Text: John 17: 11And now I am no longer in the world,….
Friendswood Lumber and Hardware was the first real job I ever had. Gene Greathouse ran the business, ordering hardware and doing “take offs” from contractor’s blue prints for the bills of materials. Gene had only recently come to Friendswood and was something of a celebrity because he had an air conditioned office, the only direct long distance telephone line to Houston, some twenty miles away, and a coke machine. Fred Martinez was the year round yard man who knew where everything was. He mixed paint, cut glass and delivered lumber to a community just beginning to grow with the promise of the Johnson Space Center being built ten miles away. While in High School I worked there on Saturday’s and then full time in the summers. I learned to cut glass, mix paint, cut keys and do take offs using what, before computers, was called a comptrometer – a complex adding machine. I marked hardware stock with a code for the price the store paid and then the retail price calculated from the invoice, wrote out sales receipts and at times drove the truck into Houston to pick up creosote fence posts or other things. Fred taught me everything I needed to know – including how to dust the sales room.
Today Fred would be known as an undocumented alien. He had come north to work and for a month each summer he would return to Mexico. In Friendswood he was seen as nearly indigent, when he went home he was seen as near royalty. Fred and I got along really well and competed to see who would be at work the earliest each day. When he was gone I picked up his duties in the store and the lumber yard.
One summer, however, when Fred was on his annual pilgrimage to Mexico, Gene hurt his back. It was so serious that I was left with the whole business. All the warning I got was a phone call from his wife that Gene would not be in and that I was in charge – and only in a real emergency should I call. I had keys to the store, the yard and the truck and the combination to the safe. And it would be a month before Fred would come back.
As you might imagine, on one hand it made me feel pretty good – to be entrusted with that kind of responsibility. I was too young to realize what kind of lump must have been in Gene’s throat to leave his business in my hands. I guess he didn’t have any option. But I wasn’t too young to know that second feeling, that of being overwhelmed and fearful of the task. Was I really up to this? If I had a question up until now, even without Fred there, I knew that Gene could be found at his desk in his air conditioned office.
Reading our Bible story for today of the Ascension of Jesus brought this back to mind. For a long time Jesus had been selecting his disciples, training them, and trying to prepare them for what was ahead – his going away, his return to the Father and leaving the work in their hands. That is what Ascension is all about. One way to drive home the point would be to say “Jesus has left the building.” According to our Bible Jesus is no longer with us. And for a little while his followers were alone.
In Luke 24 Jesus is quoted as saying: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you” evidently making the point that he had already left them. In John 17 Jesus says: “I am no longer in the world.” Jesus knew that his disciples and followers were not yet ready. Not leaving them wasn’t an option, he had to go away. He could not be with them in the same way he had been. And for a while, until their own anointing by the Holy Spirit, they would be on their own. In the absence of his spirit, what was it he told them to do? Honored by such trust, humbled by the task ahead of them but confident in him, did he tell them to set out to expand his work – to be his witnesses there and throughout the world? No. That is a misconception born of impatience. Not now. Not then. Listen to his words from Luke 24:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
What a temptation it could have been to say – “wow! we’ve got the keys, got the combination, We’re in charge! – Let’s not only do what Jesus was doing, let’s expand the operation. We’ve got all of Samaria and the whole of the world to evangelize!” The instructions however were clear – stay where you are until you have been clothed with power from on high. In other places what this group of followers were to wait for has been called an anointing, or a baptism – this time it is “being clothed” by God’s own Spirit. Waiting is not something that comes easy to us. Sitting still, waiting for God to fulfill the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, to give them his power rather than exercising their own was tough. But they did.
He has called us, too. He is training us, teaching us, preparing us, too, to continue his work. And he has promised us that same Holy Spirit to empower us to continue his mission in the world. Don’t we exist to be Christ’s body and serve Christ and the world? We should be a community of servants, persons who embody the life, the values, the mind of Christ himself, reaching out to the needy, sharing the Gospel of love and forgiveness, being peacemakers, and working for the good of all people in the name of Christ! That is an awesome task he has entrusted to us. He has provided all we need to continue his work.
But, like with his disciples, he doesn’t tell us to go out in our own strength, dependent on our own powers of discretion and discernment.
It is pretty standard advice given to people who have lost a loved one, especially a spouse, to wait at least a year before they make any big changes. My mother was one who chose to ignore that advice. She imagined every reason in the world why she could not continue in her home. She sold it, gave away many things she had treasured and moved to be near family members who she imagined would be helpful for her. Not one thing she did served her well. Quite the opposite was the case.
We too need to wait to know the Holy Spirit move in and among us, to guide and direct us. Robert Barclay in the seventh proposition of his Apology says: “For those who do not resist the light, but receive it, it becomes a holy, pure and spiritual birth in them. It produces holiness, righteousness, purity and all those other blessed fruits that are acceptable to God”. “It is not by words produced by our own wills, or by good works themselves, but by Christ, who is not only the gift and the giver, but the cause which produces these effects in us.” Not only our ministry but even our worship is true and acceptable only as it stems from the inward and unmediated moving and drawing of Christ’s spirit.
Some of you have heard the story of Giacomo Puccini. He was an Italian composer. He left the world some wondrous music. But in 1922, only 64 at the time, he was diagnosed with cancer. Though very ill, he continued to work on the opera Turandot, which many people consider to be his best. Many people tried to convince him not to waste his limited energy on a piece he could not possibly finish but he pressed on. When he was near death, he said to his students: “If I do not finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.”
He did not finish the opera. After his death his students gathered together all of the scores and his notes, and took the time to study them with great care to understand as best they could the mind of the master, and then, they finished the opera. The opening performance took place in 1926 and was conducted by one of Puccini’s students. When he reached the place where the his teacher had stopped composing the conductor put down his baton, turned to the audience and said to them, “Thus far, the master wrote, and then he died.”
No one moved and no one made a sound for several minutes. Then he picked up his baton again and smiled through his tears. He said, “But his disciples have finished his work.” Tears flowed with the music and the sound of the applause went on and on. And we are called to continue Christ’s work in the world but we are only to do so as we are led by his spirit.
Let us pray:
Ascended Lord, Give us the grace to wait that we may first know your mind and spirit, so that we can continue the greatest composition the world has ever heard, not for applause, but that the whole world might be touched by the love, grace, and beauty of your divine music.