The story of the disciples is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Most of them are called from relative obscurity into following the prophesied Messiah (Up!). In the midst of it, many of them mess up terribly (Down!). Still, they are used of God to partner in Jesus’ ministry and they witness Jesus’ ministry firsthand (Up!). Then, as their beloved Messiah and friend is coming to his last week on earth, the disciples show different measures of disloyalty, either outright denying their association with him or hiding for their own sakes (Down!). After Easter, they get to spend time with the post-resurrection Jesus (Up!).
It is in the midst of these ups and downs that we come to our text. As the disciples are gathered with Jesus, they ask him, “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “Are we finished with the ups and downs? Are we finally going to see the fulfillment of all the Messiah was supposed to do and bring?”
Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, he gives them the promise of the power of the Spirit, and then he is lifted into the sky to disappear before their very eyes (Another down?). It seems the disciples must’ve stood there stunned looking into the sky, since two men in white have to come and verbally shake them out of their stupor.
What might it have been like to be the disciples and to have experienced what they experienced? After all the ups and downs, imagine what it would have been like to be with Jesus again post-resurrection. Now imagine what it would be like for him to be gone again.
Think of the questions that would be in the minds of the disciples. We have the hindsight of knowing the full story and 2000 years of theology and interpretation; the disciples had none of that. What would they know of the Holy Spirit? Would they even comprehend the promise Jesus had given them? What did it mean that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit? How long would they have to wait? How would they know when it had happened? What would this witnessing look like? And to the ends of the earth?!? That’s overwhelming!
Had I been a disciple, I would have question after question after question. Yet even in the midst of whatever questions they might have had, the response of the disciples is noteworthy. First, the disciples obeyed. “Do not leave Jerusalem”, Jesus had told them before he ascended. So they return to Jerusalem and they operate as one body, one group, one fellowship. Despite whatever divisions there might have been, they stayed together in Jerusalem, Simon the Zealot, who likely favored violence against the Romans and Matthew the tax collector who had worked for the Romans. Male disciples and female disciples. They were all obedient to Jesus’ command to stay in Jerusalem and they did so as one group.
First, they obeyed Jesus even in the midst of their questions. Second, they prayed constantly together. In many ways, the Jewish life followed a rhythm of regular prayer. There were prayers for certain times of day and prayers for certain occasions and seasons. We see this in the life of Daniel, for instance. Even in the midst of exile, he was not willing to give up his regular patterns of prayer.
I wonder if this was an example of the disciples being so formed in their lives with God that even when they were unsure what the next steps looked like, they knew to pray. Prayer was instinctual for them. Even when they were questioning other things one thing remained: speaking with God in prayer. The Psalms gave them (and us!) the example: prayer when you’re rejoicing and pray when you’re lamenting. Pray when mourning and pray when you’re worshiping. Pray when you’re vengeful and pray when you’re loving. When all else fails, pray. And so they did.
As we think of this text in light of our own stories, we often find ourselves in the disciples’ situation. Often we are in a place in life when we have many questions. As I’m writing this, we are in the midst of sheltering in place due to Coronavirus and questions abound. When will things return to normal? Will it ever return to normal? How long will it be? What adjustments will need to be made? For how long? Where do we even turn to for accurate information? In this and other situations, we often find ourselves with questions. When we are filled with questions, may our response be that of the disciples. May we continue to obey whatever light we have been given. May we be faithful in what we are sure of, even in unsure times. The command to love God and others has not changed. May we be obedient.