Reading: Acts 1:2:13
Last week, we finished our study of Luke but, Luke’s gospel is really part of a two part unit by the same author. Luke ends talking about what Jesus did after the Resurrection, up to the day that Jesus ascended into Heaven, and Acts starts with Jesus giving the great commission, telling the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, and then being taken up into heaven. One tells the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the other tells the story of the newly emerging church. Both stories have 7 weeks of overlap — I’d like to talk about these seven weeks
Acts opens with Jesus meeting with the disciples near the end of the 40 days that Jesus stayed with the disciples between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Acts tells us that Jesus gave some final teaching about the kingdom of God, and ordered them to wait together in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and after they received power, to become His witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but also in all of Judea, in Samaria, and to the very ends of the world.
The thing that stands out to me the most of all is that after spending years learning from Jesus, and having over a month of special teaching from Jesus about the nature of God’s kingdom, the disciples still don’t seem to get it. I read the question: “will you now restore the kingdom of Israel?” as “is it time to fight the Romans yet?” Even the Resurrection was not enough to get the idea that Jesus was a another political savior out of the disciples minds. They might have been willing to die for this cause, but they didn’t really understand the kingdom of heaven yet. Acts starts with the disciples still clueless.
To be fair, I can imagine what the disciple who asked if it was time to kick out the Romans was thinking. Some of the disciples were prepared to die fighting Rome even before the Crucifixion, but after the Resurrection it becomes clear that Rome cannot win. The emperor only has the power to kill, but Jesus has the power to give life. If the power of the emperor can be reversed, then the emperor is powerless. Rome cannot win if the people they kill don’t remain dead. If I knew Rome couldn’t win, I’d be eager to start fighting too.
But, what Jesus did was told them to wait for the spirit to come and give them power. They were to spread Christ’s teachings and the gospel of the Resurrection, not to fight against Rome. Jesus called them to something that looked a lot less like winning. What Jesus teaches so often goes against the first thing that the disciples thought. Even in our experience, we often read what Jesus taught and ask if he could have really meant it. Like the disciple who was ready to take on Rome, we are not eager to listen to Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek and to love even our enemies.
Recently, I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and in this book the author spoke about the struggle between early Christianity and Rome. Rome did fight Christianity, using the tools that they had to defeat the new faith, and they accomplished nothing. Anybody who suggests that you cannot accomplish anything without violence does not understand the power of good news, nor that a martyr has more power to spread the message than the sword that killed to silence him. In the book Zahnd speaks of New Jerusalem, described in Revelation 21, and he notices that the city is big enough to span the Roman Empire, and is as tall as it is wide. Brian Zahnd reads revelation as a prophecy that this tiny, persecuted bunch will grow until they are bigger than Rome, and he also writes that its height, which is tall enough to stretch out into space, shows that Heaven and Earth will touch.
I like this reading, because it really is what happened. The disciple was not entirely wrong; Jesus was going to conquer Rome, but the time and the method were not at all like they would imagine. First Century Christianity was small, and it was mostly people who had no voice, and no hope beyond the good news that the gospel gave them. Most Christian communities were simple house churches; and as most Christians were poor, these churches often met in small apartments. When the persecution started, the only thing people really know about Christians was that they were those weird people who didn’t participate in the religious celebrations of the cities they lived in. When Revelation was written, it was hard to imagine the Church bigger than Rome.
In just a couple centuries, Christianity became the dominant religious in the Roman Empire, and there were some changes to the nature of the Empire; though one might also say that there were changes to Christianity. Jesus didn’t exactly teach his disciples what to do when they became the majority and gained power; we’ve had to figure that out for ourselves, and, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that we’ve had a mixed record in this regard.
The point is that the disciple was wrong about the method, but he was right about what Jesus wanted. The kingdom of heaven isn’t looking to establish itself as a political empire, carved out by an army, and subject to falling to another, stronger empire. The Kingdom of Heaven is about what is right and just. Winning a war does not make a cause just. Might does not make right.
The brilliance of Jesus is that a growing number of powerless people embracing an unworldly kingdom of Divine justice instead of the harsh pragmatism of the world is that those who became members of the Kingdom of Heaven change the world — the brilliance is that we are all salt and light. Even when we seem powerless, we are powerful because we are people of the good news. We are the community of the Resurrection, our Kingdom is not of this world, but our Kingdom is the one where Jesus is king; the truth is, we are still bigger than Rome ever was — and even if us Christians lose our political influence, we still have a gospel that brings the transformation of hearts minds and lives.
The power Jesus brought is the power of Resurrection — we who were dead in our sins are raised up to a new life in Christ. The thing that gives me the most hope in my Christian life is the belief that God has not abandoned us. The story of God’s work didn’t end with Jesus on the cross, nor at the Ascension. The opening of Acts goes from Jesus leaving to the Holy Spirit coming to the church in a powerful way.
Just as Luke was the story of how God showed himself to the world, and worked powerfully through the incarnation; Jesus was God in the flesh, Acts was about the continuation of the story. Pentecost is where the Holy Spirit is there for all of us, and the Church is empowered to do God’s work on Earth. Luke is about Jesus, Acts is about the community of people who are saved, and brought into God’s kingdom through the Jesus’ work, and it is about how the church continues doing God’s work. Acts is the origin story of the great world-wide community that all Christians are part of.
I believe God is still here, changing lives, healing brokenness, and bringing sinners into salvation from themselves. The most important thing I find as good news is that we are invited to enter God’s kingdom. We might never see tongues of fire descend upon us, but I still believe that the Holy Spirit is active in our church and our world. The story of Easter, the story of Pentecost, and the continuing story of the church all tells us the same good news: God does not abandon us.