Learn of Jesus and Act
The biblical Acts of the Apostles has always been important to renewal movements within the life of the Christian Church. The Protestant traditions, of which we are a part, have long affirmed that we are always in need of reform and renewal. The various strands of religious organization that have come down to us as United Methodists, have also studied the witness of Acts to guide our common life.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The author of Acts is often referred to as the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. We are grounded, first, in the gospel story of Jesus all that he did and taught. We are asked to keep these experiences of Jesus in the front of our thinking and planning.
Our tendency is to get caught up with the dramatic and literal visual picture of Jesus floating off into the clouds. But that is jumping ahead of ourselves and we are always mistaken when we stop at this level of interaction with the Bible as the Bible always means more than meets the eye.
Most people today have gotten past the old three-story world-view of the ancients with heaven literally up above us somewhere (farther and farther away as we explore the further reaches of space) and hell literally down below us (closer and closer as we lose touch with paradise) and the world in between (more and more adrift). The point of this scripture is missed if we focus strictly on geography and space travel rather than our own spiritual journeys. In a way, the opening of Acts is similar to the story of the creation of the first woman from Adam’s rib it is not about male hierarchy or anatomy, but about unity and intimacy (face-to-face meetings and meals between Jesus and his disciples).
Here we hear an affirmation of Jesus being alive after death and being alive even to this time. Jesus was not just a blip on the screen after death (in resurrection) but Jesus continues to be alive (in ascension) and is encouraging us through the Holy Spirit and will return. We are still able to be united with and intimate with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Saints of old and one another and those who will come after us as we witness to the divine in the midst of life, right now and here in our life, our families, our church.
Jesus’ word to the disciples then, and to such current disciples as you and I, is to wait for GOD’s Spirit (present in Baptism) to energize and give direction.
Our tendency is always to know more than can be known. We look for certainty when we should be looking for clarity. So it is that the disciples took their eye off Jesus to wonder about themselves and their glory. They asked about the fulfillment of creation's purpose, when GOD's presence in glory will be experienced.
In the same way, the popularized “left behind” literature of today misses the point of Jesus. It scapegoats “otherness.” It sees demons in those with whom we disagree and looks for a divine rescue operation from life’s problems.
Jesus does his best to refocus the disciples of old and we who are trying to be disciples today. "Folks, you don’t get to know the time. Timing is God’s business. Instead, what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit to guide you to be my witnesses where you are and everywhere else. You are to do what I have done and teach what I have taught and to do so in a greater way.”
Note that Jesus is not interested in some by-and-by time or a place somewhere else. Jesus is putting us to work right here and now, not getting us out of this world.
A part of what this means is that there is not going to be a Lone Ranger riding our way to get us out of whatever difficulty we have with one another or the community. A new pastor is not going to be our salvation. A new building is not going to be our salvation. A new program for Sunday School is not going to be our salvation.
According to the beginning foundations of Acts we need to know Jesus, what he did and said, and we are to apply it in our daily living with one another here in this place and wherever we find ourselves working, schooling, shopping, visiting, or vacationing this summer.
In real life, we are not promised a divine rescue, nor is there a strict line between the heroes and villains, but we are given the courage and strength to face life’s challenges as a result of the companionship of GOD. As we wait for GOD’s revealing in our lives and history, our call is simply to be faithful to add to the beauty, justice, and love of the world let our love of one another show.
Jesus’ final words to the disciples illuminate the “this-worldly” nature of salvation. Eternal life is not “the-pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die in the sweet by-and-by,” but companionship and awareness of God in the present moment. This moment is a holy moment; this day, a beautiful day. As the Psalmist says, “this is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The point of the beginning of Acts is found, I believe, in the angelic challenge, “why do you stand looking up at heaven?” And, this is a very important point. In light of all manner of possible other-worldly interpretations, the heart of this passage is that we have work to do here in this lifetime, in this precious and unrepeatable moment and life, in this beautiful world, and in this congregation. This world is not the front porch to eternity, nor is it worthless in the light of eternity. Rather, our life is in the here and now. Heaven is heaven and earth is earth, and both are beautiful!
Our calling as Christians is to heal and transform the world this world. It has been said that there are some people who are “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” And, that was the temptation for the disciples long ago to gaze at the heavens, to wait for a Second Coming, and forget that their calling is to live faithfully in this life as God’s partners in healing the world. This is still the temptation for disciples today to wait and wait and wait without risking applying what we know of Jesus and investing time and energy in finding out more about Jesus.
Let me paraphrase the words from God’s messengers: “You people of Milton United Methodist Church! why do you just stand there looking at an empty pulpit or piece of ground? Jesus will come as certainly and mysteriously as he left.
Our task is to challenge ourselves and one another to learn more about Jesus. In Acts we do this together as a community, not along in our homes. The renewal of our congregation and families and individuals will come through meeting together, eating together, learning together, and community together. We will either learn to grow together or to periodically fall apart.
In just a few minutes we will commune together. This is not just for your personal well-being, but is a sign that we will work together to learn together about Jesus and our mission in this time and place. As you come forward know that you are committing yourself to a new relationship with everyone else who comes forward. We are not individuals waiting for heaven, but we are brothers and sisters of Jesus waiting for our call to first learn about the journey to God from Jesus and then to act it out with one another and others.
Let me conclude with the angel's words: "You!why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainlyand mysteriously as he left.
Friends, Acts is going to stretch our spirits, challenge our current ways of doing business with one another, and lead us into many other wonderful experiences. I am thankful for this beginning and look forward to what we will hear next week.
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"Lectionary Comment: May 8, 2005 - The Seventh Sunday After Easter/Ascension Sunday" by Bruce Epperly, Process and Faith website: http://www.ctr4process.org/pandf/lectionary/May%208%202005.htm
The New Interpreter's Bible, "Acts" by Robert W. Wall, 2002
The Anchor Bible, "Acts of the Apostles" by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., 1998
The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson, 2002