It’s this time of year that we honor graduates of high school and college, and we have an eerily appropriate Scripture lesson for the occasion, for today is what the Church calls Ascension Sunday. It’s when we celebrate that moment when the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and the disciples stood and watched, staring off into the sky even after he was gone from their sight.
I think about those disciples today in light of what graduation means, and I think about how maybe they were realizing that they were really left all on their own. That’s a significant feeling: realizing that you’re all on your own.
Some people like that, and it makes them excited. The first few times we left our daughters at home alone they were excited with those feelings of independence and freedom, but I doubt the disciples were excited. I expect they were afraid. I don’t know for sure, however, I imagine that what the disciples were feeling was something like what I was feeling when my Mom left me at college. That day my Mom helped me get moved in, she attended a few of the orientation meetings, and then over lunch she said something like, “Well, I’m about to start crying, and once I start I’m not sure I’m going to stop, so I’m leaving. I love you so much. Bye.”
Then she gave me a hug and left. I remember watching her walk away. It was an eerie feeling. She was gone, and this was back in the old days before cell phones, so she was really gone, headed back to Marietta, Georgia, while I stayed in Clinton, South Carolina, at Presbyterian College – left to my own devices and left to deal with whatever challenges came my way on my own. Among other things, I went to the bank and opened a checking account. I set up the answering machine in the dorm room. That’s about how old I am: paper-checks-and-answering-machine years old. My Mom left and I started to figure life out.
I imagine Jesus’ leaving the disciples was something like that. Maybe you’ve heard of helicopter parents, who sort of hover around even after their kids go off to school. Jesus lifted from the earth, he was airborne, Scripture tells us, but he really left, so the disciples really were back on the earth trying to figure out how to keep the Church going without him.
Do you have any idea what that would have felt like? Maybe it was like learning to ride a bike. Knowing that your dad was holding the seat, you peddled hard down the street until you looked back and saw that he wasn’t there.
Stay in that feeling for a moment to really think about it. Compare that feeling to what those disciples must have felt, and with what growing up and becoming an adult is like.
What I know that every parent wants is to prepare their kids for life, so that they can get along on their own. Many parents question how successful they’ve been at doing so, but, parents, compare yourself to Jesus for a moment. No one can do better than Jesus at anything. And when Jesus left, were the disciples really prepared? Do they seem ready? Are they anxious to spread their wings? How responsible do they really appear to be?
I remember well enough how prepared I was for college. Honestly, I was not prepared much at all. Having really focused my schedule to do as little academically as possible during my last semesters of high school, on my first days of college we took a few tests as a part of freshman orientation, and I tested right into remedial English. Apparently shop and weight training weren’t the classes I should have been focusing on in High School, because this wasn’t English 101 that I tested into. I wasn’t ready for that. I tested into this class that was something like “learning English as a second language” and our professor was helping us with comma placement and when to preface a noun with “a” or “an.”
In addition to my weak English skills, while I now had a checking account, I had never written a check. I had never done my own laundry. I had never taken a car to the mechanic. I had never been arrested either, but soon enough I learned more or less what that was all about.
My point here is this: even the disciples don’t seem particularly prepared. Jesus leaves, and they don’t know what to do without him. They’re just standing there looking up at the sky. And so, parents, you have to say to yourself in these last few weeks before your chicks leave the nest, “If Jesus couldn’t get the disciples ready for life on their own, I need to cut myself some slack.” It’s impossible to completely prepare a person for independence, because there are some things in life that you won’t ever learn how to do until you have to do them on your own.
Do you know the hymn, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley”? It goes like this:
Jesus walked this lonesome valley;
He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him;
He had to walk it by himself.
And then it goes:
You must go and stand your trial;
You have to stand it by yourself.
Oh, nobody else can stand it for you;
You have to stand it by yourself.
That’s right. And in doing so you’ll find the strength that you didn’t know you had. You’ll learn to rely on a power that you ever knew was there. You’ll begin to walk on your own. You’ll run, without waiting for someone else to lead the way.
Once Jesus ascends into heaven, the final lesson can be taught and the final preparation is complete, because the disciples are now having to do what Jesus had been doing for them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells his version of this same story in one of his sermons. He was in Birmingham, which you might know was such a violent place during the Civil Rights Movement that some folks called it Bombingham.
Dr. King’s life was threatened. He was in danger, and he couldn’t sleep. The thought of that brick which had been thrown through a window of the house he was staying in kept him up. He knew not only was his life at risk, but his wife’s and children’s lives were at risk, for they were staying in the house with him.
Sleep eluding him, he went into the kitchen, made himself a cup of coffee, and there he thought about how much he wanted to talk with his father, who was miles away back home in Atlanta. He couldn’t depend on his father for comfort in this moment because his father was too far away, but in this moment, in realizing how far away his father was, he bowed his head in prayer and he asked God for help, and he felt as though he was possibly doing so for the first time all on his own.
Now I don’t think that Dr. King meant this was the first time he had every prayed. I feel sure that he had prayed plenty of times before, but you don’t know how much you’ve been leaning on your parent’s faith or your grandparent’s faith until you’re bowing your head before almighty God in a state of deep, personal need.
The old preachers used to say that God has plenty of children, but he doesn’t have any grandchildren, because just being related to someone who has faith isn’t enough. You can’t inherit faith, you have to have your own, and so being in the proximity of the miracle worker isn’t enough to prepare the disciples for what they must do next.
Being the son or daughter of a preacher, Sunday School teacher, or a missionary isn’t enough. Life doesn’t always care who you’re related to. Your bloodline isn’t going to get you into the Kingdom of God, you’ve got to walk that lonesome valley on your own. You’ve got to walk it by yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you. Nobody else can study for you. Nobody else can take the test for you either.
Think about what’s happened when parents have tried. You’ve heard about the testing scandals. Our girls have been watching Full House reruns, and all I can think about when I see Aunt Becky is how she helped her kids cheat on the SAT. Come on, Aunt Becky, you can’t do that, because not only will they get caught, but you’re also preparing your children to fail at life.
Now listen, I’ve had a lot of growing up to do. There was a time when I absolutely could not force myself to maintain my automobile. I was 21 years old and thought I was too busy to get the car fixed, especially because I had to get together with my friends from college for the weekend in Charleston. I left late at night, and somewhere in-between Columbia and Charleston the transmission started smoking. It was late, I was in the middle of nowhere, and the car quit on me. It just gave out. I made it to the shoulder and cut the engine, then tried to crank it again hoping it had reset or something. It hadn’t.
What do you do next? This was in those days before there were cell phones. It was dark out, my car broke down, and I had on cowboy boots. What do you do in a situation like that one? You start walking. Because nobody else is walking for you.
After four miles I made it to an exit that had a pay phone. I called a wrecker and asked the dispatcher if the wrecker could pick me up at the exit before picking up the car. She said, “Sir, it’s a tow truck, not a taxicab.” I’ll remember that line for the rest of my life. But I learned that lesson the hard way, because sometimes that’s the only way thick-headed people ever learn.
Didn’t Jesus tell them what they should do? Didn’t he? Hadn’t he already told Peter? Hadn’t he already taught Thomas? Hadn’t he already showed them all? But the only way they’re going to do it on their own is if he leaves them behind.
Now, I don’t think Jesus wanted to leave them any more than my mother wanted to leave me at college, but she loved me too much not to help me learn that most important lesson, and in leaving me on my own at college, in walking away and heading back home while I stayed on campus without her, one chapter of my life came to an end. Just when that chapter ended, another one began.
That’s maybe the most important thing to remember: the main character - the one everyone else depended on - leaves, but the story keeps going.
Our Scripture lesson began: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught.” You might know that the author of the book of Acts is also the author of the Gospel of Luke. In the first book the author wrote to his friend, Theophilus, to tell him “all that Jesus did and taught.” Acts is the next book, and just because Jesus leaves that doesn’t mean the story ends. It means a new chapter is beginning.
For many graduates, this month is full of celebrations to mark the end of the first book. In the midst of all that celebration, give thanks to God and be ready for the beginning of the next one, where you are the main character.
And as this next book begins, don’t be afraid. Keep walking. And remember always who you are. You are God’s own with a new chapter just beginning.