6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Let’s talk about the passage Karen just read. This passage comes from the Book of Acts. Can someone tell us in a few words what the Book of Acts is about?
That’s a good way to put it. Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Luke wrote his Gospel to give, as he put it, an “orderly account” of Jesus life. He tells about Jesus’ teachings and how he healed the sick and welcomed all kinds of people. Jesus showed people, especially those who were excluded by religious tradition, that God loved them.
The way Jesus lived led to conflict with the religious and political leaders. That conflict revved up until the leaders finally got so scared that they had Jesus executed. Amazingly, that wasn’t the end of the story. God raised Jesus from the dead and he appeared to his followers. That’s where Luke’s Gospel ends and the Book of Acts begins. Acts is the follow-up story.
As Acts begins Jesus spends some time explaining scripture to his followers in the light of his resurrection. In this passage the disciples ask Jesus if now’s the time for the Kingdom of God to be established. In other words, “Is today judgment day?” This is a great passage to hear in light of our recent rapture scare. Many people were afraid or excited that judgment was coming on May 21st. Predictions like that have been made many times before since Christ’s death, but so far none of them has been right.
This passage reminds us why predictions of rapture or judgment are so tempting, but also why they are a waste of time and anxiety. The disciples were excited about the possibility that Jesus was about to usher in God’s peaceful kingdom. They were excited that they might soon be free from the oppression of the Roman Empire. There’s part of us that wants to know when the end is coming. We want to know when the story of the world will end. We also sometimes feel afraid that the end, the final judgment will catch us off guard.
Jesus tells them it’s not for them to know when the end is coming. Nobody knows, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking they do. In another passage Jesus says even he doesn’t know when judgment will come. We just don’t know, so there’s no point worrying about May 21st or 2012 or whatever the doom prophesy of the moment is. There’s also no need to worry because God is in control of the story and we know the end of the story is a good one. God loves each of us, so there’s no need to fear the end.
Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples when the kingdom is coming, but he does tell them that they have a part to play in that kingdom and their role begins right away. They are going to be his witnesses. They’re going to be witnesses to the amazing love of God. They took on that role faithfully and took the message from Jerusalem all the way to Europe, North Africa and India in a generation. The story of Acts is the story of the disciples spreading the good news of Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s power.
We continue the story of Acts because we are the church today. We are Christ’s disciples, Christ’s followers, Christ’s witnesses 2000 years later. Jesus tells those first disciples to be his witnesses. He calls us to the same thing today. We continue to share the message of Jesus with the world around us in faithful service.
Don’t let the language fool you; witnessing to Jesus isn’t mostly about preaching. It’s not mostly about talking at all. The best way we can be witnesses for Jesus is to love other people with the kind of love Jesus had. We can show kindness for those suffering most. We can take the time to listen when someone is sharing their story or their pain. We can open our hearts to those society thinks aren’t worth caring about. We can live loving lives. When we do that, we are witnesses to the love of Jesus and others will see it. The disciples’ mission is our mission too.
The story of the church is about the mission to live Jesus’ message. Sometimes the church has been great at that and other times we’ve fallen way short. Because it’s the story of the church, it’s also the story the rest of the New Testament tells. Listen to what Peter tells his readers about their mission as followers or disciples of Jesus:
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
4:12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
5:6Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Peter tells his readers not to be surprised if they feel like they are facing a “fiery ordeal.” For his readers persecution was a real threat. The Roman government wasn’t persecuting Christians consistently when Peter was writing, that would come later. But even then arrests, beatings and sometimes death were serious threats for people living the message about Jesus.
Peter writes to remind them that they are not alone. Other Christians faced similar troubles and God would was working through that trouble to bring grace to light. One of the ancient leaders of the church wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” God uses even persecution to bring people to Christ.
In fact, those first three hundred years when the church had almost no political power and was often poor and oppressed were some of the most faithful and dynamic years of the church’s ministry. That seems strange because we think we need power to be effective. So we look back to the middle of the twentieth century when the church had widespread influence and financial muscle. We remember that as a golden age of church life and we think of the years since then as a sad decline.
There’s some truth to that story, but it also misses a lot. Like I said, the church’s job is to live the message of Jesus, to follow the story of Jesus in the world today. Jesus started out with all the power in the universe. He is and always has been God. When Jesus came to earth as a man, he chose to be born in a stable in the middle of nowhere to a young woman with very little power or influence. When he taught and travelled he didn’t look for rich folks to impress, instead he was constantly pleasing the poor and upsetting the powerful. Powerful people put Jesus to death as a criminal.
The story of Jesus is a story about giving up power, not seeking it out. It’s a story about using power for the sake of others. Jesus was powerful because he was full of the Holy Spirit to do miracles and even rise again from the dead. But his story isn’t a story about power in the usual sense. Jesus’ power was shown through weakness.
The early church’s power was shown in the same way, and that was a big part of what drew people to the message. People saw regular men and women living with a power that was clearly beyond them. They were able to heal the sick and stand up to highly educated religious leaders. The church’s power was the power of weakness, the power of trusting in God, the power of following the Holy Spirit. It had nothing to do with buildings or political influence or money.
I’m convinced that the church’s weakness in society today is actually an opportunity for renewal. Stripped of many of the strengths that tempted us to rely on ourselves, we are forced to trust in God again. In weakness and in faith we will witness to Jesus’ love; we will live Christ’s calling again.
Christ’s calling isn’t an easy calling and the can be hard on gentle people. Peter says, the devil is prowling like a hungry lion looking to eat us up. The world tempts us to see everything in terms of power and status and wealth. The desire for those things and the hopelessness we sometimes feel threaten to swallow us up. Jesus invites us to leave that chase behind and come home. Jesus welcomes us into loving community where we trust each other and rely on him. Jesus welcomes us into an adventure of fellowship and faith where we use our power and our gifts to serve others. Jesus welcomes us into a new way of joy and grace instead of competition and fear.
The Bible tells us the story of those who have accepted that invitation in the past. It also shows us how the story ends. The story ends with God’s peaceful kingdom coming to earth. It ends with redemption and reconciliation for all people. Hatred and jealousy, pain and death will be no more. God’s love will fill the world with peace. This story we are part of has an amazingly happy ending, even though we don’t know when that ending will happen.
God’s kingdom feels a long way off, but as we take part in the story of Jesus we become citizens of his kingdom even now. As we try to live as witnesses to Jesus’ love, as we seek to use our power to serve, as we share what we have with others, we become part of something bigger than us. We learn to rely more on God and less on ourselves. We become open to true community with God and with our neighbors. We start living the kingdom we long for.
Each of us has a part to play in God’s peaceful kingdom. Each of us has unique ways to be witnesses to Jesus in our lives. We have different gifts and skills and experiences, and all of those pieces of ourselves offer ways to share God’s love.
We are part of a larger story that goes back to creation, back to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, back to the early disciples learning to lead a new kind of life. The story ends with God restoring all of creation in joy and peace. It is an amazing story to live as part of. If the story of Jesus is new to you, I’d love to talk more with you about it. If you’ve been away from Jesus for a while, he welcomes you back with open arms.
If you’ve always been a part of the church’s life, but haven’t felt Christ’s power in your life, maybe today can be a new beginning. The story of Jesus is an amazing story and everyone has a part. I’m glad you are here. Welcome to the adventure of being Christ’s witnesses today.
Thanks be to God.