Monday, June 3, 2019

Sermon: "Time To Lose the Training Wheels", Luke 24:44-53/Acts 16:23-34 (May 2, 2019--Ascension Sunday)


I was about five years old when I decided that I didn’t want training wheels on my bike anymore. I was the big sister; it was time for me to woman up. When I told my dad about my intentions, he grabbed his trusty screwdriver and headed outside with me. After the offending wheels had been removed came the hard part: I had to figure out how to convince the bike to stay upright with me on it. We started off on the grass, so that any (inevitable) falls would be less painful. But we quickly found out that my five-year-old legs weren’t yet capable of an off-road adventure. So, with a bit of trepidation and a whole lot of determination, we relocated our operation to asphalt.

Dad says I was okay with riding up and down the driveway, but I insisted that he keep his hand on my bike seat so I wouldn’t fall. This, as you might imagine, severely limited how fast we were able to go together, which in turn made it difficult for me to build up enough speed to balance on my own. A kindergartner’s catch-22. Anytime my dad tried to loosen his grip on the seat, I’d get spooked and veer off onto the grass quickly so as to avoid a hard landing (it’s always good to have a plan in case of an emergency).

We both knew I’d never learn how to ride if he never let go. And I was nothing if not a determined kid. So eventually, we ventured into the street (where there was no grass to tempt me) and after a few steps, my dad let go of the bike. I took off, flying down the road like it was the easiest thing in the world. Apparently, my first time stopping without a grass safety net was a bit shaky, but in my dad’s words, “When you realized it wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t a problem anymore.”

Although few of us think twice about hopping on a bicycle now, there was a time in each of our lives that it didn’t come naturally; a time that it was, indeed, a fairly daunting prospect. It’s not an easy skill to learn by yourself, and most of us rely pretty heavily on our teachers for those first few rides. Yet eventually, if we want to get anywhere, we need to have faith in our own ability and allow our teacher to let go.

The first disciples weren’t attempting anything as monumental as riding a two-wheeler for the first time, but they WERE trying to figure out how to do ministry in a post-Resurrection world, which is also a pretty big deal. Up until now, they’d had the benefit of their Rabbi by their side, teaching, explaining, holding them upright and making sure they didn’t fall as they learned how to share the Good News with others. But today, we read that 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, out of sight. He’d seemingly left his disciples on their own to fend for themselves. Their ministry training wheels were suddenly gone—what were they going do now?

In order to understand the reality of the disciples’ situation, we first need to better understand the nature of Christ’s Ascension. It’s one of the more strange and mystical stories in the New Testament. It’s one of those passages that we tend to just accept as part of the canon, but when we stop to think about it, it’s a little disconcerting. How can Jesus say “I am with you always, to the end of the age” at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but then turn around and teleport to heaven at the end of Luke? How can he be both here AND there; it’s gotta be either one or the other, right?

Well…yes and no. Since we’re most familiar with a physical Jesus, since we know the stories of him touching and eating and walking and hurting and dying, it can be difficult for us to separate our understanding of Jesus’ presence from his body. But remember that God isn’t bound by our understanding of space and time. That’s why we’re able to accurately talk about “Our Father, who art in heaven” at the same time we talk about God surrounding us at all times. It’s one of those weird quirks of faith that we’re able to accept this without fully understanding how it works beyond, “it’s a God thing”. Christ is fully God just as surely as he’s fully human, so he, too, is able to be “here” and “there” at the same time. His presence isn’t limited to the place where his body resides.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he wasn’t abandoning humanity. This story doesn’t contradict the promise he’d made in Matthew…it shows how the nature of his presence with us has changed. The disciples WEREN’T alone as they shakily began their own ministries like kindergarten Katey on her two-wheeler. Jesus had just taken his hand off of the seat. He wasn’t holding them up anymore, but he was still there even though they couldn’t see him: running along behind them, cheering them on, shouting encouragement and guidance as they went, and being right there by their side whenever they wobbled or fell down. A parent doesn’t abandon a child embarking on a new adventure; they just shift the nature of their presence to give the child the greatest chance of success. Why would we expect anything different from God?

If Jesus had stayed physically on earth forever, what do you think are the odds that we’d have these stories of Apostles healing people, converting gentiles, and growing the Church with confidence? I’d say slim to none. If my dad hadn’t let go of my bike, I’d still be riding at half speed, looking backwards to make sure he was there and relying on him to get me where I needed to go. I’d be the most awkward, dependent 30-something ever. If Jesus had stuck around in the same way, the disciples likely would have never learned how to do ministry on their own. They would have stayed close to him, checking to make sure that what they were doing was right and deferring to him on every little thing. Can you imagine? “Oh, no, I shouldn’t be the one to tell you about God; Jesus says it so much better than I do.” They would have been observers of Christ’s ministry rather than participants in their own—and that’s not what God wants at all.

In changing the way he’s present with humanity, Christ empowered us all to strike out on our own, to minister to one another, to teach one another, without being held back by our own dependence. In stepping back—though not away—Jesus allowed us to flourish as ministers in our own right. We don’t have to wait for Christ to return in order to do ministry. We don’t have to rely on someone else to share the Good News. Through the Ascension, Jesus basically says, “You got this!” WE get to do it, right now, today! I know, I know; it feels scary at first. But as someone once told me, “When you realize it’s not so bad, it won’t be a problem anymore.”

If you ever find yourself forgetting that it’s not so bad, that you’re not alone, you’ve probably been away from church for too long. Our worship is designed to help us remember that Christ is with us, even though we can’t see him. The sacraments aren’t just rituals that we take part in for their own sake; they’re the ways that we physically encounter the presence of an unembodied Christ. We don’t mark the liturgical seasons just so that we can switch up the decorations in the sanctuary; they’re a way for us to bear witness to all the different forms of God’s presence in our lives: as a promise, as a vulnerable infant, as a fellow human being, as a sacrifice, as the resurrected Christ, and as an eternal spirit. Through these familiar practices, we’re reminded that Jesus has always and will always be with us. Whenever we lose confidence in our calling as Christians, we can turn to these aspects of Church life to help us hear God’s voice, like a parent cheering us on as we go, reassuring us that we’re not alone.

This is especially important because learning how to share the Gospel is only the beginning of our responsibility. Part of learning to ride a bike without training wheels is the unspoken expectation that you’ll do the same for those who come after you, for your younger siblings or children or nieces or nephews. Jesus has taught us how to share God’s Word, and now we have an obligation to do the same for others. It’s not enough for us just to proclaim Good News; we’re charged with making disciples, which means helping others take off their training wheels when they’re ready.

Paul and Silas had preached and healed in God’s name—they’d done their job—and it landed them in jail. When they had the opportunity to escape, they could have justified it to themselves by saying that they’d already done what God had asked them to do. Instead, they chose to stay so that they could teach the jailer. He was willing to be taught, and he needed help and support as he learned what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. They figuratively ran behind him, holding him up, while he figured it out. When he was ready to claim his faith on his own, I’m sure that Paul and Silas remained supportive and present in a new way even as they moved along to the next town, maybe visiting, maybe writing letters of encouragement (Paul DID like to write, after all), maybe simply praying for him. And in the end, the jailer would be a new disciple in his own right.

My grandfather taught my dad how to ride a bike, and he in turn taught me. He used the techniques that had been passed down to him, first holding me up with his own hands, and then running behind me and encouraging me when I was ready to ride on my own. And God willing, when I have my own kids, my dad will still be there, encouraging me from 2000 miles away as I teach THEM how to ride a bike. Because even though it will have become MY job to pass along this sacred knowledge, he’ll still be there to support me as I do.

That’s how it works—when someone loves you, they do everything they can to help you learn and grow, and when it’s time, they step back to allow you to flourish. Jesus loves me, this I know. Jesus loves you, too, and that’s why he’s still with us as we live into the lessons that he taught us. Jesus also calls us to love our neighbors, our friends AND our enemies, and so it’s our turn to be present with those who are still learning how to follow Christ and, when the time comes, to stand back and cheer them on as THEY flourish. If we all do this—if we all can follow Christ’s example and be present in the ways that others need us to be—then we truly can make disciples of all nations…one bike ride at a time.

This week, we celebrate how Christ has taken off our training wheels. Next week, at Pentecost, we’ll celebrate how we’re no longer confined to riding up and down our driveway, but we’ve been sent out into the world. We have a destination, a purpose: to teach others how to follow Christ. God has empowered us to do ministry in every time and place, so let’s go for a spin! The training wheels are off, Jesus is cheering us on…so let’s ride! Amen.

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