Preached FCCW on May 28, 2017
The season of High School and College graduations has begun, with the usual pomp and circumstance of caps, gowns, diplomas – and of course, commencement speeches.
From Will Ferrell to the Dalai Lama, Bernie Sanders to Mike Pence, and Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerberg, a smorgasbord of celebrity-status Commencement speakers will be served up on campuses across the nation.
The messages they’ll deliver are sure to be as diverse as the stories behind their star-power; yet, unified in a singular purpose: to commend their audiences for the achievement of graduation, and to inspire them in applying what they have learned to making a positive impact on the “real world” they are about to enter.
Which also sounds a lot like what Jesus had to say to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven.
Look up the word “commencement” in the dictionary and you’ll find a definition something like this one: an act or instance of commencing or beginning.
The story of Jesus’ Ascension in the Book of Acts is all about a new beginning for those very first followers of Jesus.
While he was living, he had chosen them to be his disciples. A disciple is a student who devotes themselves to learning from a particular teacher.
It says in this passage that right up until the day of his death, Jesus had been their teacher and they were his students. His disciples.
There’s another word, though, that is also used with reference to that first dozen disciples.
The word is Apostles.
And though both words are used for the same group of people, a disciple is not the same as an apostle.
A disciple is a learner. A student.
An Apostle is someone who has been given a job to do – which is to use what they have learned for the benefit of others.
Now, if you took your Bible and placed a bookmark at the beginning of the first Gospel, which is Matthew; and placed a second bookmark at the end of the last Gospel, which is John – between those two bookmarks, there are literally hundreds of verses where the first 12 followers of Jesus are referred to as disciples.
Do you know how many times, in those same pages, they are called apostles?
Just nine times.
From the page after that second bookmark, which begins with the passage we just read of Jesus’ Ascension, all the way to the end of the New Testament, do you know how many times those same first 12 followers are called disciples? Zero.
Do you know how many times they are named apostles?
After the Ascension, the only people who are referred to as disciples are the people who came to believe in Jesus later as a result of the apostles’ using what they learned first-hand from Jesus to teach others about him.
The Ascension is the turning point that marks their graduation from disciples to apostles.
The education they have gained from following him will now be put to use in their new occupation as apostles.
This was their Commencement. A new beginning for them; and through them, it was a new beginning for the world.
Which makes Jesus’ final words to them before his ascension to heaven — what can only be described as the mother of all Commencement Speeches.
And like almost every Commencement Speech this one challenges its hearers to embrace a bold vision for their future; and to receive the inspiration and empowerment to fulfill it.
This is the challenge Jesus presents to the about-to-be-apostles.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Their new careers will be focused on teaching other people about Jesus, beginning in Jerusalem.
That’s like telling a tech school graduate that there’s a job waiting for them in Silicone Valley; or like telling a business school grad she’s got an office waiting for her on Wall Street.
This was starting right at the top! Jerusalem was the big time!
But, their witnessing would not be limited to Jerusalem. It would extend across the whole kingdoms of Judea and Samaria and not stop until it reached the ends of the earth!
Such a grandiose agenda can be intimidating to even the most ambitious and self-confident graduate, let alone these eleven guys, who were not exactly Rhodes Scholars.
Well, a decent Commencement Speech doesn’t invite you to shoot for the stars and then leave you hanging without helping you to believe that you can actually get there.
So, Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for God to send them the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit would be God’s and Jesus’ presence with them. The Spirit would give them the guidance, the confidence, and the skills they would need to use their knowledge and experience of Jesus to be effective apostles to others.
And that is the pattern that has repeated itself throughout history. Disciples growing into apostles who then lead others to become disciples and eventually apostles themselves. On and on and on.
Right down to those of us gathered here today.
Which means that Jesus’ words at his Ascension are our Commencement Speech, too. Whether you are graduating from High School or College, from being single to married life, from a career to retirement, or any other transition, any other new chapter in life that is poised to commence, the heart of this speech applies to you.
God has a purpose for you. As it says on our bulletin cover: God knows the plans he has for you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.
God seldom gives us the big picture of our future all at once.
The apostles wanted Jesus to do that for them when they asked him if this was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. But Jesus told them it was not for them to know the times and details of God’s plan but to pay attention to the Spirit’s leading.
Jesus seems to want us to approach each and every day of our lives as a commencement; a new beginning.
Your future may be as a plumber or a politician, as a schoolteacher or a scientist; but whatever the context, it is always as an apostle. Someone who shows others in the course of your chosen path, a little bit of who Jesus is and what the difference is that he makes.
And God will provide the means for you to fulfill that plan. God’s Spirit will be your guide, your encourager and your enabler.
Everybody seems to think that the Ascension is mainly about where Jesus went and how he got there. And it is.
But just as importantly, it is about where he is sending us and what will get us there.
It is not for us to know ahead of time just how and when the path will unfold before us. Our responsibility is to trust that when we wait on the Holy Spirit, we will receive what we need for the commencement of the life God has prepared for us.
© 2017 Raymond Medeiros