This is the final week in our big questions series and also the beginning of a new series studying the New Testament book of Acts. It’s a transition. It’s an ending and a beginning, like what our graduates are experiencing in this season. And in fact, our life is full of these transition moments. Nothing lasts and so we are always ending something and starting something new. We use rituals to mark specific moments in the transition, but often the transition itself is a whole season. There’s a moment when someone hands you a diploma, but really it’s a season of ending school and starting whatever is next. There’s a moment where we speak wedding vows, but really it’s a season of deepening love and commitment. There’s a moment when a baby is born, but really it’s been a season of pregnancy and preparation. There’s a moment when we lower a coffin into the ground, but really it’s a season of coping with loss. Something ends and something begins. Something dies and something new comes to life. And we learn to live in a new season.
That’s what’s happening in the book of Acts. It begins in the season between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension, when he returns to heaven. We mark the moment of resurrection, we mark the moment of ascension, we mark the moment of Pentecost, but really it’s a season of Jesus’ followers learning to be the church. Like most transitions, it’s not real smooth. They experiment and fumble and nail it and fail. Like we always do when we are living into a new season. Like we are all doing right now as we learn to live in a world dealing with Covid-19. The question for this morning, as we wrap up a series on big questions is, “How do we transition to something new?” How do we handle our anxiety? How do we hold on to hope? How do we find the courage to try new things and the grace to grieve the old things? The only way it happens is through trust.
Let me show you what I’m talking about with a reading from the first chapter of the book of Acts. Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, like Luke part 2. Acts starts out with a little prologue addressed to a guy named Theophilus, which is a Greek name that means “one who loves God.” Let’s listen for the word and wisdom of God in Acts chapter 1 verses 1 through 14.
“In my first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Like us, the disciples struggled with transitioning to a new season. They really wanted to know what was going to happen next. They ask Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Bless their hearts, they are still missing the point! Before Jesus died they were hoping that he was going to be a political leader who would free the Jewish people from Roman occupation and give them their own sovereign state again. And even now that he has been resurrected, they are still hoping that’s what he’s going to do. Because really if he can rise from the dead that’s going to make him an even more powerful political leader!
And you know what, I don’t blame them. I don’t think they were ignoring everything else he had been telling them about God’s kingdom. I think they were doing what we all do: they were trying to fit God’s plan into their plans. Why not? Why not bring the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed AND restore the political state of Israel? They want to accept the invitation to God’s party; they just want to bring their own games and food and drink. God can do what God wants to do, but just please let it fit in with what they’re already expecting. Sounds familiar to me. If God’s plan is already pretty close to my plan, then I won’t be too anxious. I already feel brave enough to try the things I’ve planned. I’ve already grieved the things I’m willing to give up for my own plan. So Jesus, if we could just do your plan in a way that doesn’t disrupt my plan, that would be awesome. Thanks.
And how does Jesus respond to that? Well, he doesn’t say, “You guys are really stupid cowardly losers.” He doesn’t say, “Get on board with me or get out.” He gives the same kind of answer he always gives them. He answers them in relationship. He says, “It’s not for you to know God’s timing. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Which might not immediately sound like an answer to us, but it is.
Like I said, this is an answer in relationship. The disciples are basically saying, “When are we going to get the thing we want?” And Jesus’ response is, “You don’t need to know that. Trust me. I trust you.” Are we going to get what we want? Is God’s plan going to fit in with our plan? Jesus says we don’t need to know that. Remember what I said the very first week of this series, that God doesn’t hold out on us, so if we NEEDED to know, God would certainly tell us. We don’t NEED to know. We want to know so that we can control the situation. Because controlling the situation is the only way we can think of to manage our anxiety. But instead Jesus invites us to manage our anxiety not by control but by trust. You don’t need to know. Trust God. Whatever God has planned, whatever we have planned, we will be able to handle it if we choose to place our trust in God. This is what the New Testament calls faith.
We can trust that God will give us what we need. Jesus promises that the disciples (and WE also) will receive the Holy Spirit so that the disciples (and WE also) will be his witnesses. We can trust God. And the really amazing thing is that God trusts us. God does have a plan for the redemption of the world. Jesus comes to set it in motion. But he doesn’t stick around to micromanage it. Instead he entrusts the plan to us. God trusts us. God trusts that although sin is rampant in the world and we are all slaves to the power of death, we will accept God’s love and then sacrificially pour that love out on others. God trusts that we will be witnesses.
Now some of you may have a bad taste in your mouth about the word “witnessing.” But let’s not toss that word aside just because other people have used it in a way we don’t like. This is a classic word for our faith. To witness simply means to tell your story. God trusts that we will speak our truth, like any witness in a court. To be a witness isn’t to have an argument. God is not asking us to go around debating theological points. We are invited by Jesus to simply share our experience, to joyfully tell others about what God has done in our lives. And there’s no argument in that, because nobody can argue with your experience.
Don’t tell people what your pastor says, don’t tell them what you’ve read, don’t tell them what your grandma thought—tell them what has happened to you. Tell them about the peace, the acceptance, the inspiration, the courage, the love, the new life that you have found in God. That’s your story and if you say it happened, no one can say it didn’t. You’re not responsible to lay out a systematic theology, you’re just invited to speak your truth. Be a witness. God trusts you.
And then get to work. After Jesus ascends, two angels appear to the disciples and what do they say? “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking at the sky?” Isn’t that our tendency as churchy people? We want to stand around looking at the sky. We want to stand around looking at the last place we saw Jesus, waiting for him to appear in that same spot again. We stand around looking at the sky when the work of the Kingdom of God is here on earth. It’s not time to stand around looking at the sky. It’s time to get busy.
So what do the disciples do first? First, first, FIRST, they pray. They go back to Jerusalem, and they gather their people: Jesus’ twelve apostles, the women who were in his inner circle, his mother and his brothers, and 120 others from his core group of followers, and they PRAY. The story says they constantly devoted themselves to prayer. Not as a way to avoid the work, but as preparation for the work. The community prayer is part of God’s plan. God doesn’t just drop a plan on us. We pray and we ask for it. And we pray together.
One thing I love about the book of Acts is that it affirms that Christ is present in the church. I firmly believe that you can’t be Christian alone. You can be spiritual alone. You can commune with God alone. But to be Christian is fundamentally to be in community with others. The most Christian thing you can do is be part of the church. With all our flaws and all our failures, God trusts us and invites us to also trust each other. God calls us not to be lone rangers for Jesus, but to plant ourselves in imperfect families of faith where we pray and argue and celebrate and work. When you witness, when you tell about what God has done in your life, it’s very likely that a big part of your testimony is going to be what you have experienced in community. It is for me. Remember the text we read last week said no one has ever seen God. But when we love one another, God abides in us and God’s love is completed among us. Christ is revealed in the church. Not in the building but in our relationships with one another, imperfect as they are. God’s love is not seen and experienced only in our individual mystical experiences, but in the way that we live together and love one another in community. When you testify about your community of faith, you are testifying about Christ. God doesn’t simply have a plan for YOU. God has a plan for US.
We don’t know for sure how things will turn out. We don’t know if we will get exactly what we want. But we don’t need to know because we trust God. And God trusts us. So it’s time for us to stop staring at the sky. If we are going to live into God’s plan for this next phase of our lives, it’s time to pray together and then get busy. Amen.