Shadow of Potential

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner, Bridge Interim Rector

Acts 1:6-14

My grandmother used to tell me that I was going to write the Great American Novel.  Back in high school, my fingers were always stained with fountain pen ink, and I carried around half finished stories in my backpack.  I was editor of the literary magazine.  And so my grandmother took to declaring my future to me, with unwavering certainty.  I was going to be a writer, with a capital W.

Whenever she told me that—whenever she named me as a writer—I swelled a little with pride.  And then I deflated.  Because the vote of confidence carried a strange burden with it.  I couldn’t quite understand it at the time, but I see now that it was the burden of expectation, the weight of potential.  Someone thought I could be someone.  Did I think the same?  Someone thought I could do something.  Would I?  Could I?  The Great American Novel cast a long shadow.

It was all the more difficult because my grandmother was an artist.  Every time I visited her studio or saw her pictures hanging in a gallery, I was reminded where I got my creativity from.  If I was to be living up to her hopes for me, I would really be living up to the standard she had set.  How I wanted to be the person she believed I could be.

This week the church invites us into that long shadow of potential.  We are in between, not yet, breath held, waiting.  Thursday was the feast of the Ascension, when the resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven.  We heard about it in the reading from Acts this morning, the cloud that lifted Jesus up and away.  Next week will be the feast of Pentecost, and you probably know what that’s about without reading ahead in Acts.  That’s when the Holy Spirit descends and sets everyone on fire.

But today, we pause in this moment of promise, this moment of maybe hope or maybe expectation or maybe even anxiety, and we hear not what Jesus has done for us but instead a declaration of what will happen: “It is not for you to know the times of periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power . . . You will be my witnesses.”  You will be Apostles, with a capital A.

The bible does not record the reaction of Peter and James and John and all the rest.  But I know my own reaction to this proclamation.  And it is a complicated one.  Because I know myself and I know my abilities.  And I can get some stuff done but I’m not sure if that could be described as having power.  I can tell a good story, I can preach a sermon, but I am not sure if that is exactly witnessing to the ends of the earth.  Honestly, Jesus seems to have more confidence in me than I have in me.  I’m pretty sure he has more confidence than I deserve.

I know he has more confidence than those disciples deserve.  Given the story of the passion, they have shown themselves to be a bunch of weak-kneed, self-deceiving, fair-weather friends.  If you were to look through the gospels and pick a crew to carry the good news to the ends of the earth, really, there are better candidates—those people who recognize Jesus right off the bat, or those people who get healed and are willing to follow him wherever he goes at the drop of a hat.

In this moment the disciples carry what we all carry, at one time or another—the burden of a hope we cannot fulfill.   The burden of potential.  The burden of expectation.  It is doubled when it comes from someone whom we love and respect.  We want to be our best selves for the people who believe in our best selves.  But the truth is, if we know ourselves, it’s long odds.

Where I find hope, though, is in paying close attention to what Jesus promises his disciples.  And it’s not what I first assumed.  Because I hear about capital-A Apostleship and I am figuring out how I can work myself up to that task, which strengths to play off of, which talents to leverage, which traits of my personality to deploy strategically.  But Jesus confidence in me is not based in my strengths, which are few, or my talents, which are limited, or my strategic sense of self, which is really quite frail.  Jesus’ confidence in me is based in the power of God.

What Jesus promises his disciples, and what Jesus promises us, is not that we are enough.  That’s the promise of a Disney movie: Believe in yourself, and you will prevail.  Frankly, I’ve met myself, and I won’t.  Instead, Jesus tells the trust: left to our own devices, we are not enough.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.  It is God working in us that is the ground and the extent of our confidence and the ground and extent of our hope.

What we hear from Jesus does, indeed, cast a long shadow over this week, over these lives of ours.  We are cut out for some kind of greatness.  What makes that expectation bearable is not any belief in ourselves, in the people we are.  It is instead trust in the person Jesus is.  When Jesus makes these predictions about who we are going to become, it is not given as a burden.  It is given as something more like a talisman, a compass.  It is given as a reminder of just what God is able to accomplish from this raw material we offer from our limited human lives.

So many hopes are sketched out for us who sit here.  The hopes we have for one another in our relationships and in our families.  He will be the one to say what needs to be said.  She will be the one who is able to change things.  Or there are the hopes we have for one another in our church.  They will be the ones to make the good decision.  This group will be the one to heal the wound.  There is even the legacy we inherit as people living in this country, this place and time, this Memorial Day weekend when we are so acutely aware of the legacy of service that we inherit as a people.  They will be the ones who can take a stand for good.  They will the ones of make it right.  Good with a capital G, right with a capital R.

We want to live up to them.  We can’t, not always.

But there is Jesus, declaring not our greatness but God’s greatness.   There is Jesus declaring not our power but the Spirit’s power.

I say this because, like anxious children, we can crumble under the weight of expectation.  And I want us to hear what Jesus offers: not a legacy that has to be protected or earned, but a gift to be inherited.   So reach for the gift.  Don’t be afraid to trust the promise.  God will make you the person you need to become for the work that is given to you to do.  That power comes to each one of us, in its own way and time.  We wait, of course, sometimes.  And waiting is terrible hard.  But we can wait in hope.  We can wait in trust.  And we can stake our lives on knowing that God will be who he has promised to be so that we can become who God needs us to become.