ACTS: WHAT GOD HAS DONE
Here we are in the early days after the resurrection. Jesus is going around telling people about the kingdom and getting ready to return to the Father. Let’s just imagine for a moment that you and I run a first century marketing consulting firm, we have been hired by Jesus to help him beef up his image before the ascension (which is pretty spectacular by the way and maybe we would have suggested pulling together a bigger crowd for that event and not to mention the resurrection – we would have made that a way bigger publicity event than it was) but don’t you just imagine that one of our very first recommendations would be, “get new disciples’? Seriously, these are the same ones who fell asleep on Jesus when they were supposed to be praying (Luke 22:39-46). One of them, Peter, repeatedly denied even knowing Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). When a number of women from the group told them they had met two angels at the empty tomb post-resurrection, they scoffed (Luke 24:1-11). These guys are obviously not the ideal characters to carry on for Jesus. But then again, I don’t think they have ever been what we might consider ideal. Do you remember way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he calls his disciples just as he begins his incredible life-changing ministry? Jesus is busy demonstrating (just) how things work in God’s kingdom by teaching, preaching, and healing and caring. He gathers his first disciples and they are witnesses to all of this; they experience Jesus and his many moments on earth. Even then we expressed our surprise at the choices – several fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot zionist, a traitor. These are the ones that Jesus has chosen to spread the Christian message. These are the ones who witness the absolutely incredible events of Jesus’ ministry and even more the stunning transformation as Jesus is raised to new life. Can you imagine? So, while we might recommend that Jesus get new disciples – he does not. Instead of letting them off the hook, Jesus gives them a second chance. Don’t you find that significant? I do – it reminds me that God is in the business of giving second chances, and sometimes even third and fourth chances. I am grateful for that, because I have needed that and maybe you have, too. No, instead of replacing the disciples, Jesus declares to them, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). What does it mean to be a witness?
Prof Skinner in his book, “Acts: Catching Up with the Spirit,” relates how on one occasion, he was a witness to a smash and run in a parking lot. When he spoke to a police officer later, describing the events, there were some details he just could not provide – such as what the driver was wearing, did they seem under the influence and such. Skinner relates “I found myself apologizing for not being able to offer more.” “That’s ok,” the officer said, “you can only tell me what you saw.” This is what it means to be a witness – to testify to what you have seen and heard. As I read this I wondered if this is the reason the disciples are so effective after Jesus’ departure. If by merely describing what they witnessed they offer a compelling case for Christ. Certainly, they were witnesses to a lot over the course of Jesus’ ministry! Yet, there is something else – these disciples of Jesus are going to need help to accomplish what Jesus set out for them to do – they are to receive the Holy Spirit and this empowers them to speak and live the good news in ways they can not do on their own.
So what is it that God has done that needs to be witnessed to? What is it that we read in this passage and in the other passages assigned this week? Hopefully, you got a chance to read Peter’s amazing speech in Solomon’s Portico from Acts 3; or parts of Paul’s speeches in the synagogue in Antioch and in Athens. (reminder to look at May’s newsletter for the readings each week). I don’t think we can fully understand it all, but we can see that they all point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the game changer, as the world changer, as the life changer. The resurrection is the declaration that God wields power over even death itself. Nothing, nothing can withstand the liberating power of God. Have you experienced this, the liberating power of God? It is the power to open the tomb of our weaknesses and shortcomings, our tragedies and hurts and to call us out into life, real life.
In the resurrection there is fulfillment of a long ago promise (to bring to the entirety of the world – a savior, the Messiah). It heralds the kingdom come and coming through Christ – in a totally unexpected and counter-cultural way. Defying all marketing schemes or religious plots or plans for evil and harm. In the resurrection there is hope that goes beyond even the present moment and says there is a future for you that cannot be taken away. For in the resurrection we find fulfillment, and promise, a beginning and a hope.
But what does that mean for us today – here – so far distant from Galilee from the first century, from all that the disciples experienced first-hand. To us it may seem just too far away, it may just seem like words on a page of an ancient book – a glorious tale, but what? I believe we must circle back around to the earliest understanding of this – that nothing can withstand the liberating power of God. That power lives today and is yours and mine. The Holy Spirit is promised to us, also. Not necessarily to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but to change us – to give us something that goes beyond ourselves and into the mystery of faith.
In one of Jesus’ last discussions with his disciples he says this: “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.: (John 14:25-27)
He tells them this, I believe, because they will need to remember all of this as he leaves them. For, there’s one more thing in this passage that I think we can ponder this morning and that is the mystery of goodbye. Here Jesus must leave, must say goodbye in order for the next things to be possible for the disciples. There is a goodbye. An ending. We don’t like those, do we? This past week in our class of Stephen Ministry trainees the lesson was about how to bring a Stephen Ministry caring relationship to a close. This brought about a lot of dismay and worry about building a relationship and then having to end it. Goodbyes are hard for us. While I was in San Diego, my granddaughter Emmalyn experienced this as she had to say goodbye to her school, her classmates and teachers and the only home she remembers as they prepared for their move to Mass. It can be painful, sad, heart-breaking even to say goodbye to the familiar. But that is the only way we can say welcome to the new. It is the way of growth and maturity. And as difficult as it is, it is the way of the church. Every beginning is preceded by an ending. For the disciples it may seem as though everything Jesus has prepared them for is ending when in reality it is an incredible new beginning.
Is it bewildering and even heartbreaking because their beloved Rabbi is again leaving them? Perhaps, but it is with the promise that we claim still today of Christ’ constant and abiding presence. Indeed, Jesus promises something even greater: his holy presence living within them -living within us – empowering, advocating, reminding, teaching through the in-dwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for us, too. Can we hear Christ’s challenge – “You will be my witnesses?”
Suggested reading for next week: Acts 8:26-40 also Acts 10:1-48 (a few other suggestions in the newsletter)
 Matthew L. Skinner, “Acts, Catching Up With The Spirit.” Abingdon Press, 2020. P 28.
 IBID. Pg 26.