Acts 1:1-11 CEB
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
I’d like to take a moment to talk about footwear. Not just any old footwear either, as I would like to talk about the tennis shoes I have by the garage door. They are not pretty. The soles have been worn smooth. They are covered with dirt and grass stains. They look beat-up and well used. They are not the kind I wear when wandering through the house, but the ones I wear when I need to get some work done. What about you? What kinds of shoes do you have around the house, especially what are the ones you don’t wear around the house but rather put on for gardening, lawn work, walking, working, and even for play? All these shoes paint a picture of people on the move, not standing still. When Jesus vanished into the clouds, he left the disciples with some pretty big shoes to fill, namely his own. Those shoes are still the ones we are called to wear, and they still seem just as big as before. When Christ calls us to echo the character and mission he shared in his ministry with us, he does not call us to do it alone. While this is no easier of a task than that first day without Jesus, we have been promised a helper, the Holy Spirit, to strengthen us and invigorate us for the road ahead. We have been gifted the power to do kingdom work, so why just stand around waiting for God to do it for us when God calls us to go to the ends of the earth in Christ’s name.
“[Why] are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” What a question to ask a group of people who have just lost their teacher all over again! The disciples had the divine with them in a way we can only long for today. They could eat and talk with Jesus. They could reach out and touch him if they were unsure. Ask him a question when they were uncertain. Now, the divine has seemingly left them, and I can imagine the question going through the minds of the disciples, “What now?” The enormity of an uncertain future without Jesus’ physical presence stretched out before them. Where were they to go? What were they to do? These two unnamed men could have provided a bit of comfort, but instead, deliver a challenge to the disciples and to us to get moving.
I am convinced that the huge task before the disciples and us are why many gospel songs are so fixated on heaven. “I’ll Fly Away,” “Hallelujah, I’m Ready,” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all sound wonderful when confronted by all the troubles that assail the world today. Mass shootings, war, and economic unrest make the world a daunting place, so I can see the appeal of looking up toward heaven, hoping and praying that Jesus is only going to be fifteen minutes or so, a short coffee break, before getting back and helping us to fix these broken places in our world or if not, at least getting us the heck out of Dodge! I think this is why the disciples ask Jesus, “‘Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?’” In other words, are you going to just go ahead and bring in God’s kingdom and fix everything right here, right now? I’m sure they would have loved a yes, but instead, Jesus gives them a promise, “‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” Instead of fixing things, Jesus commissions them.
Jesus, in Acts, has been preparing them and us for his absence and the work of the kingdom since even before his death and resurrection. In these opening verses of Acts, we are invited to join with the disciples. The invitation for us to join in jumps out right there in the opening verse: “Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning.” While Theophilus is a common Greek name, so this could be addressed to just one person, it can also be translated as “lover of God,” so that these words in Acts are for all of us who love God. It is worth remembering that Theophilus pops up in another place as well, at the beginning of the gospel of Luke. Luke and Acts are two parts of a larger gospel whole, saying to us as to the disciples, you have seen my ministry and experienced my character, now go and do likewise in the world. Spread the kingdom by doing my work.
The disciples witnessed the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Through the words of Luke in the gospel and Acts, we have witnessed these things as well. Jesus has now said, “you will be my witnesses.” This is more than just sharing the story. We would not necessarily need the Holy Spirit for that, but the Holy Spirit is needed if we are to fill the shoes of Christ. Being a witness means to be the very living testimony of Jesus’ character, ministry, and the power of his resurrection. We are chosen because we have heard and have seen Christ through the gospel. We have been empowered and equipped by the Holy Spirit not to stand around looking up, but to go to the ends of the earth. The two men in white remind the disciples that they are not here to watch but to witness, and as we too have been invited to be witnesses by Acts, we too cannot stand around waiting.
We, like those disciples, have inherited Jesus’ ministry. We have inherited the task of co-creating and building the kingdom. We know this because both Luke and Acts want us to know this. For instance, what do you know about those two men in white? Who are they? Normally, we are inclined to call them angels, but there is another possibility: they might be Moses and Elijah. Both of them were taken into the heavens. Both appear to Christ when he is transfigured on the mountain and are described as dressed in white. They may be the two who appear in the tomb to announce Christ’s absence on Easter morning. Moses delivered the Torah, and Elijah represents the prophets. Both of these gave the people of God the message of how they were to follow God in this life. Now, both point to Jesus as the example for us to follow. What is more, they are both notable for passing on their power and their mantle to successors. Elijah in particular does this by passing his power to Elisha in 2 Kings 2 before being snatched up in a cloud, like Jesus. We have this ascension story to remind us that Jesus has passed the mantle of ministry to those who love him, all of us.
Now, these would be big shoes to fill which is why Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we are given power, dynamis in the Greek. What is this power? As I said before, it is impossible to fully understand Acts without Luke, and the same is true of this power. Earlier in Luke, Jesus sends out the disciples, giving them the power, dynamis, to “proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2 CEB). They were given the power to do what Jesus was doing, and now, through the Spirit, we are given this same power. A power whose nature is reflective of the very character of Christ, that of goodness, peace, and life. When confronted by things like the tragic mass shootings in places like Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, unrest brought on by the war raging in Ukraine, and unease caused by increased prices and rapid inflation, do we find ourselves looking up toward heaven for the answer or deliverance, or do we find ourselves looking to the guidance and power the Spirit provides? Through this Spirit, I believe we can answer tragedy, not with empty platitudes, but with the goodness, peace, love, and life of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
When I think of waiting, I think of our traditional church shoes, the nice ones we keep just for special occasions like Sunday, neat and clean. Unfortunately, my tennis shoes are not the ones I wear to church, which is a shame in my mind because they are more church shoes than the dress ones I do have on my feet. The dust and grime of mission work have covered those shoes. They squeaked along the halls on the way to a hospital room to see a parishioner. They have been worn down as I have paced the floor planning worship and practicing sermons. They have gone with me to do the witness work that Jesus calls us to on this Ascension Sunday. The power God gives is that dynamis, that dynamic power that can be seen and felt by everyone when we live it out. It is not a power for standing still and watching heaven, it is the kind of power that will dirty our shoes as we go out to witness Christ’s character in our lives. The strange thing is that even though we may want to watch heaven looking for Jesus’ return, all we really have to do is look behind us and see the footprints of our God walking beside us in all that we do. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman