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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Leading by Leaving
May 25, 2017

On this day, churches around the world celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, forty days after his resurrection. Alas, most Presbyterians fail to mark the day, since we do not typically gather to worship on Thursdays. More significantly, we take scant notice of the Lord’s ascension at all.

Among the Gospel writers, only Luke records the Ascension. (A disputed fragment at the end of Mark also mentions it.) As I noted two weeks ago, the Gospels recount four commissions Jesus gave to his disciples as he prepared to leave them. But only Luke describes the Ascension itself – and he does so twice. (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11) We might assume that, since only Luke details the Ascension, it is of secondary significance in the Gospel story, but that would be a mistake. From the beginning, the Ascension has been part of Christian creeds. Three such creeds are quoted already in the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:8, Philippians 2:5-11, and 1 Timothy 3:16. In each case, the Ascension plays a critical role in the story of Jesus.

Theologians have given great attention to the significance of the Ascension; I will not attempt to summarize those efforts here. Rather, I invite us to consider the significance of the Ascension for leadership in the church.

While John does not record the Ascension, Jesus mentions it repeatedly in his final discourse to his disciples. He says that it is better for them that he leave them, than for him to stick around. (John 16:7)

The Gospel writers assert that the risen Lord appeared and disappeared at will. Every disappearance was a “mini-Ascension.” Each leave-taking was marked by the disciples’ faith becoming stronger, ever less precarious. One could easily imagine such reappearances continuing indefinitely; but they ceased definitively at the Ascension. Never again did Jesus appear to them bodily. They had to carry on without him.

The ultimate test of leadership is what happens when the leader leaves. No matter how successful a leader may be in implementing new vision, strategies, and programs, the real test of the leader’s effectiveness comes only after the leader is gone.

Jesus’ Ascension story reveals that the disciples are still far from clear in their faith and understanding when he leaves them. As he prepares to leave, they ask, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) How could they have his basic program so wrong after all the intensive teaching he had poured into them? And why does Jesus leave them squarely in the middle of this disconnect?

Leadership sometimes requires that we turn things over to others even when they seem unprepared to carry things forward. Jesus chose when to leave, at a time they were still confused about his mission. Why would he do that? Perhaps he knew that they would not be ready to take the helm until he abandoned it. He had to get out of the way in order for them to step up to take the helm themselves.

He had given them everything they needed to be his mission-bearers. Most importantly, he had already breathed into them the Holy Spirit, though the Spirit’s full manifestation in and through them still awaited Pentecost. Unfulfilled potential, yet more – confidence that God would complete through them what Jesus had begun in them.

Leadership transitions are always fraught with peril and possibility alike. Leaving too soon, before anyone is ready to take on the mantle, is certainly foolish and often selfish. When the disciples thought themselves at the peak of readiness – as when Peter declared his absolute loyalty, before the cock crowed – Jesus knew it was otherwise. Still too soon to leave.

Now on the other side of the tomb, they are far less resolute. Peter and his companions return to their fishing nets. Doubts persist among them even as Jesus presents many proofs of his resurrection. In a delightful old Southern idiom, they are no longer so full of themselves. This is of course what makes room for them to be filled with the Spirit of God. They are ready, but they don’t know it. It’s time to leave them, to let them discover what he already knows is in them.

Jesus must have read our former pastor policy. He doesn’t come back to check in on how Peter is doing. Leadership has truly and decisively shifted to new hands. Or has it?

Yours in His service,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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