Last week, Easter, we heard the story of women going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his dead body, only to discover it missing and, in place of Jesus’ body, a messenger telling them Jesus has gone ahead of them.
This week, we see these same women, who have joined together with the disciples to be with the risen Jesus before he ascends to heaven. Although Mark last week instructed the disciples to return to Galilee, this week we join Luke’s narration of the story and find all of them here in the vicinity of Jerusalem. They spend 40 days with Jesus. Jesus tells them stuff, they ask questions that we think they should’ve figured out by now, Jesus makes some promises, floats away, and then they all go home. Okay, it’s a bit more intricate than that. I’ll say it a different way, in the words of Willie Jennings—
“The revolution has begun. The disciples have seen its beginning. And it’s a beginning without an end in sight.”
Luke’s part 2—our book of Acts—begins with an impossible reality.
Reality: no one survives death.
Impossible reality: Here is Jesus standing before us.
How do you feel when the impossible occurs? How do you respond when a dream is dashed, a hope destroyed, a loved one lost? Only then to discover the dream transformed, the hope expanded, and the loved one once again touchable? How do you begin to savor that time together again? These first followers got to spend 40 days with the risen Jesus! 40 days! I can only imagine what those days must’ve been like for them! 40 days!
Any other 40 days in scripture come to mind for you? How about Noah in the ark? Or Moses on the mountain? Or the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert? Or Elijah’s 40 days in the wilderness? Or Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness? Besides that special number 40, what else do these times have in common? It is time spent alone with God. Apart from other distractions, focused on the presence of God, relationship with God. Time discovering the power of God, in preparation for an important mission.
Moses—lead my people.
Israel—be my faithful people.
Elijah—call my people back to me.
Jesus—show my people the full extent of my love.
Beloved disciples—you are being prepared for my important job for you.
If you had 40 days alone with God, what would you discover? What would God be preparing you for?
(Our household will hit 40 days of isolating this Wednesday, April 22)
I don’t think the disciples fully understood what it was that Jesus was preparing them for. “Jesus, is this the time you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Whoa, disciples, even now your vision is too small! God’s got a bigger vision for the kingdom—God’s vision is for all of creation!
Jesus then gives them a command and two promises:
Command: Wait here in Jerusalem
Promise: The Holy Spirit is coming
Promise: You will be my witnesses in particular places
Let’s start with the last one:
You'll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. If you’ve ever heard a sermon about this verse, you’ll know that that’s an expansion from a smaller circle to a larger and larger and larger one, and follows the trajectory of the book of Acts as the Holy Spirit guides the believers to recognize that God’s good news extends beyond merely the people of Israel to encompass not only the Samaritans, but the entire non-Jewish world, and all creation. If you’ve heard one message about this text, I hope that’s what you’ve heard—God’s good news is for all people and the Holy Spirit helps the early believers participate in that expansion.
And that’s the second part, the promise that the Holy Spirit is coming. Willie Jennings, in his excellent commentary on Acts adds this:
“The Holy Spirit, companion with Jesus and now Jesus’ disciples, will soon spread the body of Jesus over space and time, opening Jesus’ life as a new home. Geography matters. Place matters to God. From a specific place—Jerusalem, the early believers will move forward into the world to go from place to place and to go from people to people and to go from an old identity to a new one.” Jesus, God with us, a human like us, was bound to a particular space and particular time, just as we are. But once the Holy Spirit fills Jesus’ followers, they then disperse—and are dispersing—Jesus’ body, the body of Christ, unbound across space and time, into particular places—(like Corinth and Ephesus, like Loupwala, Kenya, and Saltillo Mexico and the Near Eastside of Indianapolis) and particular times (like today, April 19, 2020).
This is good news! Today’s text foreshadows the day of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate on May 31, it foreshadows the power of the Holy Spirit empowering the early believers as storytelling witnesses, as ambassadors announcing a revolution of the intimate (God dwelling within each person), God calling to the whole world. They will enter new places to become a new people by joining with those in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. They become a new people. And the good news is that we also have received the effects of that promise, passed on from person to person, generation to generation, place to place, to us, through us, and beyond, and become joined into a new people.
And now we’ve worked our way back to Jesus’ instructions for them: Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the promise that is coming. Jesus’ final instruction is for them to wait! Jesus then is removed from their sight, and two messengers again appear to ask them why they’re standing there staring at the sky.
It’s true that the one they were with had left them. “It is a moment of loss;” a moment of unanticipated shock and surprise. Maybe they thought, oh good, now that Jesus is back with us, things can return to normal, back to the way they were before his death. But now he’s gone again! “This is a moment of loss, even as they know that they must go forward in faith.”
Things never “returned to normal” from that point on.
That next step, the step they took to leave the hillside, to turn their backs on the place Jesus last stood, to return to Jerusalem as Jesus asked them to do, that may have been the hardest step of faith for them to take. Unsure of what was next. Jesus’ enigmatic word “wait for the Holy Spirit” when they had no idea what the Spirit’s arrival would look like.
Nevertheless, that walk down the hillside back to Jerusalem “must be taken because faith always leans forward… toward the place where God waits to meet us. We’re… drawn on by God to our future…” God’s leading into our future draws us away from objects that become “obstacles to our moving toward what God wants to do in and through us” as parts of the Englewood expression of Christ’s body, and as Englewood as a whole. “The Holy Spirit is always ahead of us and always waiting for us to enter the journey of newness.” Of becoming storytelling witnesses to the power of God.
So they returned to Jerusalem as Jesus instructed. And then, they waited. We know they waited for 10 more days, for on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended upon them. But right now, they are “sandwiched between the celebration of the resurrection and the sacred bedlam of Pentecost.” They are without the physical body of Jesus, and without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They have to live life “in the meantime.”
Living life in the meantime. How do they wait? They wait with an understanding that there is something beyond their ability, beyond their control. But they also actively wait, empowered to continue communicating with the One whom they’d spent so much time with. They prayed. The text says they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer—oh, don’t you wish you knew what those prayers were?
Were they praising God for raising Jesus to life?
Were they giving thanks for the gift of those 40 days?
Did they pray prayers of lament that they’d lost Jesus again too soon?
Did they pray in fear, wondering what was next?
Did they pray in trust that Jesus’ words would once again be completed?
Did they pray to ask for discernment and wisdom for how to proceed?
Probably all of that.
While we wait, we recognize there is much of life out of our control. We didn’t choose much of our current situation. And as we look at the present and look at the potential future, we recognize there’s much ahead of us that is “beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort” (Willimon). Will Willimon says that “our waiting and praying…indicate that the gift of the Spirit is never an assured possession of the church. It’s a gift, a gift which must constantly be sought anew in prayer.” We don’t watch up in the sky, memorialize the grand days of the past, or seek to solve all our challenges on our own. As Jesus has promised, God continues to dwell with us, within us, pushing us ahead into the future, filling us with God’s own power, and re-identifying us as witnesses—storytellers—of God’s great and glorious movement in this place and to the ends of the earth.
How are we waiting?
How do we live “in the meantime”?
Are we praying?
Do we merely wait for things to return to normal, or do we look for ways to be present with God during these days in the wilderness? Do we see this time as a period of preparation for what God will continue to do through us?
Are we staring into the sky, waiting for what we’ve lost to return?
How do we live in the meantime?
The disciples were waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit; living between the times of ascension and Pentecost (only 10 days). We’ve received the Holy Spirit; how are we living now between Pentecost and Christ’s return?
Are we storytelling?
Are we telling one another, our children, our neighbors stories of God’s faithfulness? Of God’s mercy?
How do we live in the meantime?
The revolution has begun. The disciples have seen its beginning. It’s a beginning without an end in sight, one that we continue, spreading the body of Christ throughout the whole world, participating in the inauguration of God’s kingdom, living the message of Jesus.
People of God, go now in peace, knowing that
if we suffer with Christ, we shall also rejoice with him;
if we die with Christ, we shall also rise with him.
God in peace, letting your old self die with Christ,
and your new self, part of a new people, be glorious with purpose and strength.
May you find yourself telling stories of God’s faithfulness,
and the courage of God’s people to move off the mountain to pray in the city.
Go in peace to prepare for the day of our ascended Lord’s return.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
Most quotes, unless noted, are from Willie James Jennings' Acts: A Theological Commentary of the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster) 2017.