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Acts 1:1-11

If you’ve been preaching through the book of Acts with us this Eastertide, you might be surprised by the abrupt turn this week’s passage takes: back to the beginning. Not only is this week’s text appropriate for the Sunday when we recognize the Ascension, but it’s also necessary if we are going to make our way to the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost next Sunday.


The Jewish celebration of Pentecost is not simply an agricultural feast. Within it, the people also remember the giving of the Torah to Moses. Luke’s explanation of the ascension of Jesus in Acts chapter 1 and the decent of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2 may have reminded early readers of Moses’ journey up Mount Sinai and back down. Here, God’s Spirit in Jesus ascends, only to come back down in the person of the Holy Spirit to the people of God once again. Perhaps Luke is hinting to the reader that perhaps God, the Spirit, and Jesus himself are one—ascending and descending back down the heavenly mountain to the people of God with yet another covenant, a new mandate, a fresh presence.


The movement of the Spirit in the “Acts of the Apostles” is so prominent that it might as well have been called, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” or “The Faithfulness of the Apostles,” or perhaps “The Shaping of the Early Church by the Holy Spirit.” If, after verse 2, Luke had gone on to sum up this second volume, the added verse might read, “In this book, Theophilus, I will write about all that the Holy Spirit began to do and to teach among those who followed the Way.” The Spirit is mentioned 56 times throughout the text–by far the most prominent actress in this story.


Waiting for the Holy Spirit?


The Instructions Jesus gives to his disciples through the Holy Spirit are to stay put until they receive the Father’s promise: a baptism of the Holy Spirit into themselves. Instructions like this could easily be translated for life today. Some of us do not wish to wait on the presence or power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we are unaware that the calling of God on our lives is impossible to accomplish in our own power. (We could label this the Bootstraps Fallacy?) Or, perhaps we have not heard the calling of God upon our lives and therefore feel no need for the Spirit’s power. Or, most tragically, perhaps we recognize that the call of God would be impossible to fulfill on our own but we are currently running away from that calling altogether. After all, is there any scarier calling than, “losing your life for my sake?” (Luke 9:24)

Waiting for a KING?


“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” The question from the disciples in verse 6 betrays their expectations—a revolution, a political victory, a KING. Even now, the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven had not set in. If we look back, we can see these same expectations in Peter’s cutting off of the high priest’s soldier’s ear. “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:50) Here, now, the revolution must be beginning!


These disciples are expecting Jesus to be a worldly political ruler like King David. And perhaps his reign will be ushered in with a triumph like the Maccabean revolt? They are holding their breath for the moment when the time would be right: Jesus would lead them in an overthrow of their Roman occupation to usurp the likes of Herod and ascend to his rightful place as the (true) King of the Jews. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” On this question, Wesley wrote, “They still seemed to dream of an outward, temporal kingdom, in which the Jews should have dominion over all nations.” Even at the table in the last supper, the disciples seem to expect power and glory in their discussion of who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24)


Little did they know that rather than make them powerful rulers of men, their followership would cost them everything. The movie Stranger Than Fiction narrates this perfectly when the voice says, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” We don’t often admit to people what it looks like to follow Jesus. We’d like to think of the Kingdom in the same way the disciples were expecting it: full of earthly victories begun by a revolution and a king ascending to a throne. However, the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus began with a manger birth, simple life, and horrific death—not to mention an unbelievable resurrection. Perhaps following Jesus is a “simple, seemingly innocuous act” that guarantees our death to ourselves. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”


The bravest of preachers might take the application of this passage a step further. In what ways do we Christians today expect earthly power and authority on behalf of our faith? Do we set our hopes and prayers on political takeover? Or do we willingly follow the Jesus who was brutally murdered and asks us to take up our own cross? How often do we pray for safety and protection—rather than praying for the Spirit-power that might allow us to risk it all for the sake of the Gospel?


At the end of the passage, the admonishment of the two men in white robes in verse 11 is not surprising. If the disciples’ expectations for their Anointed One were as tangible as they appear, perhaps they were shocked to see Jesus ascend to heaven at all! Or, perhaps they were shocked that Jesus did not plan to take them with him—“to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” as he had promised in Luke 22:30. It’s not surprising that, mouths open, they stand there staring into the sky.


And just like that, the infant church must discover what it means to follow Jesus without a Jesus to follow. Fortunately, they do not need to navigate these waters alone, soon the promised Holy Spirit will dwell in them—to nudge the disciples along toward the fulfillment of Jesus’ call to the ends of the earth.

[1] It is debated whether or not the Feast of Weeks was celebrated as a recognition of the giving of the Torah by the time Luke’s second book was written. [J. Paul Samply, Robert W. Wall, and N. T. Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 10: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 54.] However, writers like NT Wright take it for granted that Pentecost would have had this dual meaning by the time of Acts’ authorship as it does today [N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One: Chapters 1-12 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 22.]

[2] John Wesley, John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/) Acts 1.

[3] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995) 44.