It is a pressing post-Easter question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). The question, asked of Jesus by the disciples in the beginning of Luke’s Acts, mirrors the plaintive statement in Luke’s gospel made by Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Christian disciples are an impatient bunch. At each unexpected turn in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ there is a disappointment on the part of the disciples that they have yet to reach the eschaton (i.e. the end of things). Is it now? What are we waiting for?
The ascension of Christ is another unexpected turn. What about the kingdom and Israel? All they can do is stare off into the cloudy blue sky until angelic figures shake them back into action.
When Christ is removed (bodily) from his disciples, Jesus does not give instructions , but a prediction, “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 ends of the earth.” Jesus’ words provide the outline for the book of Acts. The church is born in Jerusalem, is scattered by persecution, and while on the run brings the gospel to Judea (beyond Jerusalem), Samaria, and the ends of the earth. As the church is born and spreads the fulfillment of the kingdom is felt in tangible ways–the beginning of the end starts to come into focus.
But first, the disciples must wait. What are we waiting for?
It is important to remember that the church does not take lead in the gospel dance. It is not for the church to set (or know) dates and times. The church responds to the empowerment of the Spirit of God that gifts the church for ministry to the world. The church ‘acts’ as the Spirit directs it. In the church’s obedience God is answering our pressing post-Easter question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The Spirit led church, in a world absent the bodily presence of Jesus, is the second incarnation, and a sign pointing to the restored kingdom, in all its glory. The Spirit led church of equality, mutual service, justice, and commonality provides a glimpse of the eschaton. The Spirit led church keeps the hope alive and reminds all that come into contact with it that God has brought us to the last days. The Spirit has descended and is with us. Only one question remains: what are we waiting for?
What does it look like when God is on the move? What does it look like when the Spirit of God is prompting ‘act’tion such as we read about in our first lesson above. Psalm 68 gives us the answer. When God is on the move God is the “father of orphans and the protector of widows” (68:5). When God is on the move God “gives the desolate a home and leads out prisoners to prosperity” (68:6). When God is on the move God gives “rain in abundance” (68:9) and “provides for the needy” (68:10). God the Spirit is on the move in the book of Acts producing tangible kingdom moments in the life of the early church as they busy themselves with the orphans, the widows, the desolate, the prisoners, and the needy. This is the restored kingdom–this is the post-resurrection hope.
“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place…as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). There are two reactions I have to this. First, if the churches of Asia Minor, who advocated a new way of being in the world that challenged established power structures, were to not be surprised by their suffering (i.e. suffering was to be an expected result of their Spirit led lives) then why doesn’t the church (speaking from my own cultural context) suffer more today for its prophetic stances. Second, on the rare occasion when today’s church does suffer, usually as the result of culture wars, and usually amounting to nothing more than public scorn or disdain–but very little physical and financial persecution–why is the church so ready to cry foul?
1 Peter reminds us that our reaction to suffering should be joy, in that when suffering for good we share in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby hope to share also in his glorification. When we suffer we can be sure that we are involved in work that points to the kingdom of God (a threat to the powers of the world). As we wait for the final coming of the kingdom we are to humble ourselves before God, cast our burdens onto God, discipline ourselves, and resist the evil one. The promise of 1 Peter is that we will suffer for only a short time before God exalts us, as he did Christ. Our passage ends in appropriate doxology, “To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. ”
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). In Jesus’ high priestly prayer to the Father, John gives us an important reframe for the coming crucifixion. The crucifixion, in all its bloody horror, and despite its negative appraisal by Jesus’ followers and persecutors is the moment of the Son’s glorification. It is the moment of ultimate self sacrifice, and in its selflessness the glory of the Son reveals the glory of the Father.
In our moments of self sacrifice we also reflect the glory of God. In his prayer Jesus passes on the torch to his followers. Christ’s work has come to a close–the hour has come–Jesus has given his followers the Word, and now he leaves them with the Spirit that abides with them always, and glorifies God through the work of the church.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the glory found in suffering for good. When the church busies itself with the orphans, the widows, the desolate, the prisoners, and the needy and counters the world’s worship of oppressive power, and receives injury, the glory of God is seen in the church. This is kingdom glory. In the kingdom the greatest of all is the servant. In the kingdom everything is turned upside down. In the kingdom oppressive power is transformed into suffering power. Followers continue to ask Jesus about the restoration of the coming kingdom–and Jesus’ response continues to be the same: be the church, and you will see the kingdom, in all its glory, and in all its suffering power, forever and ever, amen.