Reading: Acts 1:1-14
Usually on Pentecost Sunday, which is coming up, I am told that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the birthday of the Church. I have never questioned this until I was reading the three accounts of Jesus going up into heaven this week, and asked: “What is the significance of this story, and where it is located?
In the gospels, the story of Jesus going up into heaven is short, if it is mentioned at all. This offers a logical ending of the incarnational ministry of Jesus (though, I rather like how Matthew and John do not even find it necessary to mention Jesus leaving — as, God’s continued presence is part of the gospel story.)
Acts is not the story of Jesus, but the story of the primitive church and how Christianity started to become a small worldwide community. I notice that the story of the church begins with Jesus leaving the disciples — this choice make the ascension, not Pentecost the birthday of the Church, at least in Luke’s mind. My mind asks: why?
Reading Acts, I realize that Christ’s physical presence was in a real way a block to the followers of Christ. As long as there was a physical Lord who could be a physical King of the Jews, and physically raise up an army to remove the Romans from Judea, they were not going to understand anything about the kingdom that was not of this world.
I get this from verse 6, where the disciples get together and ask Jesus whether he would now restore the kingdom of Israel. Coming back from the dead and regathering the followers is a huge deal. The story of the king that Rome could not kill could be a rallying point for revolution. Clearly disciples such as Simon (the Zealot) were ready for Jesus to take his place as a great terrorist leader. While there was a physical king, the disciples were ready for a physical kingdom.
When Jesus was brought up into heaven, he told the disciples to wait and pray together in Jerusalem. Jesus commanded them to form a community that was based on God’s continued presence in this world.
When the disciples formed this community, and waited for God’s real presence in a new way, the church was born. This was the second time that Jesus’ followers got together like this, due to Jesus’ absence. The first time was a time of mourning — this time was marked by joy. The first time marked an end — this time, they knew it was a beginning. For the first time, the kingdom of heaven was in the disciples.