11 min read
This New Year, as we enter the season of Epiphany and are barreling quickly towards Lent, we want to take some time here at St. Paul’s to consider our roots and to be reminded of who we are as the people of God. When you gaze on the horizon it might seem that we have an uncertain journey before us as a parish, as a diocese, and even more generally as a global church navigating an increasingly pluralistic and secular world. Indeed, this journey is quite uncertain in many ways. However, we can recognize that this uncertain path has already been trod by the saints of old, and it has already been secured in Christ Jesus.
I remember one of our men’s hikes several years ago now. We were hiking on a fairly easy old logging road, and we were enjoying good conversation, good prayer time, and good fellowship. And the trail took a nice turn downhill. It was lovely. And we hiked on probably another mile or two down this hill before we realize that we had lost the blazes, the markings on the trees telling us that we were going in the right direction. And so we hiked back up the hill, which is not quite as pleasant as going down, looking for our blaze to tell us we are headed in the right direction. There at the top of the hill we found it: a double blaze, which means pay close attention, the trail is turning! Sure enough, there before us was a meager path, downtrodden and seemingly impossible to notice. Some of our team had even seen the blazes but thought there could not possibly be a path through those woods. But as we began down that path we saw that it was a trail that had been trod before. A trail that was marked, and so gave us assurance of our direction and destination.
In some ways the book of Acts can be for us like that trail. It might seem unfamiliar and it certainly will seem impractical, at times, but it’s the trail of the saints of the church marked by the power of the Holy Spirit and assured by the faithfulness of Christ. It’s a trail to which we must turn in a season of uncertainty. We’ll turn our attention these next five weeks to perhaps the most uncertain time of all, at least for the church here in the book of Acts. We’ll see the path trod by the church in its infancy, a church that is facing persecution, theological dispute, a pluralistic society, and a lack of worldly power. What we’re going to see is that the early church in the book of Acts as well as the church for today can be framed in three things: a divine purpose, a clear mission, and an unshakable assurance.
Acts was written by Luke. Luke also wrote the Gospel of Luke, and Acts is the second part of the same story. Luke followed Paul on many of his missionary journeys, and as we get deeper into Acts we will start to see he is writing himself into the story. He’s using first person pronouns like we did this and we did that. We also know he set out to give an orderly account. He interviewed many witnesses and he tracked down all the details of Jesus’s life and addressed his book to a person named Theophilus. This could be a real person who’s come to know God and wants to know the history in the story of Jesus and the Christians, or it could be a general person because Theophilus very literally means in Greek “friend of God.” So It could be a real person named Theophilus, but it most certainly includes us, friends of God.
The first part of his work, the Gospel of Luke, records the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and the book of Acts recounts the life of the early church. Notice at the beginning the purpose of the church.
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”
Now it’s interesting that he says he dealt with what Jesus began to do and teach. The implication is that these things are continuing, but here’s the catch: in about 11 verses, Jesus is leaving the scene. He’s ascending into heaven. In his body on earth, there’s nothing else Jesus does or teaches in the book of Acts. What we see is that the beginning of Jesus’s teaching is continued by the church. That’s the purpose, that we would continue what Jesus began. It started with these Apostles and it continues down through the ages: the people of God constituted by the Holy Spirit continue the work of Christ in proclaiming the kingdom.
Now to be clear: our work is different from that of Jesus. We are not saviors. We will not give our lives, you will not die for the forgiveness of other people’s sins. However we have a clear purpose to continue the work of Christ by proclaiming his kingdom.
We also have a clear mission. If we are to continue this work of Christ for the proclamation of the Kingdom, the mission shows us how we’re supposed to do it. It gives shape and definition to the purpose. In his final words to the disciples before the Ascension, Jesus lays out a vision for how the church is to make this proclamation. Now we have to read carefully because there’s two parts to this vision. The first part is that the disciples have to realize that the proclamation of the kingdom of God is not to establish an earthly kingdom with geographic boundaries and theocratic governance. That’s what they disciples are asking about here in verse 6.
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
What they are asking is “will you make us a nation again? Will you give us orders and a king? Will you make us a nation that is constituted by a religious government? Will you make us that kind of nation, like we were in the Old Testament?” Jesus says no. Not yet. Not yet.
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
The disciples are asking “Are you going to throw out this evil Roman government and make us our own Nation again.?” Jesus says no, now is not the time. To be sure, Christ will reign on earth as king again. It won’t be a tiny little nation on the Mediterranean Sea. It will be over all of creation, heaven and earth. Christ will reign on earth. In fact he is reigning now, but not in fullness. One day he will return, but not yet. Now is not the time. That’s what we see, that the mission of the church is not to establish itself politically. The mission of the church is not to establish a christian nation. The mission of the church is not to be established with earthly and political power. The mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel across borders. And the power of the church is given through the Holy Spirit.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The power given to the church is not through political authority, it is not through religious freedom, and it is not through a christianized society. Power comes from the Holy Spirit, and it comes into a church that is seemingly powerless, a church that is poor, a church that is not influential, one that is outcast and unimportant. This is the church that receives the power of the Holy Spirit. Unless we are willing to recognize in our lives our own poorness of spirit, our own powerlessness except for God alone, we cannot know the fullness of the power of the spirit. This power is given for the proclamation of the gospel to bring the message of the kingdom across geopolitical, socio-economic, racial, and prejudicial borders. It’s given to bring the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. It’s given to bring the gospel to Summerville, South Carolina, New England, Iran, China, Haiti, Africa, and to the ends of the earth.
In the midst of this Jesus says you are my witnesses. You will do this by being my witnesses, sharing what you’ve experienced of me. We will bring the gospel to the world by sharing what we’ve experienced of Christ, sharing his forgiveness, sharing his mercy, not just with our words but with how we forgive and show mercy to others; to share that we have been a people remade. We are a new creation and we are a joyful fellowship of the people of God. So we have our mission to bear witness to the gospel with the power that comes solely from the Holy Spirit.
So we have a purpose, we have a mission, and finally we have an unshakable assurance. Think about this for a second. The disciples have been hearing this message, and what were they thinking? Here’s Jesus telling them to do the impossible, or the unthinkable. What, Jesus, you want me to go to Samaria? Are you sure you need me to go there? Do you want me to get killed? If we start proclaiming you as king and savior, don’t you know that we are going to be crucified just like you were? Can you imagine what they were thinking when Jesus gives them this message and then what does he do? He leaves! They are standing there and he ascends into heaven. He’s gone. I’m out of here! Certainly they didn’t possibly know what the future could hold for them. But God does not leave them wondering at all. He interprets for them. He sends two angels.
“And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (You can insert a parenthetical, don’t you have work to do?) “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This Jesus has been brought up into heaven and he’s coming back. He will return. Now if you were a first-century Jew, you would know your Old Testament inside and out and you would know what that meant. It means that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, ascended into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God–the place of authority, and power, and dominion. It’s an unshakable assurance that the Christ who saved us from sin and was raised from the dead, who ascended to the right hand of God, is ruling and reigning over creation even if it seems like he might not be sometimes. He is there, he is ruling, and he’s coming back. This is an unshakable assurance about the reign of Christ over the whole creation. In the midst of persecution and powerlessness and ridicule, Christ is reigning and he will return to earth once and for all, and then injustice, sin, and evil will be judged. God’s people will be vindicated, and Christ will reign in his fullness and finality with us on this earth. That means we can partake in this mission without fear, without even the fear of death itself, because Christ the Son of God who is for us, who died for us, who has risen from the dead for us, is reigning over Heaven and Earth, and he is coming back to judge the world. And this friends is good, assuring news. We have purpose, we have a mission, we have assurance. These are ours. They are not just the disciples, not just the early churches. They are ours through Christ.
As I think back to that path, as we gazed on it and thought this cannot possibly be the way! Yet we took it. We looked on a seemingly uncertain path and we walked down it. It brought us to our destination, which by the way was not nearly as comfortable and fun as heaven. Friends, we have a path before us that we cannot possibly walk in fear. We must walk it with courage and conviction. It’s a path that is defined by our purpose to continue the proclamation of Christ. It is a journey that will be guided by the mission to bring the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the Earth, and it ends in a destination that is assured by the ascended Christ. It might be uncertain. It might be scary. But Christ is reigning, Christ will return, and his gospel will be made known.