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Sep 10, 2017

Acts 1:1-14

Acts 1:1-14

Passage: Acts 1:1-14

Speaker: Rev. Jerry Deck

Series: Acts | Reflecting Jesus in our world

Category: Weekend Message

In some ways it may be a little hard to jump right into the story, which is why Luke tries to quickly recap what has been happening. Jesus had come to earth, had suffered and died, but then had been raised from the dead. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the disciples seemed to need proof (and more than once) that this really was Jesus and that he had truly been raised from the dead. It would be strange indeed if the disciples easily believed that he who was once dead is now alive. We’re told that he stayed with them, or as the NIV translates it, that he was hanging out and eating with them and talking about God’s coming kingdom. You can imagine that this was a pretty heady time for the disciples, right. They went from thinking that all was lost and that they had made a horrible mistake in believing in Jesus to all of a sudden hanging out with someone who had been raised from the dead and realizing that the Kingdom of God was coming alive in your very presence.

After a while of hanging out we are told that they asked Jesus whether or not this was the time that he would restore God’s kingdom. Now, of course, this was not the first time a question like this had been asked and so my guess is they probably knew that he wouldn’t tell them, but it’s worth asking anyway, right? Jesus tells them that it isn’t for them to know when it’s going to happen and they probably looked around and thought, “Ok, fine, well it was worth a try!” But then Jesus goes on. “The Holy Spirit is going to come upon you and you are going to have power.” Ok, that’s pretty cool. “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Alright, they were probably thinking, we’re up for that. And then, Luke tells us, right after he says those pretty remarkable things, Jesus starts going up in a cloud and he’s gone. “What?!” I love the fact that the disciples just keep staring up into the sky. It’s kind of like watching a helium balloon after it’s been released and you try to see it as long as is possible. You get the feeling that they’re thinking if they can still see Jesus or at least act like they see him that maybe, just maybe, he’ll come back. As if, if they were to look down, all of a sudden reality would hit them and they’d realize that it was up to them. And so they keep staring.

Until, that is, two men in white robes come up and ask them what they’re looking at. I can imagine the disciples saying, “Shhh, don’t break our concentration, we need Jesus to get back here stat!” But the two men tell them Jesus will come back it just won’t be right now. And so, just as Jesus had told them to do, they went back to Jerusalem and began to pray and wait. Pray and wait.

It was perhaps only when they got back and prayed and waited that they began to understand how in answering their question Jesus had completely reframed their understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. They had thought (or at least hoped) that they would continue to just hang out with Jesus and that he would bring God’s kingdom back at any moment, but Jesus gave them a new lens through which to see how God was going to bring his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. That they would be his witnesses. That the Spirit would come upon them as they waited upon it. That they would be called to reflect Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. We can rest assured that as they sat in that room that their last conversation with Jesus kept bouncing around in their heads.

You will be my witnesses. We’ve talked about this passage before and I enjoyed pointing this part of the passage out to you all. I like to talk about it because I think that many of us attempt to ignore the fact that all of us are called to be witnesses of Jesus and because of that we miss out on experiencing God more deeply and, quite honestly, others miss out on experiencing God as well. My guess is that most of us run a bit from the idea of being a witness of Christ because of the fact that we don’t feel up for the task. It’s easy to think that it’s up to someone else like a pastor or one of those Christians who seems to really have the whole faith thing down pat. We know our own sin, our own shortfalls, and we easily inflate the spirituality of others, and so we think that surely Jesus wasn’t talking to people like me. I think it’s interesting that Luke makes sure to tell us that there are women, including Jesus’ mother, who are in the group of disciples that are gathered together. As you probably know, in that day and age women were not looked upon highly, would not have been encouraged to do much else other than serve the men around them, but Luke makes it clear that even those who may have been told that they were worth less than others, that they were also called to be witnesses. Jesus says, “You, yes you, hiding in the corner, the one who may not think of yourself highly, the one who feels inadequate, the one sitting in the back row, you the one who comes in late and leaves early, yes, you are called to be my witness!”

As I thought about that this week I reflected on how our most effective ministries, such as Home Groups or the Food Pantry are clearly led by our laity. Perhaps there is no better example of this then the Great Banquet, which if you’re curious is that last weekend of September for the men and the first weekend of October for the women (and you can sign up today in the Gathering Space!). Now I know that sometimes when we talk about Great Banquet it can feel like folks are almost saying that if you don’t go to Great Banquet then you’re not really a Christian. And I know that sometimes GB’ers can be so enthusiastic that it can be a bit overwhelming, but what I’ve discovered is that the reason why people speak of it so highly is that it has changed their lives and they’re so excited that they really want others to experience it. So let me be clear, yes you can still be a Christian and not go to Great Banquet…I think. (Just kidding!) That said, I have to say that I have been amazed at just how helpful and meaningful the Great Banquet is.

One of the reasons why it’s so powerful is because of the fact that it is led completely by everyday, run-of-the-mill followers of Jesus. These aren’t the “We have it all figured out and spend 2 hours in prayer and 3 hours in our Bible every day Christians (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but are more often than not people much like you. And these folks don’t come up in front of people and do magic tricks or necessarily wow you with their rhetorical flourish, but what they do is to tell their story, to let you into their lives and to reflect to you how Jesus has been at work in their lives which, of course, is exactly what a witness does. I served on the leadership team last year (the only “professional” to do so!) and I have to say it was incredibly exciting to see how God works through his people who decide to say, “Ok, I will be his witness.” There’s just something about hearing stories of God at work in everyday life that is more powerful than most sermons will ever be. And as an observer it was incredible to see the Spirit of God at work as we simply gathered to speak of what we had seen the resurrected savior do in our lives.

It’s easy and yet so many of us wrestle with thinking that we could be a witness, that we are qualified. Now here’s the good news about this passage which is that it makes it clear that in many ways we are right, we aren’t qualified. It’s why in the same breath in which Jesus says that we are to be his witnesses he also says, now wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit to come down and give you the power to do this. In other words, no we really can’t do this alone. And to the disciples’ credit, probably because they understood just how outlandish this is, they go to Jerusalem, they gather together, they pray and they wait.

I’ve sometimes wondered why Jesus didn’t just send the Spirit immediately when he went up in the air, but there is something to the act of waiting that builds faith, reminds us of our dependence on God and helps us to realize that what God wants to do through us is so much more than what we could do on our own. One commentator says that waiting on the Spirit cultivates within us a sense of expectancy rather than being frantic. When we think it’s up to us, then we feel the pressure that comes alongside of that which breeds anxiety and not joy. We push our witness too strongly, rather than allowing the Spirit to work and guide us. We grow weary quickly if we don’t see any fruit. But the more we pray and wait, the more we grow in our expectation of what God will do. It’s not that we sit back and say, “Ah, God will take care of it,” because that reveals we’ve forgotten that Jesus said we are the witnesses. Instead we grow in our anticipation and expect that God will open doors and give us opportunities to reflect Jesus in our world. We know the Spirit is at work, we expect that God will initiate opportunities and we are ready to respond however we can because we believe the Spirit is with us and we know that he has called us.

And it is with that anticipation that we will see God at work that Jesus tells us that we will witness in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Now on the one hand that’s not helpful because of the fact that it doesn’t really narrow things down. On the other hand, I think it is helpful because it forces us to think more carefully about whether or not we are being witnesses in each of these places. Samaria is perhaps the hardest place to be a witness because this means being a witness to Christ’s love and grace in places and with people whom you don’t necessarily like. Perhaps people who don’t agree with you on issues or who quite simply don’t like you and are your enemies. This is not easy. On the other side of the spectrum, strangely enough, I have found that being a witness to the ends of the earth may be a bit easier than the others. You go on a mission trip and it seems pretty easy to reflect Jesus in one way or another because that’s why you’re actually there. Even Judea, which is usually interpreted as places not too far away, perhaps like Shepherd Community or Str8 Up, might not always be the most difficult place to be a witness because like going to the ends of the earth you go there with the intention of trying to reflect Jesus.

Ironically, the most difficult place to be a witness might just be in Jerusalem which is where we actually live. It may be hard for us in our day-to-day very ordinary lives to expect to see the Spirit of God work in incredible ways. In some ways we feel most vulnerable, most unqualified in our own Jerusalem because these are the people who know us best and may know just how unqualified we are! Plus, we just get in a mode where we aren’t thinking about that, we’re just working and playing and going to church and sleeping. But Jesus begins by saying that we are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, right where we are. And so often we overlook that reality and we don’t see the possibilities to witness that are all around us.

I was thinking about that over the last couple of weeks as I read a book about how to properly welcome and care for people who come to your church for the first or second time. This is something we talk about from time to time, but I think we have to keep talking about it because this is something that most churches struggle with. One of the things this book said is that each time a new person walks through your doors they are a gift that God has given to you and the question is whether you will be a good steward of that gift of whether you even notice the gift at all. This past week as a staff and as a session we talked about how the last several weeks we’ve had quite a few visitors to ZPC and I was wondering whether or not we are being good stewards of these gifts and whether or not all of us have felt a responsibility to welcome these guests, these gifts? 

You know my stat about how people decide even before the preacher preaches whether they are going to come back (it’s just another way of saying it is up to all of us). Well, this author said that within the first 7 minutes most first time visitors know. Which means, of course, probably before even the music has begun people will know if they’re going to come back based on how connected they feel and how welcoming people are. You may say, “Well, is just being welcoming and introducing yourself and getting to know someone being a witness to Jesus?” Well, two things. First I would say yes absolutely. When we welcome like Jesus welcomed we are reflecting Jesus. But secondly, this may surprise you, but if we are unfriendly and don’t really engage with new people who come through our doors then the odds are not good of them saying, “Oh please tell me about this God you serve who has made you so grouchy and unwelcoming!” And the good news is, it seems to me, is that when people walk in through our doors we can be pretty sure that it is God-initiated. As someone pointed out to me this week, when people come through our doors for the first time they are going through some sort of transition, some sort of change and are seeking something. For some it’s a move from out of town, for others perhaps a crisis in their life that they are trying to sort out, for others maybe they’re feeling drawn back to God for the first time or at least the first time in a long time. Whatever it is, we have great opportunities in those moments to witness to God in our Jerusalem. 

And, of course, that Jerusalem includes our neighborhoods. You know I can’t go too long without talking about the importance of reaching out and loving our literal neighbors, of reflecting Jesus right where we live. So often, like it does in here, it begins by simply creating space to get to know one another. How are we as a congregation doing with that? Ever since our “Hoosier Neighbor” series I have loved hearing stories about how ZPC’ers are reaching out to their neighbors, like going out and delivering cookies after moving into a new home or inviting new neighbors over for dinner.

This week I heard about a block (or cul-de-sac) party that included a ZPC family. Neighbors got together (one new family, but many who had lived there for awhile) and for some of them it was the first time they had really met each other even though they’d lived next to each other for years. But this party created space for relationships to form and the next day, the ZPCer (who had lived next to this particular neighbor for a couple of years) for the first time was invited over into their garden. One step closer to their home, one step closer to a relationship and one step towards reflecting Jesus more in their neighborhood, in their Jerusalem. What’s fascinating to me is that so often we think that being a witness has to be this huge deal or we think nothing will happen or we make the massive assumption that people who visit here for the first time or who are in our neighborhoods don’t really want to connect with anyone else and I think when we do that we do a disservice to them and to our ability to reflect God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Over the next few months we will keep looking at what it means to be a community that is truly a witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Sometimes it will mean a change that must occur within us and sometimes it will simply be asking what is it that our world truly needs. As we start this journey this week I went back to the first homework assignment we had in our “Hoosier Neighbor” series. It was to simply walk our neighborhood and pray, asking that God would eventually and in his time open up doors for us to be able to love and care for our neighbors. Perhaps this week, like those gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem, we might be a people of prayer. Maybe it’s praying as you walk in the neighborhood, maybe it’s coming into our sanctuary and church building and praying for the visitors, the gifts who will come through these doors, maybe it’s praying for the various ministry organizations and workers with whom we partner across the city or across the globe. Whatever it is, I hope that this will be a week of expectant prayer. Not as a way of procrastinating from being a witness, but as a way of getting ready and a testimony to the reality that the only way for us be a witness is through the gift of the Holy Spirit who longs to see the day when Jesus will return back from the heavens and bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. May we pray. May we witness. And may the world experience the Jesus who will come again. Hallelujah. Amen.