Football was my first love. I gave my heart to it, fully and completely. I loved the camaraderie. I loved my teammates. I loved the thrill of joining a group and working hard toward a common goal. I loved the thrill of victory. I learned some of my most valuable lessons from the agony of defeat. I still remember most of the nuances of the last game I played and I can get a bit weepy when I flip through the photo albums of my playing days.
One of the most devastating and exciting things that can happen in a football game is a turnover - when the ball suddenly changes hands from one team to the other. Somebody fumbles. A pass gets intercepted. Football is a fast game but everything speeds up even more in a turnover situation. My last couple of years in college football, whenever a turnover would happen all the coaches and captains would start yelling, "Sudden change! Sudden change!" it was a clarion call that it was time to step up; time to perform. Either score some points or make a stop. That call, "sudden change" was both exciting and dreadful; it was both opportunity and burden because everyone on both teams knew that the team who scores the most points from their turnovers is most often the team who wins.
As I read Acts 1, beyond Luke's eloquent introduction to his second book about the growth of the early church, I can sense the opportunity and burden on the disciples. At times they must have felt like the starting 11 or 12 on Team Jesus. They must have felt that high which only comes from being part of a group with a common purpose. They must have felt some pride with the identity that Jesus gives them. And then they get thrashed about by the sudden changes with Jesus.
Jesus enters triumphantly into Jerusalem, but then he is arrested. Sudden change. Jesus is having a meal on Passover with them, but then he is beaten and stripped and forced to wear a crown of thorns. Sudden change. They watch Jesus die on the cross and then meet him in resurrected glory three days later. Sudden change. For forty days he teaches them about the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, and then he is lifted up in a cloud with no warning. Sudden change.
It all happens so fast. It mirrors our experience with suddenness; we are either overjoyed or bewildered when things happen faster than we anticipated them or faster than we can process them. Which is why I think we should be forgiving when the disciples miss the point. The question they as Jesus is not theological or mystical or even particularly spiritual. It is political. They ask, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?"
It is kind of like the biblical equivalent of your ten-year-old asking, "Are we there yet? How much longer? Is it time?" They are desperate to know because people like to know. This is true now in our age of information, where the greatest cause of anxiety is not knowing and it was true in the ancient world, too. The desire to know is part of the human condition which transcends time and culture.
Jesus then does what Jesus does - he doesn't reject their question so much as he answers the one that they should have asked. Like the parent in the front seat of the car on the family road trip who implores the kids to be patient, Jesus says "The restoration of Israel is not for you to know, but here is what I do want you to know: you will soon be gifted with the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth."
It is nothing less than the great commission of Luke. Matthew's great commission is more famous and more verbose - but here the church gets its marching orders to use the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth. That is quite a task. Let's call it a change in expectations - like thinking the assignment was a one-page essay and it turns out that a dissertation is required.
The magnitude of Jesus's statement cannot be undersold by this preacher or any preacher. The disciples think they are going to be setting up shop in the throne room in Jerusalem and Jesus tells them that instead they will be given God's power and take the show onto every road. This is like ordering a value meal and being served an endless banquet where the food keeps coming and coming and coming and coming. They asked a simple yes or no question. They think the job is to rule Israel; Jesus tells them to blow the doors off and sends them packing to the farthest reaches of their imaginations. Whatever expectations they had, when they asked their question, are shattered by Jesus who gives them promise, purpose, and mission in one verse.
Scholars and preachers have rightly been transfixed by these words of Jesus since the book of Acts was written. Almost all of them point out that the disciples' question is about political power and Jesus charges them to wield spiritual power. The power promised is to witness; not to rule. Enter the church historians who quickly point out that this asymmetry between power and witness is why, whenever the church has tried to wield earthly political power, it has typically made a mess of things. History is littered with the detritus of popes, bishops, priests, and pastors who desired earthly power over the urgency of witness.
And in the very next verse, we get the final, most sudden change of all. It is a blend of ancient covenant and the new church being born. Jesus ascends to heaven in a cloud which reminds us of the long journey of the tribes of Israel. They are greeted by two figures in white robes which harken back to the transfiguration of Jesus and the presence of Moses and Elijah. Ascension Day is both an embrace of what was an announcement of what will be. The Bible is perfectly consistent: whenever and wherever the cloud of God arrives change is sure to follow.
Say what you will about the ascension - but it is sudden, definite, and final. It is a mic drop - Jesus just exits. They can't stop him. The ascension is a reminder that God is sovereign.
Given the power to make a choice, I suspect that the disciples would just as soon choose for Jesus to come back three days later one more time. But they are not given that choice. It is what it is.
Instead, the disciples get the opportunity to learn from the Holy Spirit. The lesson will be the very meaning of what it means to be the church. The church will have to make do without the bodily presence of Jesus and with the words, the sacrament, and the Spirit he left. Jesus has left it up to the Holy Spirit and to us. Jesus will return on God's time, not ours. He will roll back to us in the cloud and say, "Ready or not, here I come." But until then, there is work to do.
The difficult part of the job for the disciples is that Jesus gives very little instruction on how they are to do this work. Imagine having all the lumber, nails, wires, and plumbing delivered to a lot to build a house, and the architect has left no step-by-step instructions. You would feel that you were making it up as you went along because you would be making it up as you went along.
This is why the church is constantly reinventing itself. In every age and every place and with every tongue and every gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church is remade over and over again. It may seem uncomfortable; but it is the design and plan of the ascended Jesus. Our Lord uses the sudden changes of time and circumstance to force the adaptations which allow the church to continue its ministry to the very ends of the earth itself.
In the end, I think that Jesus ascends so he won't just be somewhere - as in, only in Jerusalem - but so he can be anywhere and everywhere - and all at the same time. If we ever arrive at the ends of the earth, he will be there with the Holy Spirit. But when we find him, we can expect him to ask us to change; we can expect him to reset our questions by the answers he gives; we can expect him to place the tools in our hands and tell us to start building the Church anew.
The commission of Jesus and his ascension in Acts 1 are a stark reminder to not get too complacent. Just because your team has the ball for 40 days does not mean your team is going to keep the ball. Fumbles happen. The uneven turf trips up the runner short of the goal line. The coach who built the team decides to retire and spend her savings traveling to see her grandchildren. The question faced by those eleven disciples, once the dust settles and the clouds dissipate, is the same question faced by us.
When either God or circumstance forces a sudden change upon us, will we wither or thrive in the face of opportunity? Pick up the ball, or leave it resting on the turf? Because whenever we dare to proclaim Jesus and his justice with love, his grace with mercy, and his life with abundance, we have embraced the very power to witness that he left to us in the first place. Amen and amen.