April 3, 2016
“A Movement Goes Global”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But 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.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They 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.”12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When 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. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
In one of my seminary classes we were challenged to be able to describe our faith in a single breath, a single sentence. So if someone walked up to you and said, tell me what you believe, it would be right there, on the tips of our tongues, and easy to say. At the time I was also writing twenty page papers on some tiny little slice of Christian belief, so this was an especially hard challenge.
And the good news is not such a simple thing – in fact it is beautifully complex and transformative and challenging – and even those among us who have walked a long journey of faith are still surprised by the new things they discover God saying and doing.
And there are certainly places in our faith where we get stuck, questions that we can’t seem to find satisfactory answers to, doubt that we carry with us into to church and then back out into the world.
In my conversations with you, you have shared with me that you have difficulty understanding the God described in the Old Testament who seems so different from the God described in the New Testament. Some of you cannot understand, if every person is God’s child, why do some of us seem to suffer so much more than others, why do several billion people live in extreme poverty. Some of you struggle with why God allows suffering at all. Some of you struggle to understand the existence of evil. Some of you struggle to understand why Christians can seem to act so contrary to what Jesus calls us to do.
Some of you are like the man we call doubting Thomas, one of Jesus’ followers – his story is not in our reading today but will show up on Youth Sunday a couple weeks from now. He wanted proof – he didn’t want to believe what others told him, he wanted tangible, touchable proof that Jesus was alive. And I hope that if you have these kind of questions, that you continue to seek answers rather than look for the exit sign.
These kinds of doubts and questions are a reason that we are here for one another. I have questions, and you can help me.
The place where I get stuck again and again is this question: why did Jesus leave?
Usually I find this question comes up when something terrible happens, or when I am listening to the news, or reading about situations of extreme poverty or violence.
For hundreds of years the Israelites held onto this promise that one day God would make everything right – God would wipe away every tear, God would destroy every enemy, God would bring peace, and a new heaven and earth – all their hopes and dreams would be fulfilled, and God would send a savior, a new prophet, priest and king.
And then Jesus comes, and it looks like this is it – this is the end of suffering, and the beginning of God’s kingdom. This is what everyone thought was going to happen. Everyone.
On Palm Sunday in the sanctuary we looked at the Triumphal Entry account in Mark where Jesus rides in Jerusalem before the Passover festival– and here is what we learned – that everything that the crowd said and did that day demonstrated that their expectation was that Jesus was going to be a military victor who would ride into town, take back the temple by force, and drive out the imperial forces of Rome who were themselves that very same day riding into Jerusalem on the other side of the city. We know how seriously Jesus disappointed them by how quickly they turned on him, just a few days later.
And then Jesus is crucified and this really feels like the end of hope, and perhaps even the death of God.
But then beyond anything we believed could be possible, God raised Jesus from the dead, hope is alive, death is defeated.
And the people surrounding Jesus must be thinking, now is this time. This is it!
God’s restoration of the kingdom of Israel, God’s redemption and salvation of the world – this is happening now.
And this is where we pick up the story in Acts.
Let’s take a step back and talk about what Acts is all about.
So Luke’s account of Jesus life, what we call Luke’s gospel, and the book of Acts are two parts of one big story, and together they make up one-fourth of the New Testament.
And Acts is absolutely essential to us, because it is the only thing that connects the four accounts we have of Jesus’ life, which ends the story in Jerusalem with no churches at all, to all these letters we have in the rest of the New Testament which have to do with churches that already exist.
So we would not understand all these letter we have without Acts.
And in these first couple verses of Acts we hear Jesus speak just a few sentences – and he talks about how the good news will go out in these ripples, to Jerusalem (the city), to Judea and Samaria (the region), and to the rest of the world.
And then Acts shows us exactly how that happens.
So we read how the apostles, these early followers of Jesus, begin ministry in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7). Then due to persecution there, the message is carried outward to surrounding areas and Samaria (Acts 8-12). And then finally, through Paul, Barnabas, and others the story is taken to other parts of the Roman Empire and to the world (Acts 12-28).
Acts is the After-Easter story – it is the thing that explains what early followers of Jesus did with the resurrection story.
It shows us a radical transformation of the followers of Jesus who were scattered and afraid, who literally change the world. And as we stand just on the other side of Easter, this is exactly what we need to figure out – what now? What do we do with this resurrection story?
We read in Acts that the resurrected Jesus was with his followers 40 days, teaching them about God’s kingdom, because they still had a lot to learn.
And even then the one question they ask Jesus shows us that they still had the exact same expectations they had had when Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – they ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
In other words, Jesus you came and we thought you were going to be superman and save us and destroy our enemies, but then you died and we thought it was all over, but then you came back so this has got to be victory time.
And Jesus replies by saying two really crucial things – things we still need to hear (my paraphrase):
You are not going to know or understand everything that is happening, but God knows.
And, God will be with you.
Jesus tells them the promised Holy Spirit is coming, meaning God’s way of being with us always. Jesus tells them and us that the Holy Spirit will be our strength and our courage and our power to do what needs to be done.
Two things – you won’t know all the answers but God is with you every step of the way.
And Jesus says, you will be witnesses. It is really important to note here that Jesus doesn’t command them to witness (as in, you must be witnesses), he simply states a fact: you are witnesses – the story gets told through you. Your life tells the story.
We, as the community of God’s people, as the church, we exist not just for ourselves, though we definitely need each other, we exist for the world.
And then Jesus is gone — we call this Jesus’ ascension.
And all his followers stand around looking up.
Do they set off to fulfill Jesus’ command? Not at all.
They strain their necks waiting for another sign, another miracle, maybe an “I love you” written in the clouds.
Two men appear dressed in white and ask a question, just like when Luke tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection, two men in white appear at the tomb and ask a question: why do you look for the living among the dead?
Now they ask, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
Why are you standing around, not doing anything, and looking up?
There is this scene at the end of the movie “Bruce Almighty”, after Bruce has discovered it is very difficult to be God and that there are many things he does not understand about love and grace, and he and God are having their final conversation together and God says, “Everybody wants a miracle, Bruce. Want me to do everything for ’em. But what they don’t understand is, they’re the ones holding the power.”
And then God walks over to a ladder to climb up into heaven.
And Bruce starts to panic and asks, “Where are you going? What if I have questions? What if I need you?” And God stops and looks down at Bruce, and says, “See Bruce, that’s your problem. That’s everybody’s problem. You keep looking up. . .”
And then he smiles and disappears into the light.
The movie ends with Bruce organizing a blood drive, and Bruce encourages his TV audience to “be the miracle”.
One commentator writes that the whole point of these first verses in Acts is get Jesus off the stage so that Jesus’ followers, the apostles, will get to work, so that they will be witnesses, so that they will be the miracle.
We are witnesses. Bill Loader, who is a New Testament scholar and minister in the Uniting Church of Australia, writes:
“We are also witnesses to the Jesus in whose ministry God’s reign already revealed itself.
We join hands across the generations with those who saw at the very beginning, whose hands handled the word of life, who saw and heard Jesus in the towns of Galilee and in Jerusalem.
Through them we know the story, that tells of love which sets people free.
We learned of the compassion of God, as great and greater than the most compassionate parent, opening the door again to the outcast, embracing the lost son, listening to the women’s cries, taking the children and blessing them. . . .
We are witnesses of the love which was tortured and beaten, strung up and crucified, taken away and buried.
We are witnesses of a terrible story that tells itself again in every generation, wherever love and innocence and life is crushed and broken and swept aside.
We are witnesses of his resurrection.
We also have our own story to tell, our own meetings with sin and death, our own on going conversions and renewal . . .
We are like the eleven and those with them, human beings, with all the gifts and all the limitations that belong to our humanness.
And like them, we know our denials and our fearful abandonment of divine love. Like them, we have nothing to boast of. . .
. .Yet he comes to you and me, he comes to his Church, lifts us up, loves us without limit, and invites us to tell the story of love over and over again.
You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.”