The writer of Acts is sharing with us an account of what he actually saw and experienced, and now has to tell. This is his witness to the events following Jesus’ resurrection.
You see, by the time this is written, the Roman government has martyred Paul and Peter. The first-hand witnesses are dwindling. Christians are being persecuted and accused of being against the government. They are sometimes called enemies of Rome – those who believe things and spread stories that work against Rome and the empire.
And people maybe are starting to question their beliefs. Maybe doubting their own faith, and this two volume writing of Luke and Acts is a way to offer the stories from an eyewitness – to help folks gain a better understanding of what happened.
You see a witness isn’t someone who simply sees or hears or experiences something – the something doesn’t mean anything until the witness tells about it.
In our house, we have watched many TV shows that end up in a courtroom. And I find that an attorney can never solve a case without hearing the story of the witnesses. You can say all day long that you have witnesses, but until they climb up in the chair and actually tell their story it does no one any good.
And so the story in our scripture lesson is being told by the witness – because that’s what witnesses do.
Now the witness tells us that Jesus has continually appeared to his disciples for forty days after he rose from the dead. Physically – in human form not spirit form. He eats fish. He shows them his scars. He spends time giving them instructions on how they should act and what they should do.
Jesus tells them that they have already been baptized by John with water – an incredibly important baptism but one that is focused on repentance. Now they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit – which actually completes the baptismal covenant, this outpouring of the Spirit – and that’s going to make all the difference.
Because, you see, when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will be empowered to go into the world healing and preaching and telling their eyewitness accounts in the areas of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth – in other words, they are going to tell what they have seen and what they know and what they have experienced to everyone at home and at church and in the community and in the county and in the state and the nation and the continent and all over the world.
And they are going to receive that gift of the Holy Spirit very soon. They just need to stay in Jerusalem for a bit and wait for God to give them the gift. Which does hap0pen in about ten days, and which we will explore next week on Pentecost Sunday.
Now the disciples are a little excited at this because they think they are going to witness God’s Kingdom coming in to take over the world and restore the Jews to power and dominion over everything.
They are concerned about their standing in the community. They are concerned about status. They are concerned with whether Israel is going to be brought back into power – whether THEY will have any power – whether Rome is going to be overthrown – whether the poor will be liberated – whether the people of Israel will be free to worship the One True God.
But this is Jesus interrupting their very focused we-have-to-concentrate-on-our-own-neighborhood thinking. Jesus redirects their focus away from restoration of Jerusalem, away from their own backyard, and moves them in the direction of the mission field. Their world just got a whole lot bigger – it now even includes not just the Jewish Christians, but all the Jews, and the Gentiles, and the Muslims, and the agnostics and the atheists. It includes America, and England, and the Australians, the Africans, from the Italians to the Chinese, from Germany to North Korea – everyone. Their world now includes everyone living.
So Jesus – even though he knows what they are after when they’re asking questions – doesn’t answer them directly. Jesus only says: It is not for you to know the times that God the Father is going to move. You may have times or ‘seasons’ in your Bible – whatever word you have there, the Greek means “you don’t know whether it’s going to be a short period of time or a long period of time” – but what you do know is that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in this area and the areas which are familiar to you, and even to places you haven’t even heard of yet much less have travelled to. You are going to tell everyone my story, my good news. He is basically saying “You don’t need to know when” but here’s the promise that it will happen – the Kingdom of God will come. And WHEN the Holy Spirit comes, you have to be the witnesses, you have to tell all the stories so that people will have readied and faithful hearts.
And then in an instant – he is gone. Look in verse 9: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” He ascended into heaven.
Now, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is not an historical event we are trying to prove or disprove. It’s just the truth – and necessary truth. It is necessary for Jesus to show himself to the disciples and to show himself ascend into heaven. Otherwise, the stories and rumors are going to get out of hand. We saw him alive; we saw him rise into the clouds. We can’t explain it – we just believe it because we have the eyewitnesses telling us! And this is core to our faith. Christ is alive and sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and is in charge of the whole world. That’s the truth.
Now if we put ourselves in the place of the disciples, we have a very different view of the whole world. Remember, this is long before Christopher Columbus; everyone believes that the earth is very flat. Heaven is up in the sky and hell is below the ground, but most importantly for this moment, is that regardless of how we view the world, I know we need Jesus with us and – drat it all – he’s headed out of sight. And I’m standing here not knowing what to think watching him disappear from sight right up into heaven – and I’m nervous and anxious and a little scared.
Verse 10 says: “While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.” Wasn’t that long ago that two men stood with Jesus and he was enveloped in a cloud as he took his place between Moses and Elijah. Took his rightful place between the Law and the Prophets – when he was transfigured right before their eyes – when he shined bright as the sun – when he showed himself to be fully human AND fully divine. And now he is taking his rightful place. And the disciples are going to talk about that when they talk about this. They are going to share that transfiguration experience when they share this ascension story… and things are beginning to come together for them as they look on divinity itself.
And then they get the promise: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There’s work to be done. You can’t get the work done standing there staring at the sky. (Here comes the promise.) This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go. So get busy.”
And when the disciples receive this promise, when they first hear and realize that it isn’t over – that Jesus Christ really IS King of all and really IS coming again – guess what they do. They gather together… and they constantly devote themselves to prayer. They were active in prayer – they were faithfully doing what they were called to do.
During this time between the Ascension and the upcoming Pentecost, they waited in a period of faithfulness and devoted themselves to prayer. At Ascension, we are impressed with the power of Christ. At Pentecost, we are filled and driven by the power of the Holy Spirit. In between we wait – and not passively sitting around killing time until we figure out what God has planned for us, but active waiting.
The Book of Acts tells us in those next verses what those first disciples did while they were waiting. They prayed and they prayed and they prayed… and in their praying they became of the same spirit. They didn’t sit around waiting for God to herd them into one accord. They actively prayed and opened themselves up to God’s power. They were looking for the truth. By being so intentional in prayer with one another, they prepared the way for God’s uniting power to take hold among them.
Active waiting – spending time praying and listening and seeking God’s will for our lives together. That’s what we are called to – whether we believe we are ready or not to receive answers, we are called to faithful unified living through active waiting. That comes first.
We can’t respond to something we don’t have so we have to get this in the right order. We cannot take the message of Acts and disregard the message of the Gospels. Remember, Acts is volume two; the gospel message of Luke is volume one. Relationship with Jesus Christ comes first. First we seek God, we become as one in that, we become the one Body of Christ… and then we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. You see, it’s a particular order.
Sometimes our best prayer – our best “active waiting” is just to BE with God – and to seek God’s will for us – together in our thinking and our worshipping and our reaching out to Jesus.
You know, we have to get this right before we head out to our Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. We come together on Sundays and throughout the week to be better spiritually prepared. Even in this crazy weird time of socially distancing, we are to be in this together. We are going to have to get really creative in how this works, but if we aren’t in right relationship with Jesus and with one another, then our efforts to reach the ends of the earth are pointless.
We have to be witnesses to the end of the earth – people who have experienced the Risen Christ and are willing to tell about that. How has God been at work in your life? How has the Holy Spirit influenced your week? How has Jesus been recognized in your day? Those are the things we are to talk about as we develop relationships with each other.
None of this means anything until we become eyewitnesses for Jesus Christ – seeing, loving, seeking, experiencing, telling witnesses – in our active waiting for the glorious return of our Savior. And that’s the truth.