Sunday, April 19, 2020

When the Time is Right -- a sermon on Acts 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
When the Time is Right
Acts 1.1-14 (NIV)
19 April 2020, Easter 2, NL2-33

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 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 baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’
Then they gathered round 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.

Is this the time? 
How about now?
Are we there yet?

It feels like the press corps asking questions of our leaders, as much as the disciples asking questions of Jesus — when? How much longer? What do you mean by “wait here”?

The disciples didn’t love the waiting time any more than we do. Sitting around, waiting for something to happen — or, in our current case, hoping that very little will happen — is not what we expected resurrection life would look like. So I suppose it makes sense that when Jesus started to talk about the gift of the Holy Spirit, they immediately jumped to wondering if this was the moment that all their expectations would finally be fulfilled. After all, they had followed faithfully (and less faithfully, sometimes)....they had lived through the ultimate disappointment of their expectations, and then seen that God was more powerful than they had ever realised. Surely now that all that humiliation and death business was out of the way, Jesus would at last take up the mantle of the messiah they expected him to be, defeating the powers of this world and setting the system to rights?

There is some danger in imposing our expectations on God. One of those dangers is that God may have completely different expectations in mind....and so ours will be challenged, or perhaps outright dashed. 

The risen Christ saw his disciples clamouring about him, and he heard their pleas, and this time he didn’t say “how much longer must I put up with you?” Instead he calmly explained that this resurrection life wasn’t going to be about their expectations of God, but rather God’s call to them. So first, we would have to wait. And then, when the time is right, Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses.” 

Those are Jesus’ last words to his friends and followers: when the time is right, you will be my witnesses.

The question on the disciples’ minds must have been: when will the time be right? When is the time? 

When Jesus began to rise toward the sky, I wonder if any of them remembered the story of Elijah and Elisha. When Elijah’s earthly life was over, rather than dying, he was taken up into heaven. Elisha knew that something was about to happen, and he asked Elijah for the gift of “a double share of your spirit.” And Elijah told him that if Elisha could keep his eyes on him while he was going into heaven, then his request would be granted. Elisha, therefore, stared after Elijah, who was taken up in a fiery chariot into the sky, for a long time, until the sky was empty, and after. And only then, when he was certain he had seen all he could see, did he turn away, take up Elijah’s mantle, and carry on — with the gift of Elijah’s spirit alive and well within him.

We always sort of make fun of the disciples for staring at the sky long after the soles of Jesus’ feet disappear amidst the clouds. But perhaps they were waiting for that gift of the Spirit — if they saw him go into heaven, then the Spirit would immediately fill them and they would feel ready to take up the mantle and carry on. And if they didn’t feel any different that day, then no wonder they stood staring at the sky, squinting against the sun as their necks began to ache.

It took some more men in white robes — the very messengers we usually call angels — to call their eyes back to earth. This time the messengers did not start with “do not be afraid,” instead they reminded the disciples where they had come from, and what they were meant to do. “Men of Galilee”....remember who you are. Remember where you met Jesus first. Remember what he did, and taught, and now what he has called you to do. Don’t just stand here looking for him to meet your expectations. Your job now is to go out and meet his expectations.

I wonder what it felt like to return to that upper room, having no idea how long they would need to stay there. 

Actually....I think maybe we have some idea what it feels like now, more than we ever have before!

But to know that at some point, they would be sent out to be witnesses, not just to the people they already knew, but also to their historic enemies, and also to people far and wide whom they had never even heard of, let alone met?

How does one prepare to be a witness?

First I think we need to consider what the word “witness” means. A witness is someone who testifies, who speaks in order to give evidence to those who are trying to discern the truth. And what they speak about is what they know — what they have seen and experienced themselves. That experience can also often lead to testimony by behaviour, by their actions or way of life changing because of the experience they have had, so that others can see, as well as hear, the story that the witness knows.

And Jesus says that we will be his witnesses.  

The disciples heard that call, so different from what they hoped and expected Jesus would do. They thought he would change the world so that the kingdom of God was visible everywhere, from top to bottom and all around....and instead he reminded them that the kingdom was embodied in him, and that they were now to be his Body. Instead of meeting their expectations, he turned them around and insisted that it was us, the Body of Christ, who would carry on the work of changing the world, making the kingdom of God visible everywhere. In Jerusalem and Judea — the places where they were to wait, to stay, to shelter in place. And then in their neighbouring country. And then to the ends of the earth. Wherever they went, the kingdom would be, and it was their testimony that would help people see it — by living and telling the story of their experience of Jesus, they would be the witnesses that all who seek truth need in order to come into resurrection life.

It’s a tall order, and I wonder if perhaps as they walked down the Mount of Olives, the disciples maybe wished they’d been given an easier answer? “Stay home” might have felt more manageable if it came with “because I’ll be right back with all the answers you need, and the power to change everything to exactly the way you envision it.” Instead they got “stay home, for however long it takes, and be ready to be a reliable witness to my grace, justice, love, and hope when you come out.”

Which brings us back to the question: how do we prepare to be a witness?

Jesus’ friends and followers give us the pattern. They spent their time in lockdown in prayer. They waited on the Holy Spirit. They prayed, they told the stories of Jesus’ life, and they were alert to whatever God had to show them, even behind closed doors. 

Remember, they knew firsthand that closed doors were no barrier for the risen Christ, and so would not be a barrier for the Holy Spirit. Even locked in the upper room, they could see and hear and experience God with them. 

And perhaps the most important part, honestly...maybe even more important than the time spent in prayer and in reminding themselves of God’s word: they wanted to be ready.

They wanted to be ready.

That desire to answer Christ’s call meant that they were able to spend however long it took, whether it was days or weeks, preparing in prayer and recalling the story. They wanted to be effective witnesses when the time was right — to tell the story so that people would understand its truth, to live lives changed by their experience of the risen Christ so that people would see his power. So they prayed. They listened. They looked for God right where they were. They read the scriptures. They encouraged each other. They stayed alert to the movement of the Spirit.

From the outside, that will have looked like wasting time, like hiding in fear, like dilly-dallying. Why weren’t they continuing to ask when things would change? Why weren’t they just getting on with it now, regardless of the instructions? But they had heard Christ’s clear call to resurrection life, and they knew that when the time was right, he would send them out.

Perhaps we too can use this time to prepare to be the witnesses Christ calls us to be. The world has changed, people are looking for hope, for truth, for grace....more than ever, we could use some evidence of resurrection. When the time is right, will they see us living resurrection life? Will they hear our story of love more powerful than death and be convinced? Will the truth of God’s amazing grace be seen and heard in Christ’s Body, so that the whole world understands the kingdom of God is at hand? 

If we want to be ready, the Spirit can show us the way. So let’s not waste this crisis in asking questions that betray only our own expectations for someone else to do something....instead, let’s prepare to be witnesses, in our neighbourhoods, our town, our nation, and the world.

May it be so. Amen.

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