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Text: Acts 1: 1 – 11
The ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts overlap, both with the story of Jesus leaving, ascending up to heaven. This is because scholars generally consider them to have been written by the same person, hence the “In the first volume . . .” Both of them written to a perhaps wealthy gentile patron, this Theophilus, who may have commissioned them to tell the story of Christianity. In some way, this seems to have influenced how Luke/Acts is told; Romans, for instance, are portrayed in a much better light than in the other gospels. Luke is the gospel that has the centurion saying, “Surely he was innocent,” at the cross. Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome, even though it was probably written after Paul’s execution by the empire it doesn’t tell that story.
In all four gospels, there’s a narrative of Jesus after the resurrection, leaving with his disciples a mission. In all of these stories, I find a sort of bittersweet-ness; Jesus is alive, yes, but he’s leaving and the disciples all wonder what now?
They have been followers, students. He was their leader and now, there was no one. So they stare up at heaven as he leaves, and then the angel asks, “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?”
They’re not disciples anymore, because the teacher has gone up to heaven. They’re no longer the twelve Disciples, they’re the twelve Apostles (or at least they will be once they hold a meeting and select a guy named Matthias to replace Judas). The book of Acts is authored by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke and, between the two books, the writer starts to call the twelve who followed Jesus something different; in the gospel of Luke, the twelve are called matheetai, or “disciples,” “students,” but in Acts, they are called apostoloi “Apostles,” “those who are sent (i.e. with a mission).”
They are no longer students; they’re on their own.
They ask Jesus before he leaves, “Is now when you will restore the kingdom of Israel? Are we going to stop being wandering disciples and start being soldiers? Will we start an insurrection, overthrow the Romans?” They’re willing to throw out everything they have been taught and believed about pacifism, inclusivity, the expansion of the covenant, if someone—Jesus—would just tell them what to do.
But they don’t get that. Jesus instead tells them, “You will be my witnesses.” You will carry on my ministry. You, the beginning of the church, will be me in the world.
And that’s a tall order. How does one even start to be Jesus? How does one try to do all the things he did? Not just the practical—the teaching, the healing, the serving—but also the spiritual; how does one save like Jesus saves?
So on one hand it seems like they have nothing to do. Their only source of direction has gone up and left them without so much as a 5-year strategic plan. On the other hand, they have too much to do. They have to do all the things Jesus did, and more. They have to establish a church, they have to receive the Holy Spirit, they have to go out healing and preaching and loving and serving, and not just in the small little corner of the world where Jesus walked, but everywhere. There’s only eleven of them (again, twelve once they recruit Matthias).
A year is a long time to be in waiting, and it seems like we have been standing, looking up at heaven. I’ve been watching the downward curve, wondering, “Is now the time when we will be able to go back to how it was before? Or, soon, at least.” I got my shot of the AstraZeneca on Monday and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe you saw that gum advertisement being shared on social media, where everyone was just running around kissing each other in celebration (and taking a piece of gum to keep their breath fresh, of course) and actually kind of cried, realizing that’s what dancing in Jerusalem feels like (that’s a sad metaphor to use, given what has been happening in Israel/Palestine over the last week).
“Is now the time,” we ask somebody—the government, Dr. Henry, each other—“to get back to normal?” When we can go out, go sit in coffee shops, hang out with friends, go to movies? Is now the time to restore the kingdom of consumer capitalism that we were so used to? Is now the time we can go back to church, when we can sing and pray together and embrace each other? And if not now, then when?
And we stare at the news reports, at Dr. Henry’s daily briefings, like the Apostles stared up to heaven, just waiting for someone to give us an answer.
Like the Apostles, we need to figure out a new normal. We want to go back to the old normal, but we can’t do that. There were too many people left behind by the old normal. Jesus opened the covenant to those who were called sinners, outcasts; he invited the lowest and least to the head of the table; he overturned the system of rules and regulations just as he overturned the tables of those who were exploiting that system at the cost of others. He said, “This is the cup of a new covenant, poured out not for few, but for many.” Yet the Apostles ask, “Is now when you will restore the kingdom?” Can we just go back to the old ways?
No, says Jesus. We can’t go back because too many people were left behind. Far too many people were excluded from the church’s community when it was full; far too many people were left behind in the old economic systems; far too many people’s voices were unheard when certain events were never reported in the news. If we want things to ever “settle down,” we are going to need to be apostles of God; we are going to have to demand justice.
We can’t go back because we have seen who is essential in our society and we have seen how they do not have enough; we have seen how we focused too much on what we consume and not enough on our neighbour. We can’t go back, because it will put too many vulnerable people at risk to sit next to each other in church and to sing our hearts out. We can’t go back, any more than the Apostles can rewind the crucifixion and the resurrection. God is working in our world, and she is stirring shit up whether we like it or not.
We can’t let ourselves go back to the old normal, not if we truly want to be Apostles. God is always about opening up, allowing more people in, and that will change things irrevocably.
What will change? What will change for the better? One thing people have said about church time and time again is that, at the very least, this pandemic has dragged us kicking and screaming into the 20st century, forcing us to finally embrace technology. This will continue; even when we come back, the camera will remain because there were too many people left out in the old way of doing things that this can reach. What else will this change? What movement of the Holy Spirit can we be open to now that we have been forced to reconsider what makes up the essence of church? What will change when we have been forced to reconsider the essence of society itself? What changes will we make?
So here we are, staring up at the sky, and an angel asks us, “Why do you stand, staring up to heaven?” It seems like we have nothing to do, and too much to do. It’s like the worst thing a writer can face: a totally blank page with nothing on it. We can do anything, so what do we do?
In Acts, as in Luke, as in Matthew, as in John; in nearly all the tellings of the end of this story, Jesus promises the disciples one thing: “I will be with you.” He promises the presence of the Holy Spirit of God, that they are not alone. That they are not directionless, they have their faith to guide them. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” he says in Matthew. “I am leaving you an Advocate,” he says in John. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he tells us here in Acts.
You are not alone; whatever we have to do, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever we have to do to figure out this new normal, we are not alone. God is with us. Hallelujah. Amen.