Today, and for the next few weeks, we’ll be diving in to the book of Acts – the full title is ‘Acts of the Apostles’, which is a surprisingly accurate description. Written by the same person who wrote the gospel according to Luke, Acts is all about what happens after Jesus – when he’s no longer with them in flesh and blood and they have to figure out how to live and be and work and worship now in light of this crucified and risen Savior.
Acts is when the people of God start figuring out what it looks like to live in the space between Jesus’ resurrection and the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
It’s been 40 days since Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, and he’s been popping in and out of the disciples’ lives ever since. He meets them in a group in the upper room, he yells at them from the shore while they’re on fishing boats, he comes to eat with them and surprises them while they’re walking along the road. After 40 days, though, he’s ready to return to God the Father and turns his earthly ministry over to his followers. He promises the disciples that they will receive new power to tell his story and preach resurrection when the Holy Spirit comes – soon, he says.
And then Jesus disappears into the clouds to reign at God’s right hand – and although there is a promise that he will return to bring God’s kingdom here, there is no knowing the exact time or date. Side note: remember this the next time someone appears on TV saying they’ve calculated it down to the minute.
But after Jesus ascends, the disciples don’t get much time to stand around watching the sky before they’re nudged to remember what they were just told. They have work to do.
If you were with us last week, you might remember that in John’s gospel, Jesus spent several chapters talking with his disciples, giving them instructions and reminding them of all he’d taught them, trying to prepare them for this moment: when God with us becomes God within us.
Where before they were followers, now they are leaders.
Where before they were students, now they are teachers.
Where before they were confused and afraid, now they await God’s Spirit to fill them with courage and power.
Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginnings of the Church as we know and (mostly) love it today.
So starting today and over the next few weeks, we’re going to ask a very specific question. When we tell the story of God at work in and through these disciples, we’re going to focus on the why – what is God’s mission in the world when Jesus isn’t here in the flesh, and how is that mission accomplished?
To put it another way: what is the Holy Spirit going to empower these people to do?
We’re going to seek the answer to that question in the book of Acts, by looking at what these disciples actually do on and after Pentecost.
But I’m going to give you a small spoiler first. In our passage today, there’s a sneak preview of what’s coming.
Verse 8 says: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus doesn’t say “I hope you will be.”
Jesus doesn’t say “Go and be my witnesses.”
He doesn’t hedge his bets and say “some of you might go be witnesses.”
“You will be my witnesses,” he says, “in every time and place.”
It’s not an instruction – it’s a declarative statement.
Because at the end of the day, that’s what it all comes down to: all of the healing and teaching and wandering and organizing—it’s all centered around telling the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our guide, and our encourager so that we can tell this story: with our words, yes, because that’s important—but also with our whole lives.
Every single church mission statement and tagline really should boil down to the same three things: love God, love people, and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
But there’s one particularly attractive stream of Christianity out there that takes all the teeth out of that statement, and absolves us from really doing anything with the life and work of Jesus.
Scholars and academics have a twenty-dollar name for it: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (Don’t worry, there’s no test at the end of this.)
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (or MTD for short) boils down to three things: be nice, feel good, and don’t make God come down here.
Moralistic boils down to ‘be nice.’ This is where it’s helpful to make a distinction between kindness and niceness. Kindness requires something of you – compassion, hope, love. To be nice, however, simply means you don’t make trouble, you say please and thank you, you don’t rock the boat. As long as you’re nice, then you’re fine. God doesn’t really ask anything more of you than that.
Therapeutic is ‘feel good.’ In this way of thinking, if it makes you feel good, then it must be good—and that’s what matters to God. So as long as whatever it is makes you feel good, then God doesn’t mind.
Deism – this is a strain of Christianity that was popular in the early United States, that says God created the universe and then stepped back and let it go. God is not really involved in the workings of the world or in our lives as individuals unless you really, really screw something up. So don’t mess up too badly, and God won’t hurl a lightning bolt your way. Otherwise, God doesn’t really care what you do.
Be nice, feel good, don’t make God come down here.
It’s easy, sure, but it’s not what Jesus asks of us.
To love God with all of your heart, strength, mind, and soul means cultivating a relationship with the God who is not far away, not caring who you are or what you do—but is closer to you than you are to yourself, who knows you inside and out, who has counted the hairs on your head (or lack thereof.)
To love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us—that goes so far beyond waving occasionally at the guy who lives down the road. It’s the casseroles and birthday cakes, it’s showing up and crying and eating and laughing together. It’s forgiveness and choosing compassion even in the worst circumstances. It’s cutting out 487 leaves for Bible school, so that the kids in our community have one more opportunity to be loved and cared for and hear the story of God’s love for them.
To make disciples means that we have to be disciples. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work in the Church—it’s the example that we set for the little ones among us that counts, not just our instructions. If we’re content with doing everything the way it’s always been done just because that’s how it’s always been done, then we are missing out on new opportunities to center everything we say and do around being witnesses to Jesus’ life and work. We’re missing out on the Holy Spirit’s call to new life.
I fully and firmly believe that God is alive and at work not just in the world, but right here in Hanover and in this church. I believe that Jesus is alive and that he is worth following. I believe that the Holy Spirit lives inside each and every believer – and works for the good of all creation.
That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle to live and work like I believe all of that. Sometimes I fall right into that rut of complacency and despair and it takes some time and some help to claw my way out.
But if this were easy, we wouldn’t need God’s presence, guidance, and encouragement from the Holy Spirit to do it.
So come celebrate Pentecost with us next week. Hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming to empower God’s people, and immerse yourselves again in God’s care and God’s strength.
Until then, I invite you to pay attention to the ways God is at work in your everyday life: how is God working on your heart? How are you following Jesus, and already telling that story? Where do you need some encouragement and guidance?
And I also invite you to remember that however you’re doing, whatever you’re feeling, wherever you are in this journey of walking and falling and getting back up: God is with you, God knows you inside and out, and God loves you.
Beloved children of God, as we turn our hearts to Christ’s table: may the joy of the Lord fill you and radiate from you—on this day and every day.