Preached by Rev. Will Brown, May 28, 2017
Scripture: John 17:1-11, Acts 1:1-14
The exchange zone. Also called the handoff zone, changeover box, passing zone, or takeover zone.
Whichever name you use, the exchange zone is one of the most exciting and treacherous 20 meters in sports. This short box is where, in a relay race, the baton must be passed from one runner to the next.
It’s a simple concept: in a relay, the first runner starts around the track carrying a baton. When she reaches the next runner, she passes the baton to her, and this second runner runs her leg of the race, before handing the baton to the next person, and so on. It’s a simple concept, and it would be easy enough to do, if only they weren’t racing at the same time. But since they are racing, this is all done at top speed, and the handoff must take place while the first person is still sprinting, and the second person is already beginning their sprint. For those few moments, both athletes are running one step apart, trying not to crash, trying not to lose any speed, and trying not to drop the baton. And to top it all off, this awkward handoff must take place entirely within the 20-meter exchange zone, or you will automatically be disqualified.
If you followed the 2016 Olympics in Rio, you may remember what I’m talking about. The U.S. women’s team won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay, but the men’s team was a different story. The final of the men’s race was exciting, with an evenly matched race most of the way around the track. The U.S., Japan, and Jamaica were tight the whole way around the track, until Usain Bolt pulled ahead on the final leg and secured the gold medal for Jamaica. The U.S. would have to settle for bronze, and they took their American flags and began the celebratory lap around the track. And then suddenly they look ahead to the scoreboard and see the dreaded two letters, DQ: disqualified. Their first baton handoff, from Mike Rodgers to Justin Gatlin, looked fine at first, but it actually took place just outside the exchange zone, so their Olympic hopes were over.[i]
The exchange zone is one of the most frustrating places in sports, and one of the most thrilling to watch.
This Sunday, today, is Ascension Sunday, so we are reading from the first chapter of Acts, when Jesus ascends into heaven. This is a story that we don’t talk about a lot, but it’s an important one. What it describes for us is an exchange zone. It’s where a handoff takes place, from Jesus to his disciples.
It’s several weeks after Easter at this point in the narrative, and Jesus has been appearing to people and teaching the disciples. He spoke to Mary in the garden outside the tomb, he appeared in the upper room with the disciples, he invited Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. He’s back with them, but he is not going to stay like this forever. The ascension records the moment when he leaves their physical presence, and instead he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come to lead them in his place. We recognize that event next week, with Pentecost, the Sunday when we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, next week, is an exciting Sunday, with red stoles and liturgical colors; it’s the festive birthday of the church, an amazing new beginning that we celebrate. We switch to the story of the early church.
Even looking at the books of the Bible, this transition is clear to see. The New Testament starts with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, four Gospels that give a biography of Jesus. The Gospels, then, are followed by the book of Acts, which gives a “biography” of the church. These two biographies—of Christ and of the church—tell two similar stories. The first is of Jesus, from his birth at Christmas, then seeing him grow and telling what he teaches and does. The second is of the church, from its birth at Pentecost, then seeing it grow and spread, and telling what the Christ-followers now do and teach.
You might even say that these two biographies, these two stories, describe two laps around the track. Jesus completes his leg of the race, and he invites his disciples to take over from there. He gives them the baton. Christ has finished his time on earth, and now it is the church’s turn to get started.
Does this make sense? Can you see what Jesus is doing? Listen to how he describes it to them:
“I’m no longer in the world, but they [the disciples] are in the world…” (John 17:11)
Another verse: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)
For the disciples, who have faithfully watched Jesus day and night for these past few years, the time has come for them to take the baton and continue the race.
Can you imagine how daunting that must have seemed?
I remember in high school, when I first started learning to drive, that suddenly I had to pay a lot more attention to how to get places. All these places that I had been to many times, once I was behind the wheel, I needed to know where to turn and how far to go. Have you experienced that? As a passenger, you can just coast along without thinking about it, but when you realize that you’re going to be the one behind the wheel, you better pay attention! It can be intimidating to take on that responsibility.
So imagine how much more intimidated the disciples must have felt? How do you continue in Jesus’s shoes??
But that’s what happens. Jesus passes the baton along to his followers, and they continue the race, doing their best to live as Jesus lived and follow the way that he had showed them.
If you continue reading the book of Acts, you’ll see the church grow and develop. Sometimes the disciples are well received; sometimes they are arrested. But the Gospel spreads, and in time those first disciples teach new Christ-followers to take their place. They pass the baton again. Those next church leaders train the next generation, and the next, and on and on it goes, from the early church and through the Middle Ages and the Reformation and all the way until now, until us.
Here at University Baptist Church, we have another handoff of sorts coming up very soon, don’t we? As Jim mentioned a few minutes ago, next week we will be meeting, hearing from, and voting on the candidate to be our next senior minister. Next Sunday! (Wow!)
Are you excited? Hopeful? Curious? Cautiously optimistic?
There is certainly an excitement in the air today, a hum in the building. The work crew has been painting the senior minister’s office, the search committee has been planning our gatherings next weekend, everyone is getting ready. There’s an energy about us.
You know why, right? Because we’re in the exchange zone!
Think back to the relay race we’ve been talking about. Picture that race again, with the first runner barreling down the track, baton in hand. Now look just ahead, to where the next runner is standing, waiting to receive the baton. There, in the exchange zone, they are waiting there with one hand out, stationary but not still, almost buzzing in anticipation, energy bottled up and ready to go.
Do you feel that kind of energy here too? An eager excitement, ready to go…
We are in the exchange zone. And we’re in good company here, aren’t we, finding ourselves in the same place that those earliest disciples experienced so many years ago. Like us, the disciples in today’s story were in an exchange zone, and my hope is that by seeing how they handled their time of transition, we might find some guidance for ours.
So what can we learn from how the disciples received the baton from Christ?
Well, the first thing Jesus tells them at this critical juncture, when so much needs to be done, is… to wait. Wait.
I know you’re excited!!! But wait.
Look back at Acts 1, verse 4: Just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit is coming soon (Pentecost), and then he orders them “not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised.” Wait, he says.
That’s what they do. Acts gives a dramatic portrayal of the ascension, with Jesus floating into the air, into a cloud, and men in white robes appearing to give instruction. It’s a vivid scene, heavy on special effects, but what I find just as striking is what happens next.
What do the disciples do? They walk back to Jerusalem, back to the house where they were staying, go upstairs and pray. Jesus has told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, and that’s what they do. They get to work right away: waiting. It’s an urgent kind of waiting, filled with prayer and anticipation. It’s not frantic, but expectant.[ii]
It’s waiting the way a runner waits for the baton, an active waiting, poised and ready to go.
Why is that so important? Why wait? Why not just get on with it? Why does Jesus tell his disciples—and by extension, us—to wait?
In part I think it’s to remind us that there’s still important work to be done now.
Even in our excitement about meeting a new senior minister and anticipating a new beginning, where we are now is also important. Just as relay runners can’t get so eager that they edge forward out of the exchange zone, we too need to be mindful that we don’t get ahead of ourselves, with our minds way out in the future.
In the coming weeks, before a new minister would start full time, we have our Church Picnic, and Touch-a-Truck, and Vacation Bible School—some big events that need our attention. But we also have all of the day-to-day life together that is even more important: the conversations, and phone calls, and checking in with sick or the homebound—the everyday acts of care and compassion that are as significant now as ever.
Perhaps Jesus calls us (and the disciples) to wait and pray so that we don’t lose track of where we are right now. Before we begin an exciting new chapter, we need to finish this one well.
And then, there’s something else that happens while we wait, which may be even more important. When we don’t just jump ahead, but wait and pray here for awhile, it makes space for us to see the bigger picture.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new minister receiving the baton, but what about the race as a whole?
Ministers—senior ministers, associate ministers, lay ministers, all of us!—come and go, but the race goes on. The same baton continues to be passed, and we continue to follow the Way that Christ demonstrated for us on that first lap he ran. We are part of something much bigger than any one of us… including our next pastor. This isn’t just about UBC and our staffing and programs, or our ability to thrive as a congregation. These handoffs, these transitions we experience, are about our continuing to take the baton and follow in the footsteps that Christ has shown us.
So, here we are, in the exchange zone, preparing for a handoff and a new leg of the race. We have to wait here for a little while, not getting ahead of ourselves, but being fully in this time and place. And while we’re here, we get to look around and see that we are part of a much bigger movement, that it’s really Christ’s race that we are continuing.
So in closing, let’s listen to the way that Jesus encouraged his first disciples to take up that journey after him. The John passage that Jennifer read is a prayer that Jesus spoke aloud, prayed to God but also for his disciples to overhear. Listen again to his words in verses 9 through 11:
9 “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.
We are running that same race. And just as Jesus was cheering on his disciples, he’s offering that same encouragement to us.
Might Jesus be speaking this prayer for us to hear as well?
11 I’m no longer in the world, but they [UBC!] are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.
May it be so. Amen.
[ii] See commentary by Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884