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Acts 1:1-11

The introduction to Acts provides a helpful word connecting the Gospel of Luke to it: “Theophilus.” It remains unclear if this is a wealthy patron named Theophilus, or a generic term of any interested person, translated roughly as “Lover of [the] God[s].” Research this! There is passion on both sides. As a preacher, I am happy to let this hang. The term carries more weight ties the books together as two volumes of the same story than it does needing to have judgement made.

It is interesting that the line dividing the story of Jesus is chosen to be drawn at the same point of the other one volume gospels. For Luke, the presumed author of both Luke and Acts, the ascension following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus works as a fine breaking point. This editorial decision helps us as the church today, as well. Acts is working on the problem that continues to confound us in 2020: what does the church do and believe when Jesus is no longer here in bodily form to lead us.

The text before us: Acts 1:1-11, provide us the final glimpse of Jesus speaking to the disciples [note: He appears other times in Acts, such as his dramatic calling of Saul into the ministry] with clear instructions as to where they are to begin in their working out of their vocation as apostles. The Gospel of Luke ends with their response to the resurrection of Jesus to be staying at the Temple praising God [Luke 24:53]. This is relatively easy work compared to the way their futures unfold in Acts.

In these forty days between the conclusion of Luke and raising of the curtain in Acts, life seems easy, even if unclear. Jesus is present, resurrected as a body, and shooting the breeze with the guys as if nothing has changed. So little has changed, in fact, that the disciples are still asking misguided questions.

Jesus suggests that they should sit tight in Jerusalem and wait upon the Spirit. This will come as a gift, and be a reminder of John’s baptism, but different and more powerful. The disciples hear the words coming out of Jesus: the one they just weeks ago witnessed be falsely tired, brutally killed, and placed in a borrowed tomb. They are conversing with that formerly dead man, and yet have not had their theological constructs yet altered. No…they still think Jesus is here to take down Rome.

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” [v. 6] they ask!

Politics! Nationalism! Heck of a drug, those two!

If Jesus, as Messiah, were simply pro-Israel, anti-Rome…why die? Why suffer? Why save a people who just voted to free Barabbas rather than him [Luke 23:18]? Surely, something more is happening?

The disciples don’t see it. Not 6 weeks of time with the resurrected Jesus has changed their perspective. Something more is needed. They need power, and they need to submit to this power.

Jesus lays it out like this, and it would be fair to label this the “thesis statement” of the Book of Acts: 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.” [Acts 1:7-8].

This call is much different, much riskier, much more involved than praising God in the security of the Temple.

Surely, God intends to begin there. The Jews are not excluded from this new work and revelation of the Holy Spirit. In the next chapter, this power is revealed during a holy festival in the streets of Jerusalem. They are to be witnesses of this in Jerusalem. And, sure enough, by the power of the SPirit, the same Peter who denied Jesus in these very streets almost two months ago now delivers the original Billy Graham sermon. The shift in boldness is striking!

From there, they are to go to Judea. This is leaving the city and hitting the surrounding area. Judea is not the comforts of Jerusalem – where the Temple and all of Jewish society sees as central – but it is still among the Jews. There may be some challenge outside of those who saw what has happened in Jerusalem the last few months, but this is not enemy territory. Life, grammar, religion, politics, culture are shared. They are to go to these places, too.

Samaria. About Samaria. Samaria is a problem. They are not favored by God. They are half-breeds. They are folks who worship incorrectly, who are traitors, who are different in most every way. Think about this like Red Republican Nebraskans trying to find something in common with Blue Democrat Californians. There are shared narratives, but also some serious mistrust and disagreement. And that’s before we even get to a Nebraska v. USC Sugar Bowl! Jesus is telling them those kind of people are part of his plan as well, and that those filled with the Spirit are to take them seriously as part of God’s plan.

If that was rough, Jesus continues to “the ends of the earth.” These peasant Jews begin the conversation by asking if God would redeem Israel from Rome, and now they are called to be the ones heading into the far reaches of Rome in places *they* may not be welcome. This must have been a dizzying and upsetting ask. But, Jesus is immediately taken up into heaven, giving them little time to argue. Two men dressed in white tell them to quit looking in the sky, and instead begin a pregnant waiting for Jesus’ return.

These disciples/apostles are left to wonder what to do with this call. And, while they are often naive or neutered characters in the Gospels, they change drastically in the next chapter. Whatever shortcomings, fears, misgivings or history they have, things change when the Spirit Jesus promises comes. Peter makes it to the city of Rome. Andrew makes it to Scotland. Matthew and Simon went to Persia.

This text, in many ways, serves as an introduction to the book. But, the foreshadowing is so strong and so moving. A ragtag bunch who didn’t quite get it, still don’t quite get it, but they remain a people dedicated to Jesus and to prayer. And God will eventually move, filling them with the Spirit and they are transformed. There are so many ways to go with this text, but a particularly moving one is that God fills the weak, reluctant, and mediocre with His spirit, and those who will receive the gift can become powerful in the Spirit. The willingness to do nothing but wait, rather than run, allowed them to be present at the appointed time. There is much to be said for being willing, being open, and being willing to not run when God asks something of you.

And so, the wild journey of Acts begins: with a theological misgiving rooted in politics and nationalism. Their misunderstanding was not a barrier for God to use them…it did not preclude the Spirit from getting a hold of them.