seminary education at Yale Divinity School. One of the best and worst things about studying at an Ivy League school is that everyone there knows they are going to change the world. They know they are the ones who will be the next bishops and theologians, presidents and Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners and poet laureates. At times that level of confidence reeks of privilege and a sense of entitlement. On the other hand, there were times when it was inspiring to be among people who realized they were it; who saw a world in need and decided they would be the ones to make a difference; who had such clarity about their responsibility to make the world a better place. Why would we assume someone else will solve the world’s problems? Why not us?
Of course, Ivy Leaguers aren’t the only ones who are called to change the world.
This past Thursday evening I attended the annual assembly of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul (formerly known as the St. Paul Area Council of Churches). We heard a keynote speech from Clifton Taulbert, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and world-renowned speaker. He began by telling a story about being invited to address the United Nations General Assembly. When he arrived, he says he walked into the empty assembly hall and saw a nameplate with his name on it, and he broke down crying. He cried because he knew that, really, he was just “Little Cliff” who had grown up a black boy in the Mississippi Delta during Jim Crow. He says the only reason he grew up to achieve any kind of success was because he was raised by a community of people who were generous with their hearts.
In his book Eight Habits of the Heart, he tells the stories of ordinary people who played an extraordinary role in his life, ordinary people who took responsibility for the gifts God had given them and put them to use for others. He talks about Mr. Powell, the custodian at his segregated black elementary school, who was deeply devoted to those students, and showed it by taking his job seriously. Taulbert says that “it didn’t matter what ‘rights’ had been denied the colored school in the courts; the schoolyard was still trimmed like carpet and the tile floors reflected [their] faces.” Mr. Powell was part of what Taulbert calls a “benevolent conspiracy that existed among the adults to make [the students’] educational experience memorable.”
He tells another story about Mr. Fried, a Jewish merchant, who hired a black woman, Miss Maxey, to work the cash register. Mr. Fried’s store was the biggest store in town, the one place where you could get everything you needed, but there was only one cash register and everyone went to the same spot to pay. As long as anyone could remember, only Mr. Fried or his mother had worked the register; hiring Miss Maxey stirred things up. “This just wasn’t done,” Taulbert says, “giving a colored person a job up front, with the charge to handle money and wait on both [black folk] and whites. It was a small break in [the] rigid social structure” of the south, and it was small actions like these than began to heal divisions in the community.
Clifton Taulbert told us on Thursday night that he’s not asking us to build the Golden Gate Bridge. All it takes, he says, is “multiple micro-dosages of unselfishness.” He tells story after story of people who did their small part to instill hope and build community in the heart of the deep south. He says that the “people in his small ‘colored’ community had a thousand reasons not to… but they ignored that reality and built their lives for [his] benefit. When one builds people,” he says, “a good community will emerge, one that will leave its imprint beyond our front rooms, far beyond the classroom, beyond the gym, beyond our offices, and, in some cases, beyond geographical boundaries.” For Clifton Taulbert, the whole world is transformed when ordinary people commit to a way of life that honors each person’s dignity and affirms their humanity—ordinary people who have decided they will be the ones to make a difference, who are clear about their responsibility to make the world a better place.
That’s how Christ’s mission continues in his absence today. That mission now is ours. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, captures this idea in a poem:
Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Maybe you thought there would be someone better, but there’s not; there’s just a bunch of ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times. Christ’s mission now belongs to us.
James Comey, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (New York: Flatiron, 2018).
Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, “Acts 1:1-11: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Clifton L. Taulbert, Eight Habits of the Heart: Embracing the Values that Build Strong Families and Communities(New York: Penguin, 1997).