Baccalaureate sermon on Acts 1: 1-11, preached for the Wesley Foundation during UVA’s graduation weekend.
There are certain times in the Christian year when we never get to be together as the Wesley community. The 4th Sunday in Advent and the entire Christmas season, being a prime one. Every year in our community worship, we jump from the 3rd Sunday in Advent right into mid-January, the season after Epiphany. I realize many of you may not have noticed this since Christmas is a busy time of year and you are worshipping, back together with family and friends at home. I realize this is mainly a pastor’s lament, because we’re geeky and into the liturgical cycle, and because it’s a little weird, from my point of view as a worship planner and preacher, to fast forward through one of the best parts of the Christian year.
The Ascension and Pentecost are times like this, too. I think I was a good six years into campus ministry before the school year made it to Pentecost, and that was only because it fell the day after our baccalaureate worship so I claimed it as Pentecost Eve.
Today is Ascension Eve. And because we rarely make it to this point in the Christian year together, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly the story of Jesus’ Ascension fits with the leave-taking of baccalaureate and graduation weekend.
Right at the end of the passage we just heard, Jesus is lifted up into the sky and beyond the clouds. The disciples just stand there staring. And the two men in white robes show up and ask, “Galileans why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” (v. 11).
Does that question ring any bells for you? Ascension is the end of the forty days of Easter. Remember a similar early morning question back on Easter day? In Luke’s gospel, when the women find the empty tomb, they are terrified and just stand there, staring and immobile, looking into the place where Jesus was. Two men in white robes show up and ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).
These questions are bookends for us to the Easter season: Why do you look for the living among the dead? … Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? Each time, Jesus’ disciples want just a little longer to stare. It’s like they think he’ll come back or they will see something new when the clouds shift. If the white-robed men didn’t show up with their questions would they have all stayed frozen to those spots, staring and waiting indefinitely?
Maybe this is a temptation you’re feeling this weekend. To stay and stare. Wait for a clear sign. Bask in this place and these years and this Wesley family of faith.
I get it.
You are looking at a mighty marvelous sight… Wesley friends who have become family – people you had never met just four years ago, without whom you can no longer imagine life making sense. You are looking at Christ-centered community that’s made your time at UVA soul-nourishing and character-forming. You are staring at a place that has become one of your most important places. You are standing still on ground made holy by your time in this community of faith. It’s worth another long, lingering look.
Take it in.
Then take it with you.
The disciples didn’t want to leave that empty tomb or that locked upper room. They wanted to stay rooted to the spot where they last saw Jesus, even after the clouds had shifted.
But the gifts he gave them didn’t end on either of those hard, unimaginable, blessed spots. He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spread of their witness to the ends of the earth, and his eventual return. He gave them himself, each other, and a mission.
You have the same gifts.
Your time at Wesley has been God-infused and blessed in ways you probably didn’t imagine before you arrived, and which will make you hungry for more wherever you go from here. Let that hunger be your guide. Don’t stand rooted to one spot, starving and staring. Leave here knowing you are as full as can be right now and that God will keep feeding you “out there.”
God is not done with you yet. You are not just graduating from UVA, you are being sent from Wesley, too, on a mission to witness to the incredible, stare-inducing love of Christ. Whether you think you know what you’re doing or not. Your degree, honors of honor that it is, is not the most important thing you got here. You got discipleship training in being and becoming the body of Christ. You received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit dancing among us, pulling us together in just four short years, into one family, one body, against all odds.
The Good News is now you know how to do it and what to look for. Now you know it can happen in some other unexpected lonely first-time place. The leave-taking is both beautiful and painful. So is your mission.
The Good News is there’s nowhere to escape God or outrun that Love. God always gets there first and calls you on. Just like when you left home and showed up at UVA to a puny dorm room with no friends, and parents about to drive off, wondering how in the world you would make it.
And look what happened.
Go ahead, take another look. Drink it in. Feel the fullness and the hunger. Trust it. Remember it. And Go in peace, dear ones.
Thanks be to God!