Sermon for May 21, 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 1: 1-14

Come, Holy Spirit, into these words and into our hearts.  Amen.

The Great Handoff

This morning’s passage from the Book of Acts links the stories of Jesus found in the gospels with the events marking the beginning of the early Judeo-Christian movement.  It acts as a bridge between life-with-Jesus and life-post-ascension Jesus, leaving the listeners, along with the disciples, with the question, “What next?”  

The Book of Acts contains the prayerful plans of a relatively small group of people intent on making what and who they worshipped matter.  It is the story of those who took risks outside the safe mode of the synagogues in order to follow and share a living God through Jesus Christ.  The Book is written to “lovers of God,” which includes us, lovers of God who are called to make manifest the Good News in the world.  However, the story that begins in these opening passages of Acts is not over.  It continues today in this very church with that same relevant question, “What next?”

In this first chapter, we find a small group of believers, about 120 of them, who have been hooked by the teachings of Jesus, a “radical” Jesus who challenged what they had always been taught, made them reconsider, and shook them out of their safety nets and comfort zones.  A “radical” Jesus who preached with the words, “You’ve heard it said, but I say it this way.”  A “radical” Jesus that did not promise them a bed of roses but persecution and a cross.  And now, these followers are at the crossroads.  Now that they are convinced that Jesus is indeed Christ and Lord, the fulfillment of scripture, he is leaving.  But before he leaves, surely this Risen Lord will meet their expectation.  The answer to “What next?” for these followers is found in their question:  “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (6). 

We can certainly relate to their question and to their hope.  We, too, are faithful people trying to follow our Lord.  We are convinced that Jesus is our Messiah, yet we live in a time when so many things are upside down or different from what they were.  So much seems so divided, so unsure, so unsettled.  Even here, in this congregation, one interim leaves while another will be on the way.  So at our crossroads, we ask, we can’t help but ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will make things right?”  Will you make things right in our church?  Our homes?  Our country?

And we get the same answer Jesus gave the disciples:  No.

At first blush, that answer hurts, until we remember that Jesus is not a genie in a bottle.  He does not give us an easy answer or simple rescue, but a much more precious gift:  the Great Handoff.  

Think of the handoffs in your own lives and you can imagine something of how the disciples felt.  The Great Handoff is much like a son or daughter accepting the family business when the parent retires.  The Great Handoff is like the new pastor who walks into a congregation that is mourning the departure of a longtime, love-loved minister.  It is like the new mother with her baby watching as her own mother drives away after that first week of caring for both of them.  For you graduates, the Great Handoff is saying goodbye to your parents as you make your way with the wisdom and love they have taught you.  For our confirmand, Landers Clayton, it is accepting the handoff of Christian faith from all who have passed it on and then deciding what to do with it.  The Great Handoff is often daunting.  

That is why we find the disciples shell-shocked, standing still, and staring into the sky. Maybe they are hoping that Jesus will change his mind and come right back. Maybe they are wishing that life could go on just like it had been while he was there.  Maybe they are thinking of forgetting this whole Jesus-thing and going back to fishing.

We are not too different sometimes.  The reality of the handoff can come as a big shock.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? (Acts 1: 11).  The Great Handoff begs the question, “What are you going to do?”  It makes the statement, “Don’t just stand there wishing things were different.  Now do something!”  Jesus’ words to his disciples are his words to us, as well:  “When God wants to fulfill his kingdom does not concern you.  How it is to be fulfilled does.”  

In this first chapter, the disciples suddenly realize that Jesus has completed his work on earth; Jesus has obediently finished his part of the story, chronicled in the four gospels, and now he returns to his rightful place, to God.  But his story is not over.  There is still work to be done and a message to be proclaimed, and that work now belongs to his followers.  “You,” he says, “will be my witnesses.”  

That motley crew of unsure, uncomfortable, confused and anxious followers become the spokes that radiate from the hub of Jesus.  The responsibility for the message of God’s love has been handed off to them, and Jesus instructs them to transport it first to Jerusalem, and then to Samaria (enemy country), and then to the ends of the earth, not to a select few, but to everyone.  The Great Handoff is underway.

Those handoff moments, though tinged with so many different emotions, are also gifts filled with potential for we have been entrusted with something of enormous worth, and we realize that someone trusts us enough to say, “It’s now up to you.”  The Great Handoff is a sacrificial gift of love.

So what will happen?  What next?  In Acts, the disciples are given a promise.  Jesus does not leave them unprepared or all alone.  He follows his “no” with a promise, a reassurance:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8).  Jesus promises his friends that they will be taken care of.  When I am gone, he says, another advocate will stay with you and guide you.  That third being of the Trinity, that being that we as Presbyterians are sometimes suspect of because it does not act decently and in order, that Holy Spirit, is promised as our companion along the way, whether we are headed to college, to new careers, to new pastors, to retirement, to new ministries and missions, to change.  Jesus never expected or asked his disciples to carry out the Great Handoff by themselves.  He promised a companion, a companion who is still present to you and to me that will help us continue to tell his story.  

The kingdom is to be fulfilled through boldly and faithfully accepting the handoff, the work which did not end with the disciples.  They did their part; they passed the ministry of telling the story of Jesus to their followers, who passed it to their followers, who passed it to the Gentiles in Samaria, who passed it to the sailors in Corinth, who passed it to Rome, who passed it to our ancestors and grandparents and parents and friends who passed it to us.  The Book of Acts begins with the handoff but the story is not finished.  We, right here, right now, are continuing to write it.  We, right here, right now, have been entrusted with a gift of love.

But how do we accept this handoff?  The disciples had dangerous decisions and departures to make, if they chose to accept the handoff, but they knew two things full well:  1) They could not take the handoff without prayer; and 2) they could not do it alone.  God’s kingdom will not come, this church will not continue to be relevant, our society will not be healed by the snap of Jesus’ finger but by our loving and faithful actions on this earth.  The Great Handoff includes that task and Jesus’ promise.

Believing that promise, Peter, James, John, Mary, and the rest go back to the upper room, and they wait for the Holy Spirit.  And they pray.  That scene is where our story leaves us today, in a period of prayerfulness, and that seems quite appropriate for First Presbyterian Church, Huntsville.  You have been given The Great Handoff, a precious gift.  Now is not the time to stand staring at the sky, bewildered, but to trust in the promise that you are not alone, that the Spirit of God and of Christ abides right here with you.  Now is the time to stay grafted to the vine and to remain in Christ as you prepare to continue to bear good fruit.  Now is the time to love each other and to accept each other, both within these walls and beyond.   Now is the time to demonstrate all you have learned from those who have stood in this very pulpit and from others who have shared the Good News.  Now is the time to both extend grace and to receive grace.  Now is the time to let go of whatever holds you back from being connected to the vine.  Now is the time to trust, wherever this journey leads.  Now is the time to show yourselves as Christ’s disciples who accept that handoff and continue to write the story simply because you, too, are “lovers of God” and God’s Spirit also walks with you.


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